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F-4C Phantom II
Photo courtesy of the National Museum of the U. S. Air Force

The Rescue of Hammer 51 A & B
January 24, 1969,   A Shau Valley

In the last week of January 1969 my detachment at Hue was tasked to conduct a major bombing effort against targets we had identified in the A Shau Valley.   This was in preparation for a U.S. ground operation into the area.   We were conducting air strikes all day and had one of our FACs over the Valley constantly during daylight hours.

Around mid-morning on January 24th I was en route to the Valley to relieve another FAC, Speedy 11 from Da Nang.   I was listening to him work a pair of F-4s from Cam Ranh Bay, Hammer 51 & 52, when I heard a call from the leader as he pulled off a bomb run:

"We've got a[n engine] fire light!" quickly followed by a more urgent, "We've got two fire lights! We've got two fire lights! We're bailing out. Mayday! Mayday! Hammer 51!"
This was not going to be a routine day for anyone.

Smoking Hole
The remains of Hammer 51
By the time I got over the scene, I could see the smoke rising from the jungle to mark where the jet had impacted.   There was nothing left of the aircraft, and if it had not been for the smoke I would not have been able to find the location.

The two survivors were on the ground (or, rather, in the trees) about 100 meters apart and maybe five kilometers north of the crash site.   They were located in the hills on the east side of the A Shau Valley just east of the abandoned A Luoi airfield.   This was not a friendly area, as we had been tracking increasing enemy activity in the previous weeks.

FAC over survivors
Speedy 11 orbits over survivors.   The 'chutes are at 12 o'clock (far) and 2 o'clock (near) from the aircraft.   (Click on image for larger view.)
Speedy 11 was orbiting over the survivors to make radio contact and assure them that help was on the way.   When he approached his bingo fuel, he briefed me on the situation and then headed for home.

I established radio contact with the two survivors, Hammer 51A (front seater) and Hammer 51B (GIB: guy in back).   I also made lots of low passes over the area to let them know that somebody was there.   I took care not to pass too close so as not to tip off the unfriendlies as to their location.   The center of my pattern was about one klick (kilometer) north.

After about 30 minutes I was contacted by Sandy 01, the SAR task force commander flying an A-1 Skyraider.   I talked them into my location and pointed out the survivors (their chutes were very visible against the jungle forest canopy).  
Sandy marks target
Sandy 01 marks target with WP rocket for accompanying fighters.
(Click on image for larger view.)
He acknowledged the briefing and assumed on-scene command.   I exited stage west but remained on frequency to monitor the situation and orbited over the A Luoi airfield, about three kilometers west, to watch the show.

I saw a very professional performance.   Those Sandys were good!   The leader worked his wingman in with several sets of fighters to "sanitize" the pickup area before bringing in the Jolly Green chopper.   He marked his targets carefully with Willie Peter (white phosphorus) rockets so that the ordnance would not be too close to the survivors.
CBU preparation
Smoke from CBU detonations up the hill from the survivors.
(Click on image for larger view.)
  As it was, the first bomb that went off up the hill brought a high pitched radio call from one of the guys on the ground who wasn't expecting it.   I couldn't blame him.

I knew when the CBUs (cluster bomb units) were dropped that the final act was about to begin.   These were hand grenade-sized antipersonnel submunitions used to suppress Triple-A (anti-aircraft artillery).   These weapons spread shrapnel over a large area and were effective for keeping gunners' heads down.
First pickup
The Jolly Green Giant (HH-3) hovering to pickup first survivor.
(Click on image for closer view.)
  Care had to be taken that the survivors were hugging the ground when CBUs were used, but most of them were so glad to see the drama unfolding at this point that they willingly complied.

Before the smoke could clear away, the HH-3 Jolly Green Giant helicopter was moving in for the first pickup.   At the direction of Sandy 01, the survivor popped a smoke flare which can be seen as a red cloud around the faint image of the helicopter.   I apologize for the poor quality of the photos, but there was a lot of metal (friendly and unfriendly) flying over the pickup site, and it was no time for a tourist with a camera to get up close.

I was amazed at how long the choppers had to maintain hover during the pickup.   The jungle penetrator (seat device) had to be slowly lowered after the Jolly Green came to a hover.   The survivor needed to locate the penetrator, open the seat and strap himself onto it.   A   PJ (Parajumper, a rescue specialist crewmember) sometimes rode the penetrator down if the survivor needed assistance.   The hoist cable had to be rewound deliberately to avoid twisting and other stress to the steel cable.   It seemed like a long time to an observer; it must have seemed like an eternity to the guys in the chopper who were hanging it all out, motionless, just above the trees.   They had my respect.

At last two very happy survivors were safely on board, and the helicopters pulled off and headed back to Da Nang.   The Sandys and the supporting fighter cover had some ordnance left over, and I directed four sets of fighters into the area where the deadly gunfire originated before I headed home.   It was a long mission, 3 1/2 hours, but it had a good ending.

The next morning at first light I was back over the A Shau Valley.   The two parachutes that had been snagged high in the tree tops were gone.   Charlie had gotten himself a souvenir.   Better two slightly used parachutes than two American pilots.

Fast forward 20 years to the spring of 1989 in Newport, Rhode Island.   I was assigned to U.S. Forces Command joint staff at Fort McPherson in Atlanta and was attending an interagency drug interdiction conference at the Naval War College.   At lunch I was sitting with another Air Force colonel, Dick Rybak, from the Atlantic Command staff.   We were talking about our experience in the war.   Dick said that he had flown F-4s out of Cam Ranh Bay.   I remarked that I had been a FAC and worked with a lot of F-4s from the 12th Tactical Fighter Wing in the A Shau Valley.   He gave me a strange look and very quietly said, "I was shot down over the A Shau Valley."   After comparing notes, I told him that I had been there and had some pictures of the rescue.

After I got home, I dug through my old footlocker and came up with the slides and my logbook.   There for January 24, 1969, was the entry:
SAR for Hammer 51A & B in A Shau; both rescued.   4 airstrikes on a/w position (destroyed).
[Note: a/w: automatic weapon]
I now had a name and a face to put against a log entry.   Dick told me that the front seater (Hammer 51A) was then-Major Bob Russ.   In 1983-5, Lieutenant GENERAL Russ had been my boss in the Pentagon, but we had never known this relationship.

At the time of my meeting with Dick Rybak, General Russ was the commander of the U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Command at Langley AFB, Virginia.   I was working for General Colin Powell as his Deputy Chief of Staff at Forces Command in Atlanta and, by coincidence, General Powell was preparing to attend a conference with General Russ on joint air rescue doctrine.   I told General Powell about the rescue of Hammer 51 and showed him the slides I had taken.   He took them with him to the conference.   At an appropriate point he had the slides projected on the screen and told the story of how a future four-star general was plucked from the jaws of fate.   General Powell told me later that General Russ got very quiet when he saw the pictures and relived what must have been a significant emotional event in his life.



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