We call it the Vietnam War. But that is a misnomer, for in the 10-plus years that the American military was engaged in that conflict, they faced enemy forces across the breadth and depth of Southeast Asia. Nobody knew that better than the airmen who flew across those vast regions. That was especially so in 1972, a most eventful and dramatic year. As it began, U.S. forces continued their withdrawal from the conflict, provided support to allied forces in South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and interdicted supplies and troops along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Operation Commando Hunt VII. However, on March 30, 1972, the North Vietnamese unleashed a massive invasion of South Vietnam with massed conventional and guerilla forces. South Vietnamese ground units faced the invaders. Remaining U.S. aerial and naval forces provided initial support to the South Vietnamese, and then prosecuted Operations Freedom Train, Linebacker (LB) I, and LB II. (1)
These operations were supported by dedicated USAF and USN rescue forces who stood ready to attempt to rescue isolated U.S. and allied personnel throughout the Southeast Asia theater of operations. Additionally, USMC and U.S. Army helicopter and ground forces as well as special operations elements assigned to the MACV Studies and Observation Group, could conduct recovery missions in their areas of operations. Lastly, Air America (AirAm), a contract airline directly supporting our operations throughout the theater had rotary and fixed-wing aircraft which provided immediate recovery capability in many areas. This article presents a macro view of rescue operations. It will briefly discuss the build up of rescue forces starting in 1962, and their organizational and technological evolution up to 1972. It will discuss in general terms their operations during 1972 and highlight several specific rescue operations representative of our motivations, capabilities, and limitations at that time. Lastly, it will outline subsequent developments of rescue capability. It is based upon historical work done by Dr. Earl Tilford, Dr. Wayne Thompson, U.S. Navy veterans George Galdorisi and Tom Philips, Mr. Chris Hobson, and this author, and operational research done at the Historical Research Agency, Maxwell AFB, Ala.
Development of rescue capability in SEA
The first rescue personnel were assigned to South Vietnam in early 1962. Prior to that, some rescues of U.S. military assigned to advisory roles in Laos were conducted by Air America, or through diplomatic means. But with the deployment of significant military forces to South Vietnam, the commander of the Pacific Air Rescue Center dispatched three officers and two enlisted airmen to Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon to establish a rescue center inside the newly established air operations center. Dedicated recovery forces were not deployed, and this small team initially established direct liaison with primarily U.S. Army and Marine aviation units who could provide rotary aircraft recovery capability. (2) However, as forces grew in the theater and combat actions increased, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) directed the U.S. Air Force to deploy rescue aircraft to Southeast Asia specifically for search and rescue (SAR), which, up until that time, was being conducted by Air America assets on an almost ad hoc basis. Subsequently in May 1964, HH-43s and HU--16s deployed and assumed recovery duties. The HU--16s performed rescues at sea and also airborne command and control. However, both aircraft were of limited capability and were eventually replaced with HH-3s for recovery tasking in October 1965. The HH-43s were kept in theater for local base rescue and immediate area recoveries, and the HU--16s were utilized for C2 purposes until they were replaced with HC-130s. These aircraft had much longer range, loiter, and communications capabilities, and performed outstandingly as airborne mission commanders (AMCs) who coordinated rescue operations for the tactical aircraft involved in the incident. Additionally, the HC-130s were modified to provide inflight refueling for the HH-3s. This radical development gave these helicopters the ability to operate theater wide. (3)
The U.S. Navy also provided assets to the theater for SAR operations. In early 1965, they deployed helicopter elements to SEA for SAR duty from several different squadrons, flying the SH--2 and the SH--3. They could stage off of several different types of ships, and maintained a presence aboard ships as long as Navy strike forces were in the theater. The Navy could also utilize their SEAL Teams for recovery operations. (4)
Early on, the naval helicopter crews discovered that the skies over North Vietnam could be very dangerous, and they began requesting escort by U.S. Navy A-1s stationed aboard the aircraft carriers. The A-1s were very compatible with the flight characteristics of the helicopter. They would also escort the USAF HU-16s when requested. Learning from their example, the U.S. Air Force began using its A-1s stationed in Thailand and South Vietnam for the same purpose. They developed the ability to serve as on-scene-commanders (OSC) for actual pickups. In this role, they adapted the call sign "Sandy," a most revered moniker from that war. (5) Subsequently, forward air controllers (FACs) flying O--1s, 0-2s, and OV-10s were trained to assume initial OSC duties when aircraft were downed.
USAF and USN... elements... routinely rescued American and allied personnel as the need arose
Conversely, the U.S. Army and Marines did not have specified rescue units. Recovery operations were considered integral to the operations and capabilities of tactical units. Their aviation units and, when necessary, ground units would respond to rescue and recovery operations when called upon to do so, especially early in the conflict before USAF and USN rescue forces were in place. (6) Throughout the conflict, elements from both routinely rescued American and allied personnel as the need arose. On September 12, 1968, USAF Capt Ron Fogleman was flying an F-100 on a close air support mission in South Vietnam when his aircraft was mortally damaged by ground fire. He ejected and landed in a mangrove swamp. A U.S. Army AH--1 working in the area quickly diverted to his location and picked him up before enemy forces could capture him. (7)
Air Force and Navy rescue units would also respond to calls for help from Army and Marine units. USAF pararescueman SSgt Bill Pitsenbarger, aboard an HH-43, was awarded the Medal of Honor for defending and facilitating the recovery of nine wounded soldiers near Saigon, South Vietnam, on April 11, 1966. (8) From 1962 through 1973, USAF recovery forces saved, respectively, 838 USAF, 421 USN/USMC, 720 U.S. Army, 440 foreign military, and 181 civilians. (9) Many of these rescues were facilitated by the simplest of expedients--all U.S. military and Air America aircraft were equipped with auxiliary 243 megahertz (mhz) receivers on their UHF radios--called "Guard" frequency-which enabled aircrews to instantaneously make contact with other aircraft or control agencies in emergency situations.
As the war effort expanded, the USAF rescue forces continued to grow On January 8, 1966, the 3rd Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Group (ARRG) was activated. By 1969, the 3rd ARRG commanded the 37thAerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron (ARRSq), equipped with HU-16s, HH-3, and later, HH-53s; the 38th ARRSq, equipped with HH-43s; the 39th ARRSq, equipped with HC-130s; and the 40th ARRSq, equipped with HH-3s and later, HH-53s. (10) The commander of the 3rd ARRG also served as the 7th AF Director of Aerospace Rescue and oversaw the operations of the joint rescue coordination center (JRCC)...