DOWNED PILOT
Ben Het, 1969

by: Elbert Franklin Evans
© 2008

 
 


The F-100 banked sharply to the right as the tracers from the enemy antiaircraft machine gun followed it. Light smoke trailed from behind the jet as the persistent tracer rounds kept on target. As we watched, the cockpit flew away and a figure emerged immediately, separating from the injured aircraft. After a few seconds, we saw the parachute canopy opening and I heard myself saying quietly, "All right! The pilot made it."

Standing next to me was Major Snow and the Vietnamese SF Camp Commander, Di  Úy Hue. Captain Hue's wife--or concubine, as I was later told; Hue had several "wives" that periodically visited the camp--was absolutely beautiful, dressed in her gold Vietnamese traditional Áo dài. She obviously had some European ancestry, accenting her lovely features. Although she maintained her distant and refined manner, she appeared to enjoy the sideway glances from her silent admirers.

A few minutes earlier we had been enjoying the show as the Super Sabers unloaded their payload of bombs on the enemy antiaircraft positions. Almost as quickly as the positions were destroyed--within one or two days--they were rebuilt and again spewing rounds at our air observers and FACs. These same positions had been pounded into empty craters by our massive firepower a few days earlier during the ground attack on Ben Het. The NVA had moved their antiaircraft weapons into the prepared positions in advance of their tanks and ground troops in order to provide cover for their movements into final attack positions. They were quickly destroyed by our artillery and aircraft, only to be rebuilt once again in a seemingly never-ending display of determination.

Replacement manpower and equipment continued to trickle into the area from the vast encampments across the borders. The massive stockpiling of supplies and personnel in Laos and Cambodia kept this stream of materiel flowing. During our Super Sabers' impressive show of precision bombing, I thought I saw two enemy tanks in the wood line two thousand meters away. Captain Hue was scanning the air and the distant forest, alternately watching the fighter-bombers and looking for enemy activity on the ground. We knew that the enemy had brought tanks and reconnaissance vehicles back into Vietnam following the siege last week; the FACs had observed the tracks on the trails leading to Route 512. Some of the vehicles had ventured onto the road for a few hundred meters and then moved off into the canopy-covered trails, which provided concealment from the air. Although we had not seen any vehicles, the tracks and engine noises at night told us the NVA was still delivering supplies and personnel as well as performing limited reconnaissance of our defensive perimeters.

"Trung Úy. Where you see tanks?" asked an excited Hue. I pointed out two dark shadows side by side in the distant tree line. Hue quickly looked through his binoculars in the direction I was pointing and said, "Where? Where? I no see!" I heard the fright in his voice. Looking again, I could no longer see the shadows. If Hue couldn't see them using his binoculars, I concluded that I was wrong.

"Di Úy Hue, I don't see them anymore. It could have just been shadows in the trees if you can't see them." Hue lowered his binoculars and gave me an annoyed look. He clearly didn't like being embarrassed, even slightly, in front of his wife. Major Snow looked at me and I thought I detected a small smile on his face for an instant. I suspected there was a bit of animosity between the American and Vietnamese Special Forces, although nothing was said.

The pilot's parachute had opened completely and he drifted in the general direction of the camp. Major Snow turned to Captain French, who had joined us outside the bunker. "Let's get a patrol headed in the direction of that pilot. He may need some help if Charlie locates him first."

"WILCO. We have one in the area. I'll send them toward his location right away," said French. Just then, the damaged F-100 exploded. We saw parts of the aircraft falling in the jungle to our southwest, and some large fragments were flying in our direction. We quickly ducked into the bunker, staying there a few minutes. Then we moved back outside.

We continued to watch, hoping no enemy fire tried to shoot down the helpless pilot. He continued to drift to our northeast. Good. That was the most secure area between Ben Het and Dak To. There was a much better chance of getting to him before the enemy did. At Fort Benning I had participated in training several times on how to extract a downed pilot and knew that the most dangerous part was establishing contact on the ground without friendly forces shooting at each other. Today that would be especially dangerous, since an excited, and perhaps injured, pilot could easily mistake the CIDG patrol for NVA soldiers. I went back inside the bunker to listen to the radio as the patrol searched for the pilot. Also, I needed to ensure that my headquarters was informed of the rescue efforts.
"Sir, I heard that our tank unit has vehicles standing by in case they're needed to support the pilot rescue," reported Sergeant Smith as I entered the TOC. My eyes slowly adjusted to the dimness inside.

"Good. The patrol is moving in his direction now." Soon we received the radio call that the pilot had been located and was in friendly hands. He was en route to our location for eventual pickup by the Air Force. I walked outside the TOC when I heard the pilot was coming in. My first impression of the Air Force lieutenant colonel was that he would be a good target in the jungle. He was over six feet tall, perhaps six-four. His flight suit, fiery red hair, and unusual size were immediate giveaways that he wasn't Oriental or Montagnard. Another, smaller man might have gone unnoticed for a short while among the Vietnamese, but not this fellow. He stood out even among the Americans in the camp.

"Colonel, glad to have you with us," said Major Snow as the pilot walked up to our location.

"I can tell you I'm certainly glad to be here instead of out there," he said as he jerked his thumb over his should towards the jungle. "First time I've parachuted. Not as bad as I thought it would be. Thanks to your folks for finding me quickly."

"Yeah. I'm glad, too. The NVA have been pretty unfriendly around here lately. Where did the patrol find you?"

"Well, when I hit the ground I hid my chute and headed toward Route 512. I figured I could make it to your camp and get help from there. I hid in a culvert under the road for a little while until this villager came along on a Moped. I took a chance and hitched a ride with him for a short ways. He let me off, and your folks picked me up shortly afterwards."
"You're lucky the villager was friendly and not VC. Luckily you landed to our east. That gave you a better chance of finding help."

"Yeah. Guess I've just been lucky today. Except, of course, I lost a damn good airplane. Those antiaircraft gunners are pretty good. They got me with .51-caliber machine guns."
"Yeah. We saw your plane explode. Pieces landed nearby. Let's go get a cold one. Might as well get comfortable. Can't get you out until tomorrow."

"Sounds good. Thanks." I watched them walk away and thought what a lucky fellow this pilot was. He could have been lost in the explosion of his aircraft, shot while parachuting, or killed in the jungle by the NVA who were certainly searching for him. Maybe even worse yet, he could have been captured and made a guest in the Hanoi Hilton, perhaps never to be heard from again. I had heard of stories of captured Americans being tortured in inconceivable manners upon capture while in prison camps. He must have had similar thoughts.


 
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