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That was the pilots' creed. They flew low and slow, at treetop level, at night, in monsoons, and in point-blank range of enemy guns and missiles. They accepted missions no one else wanted, and they were the heroes other pilots prayed for when shot down. Flying the World War II–vintage Douglas A-1 Skyraider, a single-engine, propeller-driven relic in a war of "fast movers" — that is, jets — those intrepid Air Force pilots flew one of the most dangerous missions of the Vietnam ...
That was the pilots' creed. They flew low and slow, at treetop level, at night, in monsoons, and in point-blank range of enemy guns and missiles. They accepted missions no one else wanted, and they were the heroes other pilots prayed for when shot down. Flying the World War II–vintage Douglas A-1 Skyraider, a single-engine, propeller-driven relic in a war of "fast movers" — that is, jets — those intrepid Air Force pilots flew one of the most dangerous missions of the Vietnam War, helping rescue thousands of downed Air Force and Navy pilots.
With a flashback memory and a style all his own, former Air Force Captain George J. Marrett depicts some of the most compelling aerial combat of any war, rendering the people, places, and battles with a unique blend of warts-and-all clarity, heart-pounding passion, and mordant wit.
Sometimes I still hear the call I made on the UHF (ultrahigh frequency) radio. It does not come to me in a dream, but it's entrenched in my mind.
"Sandy 7, this is 8."
I repeat it over and over.
"Sandy 7, this is 8. . . . Sandy 7, this is 8."
The guns are silent now, the Laotian jungle regrown and green. The American air warriors from the Vietnam era are back home again; that "secret" war is long over. Instead, the call must be a memory resounding in my head, a frantic call I repeat, echoing unanswered across all these years.
Tchepone was only a spot on a map, a tiny village near the intersection of dirt roads and a narrow river in central Laos. In the early evening of May 31, 1968, the men of the 602nd Fighter Squadron flew cautiously over that intersection. A short time earlier, a Navy Corsair A-7 attack jet from the carrier USS America had been shot down. A rescue force of four Sandy A-1 propeller-driven Skyraiders ("Sandy" was the call sign our squadron used for rescue missions) and two Jolly Green HH-3 jet helicopters (Jolly Greens had a specific call sign for each of their aircraft, JG 07, for example) arrived to extract the downed pilot from thisenemy-infested area. The rescue force entered slowly. It was a clear, hot day -- the sun beat down incessantly. The road below was hard packed from the thousands of North Vietnamese who carried arms and supplies southward over a route called the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Leading the rescue force was Air Force Maj. William Palank and his wingman, Maj. Eugene McCormack Jr. The second flight of Skyraiders was led by Capt. Edward Leonard Jr., a combat veteran who had just completed a one-year tour but had extended for six more months. I was his wingman, a new guy, just three weeks from the States, flying my first rescue mission over unfamiliar country. Ed Leonard and I were escorting two of the Jolly Green helicopters to a safe area -- awaiting the call from Bill Palank to attempt the rescue of Streetcar 304, Lt. Kenny W. Fields, the downed Navy pilot.
The men of the rescue force were hot, sweating profusely from the steaming jungle air. They wore survival vests, web belts with knife and pistol, helmets, oxygen masks, and gloves -- all their exposed skin was covered to protect them from the rigors of flight and perhaps the fear of the unknown that confronted them. A few miles to the east were the steep karst mountains of North Vietnam. Below was a winding river, a network of trails, and an American pilot in trouble.
The enemy, cool in their camouflaged trenches in the jungle, watched and waited. They could both see and hear the single-engine propeller aircraft that was orbiting overhead, looking for the missing airman. All at once the guns opened fire on the lead Sandy plane, striking the Skyraider's left wing and the huge Pratt & Whitney radial engine. Palank pushed his throttle full forward and climbed westward into the setting sun toward his home base, Nakhon Phanom (known to us as NKP), located about a hundred miles away across the Mekong River in friendly Thailand. I watched Palank's aircraft gradually disappear into the golden glow of approaching night, leaving a trail of smoke marking his route to safety.
Then Leonard and I left the safety of our orbit and descended into the twilight to search for Streetcar 304. The gunners were waiting. They had shot up two American planes so far -- more would surely follow.
Meanwhile, commanders of the air war headquartered in Saigon realized we were being outgunned over Tchepone. They ordered several flights of heavily loaded jet fighters into the fray. These fighters were on the way, they told me on my radio -- a Gunfighter flight (fighter aircraft used call signs like Gunfighter, Hellborn, Panda and so on) of four F-105 Thunderchiefs would be with us in five minutes. Scuba, Spitfire, and Hot Rod flights would follow. I hurriedly copied the information of radio frequencies and ordnance load on my five-by-seven mission card while banking back and forth, keeping Leonard's Skyraider in sight. The sun was long gone, leaving only a ghostlike aura of trees blending into the dark abyss. An explosion near the burning wreckage of Streetcar 304's A-7 caught my attention. The white canopy of a parachute drifted into the darkness of the jungle.
"Sandy 7, this is 8," I called. "Sandy 7, this is 8."
I was the last of four Sandy pilots and looking down at the chaos of war. Now two pilots were in the jungle, and only I and the two slow-moving Jolly rescue helicopters remained in the air. I was stunned to watch this rescue attempt fall apart so quickly. The image of that parachute sinking into the darkness of Tchepone is still indelible in my mind thirty-three years later. The gunners on the trail thirsted for more prey.
The battle to rescue Streetcar 304 lasted three days and two nights. In the end we rescued Lieutenant Fields, but six American aircraft careened into the dense jungle, and one went down at sea. It took 189 sorties to finally get Streetcar 304 out of the jungle. It was an unrelenting fight, such as none of us had seen -- or would see again.
Like most airmen who meet at war, we were comrades of the moment, companions of the sky, flying for a common purpose. As time went by, one by one we returned to the United States, to our families, to our jobs and careers. I was not, as some men say of themselves, reborn in war. When I returned I tried to forget my year of toil and torment and go on with my life. But I had roots of restlessness that went deep within. I held a great deal of anger and hostility toward anything Asian.
Excerpted from Cheating Death by George Marrett Copyright © 2006 by George Marrett. Excerpted by permission.
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