I’ve mentioned in previous posts about my wife growing up on Brothers Grimm stories, and how we will be sharing these same stories with our children. I was thinking about one story I grew up with this morning which my father told me when I asked him why he always carried a flashlight.
On a foul night in the mid 1960s, two brave men of the US Air Force were flying photo reconnaissance over North Vietnam in their F4 Phantom. Unfortunately their target was well defended, and they were forced to eject after receiving heavy ground fire. This is the story of one of those brave men who I’ll call M, and all of the other brave men who risked their lives to rescue him.
After ejecting from his Phantom, M found himself in the middle of enemy territory. He commenced escape and evasion, while radioing in to request rescue. The enemy was swarming all around him, and the only thing which saved him from immediate capture was the darkness and his own wits. Fortunately for M, the Navy had a carrier stationed in the gulf and an SH3 Sea King helicopter immediately scrambled to rescue him.
At the same time, an entire host of other aircraft from multiple branches of the US military went into action in an effort to save M from capture. Fighters and bombers from the Air Force and Marines all assisted in communicating with M and directing the rescue helicopter to his location. One of their own was in great danger, and they would do whatever they could to help get him out safely. They knew roughly where M was, but rescuing him was especially challenging because it was pitch black and the area was heavily defended. The same fire which took down his supersonic F4 would now be directed at the slow moving chopper and crew attempting to rescue him.
Somehow the chopper managed to make it through the heavy fire, heavier now because the enemy knew an airman was down and someone would be coming in to try to rescue him. The door gunners on the chopper laid down suppressive fire with their machine guns in all directions, and an Air Force bomber came in low and took out a source of especially heavy anti aircraft fire. The chopper was there, and M could see it. But they couldn’t see where he was. With the closeness of the enemy, fuel constraints, and the amount of fire the rescue helicopter was under, there was very little time to determine if he was going to be captured or rescued that night.
M turned on his flashlight and shined it in the direction of the helicopter, hoping he could direct them in. The pilot saw his light and told him to turn it off; he now knew where he was. With the door gunners firing continuously at approaching enemy troops, the Sea King found a nearby clearing and managed to just barely touch the ground in a sort of half hover, half landing. All of the enemy ground forces looking for M saw the helicopter come in, and immediately converged on the chopper. But M was already in a dead run, the run of his life. He ran until he reached the chopper, and dove into the open door. He was running so fast and dove so hard that he slid across the bottom of the big helicopter on the sea of spent brass on the floor. He would have slid straight out the door on the other side had a crew-member not caught him and held him in as the chopper made its ascent.
My father was the pilot of the Sea King helicopter that rescued M that foul night all of those years ago. He was awarded the Silver Star for the rescue. To this day he always has a flashlight handy, a lesson he learned from M, the brave F4 pilot he met so long ago. And so do I.