I have known many gallant men. Dirt farmers growing up, soldiers in the Army, case officers in the CIA, … but the fighter pilots known as Ravens flying forward air control planes and the men flying Air America helicopter and fixed winged planes for the CIA guerrilla army in the mountains of Laos were brave and professional sumbitches of the highest order, akin to the best war fighters in all history.Let me repeat. Air America and the Ravens were gallant pilots; and surely among the bravest to ever serve their country in war.
Following is Chapter 30 of my The Vietnam War Its Ownself book. It picks up after I had just finished some time with my family in Vientiane and was headed back to the fighting in Long Tieng…
George Taylor and the type unarmored Huey he flew in the rescue attempt.
“Early morning 7 November 1972 Brenda and the kids drove me to Poppa Chu’s restaurant, near the Vientiane airport ops center, and I waited there, drinking coffee and reading, until mid-day before a helicopter coming up from Udorn picked me up. Izzy Freedman, our former neighbor, was co-pilot. The area to the north had been covered for days by haze but the skies had finally opened up and Izzy’s was among a flock of helicopters heading up to work out of the valley.
Sitting in the middle of the row of seats in the rear of the helicopter, wearing the extra headphone – the “customer” set – I chatted on the intercom with the crew. I could hear the other pilots on the command air freq talking amongst themselves, and would occasionally catch glimpses of some of the other helicopters flying ahead of us.
“O.K. so I’m telling my broker, I know you can buy titanium mine stock,” Pilot B.K. Johnson was talking. The airways on the common freq were always busy with small talk. The pilots never stayed on the air long, however, saying a phrase or two and then pausing, to see if anyone else was trying to break in. There would be a quiet, but distinctive break in the squelch as someone came on and went off the air. Conversations were casual, about everyday things, although there was generally no profanity.
“Some of my friends have bought it,” pause. “My broker said, titanium is manufactured,” pause. “It’s man made, how can it be mined, he asked?” pause.
“I said I have dumb friends,” pause.
“And poor,” someone added.
“Titanium is not manufactured,” someone else injected, “it’s a natural element.”
“Oh yea,” B.J. said, “Wanta buy some stock?”
“OOOOOOHHHHHH,” came over the air from one of the pilots, who was in obvious pain.
“My boss, has a problem,” someone said.
“OOOOOOOHHHHHH I gotta go to the john.” It was Bill Hutchinson, one of the most senior helicopter pilots flying for Air America. He was leading the pack up north in a Twin Pack.
“Well with one of those super duper recharged machines you fly,” Izzy said before pausing. “You oughta just wander on back through the lounge to the rest area.”
“OOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHH, I’m in pain. I almost wish we’d crash so I’d get some relief,” from the senior pilot. “How do you make this thing go faster? Oh God, it’s a 105.”
Because profanity wasn’t generally allowed over the open freqs some of the Air America pilots developed the Falcon Codes – common earthy, profane expressions designated by numbers – and a laminated list was often taped to the instrument panel near the radios.
# 105 was “It’s so fucking bad I can’t believe it!” Other listings in the Air America Falcon Codes included;
# 107, “What the fuck, over?”
# 108, “Fuck you very much.”
# 109, “Beautiful, just fucking beautiful.”
# 112, “Let me talk to that sumbitch.”
# 118, “What are you trying to do, kill some fucking body?”
# 169, “Fuck it, just Fuck it.”
# 272, “One good deal after another.”
# 274, I’d rather have a sister in a whorehouse than a brother in a Twin Pack.”
“OOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHH, 105, 105, 105.” Hutchinson.
“There are some people you just can’t carry on a trip, you know what I mean,” from some unidentified pilot. “Gotta go potty all the time. Reminds me of my first wife.” Pause. “No maybe it was wife number two. Wasn’t married to wife one long enough to take a good trip.”
“MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY, I’M HIT,” It was a faint but clear signal we all heard.
Type Cessna O-1 Birddog spotter plane John Carroll was flying
“Give us your location,” said the senior pilot, Hutchinson, suddenly serious, speaking in a calm, even voice.
“I’M OVER THE PDJ,” It was John Carroll, a Raven who had recently arrived in MR II. A 1962 graduate of the Air Force Academy he had been a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base, had qualified for the astronaut program, and according to the other Ravens, was certainly scheduled for space flight after he had his “ticket punched” with a tour in Southeast Asia. He had been socked in at LS 20A over the past few days of bad weather and was up on the afternoon schedule to scout the PDJ.
“How high are you, how bad you hit?” the senior pilot again. Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) among the pilots was that in an emergency the senior man was in charge and everyone else stayed off the working frequency. Air America handled emergencies weekly – mechanical failures, shot up planes, downed pilots – and the response among this group of veterans was practiced and sure. In front of me the pilot reached over and got a map and told Izzy over the intercom to turn to a new heading. Izzy was giving the helicopter maximum power, almost redlining the engine.
“I’M AT FIVE THOUSAND FEET AND DROPPING. I GOT A ROUND IN THE ENGINE AND ITS LOSING COMPRESSION. STILL GOING BUT LOSING COMPRESSION. IT’S THROWING OUT OIL.” The pilot’s voice was loud, stressed.
The PDJ was 3,500 feet elevation. At five thousand feet the plane had either dropped dramatically since it was hit or had been flying very low. Carroll had in fact been reconning the southern PDJ and had taken a hit from a 12.7 millimeter anti-aircraft round.
“You’re going to be O.K., don’t worry, if your engine is still going you’re O.K.” the senior pilot’s voice was reassuring.
“IT’S SPUTTERING. SHIT. THROWING OUT A LOT OF OIL. I CAN BARELY SEE IN FRONT.”
“You’re flying and we’re going balls out to get to you, don’t worry, you’re going to be O.K.”
“THE ENGINE QUIT. FROZE. PROP IS NOT MOVING.”
“What’s your altitude?”
“FOUR THOUSAND FIVE.”
“What’s your location?”
“We’ve got two choices, you can try and glide into Sam Thong or circle around and land on the PDJ, We’ll be in and pick you up. You’re O.K. What do you think? What’s best?”
“THOSE RIDGELINES BETWEEN ME AND SAM THONG ARE TOO HIGH. I’M GOING BACK AND LANDING ON THE PDJ.”
A new voice came into play, that of another Raven, Steve Neal, who began talking to the Raven in the damaged plane. Their conversation was technical, but it appeared to sooth Carroll somewhat and he sounded less frantic when Mike Jarina, flying an America Air helicopter out of LS 05, came on to tell the senior pilot that he was close by and would go in for the rescue.
“O.K. there Mr. Raven, we’re not far from you.” Jarina said, “How long can you glide and circle?”
“NOT LONG. SHIT ITS QUIET UP HERE. ALL I HEAR IS MY HEART.”
“You’re O.K., O.K. There are several runways on the southern plains. You know ‘um?”
“You want to make for one in particular or land on a road or what? You tell us.”
“I WANT TO COME IN ON THE FIRST PIECE OF FLAT GROUND I SEE.”
“O.K. listen to me.” It was the other Raven. “Your rescue radio isn’t damaged is it?”
“NO, IT’S O.K.”
“You land, you get out of the plane and you get away from it. Unless you land right on top of some bad boys, we’ve got time. We’re closing in on your position. We’ll be there. Throw smoke when you see us coming in.”
Before the bad weather we had been carrying only advance elements of Vietnamese along the southern PDJ; most of their forces were north of the Plaines. If there hadn’t been any significant movement the Raven could land safely. Four Hmong GMs were still loosely positioned on the southern and the western rim of the PDJ. They had not reported any significant contact recently. There was all reason to believe the Raven could get down and could be picked up.
The U.S. Air Force radio platform came on to report that fast movers were being diverted from southern Laos, but were several minutes out. The Udorn air rescue squadron had been scrambled and was enroute.
Air America had responsibility for the pick up however. Jarina and his co-pilot, George Taylor, were closer to the southern PDJ by several minutes over the helicopters I was with coming from the south. They were going in first. Jarina and Taylor knew they would not have any fighter support, but they reasoned that time was essential, to wait for US Air Force fighter aircraft or a back up chopper – although both would be on the scene in minutes – was time that might prove the difference in getting the Raven out.
“O.K. there Raven, my friend, how’s it going?” Janira, taking over control of the rescue from the senior pilot, also had a reassuring voice in talking with Carroll, who had heard about the preparations to make the pick-up.
“O.K. I’M AT FOUR THOUSAND FEET. ON THE WEST SIDE. I THINK I CAN PICK UP ONE OF YOUR CHOPPERS COMING UP FROM THE SOUTH. I’M GOING IN.”
“I see him, eleven o’clock, low,” someone said.
“O.K. Big fellow, we’ve got you. We’ll be right down. Get out and away from your plane. Get on your radio. Get smoke. Good luck.”
“ROGER. I’M GOING IN, GOING IN SOME BUSHES. GOING IN NOW.”
Then there was quiet. All the choppers were at full power. Izzy’s helicopter was vibrating terribly. The southern PDJ was just to our front. I saw what might have been Jarina’s helicopter ahead, close to the first ridgeline and dropping.
“I’M ON THE GROUND. I’M O.K. I’M GETTING OUT AND GOING ON MY HANDHELD.”
“GODDAMNIT, WE’RE FIVE MINUTES OUT. FIVE MINUTES. GET AWAY FROM THE PLANE. GET AWAY FROM YOUR PLANE. HIDE. GET AWAY.”
“I’M OUT, UNDER THE WING. HOW DO YOU READ ME, HOW DO YOU READ?”
“WE’VE GOT YOU TEN BYE. YOU’RE SOUNDING GOOD. GET AWAY FROM THE PLANE.”
“…THERE MUST BE FIFTY OF ‘UM COMING THIS WAY. THEY SEE ME.” The Raven was talking frantically when Jarina’s transmission ended.
“DON’T FIRE YOUR GUN. RUN. RUN. ANYONE SEE HIM?”
“…THEY’RE SHOOTING AT…….” The Raven screamed.
“WHERE IS HE?”
“I’VE GOT THE PLANE. I SEE IT. OH SHIT. FUCK. THERE ARE GOOKS ALL OVER THE PLACE.” Jarina and Taylor were still coming in. Taylor saw six or eight people running around near the downed O-1. Fifty feet away from the plane Jarina began to descend to a hover, hoping the pilot would break from some of the nearby bushes and run to the chopper.
“COME ON, COME ON, COME ON, COME ON.” Taylor was yelling over the open mike.
Suddenly he felt the helicopter shutter under the impact of intense ground fire. He could heard the impact of some of the rounds off the engine.
“WE’RE TAKING A LOT OF SMALL ARMS FIRE, I’M BREAKING AWAY TO THE EAST.” Jarina said.
Izzy yelled to Taylor, “SHOOT YOUR GUN.”
“SHIT I’LL NEED MY BULLETS IF I’M SHOT DOWN,” he answered.
Inside the Jarina/Taylor helicopter, the console dials were going crazy. Some of the rounds had hit the fuel line and gas began pouring from the fuel tank. Immediately the low fuel warning light came on and Jarina struggled to bring the crippled helicopter up and he began heading south. The flight mechanic, Yourglich, began firing his M-16 at the different people he saw running towards the helicopter as it lifted away.
Three of the helicopters, including Frenchy Smith’s, coming on the scene dropped off of their rush to the downed Raven and escorted Jarina and Taylor back to LS 05, where they abandoned the badly shot up helicopter.
Ted Cash and his co-pilot, Roy Heibel, continued on towards the downed O-1. Neal, the other Raven, was directing the first flight of fast movers into the area around the crash site. The senior pilot and Cash talked briefly about making the next charge in to get the pilot. After the fast movers made their second pass, Cash led several helicopters as they swooped down towards the ground.
Cash and Heibel, the first in, hovering near the O-1′s wing. The ping of small arms fire into and around the helicopter made every fraction of a second perilous.
“THERE HE IS. UNDER THE WING.” Cash yelled.
“SHIT. HE’S BLOWN AWAY. AH SHIT, SHIT, SHIT. WE’RE TAKING ROUNDS BROAD SIDE.” Heibel. Most of the other helicopters trying to land were being shot up and they began to pull back.
“I SEE HIM. THEY’VE GOTTEN HIM. HE’S DEAD. WE GOT TO PULL OUT.” Cash.
There was quiet. Izzy pulled off the power and the helicopter vibration slowed.
A pilot of one of the other helicopters asked if there was any chance the Raven was still alive. Cash said “No.” Everyone on his helicopter saw the pilot under the wing with parts of his body shot away.
Alive and talking one minute, trying to make the best of the situation, trying to stay alive. And in seconds….
Everyone in the air felt tired as the adrenaline began to fade. All the choppers gained altitude. There was concern about Cash because of the rounds he had taken but apparently nothing significant had been hit and he was airworthy.
Because we were at the rear of the group, we were the first to come around and land at Long Tieng. I got off the helicopter as Zack came riding up in a jeep. I was explaining what had happened when Cash and Hutchinson landed in their helicopters. Soon Frenchy flew in with Jarina and Taylor aboard. Cash bounced out and began examining the different bullet holes in the side of his chopper. Hutchinson who had a harder time getting out of his Twin Pack – burdened by his painful, long overdue call of nature, I suddenly remembered – finally, slowly, got to the ground. And then, walking bent over mainly from the knees down, taking very short little steps, he began to cross the ramp. He got half way and stopped and stood there for a long time looking straight ahead… before walking on, more upright, soiled and very, very sad.”
Special intelligence indicated that John Carroll had landed near a battalion of newly arrived North Vietnamese soldiers and when some of them approached – he had shot at them rather than be taken prisoner… and the enemy had returned fire, killing the USAF pilot.
One day later his fellow Ravens directed in a large laser guided USAF bomb on Carroll’s crashed O-1 Bird Dog – as was their practice in destroying FAC planes shot down in denied areas. Though the effect to the Hmong guerrillas in the area may have appeared to be the USAF were respectfully creating a funeral pyre for one of their own.
For days afterwards the USAF worked the area. B-52 strikes were called in. Aircraft returning from North Vietnam were asked to drop left-over ordinance. The area was bombed and bombed and bombed. Special intelligence indicated the North Vietnamese were massed and their casualties were high, dashing whatever battle plans they might have had in their movement to the southern PDJ.
Major John L Carroll was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross and Purple Heart among other well deserved decorations. A granite and brass memorial was erected in his honor by the AVVBS at Marist School in Brookhaven, Georgia where Major Carroll graduated high school in 1958.
He deserves every consideration for his bravery and his sacrifice. Every once in a while appreciative Americans ought to go by that marker, say “Thanks for your service” and rub the granite top smooth.
The Air America pilots involved in the rescue were probably written up in the AAm daily log for their especially hazardous duty that day… but there were no awards that I remember, certainly no ceremonies. Calm work under fire was just expected. For Air America helicopter pilots extraordinary was average. The fact they flew their unarmored and unarmed helicopters into a wall of fire in an effort to get to Major Carroll was never made much of. It seems oversimplified now, but that type stuff was just what they did.
They were gallant pilots, every one.