Talking Proud Archives --- Military

Our Pedros, rotors of wood, men of steel


Those daily acts of bravery that will mark the Pedros as heroes forever

February 1, 2005

The Pedro crews like to brag that their rotor blades were made of wood, but the men who flew them were made of steel! That must surely be true. One Medal of Honor, six Air Force Crosses, a host of Silver Stars, some 888 saves in Southeast Asia from 1966-1975. That's quite a few, and does not include saves from 1964-1966, when they were not getting counted, and those in Laos and North Vietnam which we believe are classified.

Again, we must highlight the circumstances under which these men came to fight in Vietnam and Laos.

Major Tracy W. Colburn, USAF, presented a paper to the US Air Force Air Command and Staff College in March 1997, entitled, “Running on empty: the development of helicopter aerial refueling and implications for future USAF combat rescue capabilities.” In this document, Colburn said this:

“When the United States entered the Vietnam War it was unprepared to conduct CSAR, or Combat Aircrew Recovery (ACR) as it was called at the time.

“In 1964 the Air Force tasked the Air Rescue Service (ARS) to provide ACR in Southeast Asia. The task was daunting. The ARS area of responsibility covered 1.1 million square miles, including all of South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and the Gulf of Siam. The US Navy assumed responsibility for rescue coverage in the Gulf of Tonkin and that portion of North Vietnam up to five miles inland from shore. The ARS responded as best it could, sending the only helicopters available, Kaman HH-43 'Huskies' or 'Pedros.'

“The HH-43 was simply not up to the challenges of ACR in Southeast Asia. Huskies were Local Base Rescue (LBR) assets, designed to augment base fire and crash rescue forces. They possessed no armor or weaponry. Top speed of the ungainly HH-43 was only 90 knots, its radius of action a mere 75 miles. In one incident a downed F-105 pilot rescued under intense enemy fire by an HH-43 was asked when during the episode was he most frightened. He replied, 'When that damned helicopter had to land to refuel.'”

In the January-February 1980 edition of the Air Force's Air University Review, Captain Earl H. Tilford, Jr., USAF, at the time assigned to the Department of History at the USAF Academy, and a PhD candidate in military history at George Washington University, wrote an article entitled, “Search and Rescue in Southeast Asia, 1961-75.” He echoes Colburn. Here's what he said:

“In 1964 when the first units of the Air Rescue Service reached Southeast Asia with Kaman HH-43B helicopters, they were not prepared for the unique challenges of combat aircrew recovery in the jungles and mountains of Vietnam and Laos. This state of affairs can be traced to the reduction in forces and equipment that occurred after the Korean War. In the late 1950s, because of the concept of massive retaliation, the military generally neglected conventional forces suitable for limited warfare. Accordingly, Air Rescue Service doctrine focused on providing peacetime search and rescue (SAR) for the continental United States, coverage along the overseas' air and sea lanes, and recovery of astronauts and space equipment. In 1960, as North Vietnam began directing the communist insurgency in South Vietnam, the only aircrew recovery capability of the Air Rescue Service was a handful of Grumman SA-16 Albatross amphibians.

“In October 1961, the Air Rescue Service integrated 70 local base rescue units into its structure, acquiring 69 H-43Bs, 17 older, piston-driven H-43As, 58 obsolete Sikorsky H-19Bs, and four even less useful Piasecki SH-21Bs. The Kaman H-43s, meant to augment the base fire and crash rescue capability, had no armor, no weapons, and a mere 75-mile radius of action. Still, they were destined to form the nucleus of the early aircrew recovery force in Southeast Asia.”

The HH-43 was the first USAF SAR helicopter to be used in Vietnam.


A helicopter lifts a wounded American soldier on a stretcher during Operation Silver City in Vietnam, March 13, 1966. AP Photo. Presented by the Denver Post as part of a remarkable suite of Vietnam photos. I commend this site to you.

A well-known reporter for the
New York Times, Neil Sheehan, covered the wars in Vietnam and Laos in some detail and won a Pulitzer Prize for his newspaper when he published the famous "Pentagon Papers" leaked to him by Daniel Ellsberg. Sheehan, a Holyoke, Massachusetts lad and a Harvard grad, also wrote the book, A Bright Shining Lie, published in 1989. This book won him a Pulitzer Prize. On the very first page, the boy from Holyoke wrote this:

"In this war without heroes..."

So much for the credibility of a Pulitzer Prize.
Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand were awash in American heroes. We are going to highlight some HH-43 airmen who were among those. Everyone involved in the SAR mission in the Vietnam War is a hero, regardless of what role they filled or what aircraft they rode. Take a look at these two guys, these two slick looking dudes. Meet Steve Northern (L) and John Dagneau III (R). They are both pararescuemen (PJs) who flew with Det 6, 38 ARRS, Bien Hoa, RVN. Photo presented by pjsinnam.com.


Are these red-blooded Americans or what? Young guys, both "two stripers," or airmen second class, Northern with his six-gun and survival vest, sleeves rolled up, a proud smile. Dagneau, chest sticking out, back upright, wearing his six-shooter, his Air Force wings and jump wings proudly displayed. Both standing in front of their good ol' HH-43.

Some of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who served in these wars were awarded some of our nation's highest military medals and honors. Dagneau, for example, received the Silver Star. But most did not. All have at long last earned the respect of a grateful nation, but that took a long time coming. But, once the Pedros got there, all who flew in that war went on their missions reinforced with the courage that came from knowing that guys like Northern and Dagneau were there for only one reason, to find them, and rescue them.

Five people received the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism during a SAR mission. Four were officers, and pilots, one an enlisted man. You might recall that Major Bernard F. Fisher, an A-1E fighter pilot, was the first to ever receive the Air Force Medal of Honor for a mission flown on March 10, 1966 when he rescued a fellow pilot shot down over South Vietnam in the midst of enemy troops.

The one enlisted man to receive this award during a SAR mission was an airman first class, a HH-43 Pedro PJ, A1C William H. Pitsenbarger, the second enlisted man of the Vietnam War to receive this award. The first was A1C John Levitow, a gunship crewman.


A Kaman HH-43F Huskie lowers A1C William Hart Pitsenbarger, USAF, Pararescue Crew Member, Detachment 6, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron into a burning minefield to extract a wounded ARVN soldier, Bien-Hoa Air Base, Vietnam, 7 March 1966. Presented by Olive-Drab.

Pitsenbarger, shown here standing next to his HH-43 in combat gear, was first awarded the Air Force Cross, the second highest Air Force medal for valor. The Air Force Cross was established by Congress in 1960. Prior to that, enlisted personnel received the Distinguished Service Cross for heroic actions. Only 21 enlisted men have been awarded the Air Force Cross, of whom 20 received the award in Vietnam. Of these, four were enlisted HH-43 crew members. Two HH-43 officers also received the award.

Assigned to Det 6, 38th ARRS, Bien Hoa, RVN, "Pits", as he was known to his colleagues, tucked more than 300 rescue missions under his belt in 275 days.

Editor's note: To help you visualize the stories as they unfold, we use imagery from Vietnam but the photos are not of events in the story, unless we so specify.

On April 10, 1966, “The Big Red One,” the soldiers of Alpha, Bravo and Charlie companies of the 1st Infantry Division's 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, launched “Operation Abilene” in the jungles between Saigon and Vung Tau in the Mekong Delta region to search out and destroy the enemy. Charlie Company somehow failed to track parallel to the other two companies and got itself out of position, close to an enemy command post, and cut off from the other two companies. The company was hit by friendly artillery and heavy enemy mortar and machine gun fire. The ensuing battle was intense and the valor demonstrated by Charlie Company soldiers is indescribable. The company had walked into the middle of a North Vietnamese regiment, and was surrounded by about at least 400 enemy troops, with some estimating enemy strength as high as 800. The company was taking heavy casualties.


Casper Huey prepares to extract 173d Sky Soldiers from a Hot LZ in the An Lao Valley 1970. Simply try to imagine an HH-43 in there instead of the Huey. The fighting on the ground no doubt looked much the same to Pedros 97 and 73 as they approached Charlie Company on April 10, 1966. Photo courtesy of casperplatoon.com

On the afternoon of April 11th, Det 6, 38th ARRS at Bien Hoa received the call and launched two Huskies, Pedro 97 piloted by Captain Ronald Bachman and Pedro 73, piloted by Captain Harold Salem. Pits was aboard Pedro 73.


Medic from the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, searches the sky for a MEDEVAC helicopter to evacuate a wounded buddy, following air assault into LZ Rufe, June 1967. Photo credit: PFC John Olson, presented by 16th Infantry Regiment Association.

Pedro 97 went in and picked up one wounded soldier on a stokes litter and withdrew to get the patient organized.


HH-43 PJ Dick Stiefken demonstrates stokes litter pickup. Photo courtesy of pjsinnam.com

Pedro 73 went in and got a second, also on a litter and did the same.


A HH-43 stokes litter pickup. Photo provided by Stephen P. Mock, MSgt, USAF (Ret.)

Pedro 97 went back and got another, also on a litter.


PJ Larry Nicholson (L) and Flight Engineer Ken Hogan (R) off loading survivor at Det 10, 38 ARRS, Binh Tuy AB, RVN. Photo courtesy of pjsinnam.com

That done, they turned to an aid station at Binh Ba, just seven miles away, and unloaded the three wounded troopers.

The litters took up a lot of room in the small helicopter. The Huskie could only carry two litter patients at a time. So for the return trip, the PJs talked about using hoists, the forest penetrators, dropping themselves into the fight, plucking out as many as three wounded, putting them on the three seat hoist, staying on the ground, find two more wounded, grab the penetrator as it came back down, and hoist all three back up. The downside would be that the HH-43 pilots would have to keep their bird in a hover and pray for the best. This method, however, would allow each bird to retrieve five instead of two wounded GIs.

Pedro 97 and Pedro 73 returned to the battle. Pedro 73 sent down a litter, and the soldiers on the ground had trouble loading it because of the intensity of the fire. Pits told his skipper, Captain Salem, he was going in. Salem agreed, and Pits was lowered into the middle of the battle.


38th ARRS HH-43 lowering PJ on the forest penetrator. Photo presented courtesy of Kaman HH-43 Huskie

A few from Charlie Company observed the airman coming down, and simply thought he was nuts. Once on the ground, Pits grabbed the stokes litter and the patient, got them squared away, and the HH-43 crew hoisted the litter up to Pedro 73. Pits stayed on the ground.


Two wounded Marines from "I" company 7th Marines await evacuation by helicopter. You can see the one in the foreground has been loaded on the litter, and the next is waiting. AP Wire photo 1966. Posted by George Curtis for popasmoke.com

Still under heavy fire, Pedro 73 expected Pits to come back up the hoist, but the airman waved the skipper off and Pedro 73 returned to Binh Ba, with Pits still on the ground.

Pedro 97 then came in, and under Pitsenbarger's supervision, they loaded up two more litter patients and Pedro 97 returned to base. Thus far, these two chopper crews had retrieved six from Charlie Company.

The operation started to show some efficiency with Pits directing traffic on the ground. Pedro 73 had to fly away for a bit to get fuel, so Pedro 97 came in again. Pits uploaded one patient on a litter and two more on the penetrator. Nine from Charlie Company were now out.


Artist's depiction of Pitzenbarger on the ground with Charlie Company, administering first aid, handing out weapons, with a HH-43 and stokes litter with patient flying off. Art included in the program handed out to attendees at the Medal of honor ceremony for Airman Pitsenbarger, Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio (Piqua, Ohio was Pits home town), December 8, 2000, presented by pjsinnam.com

Pedro 73 returned, and while lowering a litter and the penetrator to Pits, the “Huskie” came under heavy .30 caliber fire. Salem fought to control the aircraft, the litter and penetrator were getting caught in the trees, so he had to cut the cords to free the aircraft. Salem had no choice but to get out of there, and Pedro 73 left, Pits still on the ground.

So we've got an airman in the middle of Charlie Company fighting off over 400 enemy and as many as 800. Pitsenbarger moved about to tend to the wounded, gathered weapons and ammo from those who had died, and distributed them around to those who needed them to fight. He even gave up his own pistol.

Army Lt. Martin Kroah managed to survive, and later wrote this:

"At times, the small arms fire would be so intense that it was deafening, and all a person could do was get as close to the ground as possible and pray. It was on those occasions I saw Airman Pitsenbarger moving around and pulling wounded men out of the line of fire and then bandaging their wounds. My own platoon medic, who was later killed, was totally ineffective. He was frozen with fear, unable to move. The firing was so intense that a fire team leader in my platoon curled up in a fetal position and sobbed uncontrollably. He had been in combat in both World War II and Korea."
Pits saw the litter Capt. Salem had released caught in the trees, climbed up and retrieved it to use for the wounded on the ground. Pedro 73 successfully made an emergency landing, struck at least nine times by enemy fire. Pedro 97 returned, the enemy assault was so intense that Charlie Company called in for artillery, Pedro 97 had to hover on the sidelines while all that stuff whizzed by, and with dark falling, had to return to Bien Hoa. Pits was still on the ground.

He continued scrounging guns and ammo from among the dead. At about 7:30 pm, Pits and Army Sergeant Fred Navarro of Hutchins, Kansas, a squad leader, were on the ground returning fire. Enemy fire tapered off and the area became quiet. Navarro looked over at his partner, Airman Pits, and saw that Pits had been hit and was dead.

During the hours of dark, the Viet Cong came in to get their wounded and dead, and to kill off any Americans whom they found alive. Artillery was the only thing to save what was left of Charlie Company, now fewer than 20 soldiers from a starting figure of 134.


The aftermath. These are actual photos the day after, the dead in body bags and the wounded being helped to a CH-47 waiting to take them out. Photos courtesy of homeofheroes.com

The next morning, Army engineers slipped into the area and prepared a landing zone for Army helicopters for a planned extraction. The Army sent in CH-47s and among them came one Air Force “Huskie: to get their man, Pits.


This is an actual photo of a Det 6, 38ARRS Bien Hoa HH-43 on the ground during "Operation Abilene", pilot 1Lt Mark Schibler, PJ A1C Harry O'Beirne. Mark Schibler, who retired at the rank of lieutenant colonel, has told us that Harry O'Beirne was invited to a reunion of the "Mud Soldiers" and one of the survivors of "Abilene" gave him some copies of the picture and he gave to Mark Schibler who in turn shared it with Steve Mock, which is how it arrived in this story, through Steve Mock.

The HH-43 was the first helicopter to set down. moved among the dead to find and load three wounded infantrymen. A1C Harry O'Beirne, a “Huskie” PJ and good friend of Pits, helped load up three wounded, he waved the Huskie off so it left, and O'Beirne remained on the ground to treat wounded and help load them on a Chinook. An Army officer approached O'Beirne, and pointed out Airman Pitsenbarger, under a poncho, shot four times.

We have been fortunate to receive Harry "Obee" O'Beirne's recollections of retrieving Pits from the battle scene. He has written this:

"On April 11, 1966, Pits was lowered into the battle. On 12th April, 1966, I was on first alert with pilot Lt. Mark Shibler, co-pilot Capt. Ed. Henningson, and flight engineer Alex Montgomery. We were scrambled to the battle site to help out, as the battle was still going on, and there were wounded to be evacuated.

"The ground troops had dynamited a hole in the jungle for helicopters to descend. On the ground, we loaded up the chopper with wounded and sent it out - I was left on the ground to help with the wounded there.

"An Army Captain passing by, saw me, and asked if I was Air Force. I said yes, and he replied, 'Sorry about your buddy, he was killed last night.' He then directed an Army Ranger, named Charlie Epperson, to take me to where Pits was. (All this can be checked with Charlie Epperson, who is still alive.)

"Charlie led me about 100 yards or so back into the jungle to where Pits lay with other bodies, covered with ponchos. They had been shot there, not gathered together. I took off the gas mask that Pits was wearing (against tear gas). He had been shot in the center of the forehead, and blood covered his face.

"I took out my handkerchief, and with water from my canteen, I washed his face. It made no difference to Pits, but it made me feel better. Flies were all over him, as with the other dead. Charlie helped me put Pits in a body bag. That was when I discovered that Pits had been shot three other times. Due to the blood on the face, (it bled so freely) Pits had to have been shot three times, continued to treat the wounded, before being shot in the center of the forehead.

"Charlie and I carried Pits' body back to the opening in the jungle for evacuation. We sent out another load on the chopper, and I told Lt. Shibler that Pits was dead. The next time the chopper came in, Shibler sent word to me that we were needed on another mission, and that I was to get on board - which I did.

"Pit's body was evacuated to the Saigon morgue with the rest of the dead, which was standard procedure at that time."

Within days, Sergeant Navarro provided the Air Force with a taped statement detailing Airman Pitsenbarger's heroism to support a Medal of Honor. Charlie Company had experienced 106 casualties among its original force of 134; Sgt. Navarro's ten man squad lost eight killed in action.

However, the recommendation for the Medal of Honor was downgraded to the Air Force Cross. His mom and dad accepted that award on behalf of their son in September 1966 and Pits became the first enlisted airman in history to receive this award.

In the 1990s, private citizens and federal officials urged the award be reviewed. It was, and it was upgraded to the Medal of Honor, presented to his father William F. Pitsenbarger on December 8, 2000.


On December 8, 2000 an impressive ceremony was held at Wright-Patterson AFB in Pits' home state of Ohio.  The guest list included combat veterans, hundreds of pararescue airmen, a Congressional representative, and the Air Force Chief of Staff.  Also attending was an elderly gentleman, now well into his 80s....William F. Pitsenbarger.  Amid a flood of memories, an invocation by the Chief of the Air Force Chaplain Service, and remarks by the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Secretary of the Air Force the Honorable F. Whitten Peters stepped to the podium.   Then, with the dignity unprecedented valor demands, the story of William Pitsenbarger was read in greater detail than his Air Force Cross citation had set forth.   At long last, after 34 years, the young PJ would indeed receive the Medal of Honor.  The elder Pitsenbarger gratefully accepted the award on behalf of his only son. It is our understanding Pits was promoted posthumously to the rank of Staff Sergeant. Photo presented by homeofheroes.com


The Pitsenbarger display at the national Museum of the US Air Force, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio Museum. Photo courtesy of that museum.

HH-43 pilot Captain Thomas J. Curtis (shown in this photo), his co-pilot 1st Lt Duane W. Martin, their flight mechanic, SSgt. William A. Robinson, and their PJ, Airman First Class Arthur N. Black, Det 1, 38th ARRS, NKP, call sign “Duchy 41,” flew over 80 miles into Ha Tinh Province, North Vietnam in September 1965 to retrieve a downed F-105D pilot, Captain William Ellis Forby, callsign “Essex 04.” The rescue operation occurred about 10 miles from the Laotian border. Duchy 41 was observed taking enemy fire, and crashed near the town of Tan An. Another helicopter arrived but was hit by enemy fire and forced to leave. We are not completely sure how far along in the rescue process Duchy 41 got, though the Air Force Enlisted Heritage Institute has reported that they had Forby on the hoist, when it was hit and crashed.


HH-43 flight engineer SSgt. William A Robinson, USAF, shot down 20 Sept 1965, presented by PJs In Vietnam

All five were captured. Forby, Curtis, Robinson and Black were taken to a North Vietnamese POW camp and were released in February 1973 after seven years as prisoners.

Lt. Martin, shown in this photo, was not initially captured by the North Vietnamese, but following his initial evasion, was taken by the Pathet Lao and joined a group captured from an Air America C-46 shot down in 1963 at a Pathet Lao camp known as Houay Het. They were later joined by US Navy pilot Lt. Dieter Dengler, whose A1H “Skyraider” forced him to crash land it in Laos. Dengler arrived about nine months after Martin had been taken captive. Others had been there for two years. Dengler reported that many had lost many of their teeth, and had bodies covered with large sores, locked in handcuffs. The group consisting of these and others experienced intense torture, regular beatings, hunger and illness. In June 1966, Dengler, Martin and one from the C-46 managed to escape while the guards were eating. They snuck into a guard tower and grabbed up some weapons, confronted the guards, one guard began to flee, and the POWs killed all the guards. All seven POWs in the compound then escaped, breaking up into three groups to increase the odds that one would be saved to help orient a rescue for the others.

Dengler and Martin were paired, both were ill, the former with jaundice, the latter with malaria. Both men were very weak, but Martin at long last was too weak to walk. Walking along a trail, each draped in the other's arms, they were suddenly attacked by a villager with a machete. The first blow struck Martin in his leg, then the second blow struck at his neck, and he fell dead. The attacker then struck at Dengler, missed, and somehow Dengler found the strength to run away. He was picked up by US SAR forces after some 22 days on the run. This is a photo of Dengler taken shortly after his rescue He was gaunt, hallow-eyed, and weighed only 93 lbs.

All HH-43 crewmembers were awarded the Air Force Cross, the USAF's second highest award.

Then there was Air Force Sergeant Michael E. Fish, a HH-43 PJ in a rescue operation about 25 miles southwest of Tuy Hoa AB, RVN. On February 18, 1969, an Army UH-1 assault helicopter with five aboard was shot down and crashed in a remote, mountainous and densely jungled canyon. All five were reported trapped in their aircraft. After being lowered to the crash site through intense hostile fire, Fish assisted three of the trapped survivors, freed them, and got them on the hoist and up to the hovering HH-43. Fish opted to remain overnight to tend to the the pilot, who remained trapped in the cockpit. The fifth Army soldier, Sgt. Patrick Ronan, was dead. For more than 15 hours, Fish treated the pilot. The next morning, again under fire, a task force returned, helped free the trapped pilot, and Fish and the pilot were evacuated. The photo introducing this paragraph shows Sgt. Fish receiving the Air Force Cross from the Secretary of the Air Force.

If it weren't such dangerous work, this next story could be a little humorous. First Lt. David Gregory and his HH-43 crew from Det 7, 38th ARRS, Danang, RVN, scrambled after an emergency medical evacuation was requested for a Marine in a hostile area about 12 miles from the base. Captain Donald Sams was the co-pilot, A1C Haskell Browning Jr., the flight engineer, and A2C David A. Carl the PJ.


In March 1967, this Marine lieutenant climbed around the Rockpile perimeter , a 700 foot high rock protrusion near Route 9, about halfway between Dong Ha and Khe Sanh, RVN, just south of the border with North Vietnam. The lieutenant here wanted to determine how much of what areas needed to be cleared. There was a Marine outpost on top. We show it to help you envision Lt. Gregory's mission. Photo courtesy of George Curtis, and presented by popasmoke.com

The evacuation site was on the side of a steep mountain. Gregory arrived and hovered along the side of the hill, in some instances perilously close to the trees. The Marine was spotted, and hoisted aboard with ease. Gregory started to depart when an armed escort helicopter spotted a second Marine requiring help up the hill a bit. So Gregory established his hover, the hoist was lowered, and this Marine was brought aboard with ease. Just as Gregory was about to depart again, a third Marine was carried to the area. Airman Carl lowered himself, attached the Marine to his hoist, and brought him aboard. It should be noted that each Marine had a full pack weighing about 80 lbs, and weapons, radios, ammo and personal gear, all of which came up the hoist with the Marine. Just as Carl was about to board the HH-43, a fourth Marine in full battle gear was brought to the site. Gregory and Sams agreed to handle the load, so Carl went down there again and brought the fourth Marine aboard.

And yes, sports fans, you guessed it, a fifth Marine showed up. Now Gregory and Sams had to really check their calculations. Gregory gave the go-ahead, Carl went down yet again, and the fifth was hoisted aboard. His equipment could not fit in the helicopter, so Carl tied it to the hoist. Lt. Gregory now found he had some serious problems with getting his “Huskie” aloft, so he dug into his “GI ingenuity” sack, set his aircraft down, and slid it down the hill until flying airspeed was reached. They successfully got back to the Marine hospital with Airman Browning hanging out the cargo door holding on to the hoist.


"First, my son told me he sent you a picture of a helo on the river. If it's the one I think it is, then it's a pickup of wounded navy personnel off a river boat. We had to make several pickups, both day and night. It worked like this, the boat runs at about 20 - 25 kts. in mid stream and Pedro comes in and hovers about ten feet above the boat. A Navy guy goes to the bow, stands on it facing the boat, holding on to a rope and leans backwards over the water, at speed, and the pilot maneuvers up until the Navy guys head can be seen between the rudder pedals. This position is held until the pickup is complete. Miles sometimes. A pickup at night, no lights, makes you feel as if you have been run over by an 18 wheeler. You get the idea." Text and photo by Major Leslie Johnson Jr., USAF (Ret.), presented by The Unofficial USAF HH-43 "Pedro" Crash Rescue - Air Rescue Web Site.

The “Huskies” also were in the river marine patrol rescue business. Navy river patrol boats (PBR) routinely exchanged fire with enemy forces on shore. Capt. Donald E. Van Meter, Det 10, 38th ARRS at Binh Thuy AB, and his crew picked up a couple wounded sailors while the PBR sat mid-river.

Following that, the crews practiced tactics for river pickups and were soon able to do them while the PBRs were underway at speeds up to 15 knots. This photo shows "Operation Game Warden," a USAF Kaman HH-43 Huskie rescue helicopter hovering above a River Patrol Boat. Mk ll, of Task Force 116 on the Bassac River near Can Tho in the Delta Region (presented by angelfire.com).

On another similar mission, two Det 10 HH-43s were scrambled after five sailors aboard a PBR were seriously wounded by a 57mm recoilless rifle attack. An Army helicopter fire team joined the party and a flight of F-100 Super Sabres put down some welcome suppression fire. One of the sailors was determined critically wounded. The first HH-43 picked him up along with another wounded sailor and made a bee-line to the hospital. The second HH-43 took care of the rest of the wounded. Aboard the first HH-43, A1C Gary G. Harold was credited with saving the sailor's life.

We read a report on a HH-43 rescue of another critically wounded sailor, hit by a grenade. This flight had a flight medical officer aboard, who tended to the wounded sailor. But the flight home was a rough one, with thunderstorms and lightening pounding along the flight route. Complicating this flight, a flight following radar went haywire and the HH-43 found itself flying through an artillery firing zone, demanding a rapid adjustment in altitude.

As you read through rescue and recovery reports, you quickly find that each one is different. This one struck us as different from what you've seen thus far, though for Pedro crews it might well have been routine. It has to do with the shoot down of Casper 721.

Casper Aviation Platoon (one of its helicopters shown here) was the only separate aviation platoon in the entire US Army during the Vietnam War. It arrived in Vietnam in May 1965 in support of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which, along with the 503rd Infantry Regiment, were the first US Army ground units committed to the Vietnam War. Casper flew a wide range of missions, and as near as we can tell, it made its various homes more at landing zones (LZ) than at bases. LZ English was among its favorites, in the area of the Bong Son plains of South Vietnam.


This was the crew chief's view of the pilots from the left side gun position. Casper 721 in 1968. Photo presented by casperplatoon.com

On December 11, 1968 Casper 721 flew a command and control mission for the battalion commander, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 1/503. The 1/503 was to be inserted by the 61st Assault Helicopter Company (AHC) about 20 kms northeast of An Khe Pass in the northern part of South Vietnam's Central Highlands. Pleiku AB was nearby. This mission carried one aircraft commander (AC), a co-pilot plus another pilot, a crew chief and a door gunner, five all together. Casper 721 first flew a mortar crew to a mountain top, and then picked up the battalion commander, a colonel, his artillery fire officer, a radio operator and five extra radios.


Photo of Casper 721 laying on it's left side after sliding down the mountain.  The tailboom was broken in half, the rotorblades and landing skids were ripped off. Photo courtesy of casperplatoon.com and drawn from an article by Cliff White, entitled, "Casper 721 is down."

Casper 721 was shot down and crashed.

The AC was pinned in the ground with a UH-1 on his back. The door gunner was pinned in his seat by a 6 inch diameter branch against his flak vest. He broke free, found several wounds, and had a very sore chest. The crew chief thought he had a broken leg, had been hit several times, and found some steel stuck in his arm, which he removed. The colonel was trapped with his leg under the left side of the aircraft, his shoulder was dislocated, he was covered in fuel, and in a great deal of pain. The radio operator was unconscious with serious face and head injuries. The artillery officer had been thrown from the aircraft wrapped in branches, but conscious. One of the other pilots had a severely damaged knee, and a leg with several cuts and holes.

An Army Huey helicopter came to the scene, and hovered over the crash site. It had been hit by anti-aircraft fire on the way in, and took small arms fire while hovering. Somehow the downed crew chief and one of the extra pilots were able to climb up some trees, grab a skid, and climb aboard. Once aboard, the extra pilot from Casper 721 said that the main challenge now was to get cutting tools and a fireman to get the AC out. The Huey crew called for USAF Pedro assistance, specifying the requirement for cutting tools and a fireman.

In the mean time, more Hueys arrived in the area with troops aboard. These troops secured the crash site and were able to remove all the wounded, except the AC. Among the people brought to the site was a doctor. Together, those on the ground tried to free the AC, but could not get it done. The doc said his only recourse was to amputate both of the AC's legs.


HH-43 "Pedro" at Phu Cat AB, RVN, photo courtesy of USAF Air Combat Command.

Det 13, 38th ARRS at Phu Cat AB had four HH-43s, two sitting rescue alert, two sitting LBR-firefighting alert. Early on in this event, the two rescue birds launched and helped extract the injured and wounded. But then, the call was made for more help, requiring a fireman and the “Jaws of Life” apparatus to break the AC free before the doctor had to do his thing.


Example of modern-day Hurst "Jaws of Life" cutter, used to extricate people from tight spots, like car crashes, aircraft crashes, etc. Presented by Hurst, a unit of Idex Corp.

The “Jaws of Life” is a tactical survival piece of equipment which uses hydraulic power to pry apart or slice open cars and airplanes, or whatever, when accident victims are stuck. Regrettably, the Pedros did not have this Hurst piece of equipment, used Rotary Rescue Saws, Air Chisels or a "Porta-Power", a hand pumped hydraulic rescue tool that could lift, spread or cut.

A third HH-43 was launched, one of the two sitting LBR-firefighting alert, it had to hot refuel (take on fuel with the engines and rotor running) on the way, but it got to the crash site in a hurry. Darkness was approaching and time was of the essence, as those on the ground feared the North Vietnamese would use the cover of darkness to overrun the site (they later learned they had crashed in the middle of a North Vietnamese regiment).

Once there, the fireman took their rescue equipment and cut the Casper 721's AC free, he was loaded on to one of the Pedros, and off to the hospital he went. The three Pedros extracted nine people on this mission. But the story does not quite end here. As darkness fell over the site, one of the Pedros hoisted two Army soldiers up the jungle penetrator. As they both got to the door, the cable broke. The Pedro had one large, tough crew chief who grabbed one of the troops before he fell out of the aircraft, dragged him into the “Huskie,” and sat on him so he would not fall out. The pilot turned over the controls to the co-pilot, rushed over to the second Army troop, and helped him to stand on one of the skids, holding on to him so he would not fall backwards and out. The weight on this side of the aircraft made it tough to fly, but the co-pilot got her to an Army site of some sort after which the two Army soldiers happily set their feet on the ground.


A HH-43 near Ubon RTAFB on 24 May 1966 to search for an unexploded bomb. Photo credit: Capt. Jerry VanGrunsven, presented courtesy of Kaman HH-43 Huskie

In reading Johan Ragay's web site,
Kaman HH-43 Huskie, we found interesting stories that occurred at Ubon RTAFB but no doubt occurred at all the Pedro bases. These operations might not seem as spectacular as the rescue missions described above, but they were important nonetheless. Capt. Jerry VanGrunsven, a HH-43 pilot there, supplied the background. A mission was sent out to locate some 1,000 lb. bombs that had inadvertently released from a F-4 fighter aircraft outbound the previous night. The Pedro crew located them and the Emergency Ordnance Destruction (EOD) people destroyed them. Another mission flew investigators to a F-100F crash site to disarm any weapons that might have survived the crash and survey for any destruction that might have been done to civilian property.

The stories of bravery, courage, and the rigors of "just doing the job" can be recorded in volumes for the Pedro crews and their trusty "little" machines. By now, if you've read all the sections, you should have a good picture of what these crews and their aircraft went through. But there's one more area we must address, the
LBR-firefighting mission.