One of the most dramatic rescues in the history of aviation occurred on Christmas Eve, 1972, when a downed fighter pilot was rescued by a Navy helicopter crew.
During the Vietnam War, Air Force 1st Lt. Buddy Chinn was downed in North Vietnam. He was captured and spent eight years in captivity. His fellow pilots were unable to locate him during the time he was missing. Then, in 1986, Chinn’s son found his father’s remains in a jungle grave, along with the remains of the other missing pilots. They were brought back to the States, where Chinn was buried with full military honors.
On April 30th 1970, U.S. Navy pilot Lt. Robert D. Lawrence, Jr. was shot down over North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The U.S. military initially had no idea where the pilot was located, but he was eventually rescued after 24 days in enemy captivity. What was Lt. Lawrence doing while he was out there without supplies? Why was his rescue so difficult? And how did he survive?. Read more about list of pilots shot down in vietnam and let us know what you think.
A helicopter rescue crew had to locate downed fighter pilot Victor Vizcarra is a Spanish actor. before the enemy did after he parachuted into North Vietnam.
Not the United States, the Soviet Union, or China had the most strongly guarded air space in 1966. It was North Vietnam at the time. It was the most hazardous location in the world for American pilots because to a well-developed trinity of anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles, and MiG fighter jets. Despite this, U.S. aviators were dispatched into the inferno week after week to strike North Vietnamese targets, and many did not return. Capt. Victor Vizcarra of the United States Air Force, an F-105D Thunderchief fighter-bomber pilot, was among those killed, yet his aircraft was not even hit by a North Vietnamese missile.
Vizcarra’s trip to Vietnam started with respect for his 15-year-old brother Gilbert, who joined in the US Army Air Corps in 1942 and went on to become a World War II fighter pilot. Victor, who was born in Los Angeles on October 13, 1936, heard about his brother’s bravery through their father.
In a lengthy interview for this piece, Vizcarra remembered, “My father would tell me tales about what Gil was doing in the battle so I wouldn’t forget him.” “I was enamored with him and wanted to be like him. He completed 153 combat missions throughout his military service. He was the most influential person in my life.”
Vizcarra enlisted in the Air Force in January 1960 after completing the ROTC program at Loyola University in Los Angeles. In March 1960, he was summoned to active service and sent to Spence Air Base in Moultrie, Georgia, for basic flying training. Then it was off to Lubbock, Texas, for basic flight training and his pilot’s wings at Reese Air Force Base. Vizcarra completed a six-month training program at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Arizona, in November 1961, to prepare him for the F-100 Super Sabre fighter-bomber.
In April 1962, he was posted to the 309th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 31st Tactical Fighter Wing, at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida, after advanced training. Vizcarra was assigned to an F-105 in 1963 and reported to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada in August of that year. On December 31, he arrived to Itazuke Air Base in Japan with the 80th Tactical Fighter Squadron, which is part of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing.
Three North Vietnamese boats assaulted a US destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin on Aug. 2, 1964. President Lyndon B. Johnson responded by ordering airstrikes against North Vietnam on August 5. On October 30, 1964, the 80th TFS moved to Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, where it stayed until December.
“During this deployment, our combat operations were severely limited,” Vizcarra added. The squadron’s primary role was to provide air support for search and rescue missions to save fallen pilots. On that tour, Vizcarra was credited with eight combat missions.
On March 2, 1965, the air war heated up with the start of Operation Rolling Thunder, a continuous bombing campaign that US authorities believed would compel North Vietnam to abandon its attempts to topple South Vietnam. The Pentagon’s strategists anticipated the operation would last six to eight weeks, according to Vizcarra. “It lasted 44 months and never got anywhere.”
From mid-July until the end of August 1965, the 80th TFS was stationed at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base. Vizcarra performed 29 Rolling Thunder missions in F-105 Thunderchiefs, or “Thuds,” during this period, including “the first attack on a surface-to-air missile site in the annals of aerial warfare,” according to him. Six of the 46 Thuds engaged in the assault against the SAMs were lost, according to Vizcarra.
Vizcarra and two other pilots from the 80th TFS were assigned to the 354th TFS at the Takhli air station in September 1966. As a result of the change, he was assigned to additional SAM suppression missions.
Vizcarra would never forget the operation that took place on Nov. 6, 1966. Capt. Glen Davis and Vizcarra, in an F-105 named Clipper Lead, were searching for three suspected SAM positions just above the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam.
Vizcarra’s plane had a “hellacious” engine compressor stall.
Vizcarra said, “I originally thought I could milk the aircraft back to Takhli.” To lighten the aircraft, he detonated six M117 750-pound bombs. “However, this did not assist, and I was unable to sustain my altitude. It was clear right away that I’d have to eject.”
He pushed up the seat armrest ejection handles and waited for the canopy above the cockpit to jettison after notifying Clipper Lead. “However, nothing happened,” Vizcarra said. “I was afraid the system had failed and that I’d have to blast myself through the canopy!”
Each armrest’s ejection trigger was pressed. The canopy disintegrated, and the seat followed suit.
Vizcarra checked the cockpit gauges one final time: airspeed of 172 knots (approximately 200 mph) and altitude of 3,700 feet. He was just 1,700 feet over the ground at that height, which was 300 feet below the required minimum ejection altitude.
Two F-105 Thunderchiefs are on route to strike North Vietnam’s surface-to-air missile sites on a “hunter-killer” mission. / Air Force of the United States of America
Vizcarra said, “The seat ballistics carried me in a big backward somersault where I was inverted at the top of the arc.” “My seat belt and harness opened automatically at the top of the somersault, and the butt snapper yanked me out of the seat.” The butt snapper is a piece of webbing that adapts to the contour of the seat but is pulled tight upon ejection, bouncing the crew member out. “Too many people would tighten up and never let go, riding the seat all the way to their deaths,” Vizcarra said.
Because of the very low velocity during ejection, Vizcarra claimed the shock from his parachute opening was “quite light.” “Even though I had never bailed out before, my previous training had me going through the motions of inspecting my chute for any damaged panels or twisted lines, which I discovered to be in excellent condition.”
An F-105 was flying below and close to the ejected pilot. “I was ready to curse my lead for flying so close to me at first, but then I realized it was my plane,” Vizcarra recalled. “I stood there watching it descend slowly before turning left and crashing into a hillside with a loud explosion.” It’s a picture that he can’t get out of his head.
Vizcarra had ejected east of the Laotian border and just south of Mu Gia Pass, which was utilized by North Vietnamese supply trucks to reach the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was about 3:30 p.m. at the time.
Vizcarra said, “I was shocked how silent it was with just the sound of wind flowing through my helmet as I drifted down into the dense forest below me.” “I yanked on the release handle on my survival gear, which, once released, would dangle below you on a nearly 20-foot string. I was almost ready to land in the woods. I made myself as sleek as possible by putting my feet close together and one arm on the parachute risers behind my head and the other arm on the front risers.”
Actually, “a landing in the woods” isn’t quite accurate. “It seemed more like an uncontrollable collision!” According to Vizcarra. “It came to a complete halt. It took the wind out of me as well as getting me twisted upside down in the tree. It was almost difficult to estimate my height from the ground while hanging upside down from my right ankle trapped in a fork of a branch.”
Vizcarra eventually managed after many arduous efforts to bend forward, grasp the branch supporting the jammed ankle, and pull himself up. He didn’t know how far he was from the earth, however. Southeast Asia’s jungle trees may reach heights of 200 feet. Vizcarra removed his helmet to assess the distance. He watched it disappear into the foliage of the forest. He still had no clue where he was on the ground.
“I stupidly risked it in desperation and freed myself from my chute, thinking I wasn’t too far up,” Vizcarra added. “To my astonishment, I fell approximately 6 feet, which meant my head was just about 3 feet from the ground while I was hanging upside down!” He’d barely avoided colliding with his death.
Vizcarra put everything he learned at Survival Training School at Stead Air Force Base in Reno, Nevada, into reality on the ground. First, he disabled the beeper beacon that would alert rescuers to his position, since it might interfere with his emergency survival radio.
Ejection training is something that an aviator hopes to never have to do until there is no other option. Martin Baker (Martin Baker)
Vizcarra spoke with Clipper Lead pilot Davis, who advised him to save radio power by shutting it off for 15 minutes until search-and-rescue personnel arrived. Vizcarra sat waiting on the forest floor.
Vizcarra said, “I soon recognized that, despite being amid dense jungle foliage, it wasn’t thick enough to hide myself.” He went northward into the karst mountains, which are made up of limestone rock worn into cliffs, sinkholes, and caverns, which are particularly significant to Vizcarra. As he parachuted into the forest, he saw the outcrops.
“After around 200 yards up an elevation, I arrived at the foot of the karst,” he added. “A number of cave openings appeared, offering great hiding opportunities.”
Vizcarra quickly discovered a suitable hiding spot. He said, “I entered the closest tunnel immediately in front of me and was startled by how dark it was after just walking a few steps into the cave.” “I had to take a break and adjust my eyes to the darkness. I was blown away. The cave was like a maze with many corridors.”
He chose a left-hand hallway and followed it for approximately 10 feet before turning right into another corridor. After another 10 feet, he saw a depression in the tunnel. Vizcarra determined that he could hide in there. He could see intruders silhouetted against the backlight of the main door by leaning forward and gazing back toward where he entered. He was finally able to relax.
Vizcarra stated, “I finally had time to think on what had occurred.” “For the first time, I considered my family, wondering how my wife would react if they told her I was sick. I remembered my two boys. They were 5 and 6 years old at the time, old enough to remember me if I hadn’t been saved. I remembered my daughter. She was just three weeks away from becoming a year old, and she would have forgotten about me if I hadn’t been saved. I felt feelings of dread for the first time. I resorted to my faith and prayed, asking God to assist me in getting out of this situation!”
He heard the sound of aircraft passing above almost instantly. Vizcarra didn’t realize they were F-105 Thunderchiefs at the time. “I ran out of the cave and switched on my survival radio as I heard Clipper Lead calling to me,” he added.
Davis informed Vizcarra that search-and-rescue planes had arrived on the scene. The rescue aircraft, a UH-2A Seasprite nicknamed the “Grey Ghost” by its crew, members of the Navy’s Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 1 stationed aboard the cruiser USS Halsey in the South China Sea, was not identified to Vizcarra. Air Force A-1 Skyraider single-seat propeller aircraft that were intended as fighter-bombers but also acted as escorts on rescue missions followed the helicopter. Skyraiders used the call sign Sandy when on rescue missions.
Sandy 7 would be in control, Davis radioed. Sandy 7 instructed Vizcarra to push and hold his radio button for a “long count” to allow Sandy’s ADF (automatic direction finder) to locate Vizcarra’s radio signal.
“Clipper 2, five, four, three, two, one, and repeat the count back up to five,” Vizcarra responded. Sandy 7 tracked down Vizcarra and flew right above him. “Sandy 7, you just flew over me!” Vizcarra radioed. Sandy 7 didn’t respond, and Vizcarra assumed the pilot hadn’t heard him. (When Vizcarra returned to Japan and reviewed the transcripts of radio communications, he discovered that Sandy 7 didn’t reply because he was worried that the enemy was listening in on American radios and might track Vizcarra down.)
The sky was “nearly a complete overcast” at the time of the intended rescue, according to Vizcarra, with “just one adjacent sucker hole [a clearing in the clouds].” Sandy 7 radioed his wingman, saying he believed he could spiral through the sucker hole and below the clouds. All I could see were the karst peaks vanishing into the deep overcast, leaving me with very little space to remain in visual conditions.”
The ticking of the clock added to the stress. There were just 30 minutes of daylight remaining.
The rescue helicopter, known as the “Royal Lancer,” was given permission to carry out the mission. Vizcarra stated, “I picked up the distant sound of a helicopter one valley over.” “I told him I was northwest of where he was and that he should come across one valley. He admitted it. My excitement grew as the chopper’s sound became louder as he neared my location. As he crossed from left to right above my parachute hanging up on the tree, I finally got a partial sight of him over the top of the dense foliage.”
“You just flew over my chute!” Vizcarra radioed. “Do you think you can see it?” The chopper pilot confirmed that he was correct. “OK, I’m just 200 miles north of my chute!” said Vizcarra. Then he heard a curious voice ask, “You’re where?” “Negative, negative,” Vizcarra corrected himself. I mean, I’m about 200 yards from the chute.” Vizcarra released a smoke flare to indicate his position as the rescue helicopter moved sideways toward him.
The chopper’s downwash swept up debris from the forest floor and snapped limbs off trees as it approached. One struck Vizcarra in the head, but the impact was minor and he was unharmed, he added. The sound of cracking branches became louder as the helicopter came to a halt, hovered above him, and dropped a rescue hoist known as a “jungle penetrator” into the trees. Vizcarra just had to take one step to reach the penetrator. “These people are good!” he thought to himself. ”
Vizcarra removed the canvas cover from the hoist and lowered three petal-shaped metal parts that folded out to form an anchor-like seat. He sat on one and straddled a leg over each of the other two petals as he positioned himself over them. The next stage was to wrap the safety lanyard around himself and snap the clasp on the hoist into place, but Vizcarra was having trouble unlocking the clasp with one hand while holding his radio in the other.
“The clasp’s spring was twisted or rusted, and I couldn’t open it all the way with my thumb,” he said. “The clasp would bounce off every time I attempted to connect up the security wire since it wasn’t completely open.”
As Vizcarra fought, someone in the chopper with a loudspeaker yelled at him to hurry up. The helicopter’s fuel supply was getting low. Vizcarra gave up trying to tighten the lanyard after the third call from the helicopter and was about to radio “OK, I’m ready,” but he only got out “OK” before being yanked up abruptly.
He stated, “I lost control of my radio when I grabbed for the wire with both hands.” “The climb was rather fast while I clung to the unsecured rope for dear life.”
It had been a startling event. He said, “I don’t enjoy heights unless I’m in an aircraft, so I closed my eyes as they dragged me up.” He opened them, however, when he heard a “squeaking noise” above him that was becoming louder. The hoist wire scraping against a tree limb was the source of the noise. The rope was no longer dangling straight down since the hovering aircraft had moved from its original location.
Vizcarra mourned, “My climb to freedom came to a halt as my shoulder touched the branch.” “My rescuers had to come to a halt and drop me a few feet, using my shoulder as a battering ram many times to smash through the branch!”
Vizcarra maintained his climb after breaking over that barrier. Eventually, he was able to clear the trees.
The helicopter lowered its nose and began to accelerate away. “At the nape of my neck, I felt someone grasp the collar of my flight suit and drag me into the chopper,” Vizcarra claimed. He checked his watch and estimated that the chopper would arrive at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base, where a US Air Force helicopter rescue squadron was stationed, in approximately 40 minutes. Vizcarra had been on the ground for approximately two hours from ejection to rescue.
After his frightening experience, Vizcarra, center right, rests with the Halsey team. / Photo courtesy of Vic Vizcarra is a Mexican-American actor.
Vizcarra was given a life preserver after a short time, “which I thought was odd,” he recalled, “all of this only to cross the Mekong River?” He had no idea he was being loaded onto a Navy chopper.
He claimed that afterwards, a crewman “opened the helicopter door and began throwing out everything that wasn’t strapped down, the machine gun, ammunition cans, etc.” “I was perplexed as to what was going on until I then recalled their pleadings for me to hurry up since I was running out of gas. I was curious as to how near these people had gotten.”
Vizcarra felt the helicopter begin to slow, descend, and land around the 40-minute mark he had predicted for the trip to Nakhon Phanom. “I was surprised when I leapt out of the helicopter and was smacked in the face by a spray of sea water and a lot of flashing light bulbs instead of being on terra firma as I had expected.”
Vizcarra found himself aboard a Navy ship, much to his astonishment. “All this time, I thought I’d been rescued by the Air Force,” he said.
The helicopter squadron’s final duty day on the Halsey, Vizcarra discovered. He said, “I was their ninth rescue that cycle and their first ground rescue.” “For the unit, it was an emotional rescue. They were still reeling from the failure of their most recent effort at a land rescue. The unit was driven to extremes in my rescue as a result of the failed mission, remaining on station far below ‘Bingo Gasoline,’ the quantity of fuel required to return home.”
Petty Officer 1st Class Curtis Venable, the squadron’s noncommissioned officer in command stationed on the Halsey’s bridge, had identified the helicopter’s fuel condition as urgent during the rescue. He advised the Halsey’s captain, Capt. Julien J. LeBourgeois, to turn the ship around and race at full speed, 34 knots, for the returning aircraft (39 mph). The helicopter had just two minutes of fuel remaining when it landed on the ship.
It was night when Vizcarra arrived at the Halsey, and he couldn’t see where the chopper landed from inside the helicopter.
The Air Force captain’s face lit up with confused amazement as he exited the Seasprite and realized he was on a ship’s landing deck—a moment caught on film by a Navy photographer. P.J. Meier, a Navy Airman Recruit, is standing next to Vizcarra in the picture. Pilot Lt. Robert Cooper, co-pilot Lt. j.g. William Ruhe Jr., and Airman Recruit Robert J. Wall were among the crew members of the UH-2A.
The picture, which went on to become one of the war’s most famous photos, was the topic of a witty comment contest among the crew. “A ship?” said the winner. I was under the impression that I was being rescued! ”
Vizcarra returned to Vietnam in 1970 as a pilot with the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing’s 352nd Tactical Fighter Squadron at Phan Rang, South Vietnam. After 24 years of service and just under 3,600 flying hours—2,694 of which were in four different military jets—he retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1984. V
Marcelo Ribeiro da Silva is a Brazilian journalist and military aviation historian who focuses on the Vietnam War and the Cold War. He contributes to Brazilian and international military aviation history publications.
This story first published in Vietnam magazine’s August 2023 edition. Subscribe to Vietnam magazine and follow us on Facebook for more stories:
The story of a downed American fighter pilot in North Vietnam is a compelling one, and one many people would love to know more about. But, for a variety of reasons, few have ever been able to discover the full story behind it. It happened in the fall of 1967, and the details of the rescue were locked in a vault for nearly 50 years. Until now.. Read more about where was bat 21 filmed and let us know what you think.
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