After the siege at Khe Sanh, a major confrontation during the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese 304th and 325th Infantry Divisions withdrew into Laos to an area roughly adjacent to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating North and South Vietnam. It was the intention of General William C. Westmoreland to pursue these North Vietnamese infantry units with aircraft of the Seventh U. S. Air Force and elements of the US Seventh Fleet. Tactical Air Controllers ordered jet aircraft capable of carrying 750-pound bombs to strike suspected enemy targets in Laos.
One of these aircraft was a Vought A-7 Corsair flying off the deck of the USS America, patrolling at Yankee Station, an area in the South China Sea adjacent to the city of Da Nang. Its pilot was Navy Lieutenant Kenny Fields, call sign Streetcar 304; he was flying his first combat mission when he was shot down by extraordinarily intensive enemy Anti-Aircraft Artillery fires, referred to simply as Triple A, or AAA. The enemy fires were so intense that 7th Air Force believed it had finally located the elusive 304th and 325th North Vietnamese infantry divisions.
When enemy fires ripped off large pieces of the A-7’s wing, the aircraft began tumbling end over end. Lieutenant Fields ejected from the plane, his parachute opening only seconds before he hit the ground. He had landed in the middle of two North Vietnamese infantry divisions and several hundred Pathet Lao guerillas, known for the heinous acts they committed against American pilots. Lieutenant Fields would be on the run for the next 40 hours.
Several additional air elements worked to help save Lieutenant Fields, including heroic pilots flying The A-1 Skyraider aircraft from World War II, call sign Sandy, Sikorsky Search and Rescue HH-3 helicopters, commonly called Jolly Green Giant, and numerous on-call jet aircraft flown by Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps pilots. Helping to coordinate the suppression of enemy AAA were Forward Air Controllers (FAC) flying small Cessna aircraft designated 0-2A, call signs “Nail66,” and “Nail 69.”
Lieutenant Fields was not the only pilot on the run. The NVA anti-aircraft artillery also shot down two of the Sandy aircraft attempting to help rescue him. An Air Force SAR helicopter recovered one of these pilots —the other pilot became a captive of the NVA, serving out the rest of the war as a Prisoner of War. In addition to the loss of two Skyraiders, a rescue helicopter was also shot down, two of its four crewmen recovered alive.
Few people eject from an aircraft without injury; Lieutenant Fields was no exception. Not only was he injured; an enemy that was looking for him literally surrounded him. He had to evade that enemy while moving to a point where the Search Air Rescue aircraft could recover him. The NVA and Pathet Lao were not the only danger: there was also a Bengal Tiger in the area, and a Leopard, and a family of monkeys that could not keep a secret.
Statistics clearly indicated that the longer a pilot was on the ground, the more likely it was that the enemy would either kill or capture him. Time was of the essence, but repeatedly, factors kept American rescue efforts at bay: enemy AAA, low visibility, and bad weather. Finally, Fields was able to locate himself upon the crest of a hill overlooking the “valley of death.” Early in the morning of 2 June 1968, Air Force mission controllers determined it was time to suppress the NVA AAA fire and pull the downed pilot to safety. According to the exceptional book written by Fields and entitled The Rescue of Streetcar 304: A Navy Pilot’s Forty Hours on the Run in Laos:
“Jolly 9 had been observing the fast-mover bomb smoke from his position at the IP eight miles away, so he had a fairly good idea of the direction to my position. Following one ripple BCU explosion, Jolly 9 heard me say I was hit. Oh boy, he thought. This really rips it! What should I do? The AAA was still active, and Sandy 9 hadn’t yet assured him it was safe to enter the fray. Jolly 9 also knew he wouldn’t be able to cope mentally if he lost me without going in once for a rescue attempt. It didn’t take Jolly 9 more than a few seconds to make up his mind. If he didn’t try now, he might as well just go home and write me off. He said one more short prayer out loud so his crew could hear.
“Lord, provide your protection for this crew today. Amen.”
The mission to rescue Lieutenant Fields unfolded over the next fifteen minutes. Now the mission to snatch him out of the jaws of death was more critical than ever before. A cluster bomb dropped to suppress the enemy that surrounded Fields also wounded him. If the Jolly Green Giant did not rescue him soon, Fields would bleed to death.
Jolly 9 reacted immediately to seeing Fields on the ground below him. Field’s wrote:
“He looked down, found one specific bush to focus on, and intently maintained his altitude and position over it. As he worked hard to keep the helo motionless, he knew this was now the most perilous part of the rescue. An enemy gunner could knock him out of the sky even with a pistol. He was sweating and scared and really concentrating on the bush when suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, a brilliant white light swirled in and enveloped his helo. Its brilliance was such that he thought it would blind him if he raised his head and looked at it. He could see the bush and nothing else, not even his co-pilot an arm’s length away. None of his crew made any comment on the light even though he could hear [co-pilot] Yuhas talking to both door gunners.
“Jolly 9 felt God’s presence. A protective light shield was around his helo, and he was certain the Shekinah Glory of God was protecting him at his moment of greatest peril. The light would shield the helo from all danger while he was inside the protective bubble. Jolly 9’s fear subsided. He would hover until I appeared, and the light would protect him regardless of time or danger.”
When the rescue aircraft returned to their operating base in Thailand, the Sandy pilots charged with protecting the rescue helicopter approached the Jolly 9 pilot, Air Force Captain David Richardson. The pilot of Sandy 9, Air Force Major Tom Campbell stuck out his hand and told Richardson, “You are one lucky dude.”
“I had a little help from God,” Richardson replied. Sandy 9 wanted to inspect the damage to the helicopter; he was shocked to find there was not a single hole in the helicopter from enemy fire.
“This can’t be the bird you flew today,” Campbell told him. “I was never below 220 knots airspeed during the entire mission, and you were flying less than 100 knots most of the time. You hovered over Streetcar for nearly five minutes with enemy bullets flying all over the place and you want me to believe that this helicopter, with not a single hole in it, is the one you flew today?”
When Richardson inspected Campbell’s Skyraider, it looked like an aircraft made of Swiss cheese.
This is, by the way, one of the best accounts of the air war in Vietnam I have read, equaled only by another heroic story written by Marion F. Sturkey, titled: Bonnie Sue: A Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron in Vietnam.
And call upon me in the day of trouble. I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me. —Psalm 50:15
Truly, God is great!