On July 9, 1968, a flight of six Air America helicopters were tasked to insert Chinese Nung mercenaries into a site in far northern Laos to interdict the North Vietnamese troops coming down the Trail. I was flying as co-Captain with Jack Hunter (who later was Captain of the Air America helicopter made famous lifting the last of fleeing South Vietnamese from the roof of what was mistakenly called the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. He is now deceased). We piloted the Search and Rescue helicopter, available to pick up any crew shot down in the landing zone. Two U.S. Air Force A-1 Skyraiders (Call sign Firefly 16 and 17) flew as support for us. Major Bill Buice flew the lead A-1.
Firefly 16 flew a low pass over the landing zone, a small area between two jungle covered hills. As he pulled out of the zone the North Vietnamese fired from multiple gun positions, blowing a huge hole in his left wing and setting the aircraft on fire. Major Buice (as I watched) pulled sharply left and ejected only one hundred feet above the jungle canopy on the side of the steep hill. The fire had burned through his controls and the aircraft was doing slow victory rolls so that Buice had to time his ejection as the plane rolled canopy up.
Capt Hunter and I were over the site of his parachute in minutes. We could not raise him on the emergency radio and we decided he was injured too severely to assist us in his rescue.
The Air America helicopter was unable to land on the steep hill, and the only rescue equipment we had was a ‘horse collar’ which the downed pilot could slip his arms through after we dropped the cable. We had only one crewman-who had to remain in the helicopter to operate the hoist. Additionally our helicopter did not operate efficiently at the altitude where we were attempting to hover. Ground fire was heard continuously although we had taken no hits to our knowledge up to this point.
At this point, I told Hunter I was going down the hoist to assist Major Buice, at which point he told me he couldn’t lift both of us out. I jumped out of the pilots seat while Hunter hovered about 75 feet above the ground, at the top of the trees. The ride down in the horse collar was uneventful, except for the ground fire which made the ride seem like an hour. Once I was on the ground, Hunter left the area. I found Major Buice who was seriously banged up. I carried him down to a small clearing and another Air America helicopter came over us. I put Buice on a Jungle Penetrator, got on with him, but the weight of us both started settling the Huey into the trees.
I jumped off, Buice gave me his pistol (Air America pilots flew unarmed), and the helicopter lifted him up and departed. A mix-up in communications caused the rescue helicopters to each believe that the other one had picked me up. I saw and heard all helicopters leave the area and ran down the hill a short distance and took cover in a ditch. I heard a tremendous explosion above me as the other Skyraider dropped all of his ordnance on the North Vietnamese. The Air America helicopters somehow got the message I was still on the ground and Hunter came back and was able to pick me up.
Rescue pilots get the glory for picking up downed airmen, but this pilot learned what it takes to leave the airplane heading down to a lot of just-bombed enemy troops. God Bless the Parajumpers.
Weeks later the Chief Pilot received a letter from the Sec of the Air Force thanking me, but it was unofficial since we were not really fighting in Laos and I could not get a copy of the letter.
They also misspelled my name.
But a photo of Major Buice and his family thanking me for my efforts was all I would ever need. I saw a book in 2002 (Cheating Death) and the story of the rescue was in it. Through that I got in contact with and met Major Buice who I had last seen on a mountain side in Laos almost forty years earlier. We made a joint presentation to the Combat Search and Rescue Society in 2007. I am one of the few in the membership who was credited for making a rescue and being rescued on the same mission.
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