“That Others May Live”

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

Coined during the Korean War, the Air Force search-and-rescue motto means what it says. The author, an A-6 pilot on his second combat tour in Vietnam, was assigned to Marine All- Weather Attack Squadron VMA(AW)-224 on board the USS Coral Sea (CV-43) when he and First Lieutenant Scott Ketchie, U.S. Marine Corps, were shot down on 9 April 1972 during the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive. In one of the toughest rescues of the war, the on-scene team, supported by thousands in the background, spared no effort to get them out.

Gulf of Tonkin, 9 April 1972
Scott and I were fired off the catapult about 1800 on a road-interdiction mission – call sign Bengal 505 – near Tchepone, Laos, on Route 9 west of Khe Sanh. We carried 12 Mk-82 500 pound bombs and 12 Mk 20 Rockeyes. Tchepone was a major transshipment location along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and had a reputation as a hot spot; an Air Force AC-130 gunship had been shot down near there just two weeks earlier. The North Vietnamese had mounted a major offensive into South Vietnam in early April, but we knew little about the ground war. Soon after arriving on station, we saw several trucks on the road trying to get a head start on the evening run down the trail. It was about 1900 and the day was turning to dusk; the weather was clear.
We made two attacks, saw hits on two trucks, and rolled in on our third pass from about 16,000 feet, planning a 45°, 500 knot, visual delivery. After we pulled off, I heard – more then felt – a thump like a door closing. I said something to Scott but then realized our intercom was not working and he couldn’t hear me. The aircraft was doing strange things and almost every warning light in the cockpit was flashing just before we lost all electrical power. The nose began to move up and down independently – I couldn’t control it with the stick. I attempted a turn toward the mountains, and as I turned my head to look that way, I saw a huge ball of flame where the tail was – or had been. Shortly after that, the aircraft went into an inverted spin. When I looked at Scott, he was looking down and reaching for the lower ejection handle. I faced forward, reached up for the face curtain, and ejected. I seemed to hang in the chute for quite a while, even to the point of taking out my radio to call someone, when I realized there wasn’t anyone to talk to. I looked down and there was fire on the ground directly underneath me. I landed next to the aircraft. The flames were intense and the remaining bombs on the aircraft were cooking off; shrapnel was flying all over the place. My first survival task was to get away from the wreckage. About that time, I heard an aircraft. I assumed it was Captain Roger Milton and Captain Charlie Carr, who were nearby just before we were hit. I beeped and broadcast on the emergency frequency, but there was no reply and the aircraft left. The sun had just set and it was very dark. There was a lot of noise close by. I assumed it was Scott and almost called out. Somebody or something was moving through the woods in a hurry. About an hour later, I heard shouting and several shots. At that moment, I felt certain that he had been captured.

First night
Roger and Charlie had pin-pointed the crash site. When we didn’t return to the ship at our planned landing time a check was made at all the military bases in the area to make sure we had not diverted, and the information passed to 7th Air Force, Saigon. About 2200, I heard another aircraft and turned on my beeper. A voice speaking perfect English came up on the rescue frequency. He came in clearly, sounded very close, and asked me where I was. “I’m in the vicinity of the wreckage,” I answered. “We’ll be there in a few minutes,” the voice replied. It was totally dark by then, and we had been briefed that no rescues were ever attempted at night. I asked him his call sign, but there was no answer. Nothing like that happened again. About two hours after the bogus call, I heard an aircraft fly over and I immediately beeped on my survival radio. I transmitted my call sign as Bengal 505 Alpha (pilots used the Alpha suffix with the tactical call sign and B/ Ns used Bravo) and received a response from a crusty fighter pilot who asked me how I was. He told me to stay hidden, and said they would be back in the morning. I was confident that he, at least, was a friendly.
Less than six hours after getting blown out of the sky and landing in the middle of Laos, my exact location had been confirmed and the search-and-rescue (SAR) group was organizing a rescue. As bad as things looked, at least someone knew that I was alive – and where I was. I wondered if my family knew anything. Thinking of them strengthened my determination to make it through. I thought about our latest arrival – our son Tony was born the day before we deployed. My wife Jackie is a strong person and I knew that she would hold the family together. She was being tested in a big way in 1972: her mother died in February, she had major surgery in March – and now this. She learned within 24 hours that I was alive in Laos and that a rescue attempt was underway; she told me later that the support from the families at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, our home base, was overwhelming. The aircraft burned all night. I thought I was on a hill or the edge of a gully about 100 yards from the aircraft, but it was too dark to tell.
I was close to the trail – all night, I heard truck traffic negotiating what sounded like a very rough road. I didn’t sleep at all. I listened to the trucks and constant activity around me and thought about what I was going to face at dawn.

Daylight, 10 April
The trucks stopped running, and I heard people all around me. For the first time, I could see that I was in an open area on the side of a small ridge lying against some elephant grass four to five feet high. I was lying on my side with my survival radio in my right hand when I heard someone approaching my position, walking through the elephant grass behind me. He stopped directly behind me. I was convinced he saw me. My heart was beating so hard that I was sure he could hear it. We had been drilled constantly during survival training to stay still; I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I froze. I assumed he was going to shoot me, yell for help, or hit me, but none of these things happened. Whoever it was stopped – and it was very quiet for what seemed a lifetime. Then I heard footsteps moving away. I believe he was within one or two steps of walking right over me. I can only guess he saw me and decided not to challenge me, or that he might have been looking over me into the gully. Because of the tall grass, he would have had to look straight down to see me – perhaps that is what saved me. Immediately after he left, I went to the bottom of the gully into dense foliage and stayed there for the next four days. Five or six uniformed men were walking around the wreckage. Had they looked into the gully I would have been eyeball-to-eyeball with them. I knew that most crew members were captured a short time after they hit the ground and here, during my first two hours of day light, I was surrounded. After 340 missions in Vietnam, I was sure that my luck had run out. About 0900, I heard an OV-10 aircraft. I beeped and came up voice. It was an airborne Forward Air Controller (FAC), call sign Nail 17, and he was looking for me. He got a good fix on my position. Prior to calling in the SAR group and prepping the area for the pickup, he wanted to confirm that he was talking to the real Clyde Smith; he referred to the personal information card we had all filled out. “I have to ask you some questions,” he said, “What is your mother’s middle name?” “I think it’s Marie.” I answered.
“What is the favorite family pet?” “Our dog Tootsie,” I said – and immediately realized that I had written Tinker Bell, the name of our cat, on the card. I began to explain: “Nail, you may not believe this, but I put our cat Tinker Bell on my card because we didn’t have the dog at the time. I like the dog better, so that was my initial response.” Hard to believe, looking back. A life- or-death situation and I’m talking about liking the dog better than the cat – a very confused survivor trying to explain things. The Nail FAC just gave up. “Okay, that’s enough,” he said, and the radio got quiet. I thought I had blown it. Any bad guys monitoring the radio were probably more confused than I was.
The on-scene SAR commander, call sign Sandy 01 (an unforgettable Air Force officer named Jim Harding) arrived on station about 1500 in his A-1 to pinpoint my location and coordinate the FACs and F-4 fighter-bombers (call sign Gunsmoke) that were going to support the Super Jolly Green Giant HH-53 rescue helicopter. Ground fire was intense, and the aircraft took a tremendous amount of fire from a number of anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) sites. Listening to these professionals calmly going about their job under fire was something that will stay with me the rest of my life. At one point, Sandy 01 asked one of the fighters about the location of a particular A A A site – Gunsmoke 01’s response was, “I don’t know, I haven’t been able to get him to shoot at me yet.”
The weather moved in and the ground fire was too heavy to risk bringing in the Jolly Green. King 21, the SAR mission commander flying in an HC-130 nearby, called off the rescue for the day about 1730, but Sandy 01 and Nail 46 continued to work the area long after they had been told to head home. My heart sank when I heard that everyone was leaving. It got very quiet. Then the birds started to sing, people began moving around, and the trucks started warming up for the night’s run. Minutes after the sun went down, I could not see my hand before my face. One thing was working for me – the nights were all mine. I never was concerned that someone would be walking around the jungle at night looking for me. It was very cold at night, though, and I was uncomfortable. My neck hurt and I had banged my knee and cut my mouth when I landed. I slept on and off to some strange dreams.

11 April – second day
An unflappable series of Nail FACs were overhead almost continuously in what became the pattern for the next four days. They arrived about 0830, controlled air strikes for about three hours, and passed control to another FAC. I monitored the radio during the turnover and participated in the brief and debrief. If they didn’t hear from me every 15 minutes or so, they would fly over and gun an engine until I came up; I had lain so still that my self-winding watch had stopped. I had little idea of the time. The last FAC at the end of the day would settle me in for the night, promising to return. All of them were getting shot at the entire time they were over me. Once I heard Nail 46’s back-seater say, “Six, seven, eight more rounds of 37 millimeter,” to which the pilot replied, “Yeah, I know just keep count and let me know if it gets too close.” I had moved into a hole at the base of an uprooted tree, and so had some cover. The weather was cloudy with occasional rain, which hampered the bombers and made it very dangerous for everyone.
They had been dropping powdered gas around the area to discourage searchers. I got a mouthful and let them know it. They were concerned that I was going to become incapacitated. It just made my dreams weirder. I heard some people talking in a whisper on the other side of the ridge. From the sounds, they were chopping wood, but I assumed they were looking for me. At times like these, I could not respond to calls from the FACs; at other times, I took a chance and whispered. I had a dilemma: if I didn’t talk to the SAR people frequently, they might assume that I had been killed or captured and terminate the SAR – but if I were careless, the bad guys might be close enough to hear me. I fell asleep at one point, and woke up to hear Nail 46 telling Nail 68 that I had not been talking lately. 46 expressed concern that it had been 30 minutes since he asked me to come up on the radio and he had not heard from me. It started to rain about 1500, and they shut down the operation. It rained hard for about two hours and then on-and-off after dark. The hole filled up with water. My survival gear was pretty much useless. I had a package of fruit loops, about eight ounces of water, Band-aids, and fishing gear. As soon as the last aircraft left, I heard people talking, tailgates slamming, and engines revving up – the trucks were on the road again.

12 April – third day
The first Nail showed up at 0845 and went right to work. Air strikes continued most of the day, but the weather was lousy. About 1400, the weather closed everything down and my morale plummeted. I was going on my fourth night on the ground; my luck seemed to be running out. I spent my usual night listening to trucks going by, trying to stay warm, and dreaming.

13 April – fourth day
About the time the sun came up, I learned later, another downed airman was being recovered not far away. Lieutenant Colonel Iceal Hambleton, U.S. Air Force – call sign Bat 21 – had been the subject of heroic rescue attempts by Air Force and Army crews. He finally worked clear of the worst AAA and was picked up by a U.S. Marine unit. Actor Gene Hackman later played him in the movie version. After the run of bad weather, I was beginning to think that I wasn’t going to make it. The SAR group was making a hell of an effort along with a large number of carrier-based aircraft, but I knew they couldn’t keep it up. Nail 46 came over about 0830, however, and said, “It looks good, I think we can do a good tune on you today.” Little did I know that the SAR group had met the night before and determined that they would have to develop some sort of alternative – perhaps like Bat 21 – if they couldn’t get me out that day. I had no way of knowing that then – Captain Bill Harris, U.S. Navy, the skipper of the Coral Sea, had called the 7th Air Force and asked why it was taking so long to get “our boy out.” When the Air Force said they didn’t have the assets to suppress the heavy ground fire enough to get a Jolly in and out safely, Captain Harris launched 78 aircraft from the Coral Sea to help out. Jim Harding later told me that they would not have been able to get me out without that Coral Sea fire power. I had gotten to know Captain Harris on board ship, and had developed a tremendous amount of respect for him as a leader and commander. He was always composed regardless of what was going on around him. I’m writing this story today because he spared no effort and his aircrews risked their lives to get me out.

The pickup
For the next four to five hours there was non- stop bombing and constant chatter on the radio. About 1700, Sandy 01 told me to get ready and stay up on the radio – the Jolly was five minutes out. I put new batteries in my radio so I wouldn’t have radio failure at the last moment – without radio contact, they would not pick up anyone. I stood up for the first time in about 10 hours, took out my flare gun and signal flares, and – with the radio to my ear – listened to what seemed like controlled chaos. Sandy 01 had at least four other Sandys to direct (actually seven), three or four Nail FACs controlling the 10-15 fighters that were suppressing the AAA sites, and two Jollys holding 10 miles out. Overall, 25 to 30 fast-moving aircraft were operating in a confined airspace for over an hour dropping all kinds of bombs, rockets, smoke, and cluster munitions. One man – Sandy 01 – was orchestrating the whole show. Not one life or aircraft was lost, and they didn’t hit the survivor. What a great tribute to the skill of the aircrews – and the skill, guts, leadership, and determination of Major Jim Harding. I heard him tell Sandy 02, “Go get Jolly 32, and bring him in.” The rescue effort had never gotten this far before, and I had to keep telling myself: stay calm, don’t lose it now, think about what you have to do to help the situation. I knew the guys on the Jolly (piloted by Captain Ben Orrell and First Lieutenant Jim Casey) were sweating bullets just as I was. Sandy 02 fired smoke rockets in front of Jolly 32 to mark the way to my position. The helicopter began taking ground fire immediately upon starting the run-in. The rear ramp was down and Sergeant Bill Brinson manned the minigun there; Airman First Class Bill Liles and Airman First Class Kenneth Cakebread were the door gunners. Brinson was hit in the knee early on the run-in. As recorded on tape: “I’m hit but I’m okay,” (Brinson). “Can you still shoot?” (Orrell). “I’m alright, they just got me in the knee, but there’s some holes in the helo,” (Brinson). Jolly 32 took 11 hits including one through the front windshield. Sandy 01 guided the final approach. As the helicopter reached my position, he called Orrell – “Pull up Jolly, pull up, you’re
right over the survivor. “I don’t see him,” Orrell said, whereupon Sandy called me. “Pop your smoke, Bengal 505, pop your smoke.” I popped a flare, but the helicopter’s downwash pushed the red smoke down into the gully and they couldn’t pick it up. By this time, Jolly 32 had been in a hover for an extended period, which was becoming a concern to all. “I don’t see him, tell him to pop his night end.” Immediately, I turned my flare around and pulled the tab (just like a highway flare) and it ignited, showering me with sparks. I had been told not to chase the helo – to let it come to me. But when Orrell said – for the third time – that he still couldn’t see me, I decided it was time to move. I went up the hill and out into an open area pocked with craters and littered with fallen trees. Smoke hung in the air. I saw what appeared to be some sort of cloth tied around a tree. It looked like a trail marker; maybe that NVA did see me that first evening and they had decided to use me as bait for a deadly trap. At the top of the ridge, I saw Jolly 32 so low the rotor blades were cutting off tops of trees and slinging them in every direction. The helo was 50 to 60 yards distant and moving farther away. The door gunner/winch operator (Liles) was looking away from me. I ran toward the helo hollering on the radio, “Right here, right here, behind you, behind you!” There was so much noise on the radio I don’t know how he heard me, even though I was screaming at the top of my lungs – but he turned and looked right at me and said “I got him, I got him.” Orrell told him to lower the hoist. We had been told time and again to let the hoist’s bullet- shaped jungle penetrator – which folds out to provide a three-pronged seat – hit the ground first to dissipate any static electricity. Concern about getting shocked by the penetrator, however, was really down on my list of priorities at this point. I grabbed the cable with one hand when the penetrator was still five feet off the ground, and snapped the climber’s snap-link on my torso harness to the cable with my other hand; I may have set a hook-up record. Except for my helmet, I had all my flight gear on. Immediately, I felt a tug on my harness as Liles took up the slack. When I got up to the door, he rolled me in, said, “Get the hell out of the way,” swung his minigun back around into the door opening, and fired in the direction I had come from. The interior was filled with smoke, empty shell casings flying all over, and three gunners firing in every direction. Light streamed in through bullet holes in the deck and overhead. Almost simultaneously, Liles told Orrell, “He’s in the door, let’s get the hell out of here.” Everything is relative. My situation had gone from bad to wonderful in those last few seconds and I was exhilarated – as far as I was concerned, it was over. The Jolly crew, on the other hand, knew that it was far from over – things could still get very bad very quickly. Sandy 01 immediately advised, “Stay low, stay low, and go out the same way you came in.” We got shot at all the way to Thailand. The bad guys must have been upset to have absorbed all that punishment, and then watched me snatched from the trap. We landed in Nakhon Phanom about 90 minutes after the pickup to a huge reception on the flight line – a very proud group of men and women who had worked day and night and risked their lives to rescue me, and succeeded. Their pride was exceeded only by the gratitude of one very humble Marine aviator. Someone who looked like Charlton Heston walked up to me. “Hi,” he said, “I’m Sandy O1.” It was Jim Harding. We threw our arms around each other. To this day, I have no idea what we said. When he arrived overhead that first day, I had pictured him as some old guy who got stuck in Spads instead of fighters – a perception quickly dispelled when I heard his engine quit followed by his explanation to his wingman that he didn’t know how much gas he had in his centerline tank (but wanted to use every drop of it) so he just let it run dry and then selected the other tank when the engine quit. When I heard that, I knew I was in good hands. The doctors examined me at the base hospital and I called my family as soon as I could find a phone. When I took off my flight suit I was surprised that I was black and blue from my hips to my knees. I felt good, even after four days with no food and only eight ounces of water. Of course, drinking half a bottle of Champagne on the way to the hospital had helped ease the pain. I spent two days with the SAR group in Thailand and left for the Coral Sea where I had another emotional homecoming with my squadron mates and the 3,000 sailors who worked so hard to get me out. All the way back to the ship, I thought about Scott and what might have happened to him. Was he dead, captured, or on his way to the Hanoi Hilton? Did he watch my rescue from nearby? Will I ever see him again? Did whoever talked to me that first night have Scott’s radio? If I had yelled when I heard voices right after the shoot-down, might we have gotten together and both been rescued?
They sent me to NAS Cubi Point in the Philippines for a five-day day rest, and during my stay I was able to visit Bat 21 – Lieutenant Colonel Hambleton – in the hospital at Clark Air Force Base.
On the way back to the ship, I learned that my good friend Major Tom Duffy had been killed in a mid-air collision just after taking off in his F-4 from DaNang, and that Jim Harding had been shot down while attempting to rescue yet another
downed pilot. Fortunately, an Army helicopter picked him up quickly. The war went on.

Major Smith flew 32 more missions from the Coral Sea before the ship left the line in July 1972 – and his good luck continued. During those last missions, he and his B/N evaded two surface-to- air missiles, survived an encounter with a MiG- 17, and flew one of the three A-6s involved in the initial mining of Haiphong Harbor on 9 May 1972. After his second tour, he returned to MCAS Cherry Point where he subsequently commanded two Marine Corps squadrons. He retired in 1979.
In October 1972 at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, Major Jim Harding, U.S. Air Force, was awarded the Air Force Cross for leading the rescue of Bengal 505 Alpha who was in the audience. He recently established an Air Force Junior ROTC unit at Aviano Air Base, Italy.
Bill Harris later became a flag officer and continued a successful career. Smith and he last saw each other at Norfolk, Virginia, when the Coral Sea was decommissioned. They never discussed the eventful days of Bengal 505 Alpha.
No one ever heard from First Lieutenant Scott Ketchie, and his name never appeared on any prisoner-of-war list. He was declared killed in action. The Missing-In-Action (MIA) search team based in Hawaii went to the crash site in 1993, and is planning another trip.