Saga of Streetcar 304 – Largest SAR Thru 1969

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

Ed Note: This is the story of the largest SAR (Search And Rescue) effort in SEA up until 1969. The story was put together from direct inputs from three of the main participants. Jon McMurtry, Nail 66, Captain USAF, who FACed in the initial strike and worked the SAR for two days; Kenny Fields, Streetcar 304, Lieutenant, US Navy, Flight Lead who was the downed pilot; and Pete Lappin, Nail 69, Captain USAF, who worked the last day of the SAR and cleared the way for pickup. There were many other FACs and others involved that we couldn’t remember. The story is broken down into: Day one, Day two, and Day three and each person’s input is used as they wrote it. There is some repetition and differences such as target sequence, etc., as the authors had different recollections of all that went on.

DAY ONE, John McMurty, Nail 66 input.
I was an O-2 Sector FAC on the 31st of May 1968, and as I flew out of NKP to replace another FAC, Cricket (Airborne Command, Control and Communications – ABCCC) told me to go to a set of coordinates south of Tchepone and hit a barge that was missed by a flight of Thuds (F-105s). No ground fire was reported and I was thinking this should be a piece of cake since this was far enough south of Tchepone to be a quiet area at the time. I found the barge and while I was drilling around the sky waiting for fighters, I found a bridge under some camouflage on a new road.
I called Cricket and told them I had a great target and to send strike aircraft now. It was a sunny afternoon for the SEA War Games and little did I know what was coming up. Streetcar 304 checked in and I found out they were Navy A-7s and I thought only a flight of two. I asked what they had and was surprised at all the ordnance they were carrying. I briefed the targets, the safe areas and all the normal stuff to include the fact that a flight of Thuds had been in earlier and received no ground fire and that I had been around for a while and saw no ground fire, but they could expect everything up to and including 37 mm.
I told lead I was in to mark, and got lucky and my rocket hit just short of the target. I cleared them for random passes, since they had me in sight, and to hit the top of my smoke. Lead did just that (hit my smoke!) and covered and destroyed the target but he took ground fire as he pulled off.
I told two to look out and hit just above leads bombs. Two took some AAA and jinked throwing his bombs off the target a little which was fine. We talked about the ground fire. Our stories differ slightly on the next target but Streetcar 304 flight was still wall-to-wall with bombs so I cleared them for random passes and marked the target.
Lead came around and as he started in a lot of mixed AAA came up including 37 mm. I remember his aircraft yawing then tumbling.
I screamed “you’re hit, you’re hit, eject, eject.”
At what seemed the last second, I saw his chute go in just beside the
fireball. I told his wingman to go high and contact Crown (the airborne command and control aircraft for Search And Rescue) to get the SAR (Search And Rescue) Forces out. I tried to get Streetcar 304 to come up on beeper or voice on his emergency radio, and after what seemed like an eternity (a few minutes), I heard his beeper then got him on voice.
I told him we would get the guns and then get him out of there and that I knew where he was.
I called Cricket for fast movers and they responded quickly with diverts from up north and I put in several flights of F-4s and F-105s. The Sandy (“Sandy” was the call sign of the A-1 aircraft that always accompanied the rescue helicopters) and the Jollys (“Jolly” or “Jolly Green Giant” was the call sign of the HH-3 or HH-53 rescue helicopters) got on station south of Streetcar 304 and told me to keep after the guns. Ground fire was tough and included small arms, ZPU, 23 mm, and 37 mm. I tried to put the CBU on first to get the gunner’s heads down then kill them with iron bombs. Some AAA came from as far as the Banana Karst, which was well to the northeast. The NVA must have figured what I was doing as they chased me around with their guns. It was one of those days where you could sure smell it. I talked to Streetcar 304 several times during this fight and he helped by advising me when the impacts got too close.

Author’s Note: Thirty plus years later, I discovered that what I thought were the downed A-7’s bombs or fuel tanks cooking off were, in reality, bomb impacts from a two ship flight of A-7s dropping near Kenny Fields (the pilot of Streetcar 304). They never checked in with me and just jumped right into the fray. They almost hit Kenny!

We finally suppressed the guns somewhat (so we thought) and Sandy lead, Major Bill Palank, said he was coming in from the South to north for an ID pass and he talked with Streetcar 304. I had briefed another FAC on what was going on and that I was ready to RTB (Return to Base).
At that point Sandy Lead said he had taken a hit. He looked like the WW2 movies with smoke billowing out of his A-1. I told him to head for the Rooster Tail (a safe area in Laos) and said I would follow.
I told everyone that I thought it was getting too dark for a pick-up and we needed more fast movers.
The next thing I remember was a Sandy Seven saying that he was in and could pull it off. He was quickly hit and ejected (or yanked out by his Yankee System) and I heard him on the ground saying the NVA were after him.
I told Streetcar 304 we would be back in the morning and to hang on. I think I told the others it could be a trap and we needed more fast movers. Crown put the SAR on hold.
I RTB’d to NKP and debriefed the TOC (Tactical Operations Center), giving Streetcar 304 BDA of bombs on target, the best I’d seen. I also debriefed the fine job the fighters had accomplished on the guns and what had happened with the Sandys. I then hit the club only to be told I had a brief in a few hours for an early go in the morning.
The SAR forces held the briefing and they wanted me to be over the area one hour before sunrise since I knew Streetcar 304’s last position. They said you will have all the strike aircraft you need and to establish radio contact with and locate Streetcar 304 and Sandy Seven. They also said to put on my oxygen mask because some special stuff could be used. I told them the O-2 didn’t have oxygen capability and we agreed I would stay up wind. I didn’t sleep a wink that night.

DAY ONE, Kenny Fields, Streetcar 304.
The date was May 31, 1968 and the aircraft carrier USS America was engaging in its first war action since commissioning, conducting its historical first day of combat sorties. Her location was Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin, off shore from North Vietnam. I, (then Lieutenant Kenny Fields) was attached to VA-82, an A-7A light attack squadron, call sign, “Streetcar” and my wingman was Lieutenant Fred Lentz. Our A-7A aircraft were single engine, single pilot bombers. It was the first combat for both of us and needless to say we were on pins and needles. That day’s operations were deliberately scheduled so that all combat sorties would be bombing somewhere south of the DMZ (between North and South Vietnam) because it was supposedly a lower threat area. Our air wing commander wanted us to gain some light enemy resistance combat exposure before bombing the more heavily defended North Vietnam.
The ship was on a 12-hour flight operations schedule and my section (two planes consisting of myself and Fred, with me as the leader) was not scheduled until the last launch cycle, which for us was around 1600. As other pilots returned from their first combat missions, Fred and I anxiously talked to each of them to get briefed on lessons learned. We found that most had encountered zero to light enemy fire so it appeared to be a cakewalk day; not too much to get excited about, very little enemy opposition in our operating area. Our mission would be different...
Our multiple cups of coffee while waiting our turn only added to our jitters. Our turn finally came and we launched with an ordnance load of six 500 pound bombs, two sidewinder air-to-air missiles, and 600 rounds of 20 mm (air-to-ground bullets). The weather was sunny and clear, and after an 80 mile flight over water we coasted in near DaNang, SouthVietnam. After checking in with Cricket (target control ) we were assigned to rendezvous with a Nail 66 FAC (forward air controller, real name Captain Jon Mcmurty, USAF) who would be in an O-2 observation plane located 270 degrees and 90 miles from DaNang. That, I found from my map, would place us in Laos, which publicly we were not conducting ops in.
Mine was a flight of two aircraft but it happened that our sister squadron, the “Sidewinders” of VA-86, had a flight of four A-7’s who checked in with Cricket shortly thereafter and they were also told to rendezvous with Nail 66. The visibility was excellent; details on the ground were very vivid from our cruising altitude of 16,000 feet and I was sure that every enemy gunner on the trail could see our every move and would be just waiting for our bombing runs. Therefore, I flew a combat cruise formation which involved variations of heading and altitude as we hustled to the target area. I discovered on the way to the target that my adrenaline was pumping quite well due to the situation. When Nail 66 answered my first radio call and commenced briefing us on the target, I took a directional bearing on his radio transmission. I was amazed that I immediately spotted him ahead and below at 3,000 feet on the indicated bearing! That was usually harder to accomplish so I was off to a good start on my first mission.
There was no need to orbit while looking for him and therefore we avoided giving the gunners more time to man their guns. The time was now around 1700. Nail 66 got our ordnance count and asked for two bombs each on the first pass and said the target was a barge off-loading supplies next to the western bank of the Tchepone River (in Laos after we had expected to be bombing in the safer South Vietnam area). I was supercharged to hear we had a real target on our first mission. He gave us an escape heading of 240 degrees if we got hit by enemy fire and had to eject. He also briefed that another FAC had worked an Air Force flight in the same area and they had not encountered hostile fire, but they had missed the target (they woke up the gunners!).
With a slight dip of his nose Nail 66 shot a smoke rocket to spot the target and radioed, ”have at it.” We were still approaching him and descending from 16,000 to our roll-in altitude of 12,000 feet as the rocket impacted and I saw the target clearly. His smoke was right on it, and it enabled me to roll in at the target as we approached rather than orbit while spotting it, and therefore the gunners would not see us coming. My wingman, Fred, had begun to drop further in trail and after l80 degrees of turn I quickly rolled in at 12,000 feet, 45 degrees nose down and set power for 450 knots.
I immediately saw several 23 mm guns firing a circular pattern of fire in my direction but they were supposedly only a threat below 6,000 feet and no big concern. The FAC’s rocket had alerted them to our presence. The guns rapid fire looked like seven-eight flashlight beams blinking at me as they fired. The 23’s were firing all the way down as I released two bombs at 6,000 feet, and initiated my climb as I bottomed out around 3,500 feet. I pulled off sharply, consciously climbing straight ahead to confuse the gunners (versus banking left or right) and after gaining altitude banked right and watched my bombs impact. I was not the best bomber in the squadron during training so it was a proud moment for me when Nail 66 radioed, “Direct hit, bulls eye. Nice going Streetcar.” Not bad for my first combat run...
I then cleared my wingman, Fred, in on the target and asked if he had seen the 23’s, which he had. Turning and climbing I could see the smoke from my bombs and I felt like a hot, young tiger at that moment. I wanted to hit another target! As I was climbing back up to 12,000 feet I saw Fred in his run and could still see the ‘flashlight’ blinking fire of the 23’s. Fred called “off” and then Nail 66 said he was adjusting the target to an underwater bridge he had just noticed. I thought Nail 66 sounded excited and ready to get some good BDA (Bomb Damage Assessment) today. He was really cool and precise and had the area really scoped out. Fred had called “clear of target.” I had the second smoke in sight, but became more anxious as I approached my second roll-in as the 23’s were definitely tracking me now as I circled. I thought, ‘It’s getting hotter from the guns so get in quickly, turn right this time off the target and release the bombs from a higher altitude to be safer’.
As soon as I dropped my nose on the second pass all hell broke loose. Bigger guns, 37’s, opened up initially with patterns of tracers coming at me from the right of the target, but their aim impact was below me. Then, tracers and large red balls of fire were quickly tracking in from my left and they were at my altitude, and I observed they were sweeping in a pattern toward me, closer with each burst.
It became hard to keep the gun sight pipper tracking to the target as I glanced back and forth from the pipper to the ground fire. From straight ahead, across the river, another AAA site was now firing straight at me and the red balls were zooming close over the top of my canopy, and I do mean close. I banked about l5 degrees right to avoid them and the fire coming from the left, and saw that a fourth site had balls tracking in at my altitude from that side also. Now, I knew I had been set up and felt I had no safe alternatives (I’m still going down hill fast so all this was bam, bam, bam...decision time).
Instantly I decided to pickle (release) my bombs NOW and get out. HOWEVER, a deadly conscious thought hit me that I might as well have the pipper on a target if I am aborting my run. THAT was my first mistake. So, I leveled my wings and placed the pipper on the firing gun to the right of my intended target since it was already in my gun-sight. Of course I had been going down hill fast in this evolution and noted that I was releasing two more bombs at 6,500 feet. Better than 6,000 I thought. An eternity went by as I pulled my nose up to where I was showing 10 degrees up and just for a split second I had the feeling I was now unloaded from the pull-up G force and was finally zooming out of danger.
Then I felt a solid thump as the aircraft was hit. The control stick began shaking so violently I could not physically keep it where I wanted it, and both hands were required to try and stop the stick’s oscillation. I knew instantly I had been hit but pilot training took over as I attempted to gain control. My head was shaking hard against the seat and side to side, and the rudder pedals were rocking furiously so that my feet were bounding off of them, and my jet had begun to roll. It was impossible to read the gauges due to the violent forces and as I was trying to read the altimeter, Nail 66 screamed, “eject, eject, you are hit,” in such a manner that without hesitation I pulled the handle.
His timely call saved my life and thank goodness for his close observance of my run. Nail 66 was a pro.
The aircraft was rolling as I punched out, and I was ejected while the plane was upside down, thrust downward rather than straight up. The ejection appeared smooth but I found out later it cracked my tail bone and caused some soreness during my evasion stage. After the chute blossomed, I saw my A-7 spiraling down off to my right, minus part of the right wing. Then I looked down and thought, damn that was close, as it looked like the ground was coming up fast. I got about three swings in the chute before I crashed through the bamboo.
I rolled on impact but was up quickly, and just as quickly I saw the enemy, face to face about 60 feet away, eyeball to eyeball. A lone man was dressed in all black with no helmet. He was coming toward me and he was carrying his rifle up but having trouble turning it through the bamboo stalks. I could hear each pop as the rifle butt hit the bamboo. I grabbed my pistol from its vest pocket and aimed it at the bad guy but he quickly dove for the ground before I had a chance to fire. Immediately, I turned around, saw a narrow path and started to run. We had been trained to avoid trails when evading but I felt a real need for a fast escape run from the bad guy I had just seen. The jungle was hot, I had 40 pounds of flight gear on, plus I was scared, so after a couple of hundred yards I hurtled a large log that was across the path and took a rest break. Already I was sweating profusely. Then I removed my helmet and g-suit and stuffed them under a log and got my survival radio out. I listened for the sounds of troops following me but heard none.
As I started to trot again I put the radio on beeper mode in hopes of letting Nail 66 know I was okay. But then I heard the sounds of voices running and yelling behind me and I was also fearful I would run into someone ahead on the path so I watched for a good hiding place as I ran. The first good-looking site was a thorn thicket of some sort, similar to a blackberry thicket. I jumped as hard as I could to try and land in the middle of the thicket. Then, I switched the radio to the receive mode. Nail’s loud voice scared the heck out of me as my radio volume was set to maximum and I was sure the enemy had heard it. Nail 66 was trying to get me to respond but I was leery of responding since the sound of enemy voices was too nearby. Big boom then! Tree limbs were falling around me and dirt was falling over me. A bomb blast was very close.
The four A-7’s from Sidewinder flight heard me go down and had seen my chute. And, unknown to Nail 66, Sidewinder Flight Lead had declared himself ‘The On-scene Commander’ and was laying down supporting fire on the bad guys who were chasing me from behind.
Sidewinder Lead (Lieutenant Commander Ken Webb) got his bombs very, very close to me but “thank you buddy,” he also made the bad guys slow down (this was probably the action that Nail 66 thought was Streetcar 304’s fuel or bombs cooking off on the ground).
The time was 1745. For the next 30 minutes I avoided the radio for fear of being heard by the troops I knew were in my immediate area. I took inventory of my survival gear and tried to get it all out and ready for what I hoped would be a quick Jolly Green Giant helicopter (helo) pickup. First though, I had to get my teeth to quit chattering and some Redman chewing tobacco made it so.
Now I initiated my first voice call to Nail 66 and he seemed excited to finally hear from me and he convinced me they would have me out fairly quickly.
Damn, here came the bad guys again but they were trotting by on the trail talking in very excited voices, three to four men. Then they were gone and it was quiet again.
Within 35 minutes of my being on the ground, four USAF Sandy A-1’s (a single engine propeller, single pilot aircraft) and a couple of Jolly Green helicopters were near by. The Sandy’s were heavily armed for a rescue mission and would escort the helo to my location. Sandy 5 (Major Bill Palank) was the on-scene commander and I vectored him toward me as he made his first identification pass to locate my exact position. I gave him a “hack, hack “ when he was over me and told him he was picking up a lot of intense enemy small arms fire as he flew over me at about 300 feet. He acknowledged, and said he needed one more pass for positive ID and to light a smoke flare for him as he approached but I refused because there were too many bad guys nearby who would see the smoke. I told him I would shoot a pencil red flare as he flew toward me. All seemed okay as he passed overhead but unknown to me he took a hit from enemy fire and had to leave the area in a critical state. Major Ed Leonard then assumed the roll of the lead Sandy (it was unknown to me that Palank had been shot up) and said he was coming in for another identification pass and I should give him a flare and a hack when he was overhead. I thought, what is this guy doing making three passes with heavy enemy fire each time after he said he knew my spot. Plus, it scared the heck out of me to again shoot a pencil tracer in fear the enemy would see and hear it and give them my location. I tried to talk him out of the pass not knowing it was Ed’s first pass and he did not yet have my exact location. On the third Sandy pass, Ed’s first, the fire intensified and unknown to Ed he was coming in on the same heading that the first two Sandy passes had flown. They were waiting for him; as I shot the pencil flare I thought, no plane can make it through that much enemy gun fire, this guy has balls of steel. Thud, I heard the enemy round hit the plane, and the propeller immediately stopped winding just as he passed overhead. A few seconds later, as he went out of sight, I heard the ejection seat fire. During the next five to seven minutes sadness set in as I thought about another pilot going down in an attempt to get me out, but as the Sandy’s say, they were just doing their job, a job not many men would do if they had seen it from my perspective.
One hour and 15 minutes had then gone by since I hit the ground and it was looking bad, my morale sinking fast. Suddenly the downed Sandy pilot (Ed Leonard) was on the radio and told me he was on the ground and since he knew where I was I should stay put and he would hike to my position but first he had to cross a dirt road. Within 30 seconds automatic weapon fire occurred in his direction and I could not raise him on the radio. I thought he was dead but after three days, he was captured and ended up spending the rest of the war in the North Vietnam prison system.

Author’s Note: Ed’s a great guy and he and I are friends. His story is a great courageous separate one and I know what my survival has physically and mentally cost him. But he says I am worth it and maybe I saved him from a later death.

The Sandy’s now thought they had done enough for one day (two Sandy’s shot down) so they said good luck, good night, and they would see me tomorrow.
As soon as the Sandy’s left, I heard voices approaching. It took the bad guys a couple of minutes to slowly walk through my location and they were using a scare tactic calling, “Hey, GI Joe, come on out, give yourself up.” I thought it sounded like a movie script but it does happen in real life. They slowly walked down the trail. I watched them go by. At that moment I inwardly smiled as I realized my younger days growing up in the hills of West Virginia had trained me to hide well and the voices had not caused me to bolt and run. Approaching darkness would now help hide me though.
Crown, the airborne SAR (search and rescue) control, radioed for me to sit tight, they would have a plane overhead all night but there was no need to talk unless trouble arose. He promised they would be back in the morning, and if possible I should make it to a more secure pick-up area. The old Colonel talking to me sounded real calm, I thought, and I appreciated his attempt to raise my spirits.
After thinking about that I decided there was no way they could rescue me out of that area because I now knew how many enemy guns and troops were around me and I knew I had to get to another, safer area. But, I decided to wait for things to calm down and then move out at midnight in the direction of the escape heading Nail 66 had provided. So I waited and listened. The night-light was so dark that I could not see my hand in front of my face and I feared that use of my flashlight would give me away so that made my preparation and movement quite difficult.
Lo and behold, another challenge of grit surfaced. After plotting my compass course, it was to take me right toward what I had heard and assumed to be a base camp of enemy soldiers. I had seen the occasional glow of fires, could hear their pots and pans and, many voices at what I estimated to be about a quarter of a mile away. I thought, trust Nail 66 and get yourself on the other side of the camp by daybreak.
At midnight, the noise of the camp had ceased and I sucked it up and moved out, having to grope blindly along bumping through the trees and brush and trying to stay clear of where I thought the camp was. After about four hours I was startled by the sound of a pig, down below, somewhere very close in front of my path. I sat down and started feeling with my hands and felt the edge of a large hole. Being close to the camp, I did not want to use the flashlight so I felt unable to safely move, afraid I would stumble into a hole in the darkness. I dropped a stone in the hole and it sounded deep. There could be more holes. So, I decided to wait there until dawn, staying awake during the night. With lots to think about...

Footnote: After the ejection, my wingman, Fred Lentz, and I never talked as he orbited overhead my position. He had been instructed by the FAC to contact airborne control “Red Crown” to coordinate the dispatch of SAR forces. Fred loyally stayed in orbit until he was low on fuel. On his return flight to the USS America he plugged into a fuel tanker aircraft and was receiving fuel, but due to an aircraft systems problem his engine flamed out and he had to eject over water. He was successfully recovered by helo and returned to the carrier. About two weeks later, on another mission he had a “cold” catapult shot and ejected a second time over water and again made it back safely. Fred’s greatest fear after those two ejections was the legion of sea snakes in the Gulf.

DAY TWO, Nail 66 input.
I thought about what had happened all night so I was ready to go in the morning. I briefed at the TOC around 0430 got all the normal stuff but was told I would have all the fighters I could use and the Sandy’s and Jolly’s would be out to the area at sunrise. I took off to be over the area at sunrise. The weather was good with some scattered medium level clouds and visibility was excellent. I started calling Streetcar 304 on guard and after a few tries he came up and said he was okay but had moved some. I then tried several times to get Sandy 7 but had no response.
The Sandys arrived with Bill Palank again as lead. I briefed them on the situation and lead said okay, we reviewed what we knew and he told me to direct the strikes on the guns. I told Streetcar 304 to find a hole and that we were going to blast the guns and he was to let me know if we get too close. I told him that we were going to get him out!
So we started again. The fighters were stacked up to the moon I guess and were briefed by the ABCCC and another FAC so when I got them all I had to do was mark the targets, adjust them and just keep going. With that many fighters available I sometimes only used lead and three (the more experienced members of each flight) to get as close to Streetcar 304 as I could. The weapon of the day was CBU-24. Again, there was a lot of returned fire with more 37 mm sites than on day one. Clouds were now increasing at lower levels.
I remember one flight of Thuds (F-105s) I put in to the south and worked them around the clouds and they had to use their 20 mm guns on a ridge that was wall-to-wall small arms.
The weather continued to deteriorate with low stratus to the point the fast movers couldn’t work so we went on a temporary weather hold. I stayed over or near Streetcar 304 with Sandy lead and his wingman circling over me. We did this for some time then Streetcar 304 called and said they were all around him and he needed help. This was real tough and I told to hang on (not knowing what to do). Then Sandy lead called and asked if I could find a hole for them to go down through and I told them to standby. Finally I saw a small opening south of Streetcar 304’s position about two miles and asked if they wanted me to go down with them and Sandy Lead said, “No you won’t survive.”
So thanks to Bill Palank’s advice I stayed “on top.” I probably wouldn’t have survived if I had led them down. Anyway, lead and two got down through the hole, which again put them on a south to north run towards Streetcar 304.
I heard Sandy Lead talking to Streetcar 304 when the next thing I knew he called, “I’m hit and I won’t get this one back.” Remember, Bill was the one who was hit hard on day one and had gotten back to NKP and crashed on the runway. He was under the cloud deck so I couldn’t see him but I called and said turn west and get over the ridgeline. Sandy Two called that Lead had bailed out and the remaining Sandys with the Jollys made a quick pick up and headed for NKP.
The weather was really turning to crap and we needed to work more fast movers, which we couldn’t. I was now flying on fumes as I hadn’t been watching my fuel like I should have, and I told Streetcar 304, sorry, but we would be back. I had already briefed my replacement Nail and RTBd with a heavy heart that I/we hadn’t picked up Streetcar 304 yet. I told Cricket that it was looking like a trap and we needed improved weather to work more fast movers on the guns. The 23rd TASS was watching out for me and had another FAC chase me home.
I flew 5.3 hours on this, my last day of the mission, which with all the jinking and marking I did I was very lucky not to be another part of the problem. Anyway, I debriefed all the strikes I had put in and what a great job the F-4s and 105’s had done. They said another Nail would be in to take the next day and this left me with mixed thoughts. I was scheduled for CTO (commensurate time off) to Bangkok so after a bad time at the club I went to bed and still didn’t sleep.

DAY TWO, Streetcar 304 input.
When it got light enough to see just a little, I could not believe what I saw, and had camped next to during the night. About 100 feet to my left were two giant teepees made out of American camouflage parachutes and, sticking out of the top of each one was a long barrel. I had an AA site as my next-door neighbor all night. No sight of men yet! But I now clearly saw the pig in an 8-10 foot hole, which I could have never gotten out of if I had fallen in. We looked at each other eyeball to eyeball. That was not a good rescue pick up spot but I was leery of moving until I could ascertain where the teepee owners were.
Shortly thereafter, I heard camp noises again and realized that I had hiked forward during the night, as I had hoped, and I had skirted the camp to its left side. I was now a short distance past it on my escape heading. Not bad. But, soon I heard many voices in that direction engaged in a morning-prayer chant, or was it a war party chant? Soon after it was followed by the sound of rattling pots so I knew it was prayer, followed by breakfast, followed by the sounds of many command like shouts. The camp sounds were too close for comfort and from the multitude of voices I knew the search parties would be large. At full daylight, I heard the drone of an aircraft and turned my radio on. It would not work and after my initial alarm I installed my back-up battery, which corrected the problem. I was now on my last battery and hoped it lasted longer than the first. It did!
Nail 66 came up in a cheerful, motivating voice and asked how I was, and had my position changed during the night? I gave him my new location in estimated distance and bearing from the previous night, and he complimented my move. He had a large stock of fighters ready to silence the guns prior to any rescue attempt and said to keep my head down. It became obvious very quickly that two of the guns Nail 66 had noticed the day before and was now targeting, were the two in the teepees next to me. When the first bomb exploded I saw trees falling about 50 feet away and I felt the earth vibrate beneath me. I realized this was a nice diversion and it would keep the enemy heads down. So, I took off at a trot on my original heading, timing my runs as the bombs exploded. As I headed to a safer area, the bombs successfully provided the needed diversion. I forgot to look back to see if the teepees were gone before I was out of sight, but again thought...“Damn it, Nail, you’re good at your job and you just saved me from capture.”
I made it to a slight ridge where I had heavy cover to the rear and a large clearing to my right, across from the enemy camp. The clearing was several hundred yards wide and it appeared to me to be a good rescue pick up spot. The enemy heavy guns ceased firing one by one shortly thereafter as I assumed they were knocked out one at a time. I had a good vantage point to observe the later stages of the bombing and was able to radio target adjustments to Nail 66 based on the noise of the guns I was hearing.
It seemed like a long time after the bombing ceased before Nail talked to me again but Crown came up and asked me to authenticate my identity by using my personal codes. He asked for the name of my dog (Daisy) which Crown got from a list of my pre-filed secret rescue codes. This indicated to me that the rescue pick up was imminent.
Nail 66 then commenced a detailed process to precisely locate me as to which actual tree I was next to. I used my signal mirror and gave hacks as he passed overhead at 3,000 feet and we talked back and forth. Reluctantly, I even fired a pencil flare to help him pin point my position. I had now calmed considerably as I thought we had wiped out all the men and guns within 1⁄2 mile of me.
The time was around 10:00 am. Heartbreak! Nail 66 reported the weather was deteriorating below what was required for the SAR forces and I should sit tight and await his call. During the next several hours I had my first mental rest since ejecting. Fear was gone, I felt real comfortable with my hideout, and I thought I would soon be picked up. I became melancholy. I had not slept or eaten but steadily chewed my Redman tobacco. The nicotine helped. Now, I ate a few Charms (candy) from my survival pack and downed a small amount of water and mentally calculated how to spread my meager supplies. At that time, the thought began to creep in that this might be an extended survival situation and I would need food. I actually thought I had done a pretty good job of evading them so far and felt cocky that I would continue to do so. During that time I was sitting next to a large tree that had about 20 monkeys playfully swinging around, and they were fun to watch. At that time I felt complacency, as it seemed a big game, almost like survival school.
Then a mid-sized tiger (or leopard) appeared within 10 feet of me, sniffing the breeze. As I aimed my pistol at it I wondered if he could be stopped with a single .38 pistol bullet. I really did not want to fire as this would have alerted the enemy to my position. It scratched a few trees, but fortunately never saw or smelled me during the couple of minutes he was in close view. It was a pretty sight being that close and fortunately he was a lousy hunter! And, I was downwind...
After the tiger left, the noise of men suddenly occurred in the direction of the camp. A platoon of black clad uniforms was walking diagonal across the clearing about 200 feet away, not directly toward me but on a line, which would intercept my escape path. I radioed Nail 66 and asked if he could see them and that I needed some more bombs.
Shortly, a flight of four A-1’s (I believed them to be to be Marines at that time) appeared and began a chain of 45 degree dive strafing passes. The enemy platoon quickly vanished from sight but the A-1’s continued to make multiple, single gun runs in the area around what I perceived to be the camp. It amazed me, as I watched them, no one was shot down. They looked so vulnerable on their strafe perch and I kept transmitting that they were encountering lots of light automatic weapons fire but they kept making their passes as if they didn’t hear me. Those guys saved me again from capture most likely. Was the platoon wiped out? I did not know.
Around noon the weather cleared enough for SAR operations and Nail 66 was talking to me again and re-confirmed that I was still next to the same tree. “Get ready for pickup,” he said, and asked for a smoke flare, but I was still unwilling to do so because I did not know the status of the disappearing platoon that was in the clearing. I said I would pop it when I saw a helicopter.
We had been talking back and forth more than I felt comfortable when I suddenly heard the sound of what seemed to be a directional radio finding unit of some type (I had heard that same sound somewhere else in my career). It was in front and to my left and shortly followed by voices in that direction. I was certain they were trying to home in on my radio talk with Nail.
I informed Nail 66 of the situation and he said he had fighters ready to go and to keep my head down. Whatever was emitting the sounds could not have survived as Nail 66 pounded the area repeatedly with bombs, some close enough that I could again watch the trees fall. Now, I was again a “ground controller” as I helped him adjust his targeting smoke rocket toward the sounds I had heard. More enemy guns initially fired at the fighters but became quiet.
It sounds stupid, but I thought that the best place to be after the bombing was in the impact area after all was destroyed. So, during bomb impacts I again began to run toward the bomb blast and asked Nail 66 to keep the bombs coming, adjusting each time further in front of me to use as a screen for my movement. My thought was that the enemy had “homed” in on my old hiding place and I needed a newer one. I eventually moved along the edge of the clearing until I got to the next patch of heavy tall trees and found a large, hollowed out tree trunk to hide in. I had a nice frontal view and felt really secure with my back protected inside that tree. I really did not want to leave it as it was like my comfort blanket.
Heavy bombing continued for the next few hours (no SAR now). Large guns had again begun to fire in the distance and I was confused as to why we were continuing to go after them but found out later the guns had a line of site on the pickup area from across the river. So Nail 66 was pounding them.
In the meantime, I now had a small clearing in front of me. This made me ponder my next move. Once across the clearing I would be on a heavy treed ridge but I would be exposed during the crossing. As I was deciding, something moved high in a tree in front of me and caught my eye. A black clad man was about 75 feet up the tree and maybe 100 feet in front of me. I had not seen or heard him. Suddenly a fighter made an errant bomb run over me; and the guy in the tree started firing an AK-47 rifle at the jet. Then I heard the sound of small bombs exploding as they fell through the tree canopy. I knew immediately it was a CBU, antipersonnel bomb with hundreds of baseball sized bomblets. I could hear them bouncing off the wood and then “thump,” a dud bomblet landed about four feet in front of me. No shit! All I could do was stare at it, not believing that it had just happened. This seems to be better than a movie I thought. Chalk up a save by God on that one! I left the bomblet where it lay, and glanced toward the guy in the tree but could no longer see him. He was not as lucky as I was.
At that time I thought they would never get me out. The enemy fire just seemed to keep reappearing from different sites. How many guns? But it calmed down again and Nail 66 informed me they were getting the SAR forces ready for a pick-up attempt again.
Then, a strange thing happened. As I was sitting in the trunk looking forward a black clad soldier popped up in the center of the clearing directly in front of me and did some kind of karate like hand movements as he moved in a tight circle. He was not apparently looking in my direction, had no rifle, but appeared to be practicing his moves. I just could not decide what he was actually doing. Was he exercising or was he brazenly trying to draw fire in order to determine my location? Could he see me hidden in the tree trunk? But, bombs were falling again, the bad guy disappeared and the SAR forces were announced to be two miles away, inbound, and I was told, “Get your smoke ready Streetcar.”
Then, just as quickly, Sandy lead announced that the pickup was being aborted, that the area was too hot (a Jolly Green helo had gone down on the way to rescue me), and they would see me tomorrow. I learned later that the helo overheated his engine on the way in and had to land. Another helo rushed in, picked up the crew, and then they returned the next day and flew the helo back to base.
I had not even seen or heard the rescue group as they aborted several miles from my location. Instantly a waive of negative thoughts engulfed me and I, without hesitation, said to myself, you have got to get distant from all the guns or you will never be rescued. And, if the guy I had seen in the clearing actually knew my location they may try to capture me before darkness sets in again. I bolted from the tree, pistol in hand, ran across the clearing and made it to the trees knowing it was a dangerous move but certain that was the only way.
By now, darkness was approaching as I hesitated once inside the tree line, glanced back, and said, again,”Oh shit.” I recognized instantly what appeared to be the same platoon I had seen earlier in the afternoon. They were about 75 feet away and were just rising to their feet as I looked at them. We made eye contact for a very brief moment. I ran up the hill for about 25 feet before I saw a body shaped depression in the leaves. The trees in between us now shielded me from the bad guy’s view. I fell into the depression and quickly covered up with just my head out of the cover. I was lying in a position such that I watched the platoon walk single file about 50 feet on my left up the hill about 50 feet past me and then stop, motionless in the same single file. They were easy targets but I was simply outgunned. I had a six shot pistol and there were ten of them. Do I fire or just surrender? Motionless, they stood erect, half facing uphill as they turned their heads as if listening and looking for me. They obviously did not see my hiding spot but were looking intently to find it...It was now maybe 15 minutes from total darkness as our cat and mouse game continued for about five minutes. Hurry, darkness, I thought. I was now glad I earlier had wiped black dirt over my face and hands.
Without warning it started to rain in a torrential down pour. The noise of the rain beating on the tree canopies was very loud. And, the darkness and rain together made it impossible to see the bad guys anymore. God’s save #2!
I bolted blindly, grateful for the diversion, and ran as fast as I could at a right angle to the bad guys. After banging off trees in the dark, getting exhausted, and not knowing what the terrain was around me, I decided to hide again but it was impossible to see anything, or recognize hiding spots. Then I bumped into a large tree trunk and sat down with my back against it. The time was 2000.
The rain stopped abruptly. For the first time I encountered hordes of mosquitoes and had to put mud in my ears to keep them out and I had to keep my eyelids closed. I drank some water but had no appetite for I was feeding on my fear and adrenaline. I was determined to stay awake for now a second night, and after a short rest, place more distance between the hunters and myself. I had my eyes closed to prevent bugs from entering and that was a mistake. The day’s events finally caught up with me and I unintentionally fell asleep.
I semi-awoke in darkness with a feeling that something was wrong. As I sat motionless, my gun pointed outward from the hand in my lap, glowing heads were bobbing up and down and looking at me, not more than a few feet away. What was going on? Why had not these bad guys just captured me when I was sleeping? I could count four heads, and hands would occasionally touch me as if shaking me. Should I pull the trigger as the gun is aimed right at them only a couple of feet away? Now I was fully awake and suddenly realized that the forms were very short monkeys and I must be at the base of their tree. Why were their faces glowing? Then I noticed my boots were also glowing and discovered then that the dirt had a type of florescence in it that glowed at night. Believe it or not, I fell asleep again, before I knew it, not caring about the monkeys. Hey, I was stressed out I guess.

DAY TWO, Pete Lappin, Nail 69.
I was in Bangkok getting a massage when the “head masseuse” told me to call my hotel immediately. Seems NKP wanted me back to fly a mission. Streetcar 304, a Navy A-7 pilot on his first combat mission had been shot down southwest of Tchepone. For two days Lieutenant Kenny Fields had evaded capture although most thought he was being used as a decoy. Indeed by the second day five aircraft had been lost on the mission and recovery attempts. They told me to return for an early go in the morning, and I did.

DAY THREE, Pete Lappin, Nail 69.
The SAR forces briefed at 0300. Time was running out and 7th AF said, “Get him out.” We briefed to be out on scene at first light. The plan was to locate Lieutenant Fields, sterilize the area, call the Sandys and Jolly Greens in to pick him up, RTB, and for me to go back to Bangkok and finish my massage!
The first problem was the weather. It was typical May/June weather over the HCM Trail with low clouds layered to 10,000 feet. The fast movers had little time to acquire their target and were forced to fly slower and with more exposure than anyone would have liked. Perhaps it was because I had almost two years of combat flying in the F-4 that prompted the call to Bangkok. Nobody ever told me. Locating Kenny Fields took a while, his radio was getting weak and the bases of the clouds fluctuated between 3,000 to 4,500 feet above sea level. The terrain was 500–1,000 feet elevation so none of us had a lot of room to play with.
After locating Lieutenant Fields he moved to an area that would be an easy pickup point for the Jolly, “Ho, Ho, Ho,” Green Giant. Spotting targets for the fast movers was easy; I marked the area where the most flashes were coming from. When the fighters came up on my frequency they had already been briefed by the high FAC and all I had to do was give them corrections from my smoke. The F-4s and F-105s did a fantastic job under the most extreme conditions and the BDA log showed we put in 23 flights of four (sometimes three, sometimes two) in about two and a half hours. It got a little dicey at the end when Kenny Fields yelled over the radio that he too had been hit, so we called in the Sandys and Jollys for the pickup. I turned over command to Sandy Lead, stayed around to watch the pickup, and headed back to NKP. I checked on Kenny and found out he was going to be fine, so I made plans to RTB (Return To Bangkok).

Ed Note: Pete is the master of understatement and brevity, Kenny’s version paints a more detailed view of the same scene!!

DAY THREE, Streetcar 304.
I awoke abruptly, in dim daylight, and very mad at myself for stupidly sleeping. I was in a forest of large trees with good spacing between them and not very dense cover, and that was scary. I looked to confirm the presence of monkeys but saw none as they had most likely changed trees due to an unwelcome neighbor. Quickly, I was up and moving within 15 seconds of awaking.
Cautiously I moved to the edge of the trees past which there was a clearing with plants reaching about ten feet high, perfect cover. There was a good sized tree in the middle that could serve as a locator for the FAC. I made it to the center of the clearing where I had tight cover on all sides. Turns out it was a perfect rescue spot. I was on a ridgeline and could look down to a valley below on one side and there were trees on the other three sides. The weather was clear but the cloud layer was at 1,500 feet so I thought there would be no rescue until the weather improved and I was geared up for a another long day.
My thrill a minute continued as suddenly I heard an approaching sound coming up the hill from the valley and it sounded like metal banging. Laying flat and stretched out, I aimed my pistol toward the sound and watched as two black clad soldiers walked by, not ten feet away, each carrying two water bottles over his shoulders. They appeared to be very young, but had rifles. Without a glance my way they continued on their way across the clearing, talking all the way.
I had not talked to anyone on the radio since the aborted rescue attempt the prior evening. At 0630 Nail 69’s voice interrupted my breakfast, calling for Streetcar 304. I saw him flying above me at about 1,500 feet, lower than FACs had been flying.
Where is Nail 66? Where is Jon? He knows the area, knows me, and has been super with his targeting. We’re a good team. Who is Nail 69, and why is he here? Speaking calmly, in a slow methodical manner, with no apparent excitement in his voice, Nail 69 (Capt. Pete Lappin) was forthright, positive and told me he was going to get me out today. Right, I’ve heard that before, I thought! I told him I had a signal mirror, but would not use flares or smoke until the helicopter appears. We talked back and forth as I illuminated his plane with my signal mirror and he quickly spotted the tree that I was only 20 feet from. He found me so fast that I doubted he actually had the spot but I could see him overhead and knew he was close. He did have the exact spot, as you will see later! Nail 69 said he had enough fighters ready to bomb all day if required and I should dig a hole, as the bombs might be close. I thought, does he know how close they were yesterday?
He then commenced to systematically place bombs on the three tree lines around me within 150 feet. At first, there were again AK 47’s shooting from the treetops but after informing Nail 69, they were silenced by a few CBU bombs dropped by F-4s. The fighter pilots were making absolutely great bomb passes as they had to line up above the clouds, dive down through them in a steep dive, bust out at 1,500 feet, acquire the target, release the bombs on target, and pull away with enemy guns firing at them as they pulled off. This went on for two and a half hours. Nail 69 placed bombs at a distance from me at first but gradually moved the bombs closer and closer and as new guns fired I advised him of their location. Nail 69 was precise and patient and eventually silenced all of the guns within a one-mile area.
Nail 69 could hammer just like Nail 66.
In the meantime Nail 69 asked if I was aware of a spray agent that could be used that would put me to sleep. I was, and knew they would pick me up after everyone on the ground was asleep and felt comfortable with that if need be. He said it was an option if trouble developed. It was tempting to ask him to drop it now so he could end the saga, but what if they could not locate me after I was asleep?
Sandy lead radioed me in the middle of the bombing and sternly told me that my rescue spot better be 100 fold better than Day-2 or we would have two dead Jolly Green crews.
Did he want me to guarantee it? Damn it, I thought, I’ve been avoiding troops and bomb blasts to get a better spot. Does he not know that?
I came to realize Nail 69 (Pete) was a “bring him back today, dead or alive” type FAC and that he was really hanging it out for me as he was flying well below the Nail’s normal altitude. It was really a gutsy, expert display of airmanship to watch him work. As a bomber pilot I fully understood the complexity of the weather and just how hard it was to get bombs on a target as small as my rescue location was, without killing me. I also came to realize that today was the day they would get me out, dead or alive. The bombs were close, but I was at peace with it and just enjoyed the air show.
At about 0945 an F-4 dove out of the overcast on a CBU run against the tree line about 150 feet away. I saw him lined up heading straight for me and I screamed on the radio for him to “abort, abort, you are headed right for me.” Then a bomb released from the aircraft and I saw the bomb pod open and the sky filled again with baseball sized bomb clusters (90% kill rate if you are in the bomb explosion pattern on the ground). The balls were coming right for me, a dark blob in the sky, so I jumped to my feet and started running 90 degrees away from the flight path of the bombs. After 3-4 steps I heard them impacting behind me and rapidly exploding on the ground closing toward me.
Bam, Bam, Bam...
Ahead was the tree that Pete and I had agreed on so I jumped toward it for cover but the exploding bombs caught up with me in full flight. I was hit by shrapnel on all sides of my body. As I rolled over, sat up and looked at my blood stained body I lost my cool for the first time and thought, that’s it, I have had enough. It felt like my foot had been blown off (I was not dead so I was in the lucky ten per cent category for CBU kill rate).
I radioed Pete and told him the last bomb had hit me, I was wounded, bleeding badly, and to get me out Now, (or I will bleed to death I thought). Some things really stick with you and Pete’s reply was one of them. Calmly he said, “Roger Streetcar, get your smokes ready, the helicopters are inbound now.” Wow, that was easy. Why didn’t I say that before now? The A-1 Sandy lead was Maj. Tom Campbell and he had devised the inbound plan of attack. As I watched down the valley the sky suddenly filled with six A-1’s weaving in a Luftberry circle (criss-crossing in front and behind each other) wildly shooting 20 mm cannons and rockets at every thing in sight as they flew up the hill. I was now standing up in order to spot the helicopter and the action was unbelievable. As a bomber pilot it even amazed me they were not colliding with each other or shooting each other down, as they seemed to be going in all directions at once but weaving forward. The sky was full of rockets in all directions. Then, 20 mm shells were hitting no more than 30 feet to either side of me as lead Sandy roared at me and then a smoking rocket went about ten feet over my head and impacted the tree line behind me. I saw it coming, ducked a little, turned and watched it explode. I actually cheered, believing he was that good of a shot. Shit Hot, what an air show!!..and damn...they were really, really good or I was very, very lucky.
Out of the valley, up popped the Jolly Green Giant helicopter right behind the last A-1. Capt. Dave Richardson was command pilot. It was a heart rendering moment to see him suddenly just pop up in sight. It was just like a movie, folks. He came into view and asked if I could see him. I rogered, “Shit hot, yes. Popping smoke.”
It was a beautiful sight and the smoke filled the air as I waved it. Dave replied that he had a visual contact. The problem was that the brush cover was over my head and Dave had the smoke but could not see me in the brush. As he passed overhead I quickly screamed on the radio he was overhead, stop and hover. He flew 40 feet past and could not see me. I ran to the spot just directly below the helo and radioed to drop the hoist. It took a lot of guts for the Jolly pilot (Dave Richardson) to hover for what seemed an eternity as I ran to the hoist. And, I believe THAT was the most heroic act of the saga. I had no time to strap in before I was being hoisted up and arrived in the helicopter with branches clinging to me. I was pulled aboard and quickly the smiling Paramedic PJ (Pete Harding) went back to man his door gun as I lay on the floor and watched him fire. After a few hundred feet of forward motion the helicopter made a rapid bank and both door gunners were intently firing downward. A large gun had fired a point blank range shot at us and it just missed the helicopter. Both door gunners killed the gun crew.
Dave says that was God’s save #3.
Next, I found out we were low on fuel and would have to refuel in flight to make it back to the NKP USAF base in Thailand. Jolly Green pilots do not do a lot of in-flight refueling so the crew was anxious but “Super Dave” pulled it off very smoothly.
Finally, we made it to NKP, where a navy flight surgeon removed about 14 CBU pellets from my body.
I love the Jolly Greens, Sandys, Nails, and even USAF F-4 pilots.
They saved my life.
Later that night back in the States my friends and family heard on CBS Evening News, with Walter Cronkite, “Today in Vietnam the USAF rescued Navy pilot Kenny Fields after 39 hours on the ground and 189 sorties in the largest rescue effort of the war thus far. And that’s the way it was in Vietnam (actually Laos, Mr. Cronkite) on June 2, 1968.”

Other heroes whom I owe my life to are Sandy pilots George Marrett, Gene McCormack, Mel Bunn, Glede Vaughn, Bill Foster, and Charley Kuhlman. And many more played a vital part.
One Air Force Cross, 10 Silver Stars, and numerous DFC’s were awarded to the rescue forces.
Seven aircraft were lost during this saga but no pilots were killed.
After surgery and a bout with malaria I returned to the USS America where my wingman and I each flew another 150 combat missions from Yankee Station. I still have a reminder pellet from the CBU floating around inside my body and heat scars on my penis where hot, searing shrapnel stopped too close for comfort.
In October 1969 I again returned to Yankee Station on the USS Coral Sea for my second combat tour. My first mission (a flight of four A-7s) was again assigned by Cricket Control and believe it or not we were instructed to meet a Nail FAC at the exact same target site where I had been shot down 16 months earlier. What kind of fate is that? That day I dropped all of my bombs on one pass with precise aim. The FAC and my other flight members thought I made a bad run as I missed his smoke. But, my bombs hit just where I aimed them, hopefully in the midst of pots and pans, during chants, right on the base camp I had skirted around on my prior mission in 1968. I remembered exactly where it was located and it was pay-back time.

By Jon McMurtry, Nail 66.
I saw Kenny when the Jolly brought him in and he had a lot of bleeding holes. I told him who I was and it was great to see him and I would get with him in a few days. I was then off to Bangkok. When I got back I saw Kenny at the NKP Hospital a few times and found out he liked Rum and Coke. I made a plan to sneak him out of the Hospital and to the club, and it worked. I borrowed the jeep and picked him up in his robe and off to the club (The Nail Hole was not started yet) where I had one of the round tables covered with Rum and Coke. The best I remember we had a super time. Thirty plus years later he told me he thought I was trying to finish what the NVA couldn’t do on the trail. I imagine that booze didn’t go well with his medicine; however, it could have healed him faster?