Don Schmenk, Major USAF Retired, shares this story from a late friend, Henry L. Smith Lt. Col USAF (Retired), AKA “Lew,” Call Sign RAT’L RAT’L. Smith was from Louisiana. The two taught USAF and foreign students to fly.
There was a combat photographer at Nakon Phonam on May 16, 1966. And he took a lot of shots. This one was of two “Sandies,” close personal friends Ed Griffin and Dick Needham. I am the one with the blackened face and an old style survival vest. It follows a near death low altitude shoot down/bailout experience and a typical rescue by the 602nd Fighter Squadron (Commando) and the famous and intrepid Jolly Green Giant helicopter unit.
The photog was so hot for his photos and a story he had prepared that I had to embargo everything through 7th AF OI. I didn’t want a release until I was home. The point? A Thud ops officer with a great record made the cover of Time magazine precisely on the day he was shot down in Hanoi complete with a pre-prepared dossier. That was Robby Risner.
We were Dragonfly 23 and 24. With Lew Daugherty on my wing we were on an armed reconnaissance into North Vietnam. Dick and Ed were in hour earlier on a SAR for one that was lost the day before. After several hours and no luck we were nearing Bingo and started working our way out of the DRV.
Down in the tree tops we continued toward a mountainous area with many finger ridges. DF24 called out a truck on the side of one of the ridges: I didn’t have it so told him to hit it. I picked it up as he fired a 5-inch HVAR and rolled in on my run. It was a hit but without any secondary explosions and he called me to break it off. We were in the valley between ridges as I saw the tracers head on right to the belly. I took 2 or 3 12.7 mm AAA rounds right in the oil cooler scoop missing all of that heavy armor all around me. Smoke in the cockpit was instant. I salvoed and jettisoned everything as I pulled over one ridge: I only knew this because I had blown the canopy back to clear the smoke and was looking over the side.
Called out that I was hit. Smoke turned to heat, then fire through the floor but the engine was running but getting rougher. As I pulled up it was sure that I was going to burn until an explosion and was way too low. Sans “Yankee” ( a rocket propelled ejection system for all of us red-headed stepkids), I unbuckled and rolled over the side … I thought. The Navy’s shoulder harnesses have metal fittings that buckle into the seat belt. These had slid up my harness and jammed into the chute’s quick releases. Pulled back in and released the jamb, thought burn or hit a hill, and went back over the side again. Don’t actually recall pulling the D-ring: instinct!
Flying horizontal, looking through my feet I saw the plane hit the ridge just past the one I was headed for. The chute was out but hadn’t blossomed — then I was flying through a huge stand of bamboo. It snared the chute before fully opening. DF24 never saw a chute. I swung down gently stopping about 4 or 5 feet from the floor of the valley between the two ridges.
I ran up the eastern ridge searching for my place. Stopped and buried my brand new, one mission, white helmet, pulled out my sheets of carbon paper and smeared my face (before camo kits). About 3/4 the way up the ridge I found a rotted-out stump, dove in and pulled some limbs in over me. Lew was circling overhead, not yet knowing an outcome as he called in the event. Quickly made contact on the radio and he said the SAR force had been scrambled. Dick and Ed were there right quick and joined up on DF24.
No gun against gun shootout here. We had one down and rule one applied. Don’t turn one SAR into another one. They could hit those guns with everything from CBU’s, frag bombs, 2.75 and 5-inch rockets, willy pete (white phosphorus bomb), hard bombs and napalm. Thuds and F-4s were called into a stack as well as tanker. When an A-1 went down, the whole world moved. Everybody loved those Sandies.
Turned out there was more than one gun. Estimate two to three 12.7s and clusters of small caliber AAA.
Sandy 11 (Richardson P Rosecrans) and 12 (Leo Morton) led the Jolly Greens into the fray. Dick and Ed were near Bingo and made several passes wiping out about a dozen gomers heading up the ridge my way. I popped my smoke which quickly blew back down the valley and the Jolly missed me on his first approach. Second try put the tree penetrator right in my lap. Pulled the seat down, mounted that dude as the sky lit up. The gomers liked to hold back as long as possible until the HH-3 went into hover. All five A-1s were in position for this and began to sanitize the exit route. Woody Kimsey flew Jolly 1 and didn’t wait for me to be hoisted up. Instead he took advantage of a freshly cleaned route and drug me through the briars and brambles on the way out.
Flight back to NKP was routine. Dick, Ed and Lew were seriously Bingo, and everybody was Winchester. The combat booze was good.
At Udorn the debrief began. Very serious CIA debriefers asked dozens of questions a hundred ways. Because of covert activities all over RP I, II & III their interest was primarily what I saw on the ground. Others focused on the shoot down events especially how the hell I got out of burning A-1 below AGL bailout minimums. I wanted to tell them that you just had to know how ride the bamboo.
The “book” just might be titled “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” just to set down how really serious I am about every day after May 16, 1966, being pure lagniappe.