S.E.A. Stories

 

JUMPING the FENCE

By Bill Wirstrom

 

 

          It was somewhere around the middle of April while I was on leave from the LBR unit at Shaw AFB SC.  I had been a 1st Lt. for about a year and was the junior man in the unit.  I must admit, flying helicopters was not my first choice but it was above flying B-52’s or B-47’s in SAC.

 

          Our DetCo, Leon Foster, gave me a call at my in-laws house and said I was to return right away as a (TDY) assignment had come up.  I wanted to know where but all he would say is you will find out later.  Upon return to Shaw I received a copy of orders with no destination.  I was to go through TAC mobility ( we were MAC ) draw an M-16, 50 rds of ammo, a 38 revolver and 50 rounds, bring a mobility bag with me and report via commercial air to Griffis AFB NY.

 

          Upon arrival at Griffis I was joined by Capt Dave A. Allan, DetCo, Capt Dave E. Allen (from McDill AFB), Capt Bert Berthold (Homestead AFB) Capt Gene Hogan and one other that I don’t recall.  None of us knew exactly where we were going except it was to SEA and a briefing stop at Clark AB Philippines.  I later found out I was the only one to follow the orders and bring weapons!!

 

          I don’t recall if it was two or three H-43B’s that we loaded into two C-124’s for the long journey.  Twelve days later we arrived at Clark; via Travis AFB, Hickham AFB, Wake Is and Anderson AFB, Guam.  At Clark during the in- brief, one of the first questions asked was how many weapons did we have.  When it was determined I was the only one that followed the orders, I was no longer the “butt” of jokes.  It was then we were informed we were to be a Provisional Detachment at Udorn AB Thailand.  We were to join four other detachments in Thailand for LBR Operations, but also to assist the unit at Nakhon Phanom (NKP) with rescue work in Laos and North Vietnam.  NKP at that time consisted of only a PSP landing strip, and three (3) H-43B’s.

 

 

We arrived at Udorn unannounced.  The local US Base commander had no idea we were inbound.  The only large flying unit there was some RF101C (Kodak’s) which turned out to be from Shaw AFB SC.  The Flight Surgeon Doc (Capt) Dave Hunter was my neighbor at Shaw and a fellow graduate of LSU.  From then on it was “scrounge scrounge scrounge”.  We received very little if any support, except for parts, from Pacific Air Rescue Center.  I must also mention there was an Air Rescue SC-54D and an SA-16 at Udorn but the only time we spoke to them was on the UHF radio in the air.

 

           

         

 

 

The next couple of weeks were spent getting the aircraft back to together and completing FCF test flights.  The lower grade enlisted troops had a very difficult time as they were assigned quarters in old barracks built by the Marines in 1962.  It was not a pleasant situation. 

 

 

 

Our work was soon interrupted by a radio call while two aircraft were flying. We were told to proceed to a site in Laos where an F-105 pilot had bailed out and was caught in tall trees.  An Air America (CIA) H-34 had tried to pull him out of the trees but failed.  We were some what apprehensive as we were unarmed and had no intelligence on what to expect in the area.  Capt. Berthold and Gene Hogan was the primary crew with Capt Dave Allen and me as back-up.

 

          On scene the SC-54 became a communications relay ship, but we were provided no RESCAP or close air support.  It was determined that Capt Berthold and his crew would land nearby and proceed on foot to get below the pilot and try to get him down. Capt Allen and I landed in a nearby clearing to conserve fuel. 

 

 

When the ground crew reached the pilot’s location, it was determined that the pilot could not be reached from the ground.  It was worked out that the secondary aircraft would take-off and go above the pilot, lower the cable with a rope attached, TSGt Free a (PJ )  would then be hoisted up to the pilot. NOTE: In the early days, the hoist cable was only 110 feet long and required an additional rope to be attached thus ensuring sufficient length to extend through the jungle canopy and reach the ground.

 

 

We took off and initially followed the plan but after Sergeant Free was hoisted, it was suggested by Capt Berthold to lift the two of them out of the trees and fly with them suspended below the helicopter to a clearing about a mile away.  Much to TSGt Free’s surprise we did it with Capt Allen doing a great job.  We delivered the pilot to Udorn with a dislocated shoulder which was caused by the H-34.  (Note: the only awards and decorations out of this incident was Sgt Free who received the “Soldiers Medal”)

 

          After this incident we were joined by a detachment from Taiwan.  The people I remember are the CO Maj Cockran, Capt Jake Hart, Lt. Jack Forsite and Capt. Hoyt Hurt.  Since Maj Cockran was now SRO he became the new Detachment Commander. Almost immediately, he refused to allow flying 55 gal fuel drums in the back of the

H-43’s (we had to do this via a Y connection in the rear in order to get more range), so he was relived by PARC and sent home, placing Capt Allen back in charge.

 

          Things then began to get hot and heavy.  We started flying very far north in Laos, living at Lima Sites, with fuel delivered by Air America C-46’s (yes 46’s).  Living for a week at a time at LS 108 ( a CIA outpost see the attached map ), watching a Laotian war going on from a mountain top with trip flares surrounding us.  We would receive launch orders by HF radio from Saigon and there were many missions into North Vietnam.  We some times landed at LS 36 near the North Vietnam border right in the middle of “Indian Country”.  I think I saw Hanoi from 10 thousand feet about four different times.  Once we came back at night trying to find LS 108.  It was overcast and the only way we could get in was with a UHF DF steer from an H-34 and 55 gal drums filled with jp-4 on fire.  That night we drank whisky with Laotian General Vang Pao.

 

 

 

We met many unusual people at this Site and LS96.  But, the guy I really remember is “Pop Buell”. He worked for an organization that provided help to the locals and a book was written about his activities.

 

 

 

 

 

The shirtless man on the left is Edgar “Pop” Buell, Senior USAID Official in Laos

 

There were also a large number of “Company” operatives.  The Air America guys received about three to four times the amount of money we received but refused missions into North Vietnam. They would “Bank $100,000” in 18 months and depart.  That was a heck of a lot of money in the middle of the 60’s. In September of 1965 we lost Capt Tom Curtis and his Copilot out of NKP.  Capt Berthold and I went over to help them out.  Capt Joe Ballanger was their Commander.  It was a sad time at NKP because they had been living a magic life with hope that no one would be lost before their departure.  It was during this time the first CH-3’s arrived at NKP.  They were on loan to Air Rescue from TAC until the first Rescue HH-3E’s would arrive.

 

          After a week Bert and I returned to Udorn and sometime in November I was allowed to return from my 60 day (TDY) after about eight months.  Only five months later to find out I was to be given a PCS assignment to NhaTrang AB Vietnam for one year.

 

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