Sorry this has taken so long but here tis! This was one of my rescues from Da Nang we talked about at the Reunion. We were sitting alert up at Quang Tri and there was an ongoing rescue mission over in Laos by the HH-53s but as sunset was approaching we were released to start back to DaNang. This was Chuck Lowry’s first time on the schedule and I was his IP. We got George Blair out and left Bill Townsley on the ground but we were shot up pretty bad and barely made Quang Tri after it got dark. Gerry Moore took my crew and the survivor back to Da Nang. The HH-53s went in at sunrise the next day and got Bill out.
A few years ago George Blair wrote his autobiography of his career and his shoot down and pickup was a great part of it. When he finished it he sent a copy to Bill Townsley and set out to find me on the internet. It took a while and when he did he sent me a copy of his and Bills stories, So, I set down and wrote my side of the story. I was asked by CSAR (Combat Search and Rescue organization) to make a presentation at the next CSAR Seminar if I could round up some of my crew and the survivor for the presentation.
I found my CP, Chuck Lowry, my PJ, Tom Winters and of course George Blair and Bill but could not locate MSgt Bunting my FE. I talked to Tom Winters on the phone and got his input as well as Chuck’s and put them all together including George and Bill’s stories. Bill, Chuck and I gave the presentation pretty much as written but Tom and George could not make the Seminar.
Jon, Chuck and Bill at CSAR Seminar
THE COVEY 585 STORY
SEEN FROM THREE POINTS OF VIEW:
COVEY 585 - 1/Lt. George H. Blair
Jolly Green Rescue Crew Commander - Capt. Jon E Hannan
Covey 264 -1/Lt. William E. Townsley
Also inputs from Capt. Chuck Lowry, RCCP and Sgt Tom Winters, PJ
This is a true story as told by each of the participants of the rescue mission for Covey 585 after his O-2 was shot down over Laos on January 18, 1969.
Combined stories for briefing at CSAR Seminar
I arrived in country in the summer of 1968, right after the Tet Offensive and was assigned to the 20th TASS. Everyone was still a little nervous. The 20th Tass covered North Viet Nam and Laos. Their Covey FAC’s flew out of Da Nang and Pleiku. Our patrol area called Tiger Hound and included the tri-border area in southern Laos next to Cambodia. I arrived in Pleiku on 14 Jun 68 and my first combat mission was on 16 June. By January 18, 1969 I was an instructor and conducting a checkout on the trail mission in Steel Tiger, it was Bill Townsley’s third instruction ride.
I flew with different CTIP’s, but on the 18th, my 7th flight day, I was scheduled with Major George Blair. After the standard briefings, I went to get my gear and parachute and head for the plane. The parachute specialist in the Life Support Shop wished me “Good Luck” on my way out. For some reason I retorted, “I don’t need good luck if you’re good, just a little luck.”
We crossed over into Laos about 20 minutes after takeoff, at noon or a little thereafter. I picked up an in-flight briefing from the ABCC (Airborne Command and Control Center) and the Covey FAC coming off station. “Covey” was our callsign, I was Covey 264. The FAC coming off station mentioned some trucks stuck in the mud around “the old man’s head.” This referenced a small river bend in such a fashion that it looked a lot like a profile of Ziggy, the current cartoon character, only with a long strand of hair coming out the top of his head. It was southeast of Delta 45, one of the many major HoChiMinh Trail reference points we used on our maps.
I found the two trucks, and one appeared stuck in the river ford sq I called the ABCCC for a strike flight. While we waited, we looked for other targets of opportunity in the area but found none. The fighters, a set of F-4s, showed up very shortly and low on gas. I went to work having them put their bombs on the two lone trucks to blow them to smithereens. We had a tendency to fly in left turns during the strike control portion, because, in the O-2, the FAC sat on the left side of the cockpit. When there was someone in the right seat, it was even more likely we’d be in left turns because of vision problems. I out-briefed the fighters as I turned to the right, away from the target.
My CTIP, Major Blair, said “Let’s go back and take another look.” As I turned back to the left we were hit. It felt like the plane hit a large air pocket, or a very concentrated puff of air pushed us up on the back end of the plane. There was not much sound with the hit. Kind of a “whoomp.” We immediately went into a slow, flat spin. I switched to Guard frequency and called “Mayday, mayday, mayday.” Then I went into that slow motion phase of survival; the Air Force later gave it the name, temporal distortion (TD). I had been in TD once before while spinning out in my 68 Mustang on a new, rain-slicked road, and 3 times since in other aircraft incidences.
I looked over at Maj. Blair and saw that we both were desperately trying to recover the aircraft. It was not responding and the spinning was becoming faster and faster and pointing downward, straight at the ground. I looked forward and could see exactly where it would crash. Still about 3,500 to 4,000 feet up, but going straight down fast. The next emergency procedure was to remove the right hand door of the aircraft and jump out. My part in that procedure, when there were two people on board, was to reach behind the right seat passenger and unlock the door with my right hand. The right seat passenger was briefed to pull a foot long red lever by his right knee rearward about six inches (this removed the door hinge pins). Then they were supposed to hit the door with their shoulder to send it flying. I unbuckled my seat belt, while George pulled on the lever and pushed the door out. I remember reaching to start to undo his seat belt, but his own hand beat me to it. I can remember the whining or screaming of the plane as it gained airspeed. I can remember George going out and hearing a “thunk” sound. I dove out and down to avoid the wing strut. I was outside and free-falling. I reached immediately for my ripcord and pulled it. I pulled and in my slow motion temporally distorted mind, nothing was happening. I pulled some more, and then, using both hands, I remember the rip cord coming out about two feet. (The Life Support parachute people said it couldn’t be done. I definitely remember about 2 feet of cable in my hand.)
I felt the “whuump” of my chute opening. My TD ended with the opening of the chute. I looked up quickly to check the chute, and I remember hearing the plane crash while I was looking up. I looked down and watched George’s chute fully open and then start to close just as fast as you’re hearing this sentence. I watched him land 15’ to the left of the crashed and burning O-2A. I then realized there were rifles shooting, and it was probably at me. I tried to swing in my chute because I still had about 1000 feet to go. I swung for all I was worth. I don’t know if it really worked, but I wasn’t hit, so I guess it did.
By now the spin was violent. My helmet was wedged against the right side of the aircraft, with my head turned so I could not see. I tried to bring my right hand back across my lap to release my seat belt and shoulder straps, but centrifugal force prevented this. I hit the release with my left hand and flopped out the door. I was knocked unconscious by the wing strut or tail boom and slowly came to, falling face up, helmet gone, wind whistling by my ears, looking at the sun. In slow motion, I reached for my D-ring and pulled. The opening shock threw my head down, and I saw my feet in the trees. Bang, I hit the ground. I got up on one knee, pulled out my emergency radio and gave the dumbest call ever. “Mayday, mayday, Covey 265 is on the ground and moving out.” Great call, my call sign was 585 and we were flying under Townsley’s, which was 264.
I could hear the crackling flames of my burning aircraft behind me. The area was open, so I stowed my radio and began to run, looking for shelter. After about thirty yards I realized I had to stop and hide. A large tree with some bushes at its base was all I could find. After a short time, I could hear yelling and gun fire. I was being flushed out. In survival school they told us if this happens, they don’t know where you are, so don’t move. I didn’t move.
It was my habit to remove my sidearm when flying, because it jabbed into my side. I realized I was unarmed. I took the pen gun flare out of my survival vest, screwed a flare on it and tied it to my wrist. This was my only weapon.
I lay motionless for a long time. I heard them find my plane and pull down my parachute. Two guys walked by me about 20 yards away. I didn’t know if Townsley made it out. After the area got quiet, I put on my ear phone & radio silencer and made a call. Misty 51, a F-100, was in the area and heard me. I heard him tell Crown, “It doesn’t sound like one of our guys.”
In training we learned that Orientals cannot rattle off vulgarities like a drunken sailor. It is not in their nature. So with a swollen lip and a voice shaking from shock I read out Misty 51 from his questionable birth to his perverted sex habits. Shortly thereafter, Crown said, it’s one of ours.” Crown passed an E & E question to him from my file. He asked me what my favorite drink was, I answered CC & Ginger. Now he knows who was down and tried to pinpoint my position. After 10 minutes, I realized that no one saw us go in and had no idea where we were. Sandy came on scene and tried. I got the idea and told Sandy we were slightly north of the twin fords and he came straight down. Could he see a burning aircraft? He said he saw smoke, and I told him I was 30 yards from the smoke. He then flew over me and I gave him a tally ho.
About this time, some big AAA positions began firing. I put my linsetic compass on the ground and laid two twigs North-South and East-West. I gave the FAC’s directions, estimated distance, and some of the big guns were silenced, then Sandies took over.
I had many missions extracting pilots and teams in trouble, and I didn’t see myself getting out of there. However, the amount of TAC air that was put in during phase one (silencing the guns) was unbelievable. CBU was ripping leaves off the trees above my head, and I would leave the ground each time a bomb exploded. I could see rockets hit. As the ordinance came closer, so did the Viet Cong around us. They were trying to avoid ordinance from the air strikes. I could hear their small arms weapons and gave this info to the Sandys.
I crashed through a tree and scraped my right knee and leg a little. I finally landed 15’ or so to the right of the a/c. I was still hearing gunfire. I released my snaps. My chute was stuck in the tree, so my trained instruction to bury it was abandoned in a flash. I started running away from the rifle fire. I was taking the path of least resistance, a trodden path, and “Sam” who was now perched on my shoulder, told me to get off that well-worn path. “Sam” represents all the survival training I received which occurred only 3 weeks previously in the Philippines. All of his training was as fresh in my mind as it could be. I landed in an area of light, young trees and bushes, not jungle as one might imagine. I came to a spot where the path went left, up away from a stream, so I stopped, turned right and jumped across the stream. I remember leaving a footprint in the muddy water of the far side of the stream, but it would soon fill in with water and lose its shape. Nevertheless, I worried about it for hours. I went about 10 or 15 feet up a little hillside and found a small bush. It may have been big, but it felt like a small bush. It wasn’t more than 3’ high. But, it was time to stop moving, or so “Sam” whispered in my ear. Live or die, this was my spot. I can remember my main thoughts were about my Grandmother. She was well into her 70’s, and she and I were very close as I would stay with her often for summer vacation, months at a time. She had lost her oldest son, Harold Townsley, a B-24 Liberator navigator in WWII somewhere in the Mediterranean or Atlantic. I didn’t want her to lose me too.
My helmet was white in color and I had on a gray flight suit, not the green one later adopted. I could only be thankful it wasn’t orange, except my hair was a shade of orange. I pulled out my survival knife and dug a quick hole to bury my helmet upside down. I grabbed some loose dirt, spit on it to make mud and started rubbing it on my face and in my hair. I had a nice new, shiny, gold Cross ball point pen in my left sleeve shoulder pocket. I threw it in the hole. I had (T.E.) Lawrence of Arabia’s book, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” in my right calf pocket. I had enjoyed the movie and wanted to read his book. I threw that in the hole with my helmet. I had a blank check or two with my ex-wife’s and my name and address on it. I ate them. This all seemed to have happened within 20 to 30 seconds.
I could hear the enemy gathering around the aircraft wreckage and lots of talking. I had only gotten about 50 yards from the aircraft. Then gunfire started again. They were shooting randomly around the woods. Bullets were ticking the leaves and branches all around me. This lasted about 5 minutes, then nothing, except their occasional talking. If I could hear them talking in a normal voice, I knew they could hear me make any sound. I was on my stomach with my face turned to the side and I just froze in place.
Then the first ant made his presence known to me. Then hundreds, probably thousands. They got in my ears and nose and eyes. Repeat everywhere. I could keep my mouth closed, but I had to breathe carefully through my slightly open mouth so I could exhale forcefully through my nose to keep them out of there. The ears and eyes didn’t bother me too much, as I had to concentrate on my nose. This went on for about 2 to 3 hours, in my sense of time, anyway. Again, Sam jumped up on my shoulder and reminded me that ants were a good source of protein. I ended up eating several by crushing them with my lips or teeth. There was no taste, and I have no regrets.
I then heard aircraft overhead. They had to be ours. We had total air superiority, except for the occasional loss due to ground fire, like me. The closer they got, and the louder they got, I began to feel I could get on my survival radio. Every once in awhile I could see an aircraft off to the west. They were the A-1 Sky Raiders. The noise would be close and then drift away, and then come back again. I pulled out my survival radio, the PRC-46, if I recall correctly. When I turned it on, I could not keep the volume low enough to suit me. “Sam” reminded me of the rubberized speaker cover and how we had been trained to use it. This cover had a listening tube, so when you wanted to listen you would just place the end of the tube in your ear, and when you wanted to talk, you would hold down on the mic button, lift the speaker cover and speak into the mic, which was also the speaker.
When I turned on the radio, I could hear conversation going on between George and the lead A-1E Sky Raider, “Sandy 1 (the call sign of all SAR aircraft). I was listening to their conversation, but was still afraid to speak, when I heard George tell the Sandy that Covey 264 was dead. George thought, since I had had to follow him out the right side door of the O-2A and since he had minimal time in the chute, my chute never had time to open. I overheard the Sandy ask George one of his survivor verification questions, “What is your favorite drink?” George replied, “Bourbon and water,” but I distinctly remembered him ordering a bourbon and ginger the night before. I was worried for us. I thought he was wrong and I was still thought dead by the friendlies. I tried to butt into the conversation with my call sign, but I was being ignored, or I wasn’t being heard because of my whispering. I continuously tried to butt in, but now they thought they were being “spoofed” by the enemy. Without yelling and barely whispering, I had to use a few choice, very American words to let that Sandy know that Covey 264 was alive and kicking. He began to believe me, and when I heard him ask Hillsboro to get the verification data on me, I felt like I was making progress.
My verification question came in from Sandy, “What’s your favorite pie?” I answered, “Aunt Martha’s Apple Pie.” I heard Sandy tell the ABCCC,”Hillsboro”, we have two.” After that, all the radio conversation started sounding like it was working in our favor. But, I had trouble holding the tube to my ear to listen, then lifting the rubber cover containing the tube to talk. I could still hear the enemy talking, so I knew they could hear me talking. I then tried talking into the tube by talking into my closed fist holding the tube outstretched. It was a much quieter way to talk. “Sam” hadn’t taught me that, but it worked. Not well, but it was readable to the Sandy and that’s all I cared about. Sam told me they started teaching that method at survival school thereafter.
As the afternoon wore on, I had gotten across to the Sandy that I wasn’t very far from the downed aircraft. The enemy would occasionally fire randomly into the woods surrounding me. But, then there was silence. “Sam” told me they were setting up to shoot at the Jolly Greens when they came in for the final phase and when they were most vulnerable. I passed the word to Sandy that the “bad guys” are only about 50 yards from me set up someplace around my aircraft. Apparently Sandy had located George by one method or another.
The first set of Jolly Greens came on the scene. There appeared to be some confusion on the radio about which Jolly would make the rescue attempt Sandy began to direct him to my position.
Sandy asked me to pop some smoke. This meant revealing your position to the enemy, and if the pickup was unsuccessful, the alternative was not conducive to longevity. I took the chance and started to pop smoke.
Let us speak of fear. When the fear factor reaches #9, your subconscious takes over and makes your mind a blank. Then, slowly it lets in a thought-one that will save you,-and then another, and as you gradually get back to sound thinking, it lets everything back in. This happened down there once. With the smoke canister, it was different. I pulled the pin and raised my arm to toss. Nothing happened. I said to myself,”I don’t believe this.” Two more attempts, nothing, my arm was paralyzed. Then another try and my arm came forward. Red smoke began drifting up through the canopy.
At first a soft sound then louder. The trees began to shake and sway in the rotor wash, then I heard a deafening roar, and could see a Jolly Green. I left my position and scrambled for a small clearing, underneath the chopper.
The small arms fire was coming from all around. The chopper slid away to avoid the ground fire, I waved, they were taking multiple hits, they finally departed. I lay there in the small clearing, wondering what was going to happen next.
When I saw the Jolly Green it was 200 yards to my west and immediately gunfire erupted. I saw the Jolly Green pull up and away with somebody hanging from the penetrator cable. I was commanded to silence, so I couldn’t ask anything, just listen. I later learned they didn’t get George with the first chopper, but had sent one of those very brave PJs down to help George since he indicated his leg was hurt pretty bad in a conversation I never heard. The PJ was who I saw hanging from the Jolly’s cable. I also later learned that the chopper received about 50 small caliber bullet hits.
I lay there for 1 1/2 hours through 20 air strikes. Two more Jolly Greens checked in, they were still at altitude and heading for my position. Sandy kept asking if the ordinance was too close. “No way, Jose!” I answered. I figured if I took shrapnel up my left side, then all the V.C. to my left would be dead, and I’d have a better chance of getting out.
Sometime during the action there was a lack of TAC air. Sandy put us to sleep (turn off the radios, save power) and woke us with a low jet pass. I actually dozed off. My right hip felt a little sore. Looking back, I was in bad shape, pumping adrenaline, and unaware of my condition. I had memorized over the direction and approximate distance of the ground fire around me and turned that information over to Sandy when the Jollys arrived and checked in.
On Covey 585’s fateful day I was to fly as IP in with Capt. Chuck Lowry to check him out on the procedures used on alert at Quang Tri. We briefed and took off from Da Nang at dawn for Quang Tri. We were the Low Bird, which means we would make the rescue if launched and the High Bird would stay high as backup. Up to this point I had not had a mission where we encountered hostile fire. I think this was Chuck’s first time on the schedule and this was to be an interesting first outing. TSgt Bunting was early on his second combat rescue tour in RVN. The PJ, Sgt Winters, was a young PJ and we had several missions together at Da Nang.
Rescue HQ in Saigon normally released us from our alert status at Quang Tri by telephone, usually in time to fly back to DaNang to land at sunset. However, this day the call did not come at the usual time so I called them. They informed me that a mission was underway in Laos and we would be released when the mission was completed. Some time later they called back and said we could start back towards DaNang but the mission was still ongoing. Some Quang Tri Marines had asked to be taken back to DaNang for R&R and we normally took as many as we could but because the mission was not complete I did not take any passengers on my helicopter.
We started back and were feet wet (over water) when HQ called us on the radio and said the HH-53s were damaged and driven off by ground fire. We were given the location of the O-2 that had been shot down and told to expedite to that location for one more attempt prior to sunset. The call sign and radio frequency for the On Scene Commander, Sandy Lead, was also supplied. We turned back to the west and plotted the location. This area was on the trail with lots of bad guys and the sun was low over the horizon. Because the HH-53s had been shot up I knew this was going to be a hot mission so I switched seats with Chuck and flew as RCC. Meanwhile, the High Bird landed back at Quang Tri and dropped off its passengers and tried to catch up with us.
We established radio contact with Sandy Lead and he briefed us on the situation. There was a large concentration of troops to the east of the survivor’s positions and they were laying down a smoke screen to protect us. Sandy sent one of the A-1Es up to meet us and lead us to the survivor’s position. Our High Bird caught up with us just as the Sandy reached us. Sandy gave the High Bird a position to hold over and we joined on Sandy’s wing for the time of our lives. We let down at our maximum speed, 140 kts, and completed our pre-pickup checklist. This included dropping our external fuel tanks and dumping half of our remaining fuel to allow us to be able to hover out of ground effect and pick up 2 survivors. I briefed the crew not to shoot our M-60 machine guns (one mounted on either side) until we knew where the survivors were so we didn’t inadvertently shoot the people we came to rescue.
By now we could see the smoke screen and could guess the approximate positions of the survivors. They were down in a ravine and as we descended we passed over the top of a ridgeline and it lit up like the fourth of July, little white flashes from the muzzles of the small arms. Our doors and windows were open and we could hear the pop, pop, pop, but we took no hits. Once we reached the other side of the smoke screen the firing stopped and Sandy told Covey 585 to get his smoke ready but Covey had used his smoke on the previous rescue attempt all he had left was pen gun flares.
It was dusk, night was approaching. A flight of Sandys laid down smoke. As it drifted over me, I heard a Jolly Green coming. Smoke was all around now, and I fired my red pen gun flare straight up. It went off. I unscrewed the spent flare, screwed on another, then another. After four flares the Jolly was over me, and the jungle penetrator was coming down.
Survival training said let it hit the ground before you touch it. When it hit the ground, I dove for it, ripped the Velcro belt, put it around my back and attached the metal clip on the other side. Now whatever happens, I am part of the helicopter. I pressed the talk switch on my emergency radio, put it to my lips and yelled, “Get me the hell out of here!”
The Sandys had already set up their wheel formation to drop ordnance where one aircraft was always in the dive to deliver fire where needed but they were not dropping real close to the helicopter, yet. But that was soon to change. A NVA soldier started shooting at us straight out from the door where the FE was operating the hoist, level with us on the side of the ravine. He put six rounds between the PJ and the door jam. The FE was sitting or kneeling on the floor operating the hoist. The PJ was standing, assisting him, helping to guide the hoist cable and was ready to pull the survivor inside when he reached the door. The rounds made a perfect circle, no bigger than 6 inches in diameter, as they exited the other side of the helicopter. It’s a good thing he kept the pattern so tight or he would have hit the PJ or the FE. The PJ reported we receiving fire from the right side of the helicopter. When we told Sandy we were receiving ground fire and they laid ordinance even closer to us. Now I can see the napalm fireball out of my periphery vision and hear the phruuuuump of the explosion. Covey was still coming up on the hoist so we could not leave our position.
Another NVA soldier walked out into a small opening in the trees under the nose of helicopter and started shooting straight up at us with his AK-47, from our tail to our nose. I could see the flashes from the gun muzzle but I was powerless to do anything about him. He emptied a clip of ammo and reloaded, this time spraying the cockpit with bullets and disappeared, it’s lucky he didn’t shoot us down, as we would have landed right on top of him. He almost did! Three rounds hit the armor plate on the copilot’s seat, getting his attention. One round from the first burst severed the fuel line that fed fuel from the aft tank to the right engine. The right engine would have quit if the cross feed switch had not been open. But it was OPEN as it was part of the checklist during the descent. It’s a good thing, as we could not hover on one engine at that altitude. We did not know it at the time but another round had missed severing the other fuel line to the left engine by approximately one inch.
As the survivor reached the door the PJ pulled him inside the door just as the rounds came up through the floor. The PJ actually saw a round fall to the floor when it deflected off the transmission armor plate. This round had come into the cockpit and hit the armor plate at my elbow, deflected back to the armor around the flight controls and then up to the main transmission armor plate and fell to the floor. The survivor went immediately to the back of the helicopter and huddled on the pile of parachutes.
When the round hit the transmission armor plate it knocked both generators off the line. This turned ON the Master Caution light and both GEN FAILURE lights, lighting up the cockpit. Once the survivor was on board the PJ went to his machine gun on the left side started returning fire at people on the ground, lighting up the cabin. I nearly jumped out of my seat, startled by the noise so close to me (window gun diagonally behind my seat) as I was deciding what to do about the warning lights on the panel. I told the PJ we did not have the location of the other survivor so cease firing. The Sandy’s were laying down ordnance so close to us that the concussion pressure waves would raise the helicopter.
When the generators dropped off line so did the AFCS (automatic flight control system that acts like an autopilot to help the pilot hover) and we were now on battery power. I asked Chuck to see if the generators would reset, they did and he also reset my AFCS . Covey was now on board and we assessed the situation. We were under fire and had taken some bad hits, our aft fuel tank quantity was dropping fast and the aft tank was almost empty (may not have enough fuel to get to a safe area to land) and we could now smell the fuel fumes in the cabin/cockpit. It was time to go!
I told Sandy we were coming out. Sandy reiterated that we still had another pickup to make. I told him we did not enough fuel to do that as we had been shot up and it was too dark to try another attempt with the High Bird. We started forward into the blackness and Sandy told us not to fly over the smoke. Once we cleared the smoke I made a turn to the east and up the over the ridge. It lit up again and we were closer than on our descent, pop,pop,pop, but we took no further hits. We could hear Sandy telling the other Covey to hunker down and they would be back at dawn to get him. All of a sudden it was quiet and serene, the chaos was over. We were climbing to the east, the mountains below us were dark and nobody said a word for some time.
Sandy then says, “Covey 264, start talking.” I sat up from my cover behind the bush and took the cover off my radio speaker. The wind began rushing my way as I successfully directed that Jolly Green towards my position. When he got about 20 yards away, the gunfire opened up again and that Jolly Green pulls up and away. I later learned he received many hits too. George was inside that Jolly Green and later told me his side of the story, and it made shiver just to imagine being in there with all those bullets flying around inside.
Shortly, there was silence again. I had placed the cover back over the speaker and was just listening to the radios. Daylight was beginning to fade. I heard Sandy say, “Sandy flight, go channel 2.” Right then, I knew they were going to have to leave me behind. They didn’t have any more choppers available and it was getting dark. Sandy Lead came back up Guard and said, “Covey, we’re going to have to go. You need to dig in and be quiet. Do you have your equipment?” I said, “I’m OK, I’ve got the works.”
He said, “Understand you’ve got the works. OK, we’ll see you in the morning. Stay off your radio and your signal to come back up in the morning will be Misty (F-100) going afterburner overhead.” I replied, “Roger, I’ll see you then.” I immediately thought to myself, probably because I came from a military family and had been a Marine enlisted before transferring to the Air Force, “I’m a soldier, some of us make it and some of us don’t, but I’m going to try till I die.”
The area became deathly silent as I waited to see what was going to happen next. It was getting darker, but I could still see 100 yards if I needed to. I put my head down as I heard the enemy, either Pathet Lao or NVA, begin talking and walking along the path I had first taken. I think three to five men, but I wasn’t looking, passed within 15 yards of me and to this day I felt like one of them was arguing that there was still one guy out here and the other were saying, “No, no, there was only two chutes and they brought in two choppers, so that means they got both of them out.” Then the first guy would argue again and they would put him down again. I remember being glad he wasn’t persuasive. Nobody looked for me from that point on.
In the climb we tried to determine where the best place to go for fuel. A quick look determined it was closer to Khe Sanh than NKP so we continued to climb to the east. We shut off the aft boost pumps but had pumped the tank almost dry by this time so we had a lot of fuel in the dry bay between the two tanks. We tried to make minimum use of electrical switches to prevent sparking an explosion of the fuel fumes but some communications were required. Crown was too far away to intercept us for aerial refueling so we pressed on to the east. Another option we considered was to land in an open area and get on the high bird and leave our helo in the field. It was only 30 miles to Khe Sanh and another 30 miles to Quang Tri.
As we approached Khe Sanh they came up on the radio and asked if we wanted the runway lights for landing. When we were overhead we looked at the fuel again and decided it was only 30 miles further to press on to Quang Tri and we had already used half of the fuel remaining from the pickup. But we were at altitude and would not use much in the descent. A friend of mine had been killed at Khe Sanh; he had taken a mortar round in the cockpit of his helo there. I did not want this to happen after all we had done so far, we pressed on.
We were at 10,000 ft and could almost glide to Quang Tri from our position. We switched radio freqs to the GCA approach at Quang Tri and asked for radar vectors to a very short final. There were some low thin clouds and we could not see the base yet but did not want to fly an extra foot at this low fuel state. We started down at minimum power to save every ounce of fuel and once we got below the clouds we could see the runway. We went direct to the runway, landing with a hundred pounds of fuel remaining.
We shut down our leaking helo, exited and got back on the High Bird for the return flight to DaNang. When we arrived at DaNang there was a large contingent to meet us but I was in overload by now and only remember how good the cold beer tasted. The end of a very, very long day.
HH-3E, 37th ARRS, DaNang, SVN
Meanwhile back on the ground, I had a good place to hide and I wasn’t going to move from it. I now had to pee. I sat up and unzipped my flight suit but found it very difficult to pee because after a moment a puddle would form, and that meant noise. I’d have to stop, let the water become absorbed in the ground, and begin again. You might laugh at my paranoia about making noise, but I didn’t want to make even the slightest sound and every little sound I made was magnified by the jeopardy I felt. This noise problem became more apparent as I began unwrapping all the survival equipment in my survival vest. Most of it was wrapped in a kind of waxed paper. As I tried to unwrap it, I definitely was making too much noise. I had to proceed so slowly as I got out my signaling mirror, my smoke flares, my spare radio battery, my orange signaling panels, my luminous compass, and my tracer signaling bullets. It was night, so I decided to load my 38-caliber revolver with the signaling bullets. I set everything around me so I knew where it was as darkness settled over the woods. It became pitch black and I literally could not see my hand in front of my face. I could see some stars straight above.
As night wore on I concentrated on the continuous noises I could hear. First was the encampment of the soldiers who had just walked by my position. All I could figure about this was that there must have been several more soldiers there. Then I could hear some trucks driving close by and parking someplace to my Northwest, then those drivers walking and talking their way towards the encampment. Then I heard this sound of what I later described as a lasso or rope in a clothes dryer going ‘ka-lump, ka-lump’, steady and continuous, all night long. “Sam had taught me about my luminous compass. But, only two things were luminous on it; a dot on North end of the compass’ floating pointer and a dot on a turnable dial cover. Each click of the dial cover represented either 2 or 3 degrees of the compass. I knew then. So, if I aligned the dots to begin, I would be pointing North or 0 degrees. As I counted the clicks of the deal’s cover dot around to the east, I determined the last noise was coming from 100 degrees at about 200 meters, probably somewhere along the stream that I crossed earlier. It was later pegged to be an ammunitions factory. I kept clicking to the south and southwest and determined the encampment was about 190 degrees from my position at about 75 to 100 meters. Finally, I clicked off the truck’s parking area, which I determined to be about 300 meters at 300 degrees.
Later that evening, I heard a distant rifle shot. Then, a little bit later, one sounded closer, and then another, closer still. Then a plane flew by overhead. It took me a couple of times to realize that this was their way of signaling ahead in the Laotian countryside that a plane was coming in to their area. The third plane that flew over lingered awhile and I watched a 37mm “triple A” (anti-aircraft artillery) open up on it. I only heard the airplanes as they always flew with all external lights out so as not to make it easy for the enemy gunners. Its engines change pitch back and forth, so I knew it was dodging those bullets. I had something else to click off with my hand compass. Especially since this was the 37mm that probably shot me down, or so I imagined. It was about 100 meters southwest of where I figured the encampment to be. I went over the numbers and burned them in to my memory. Then, I didn’t have anything to do.
I got out the orange panel and rolled it up and put it under my head and I rested. I actually fell asleep just listening to the noises around me. Suddenly I was awakened by two voices getting closer and closer. I was on my back, so I turned my white, partially muddied face away from them and held my breath. These two soldiers or villagers casually passed 3 feet from my head and didn’t see me, and I was thankful once again. I laid back again and rested some more. I knew I was on a path, but I couldn’t bring myself to move. I didn’t know where I’d be going and I’d survived two close calls so far.
Sometime later in the night, as I was laying there, something started pulling at my hair. It startled me awake. Whatever it was, I presume a rat or some other rodent, scurried away, making so much noise that it scared me again. I laid back down and I could hear the rodent approaching again, and again it started pulling my hair. I decided to let it pull away as long as he would remain quiet. This lasted about 20 minutes. The rest of the night was generally uneventful, except for the occasional noise of the 37 mm AAA, the continual noise of the factory, and conversation over at the encampment.
Morning came slowly, and my confidence began to wane as I could see and be seen. I laid there and heard an O-2A overhead. I figured it was looking for me, but I needed to conserve my radio batteries. I figured there wasn’t anything they could do for me without the Sandy and the Jolly Green contingent on station. So I waited. Well, little did I know that Russ Howard, Covey 256, was supposed to locate me for my squadron, the 20th TASS, that morning. But, that wasn’t what I was told, and I needed now to believe that Sandy Lead would do what he said he would. Also, by regulation, I had to be officially listed as MIA (Missing in Action) the night before.
Finally, an hour after sunrise, after I heard other aircraft flying, an F-100 Misty finally went afterburner overhead. I pop up on my radio and Sandy Lead says, “Where have you been, sleeping?” I replied, “Actually yes, and I’ve got several targets here for you.”
“What’s your situation, Covey?”
“I’m fine. From my position, I’ve got a factory at 100 degrees, 200 meters. An encampment at….” And I kept ticking off targets.
“Slow down, slow down. Covey. Did you say a factory, like manufacturing plant?”
“OK, start over to make sure we have these.”
So I listed the targets again, now speaking through the tube all the time. I would just speak louder when planes were overhead.
“Covey, it looks like we’ll have to work out here for awhile before we pull you out.”
“OK. Roger. Let me know when you’re ready.”
“OK,” said Sandy, “now what I want you to do is turn off your radio for ten minutes and then come back up and listen. Check in briefly then go back down for another 10 minutes. We’ll do that until we’re ready to pick you up. Are you injured?”
“OK, shut down 10.”
After a couple of check-ins, Sandy started working over the area with several sets of F-4s and A-1s. I just laid back down and listened gratefully as the bombs hit the ground around me.
Then suddenly, (seems like everything is “then suddenly”) a “Willy Pete” (White Phosphorous) rocket hit very close to me and the fire ball was coming right at me in the air, but dissipated just 10 feet over my head. I jumped on the radio and hollered “Knock it off, knock it off. That last Willy Pete was too close to me.”
“Covey, are you all right?”
“Yes, it’s just that last Willy Pete was about 10 feet from me.”
“OK, OK, we need to reconstruct exactly where you’re at.”
I pulled out my signaling mirror. I didn’t want to sit up and expose myself, so rather than aiming the signal mirror as was intended, I had to use the nearby leaf concept. The only direction I could see the Sandies was to the West. I raised the mirror upwards. The sunlight was coming from the east. I found a leaf to my West and concentrated on getting the Sun’s reflection on that leaf. When a Sandy flew near the leaf, I would move the sun flash back and forth onto the Sandy and back to the leaf.
After about 5 minutes of this, the Sandy asked, “Are you hearing gunfire, or is that you with a mirror?”
“That’s me with a mirror.”
“OK, Covey, you can stop now, we have you pinpointed.”
They worked over the area for about 3 hours, and I would faithfully pop up on the radio every 10 minutes. No one was looking for me, so I would shut back down for another ten minutes.
Finally came the moment of truth.
“Covey, we’ve been working over the area for 3 hours. Do you hear anything?”
“I need you to move away for a couple of minutes so I can listen.”
“OK, we’ll fly away for two minutes and then come back.”
After two minute I came up and told them I didn’t hear anything but the CBU still going off to the East.
“OK, Covey, we’re coming in with the “salad.” This was the code word for CS type tear gas. “Do you know what I’m saying and will you be able to handle it?”
“I know and I’ll be fine.” While in the Marine Corps, during advanced combat training we had to stand in an enclosed shed full of tear gas without mask and sing the Marine Corps Hymn and then be call out alphabetically. Out of 50 Marines, my name, Townsley, got me out with about 3 guys left inside. When I got outside I was fine, save for the tears and a very cleared out sinus system.
So the gas came down, and soon I could hear the Jolly Green approaching. I was using my radio to vector him to my position. I watched the penetrator begin to come down as he got nearly overhead. But then he started heading East, dragging the penetrator with him. I got up with my pistol in one hand and radio in the other and I started running after the penetrator. I ran back by my crashed aircraft and finally caught up with the penetrator, pulled down the seat and gave the trained thumbs up. I started going up, but the cable had been so twisted in the previous dragging maneuver that I was spinning very fast all the way up into the Jolly Green. I was just looking for some enemy to pop out of the woods, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to hit him spinning the way I was.
When I got inside the Jolly Green everybody was crying, and combat photographer was trying to take pictures of me, but he was crying too. They slowly peeled the pistol out of my hand and unloaded it. They laid me on a cot and covered me with a blanket. They knew I’d start shivering from my adrenaline rush. They weren’t kidding. I soon started shaking and could not bring it into check for about 15 minutes. I’ve got a picture of me finally relaxed, with cigarette in hand.
When I got into NKP, Thailand to debrief with the Intelligence folks, I found out I had been declared MIA, and that my wife and parents had been notified. Also, that I couldn’t have a beer until after I’d seen the doctor, and that they never laid CBU down on the target to the east of my position, or anywhere for that matter. Those were secondary explosions I had heard, they told me. When I arrived back at the 20th TASS four days later, George greeted me and we sat and down and exchanged what happened to us, trying to make the stories match up and make more sense.
I was asked by my Squadron Commander if I wanted a Command Post job. I said, “NO, I’ve got to get back on that horse.” My nickname, thereafter, was “Cowboy,” until I assumed the “Blister” nickname when Army Sgt. John Grant died as a mercenary in South Africa in the late 70’s. Grant was someone I flew several Prairie Fire Special Operations missions with over Laos.
Ten days after my shoot down, I was asked if I wanted to fly over “my spot” because a B-52 ARCLIGHT raid was scheduled to destroy my spot and everything around it. This was also the day I made 1st LT and I certainly wanted to, and did. Later my Squadron Commander put in for a Bronze Star for ground action, but somewhere upstairs in the Air Force hierarchy they bumped it up to a Silver Star. The day before I left Vietnam I was awarded the Silver Star by the future Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General George S. Brown, 11 months after I was shot down.
The Air Force Times used to have a section call “Stake Your Claim.” The guys in the squadron submitted my name as “The only Air Force Second Lieutenant to be shot down and rescued in Southeast Asia”. I never heard of a counter claim, and I don’t know it it’s really true or not. Some sergeants from Clark AFB’s PACAF Jungle Survival School came to DaNang especially to debrief me, (“Sam” wasn’t with them, but they promised to pass the word that I felt him perched on my shoulder) took back one of my hats with the 2nd Lt. Bar on it and nailed it to the Successful Recovery Board with my name attached. For years thereafter I would have guys tell me “my story” (as they remembered it) and that my 2nd Lt. Hat was the only 2nd Lt Hat on “The Board.”
“Oh, you’re the guy who left the footprint in the riverbank.”
“Well, yeah, but they started using cloth instead of waxed paper to wrap your survival gear because of me, and also you learned something new about the PRC-24. Why do they teach you about that footprint thing.”
“Because it was a mistake.”
“Hell, getting shot down was a mistake!”
Covey 585 and wife - today