The U.S. Coast Guard had a few of their helicopter pilots on exchange duty with the the U.S. Air Force during the VietNam War. LT Jack C. Rittichier was the first and only Coast Guard rescue helicopter pilot Killed in Action. This is the story of that rescue mission.
of Jolly Green 23
June 9, 1968
By Ken Freeze
The Last Mission of Hellborne 215
On 9 June 1968, Marine Corps 1st Lt. Walter R. Schmidt, Jr. (call sign Hellborne 215) climbed aboard his A-4E Skyhawk and took off from Chu-Lai Air Base, Republic of Vietnam on a mid-morning mission. He was part of a multiple aircraft direct combat support mission for U.S. troops fighting in the notorious A Shau Valley, Thua Thien Province, South Vietnam.
Marine Corps 1st Lt. Walter R. Schmidt, Jr. was assigned to VMA-121 Marine Air Group 12, 1st Marine Air Wing.
This area was the primary gateway from the Ho Chi Minh Trail into strategic sections of northern South Vietnam. A border road that cut through the valley was used by the Communists to transport weapons, supplies and troops from North Vietnam into South Vietnam, and was frequently no more than a path cut through the jungle covered mountains. U.S. forces used all assets available to them to stop this flow of men and supplies from moving south into the war zone.
At 10:20 in the morning, after making a bombing run on an enemy position, Schmidt's aircraft was struck by ground fire. His aircraft continued to the northwest and crashed in the densely forested mountains approximately 5 miles northwest of the northern edge of the A Shau Valley, 2 miles northeast of the South Vietnamese/Lao border and the same distance southwest of a primary road leading from the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This road ran east/west from the border eastward to a point near the northern tip of the A Shau Valley. It then turned south-southeast running along the full length of the east side of the dense jungle covered valley.
Schmidt was seen to eject from his crippled Skyhawk and descend safely to the ground. Other pilots saw his parachute caught in trees and were able to immediately establish voice contact with him. He reported to the other pilots that he sustained a broken leg while ejecting and was unable to move.
Unfortunately for Schmidt, he had not only landed near a major North Vietnamese Army infiltration route but also on the edge of the North Vietnamese Army Base referred to as Area 611.
"X" marks the approximate crash record loss location. However, eyewitness accounts place the crash on the south edge of the circle. Click to See Enlarged Map. Map from Tom Pilsch
Click here for more info on the A Shau Valley
Jolly Greens Take Flight
At 10:26, Crown 01, which was on orbit for air refueling of a Jolly Green at position Tango (flying over the Gulf of Tonkin) received a call reporting Hellborne 215 down.
When word was received of the downed pilot at the 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron in Da Nang, two HH-3Es were scrambled. Jolly Green 22 piloted by Major Arthur J. Anderson took off five minutes later. Jolly Green 23, was delayed and took off 15 minutes later. At the controls of Jolly Green 23 was Coast Guard LT Jack C. Rittichier along with a USAF crew consisting of Captain Richard C. Yeend, Jr, co-pilot; SSGT Elmer L. Holden, flight engineer; and SGT James D. Locker, pararescueman.
Soon the Jolly Greens met up with their escorts, Spad 01 and Spad 02 (A-1E). Also enroute were Scarface 6-1 and Scarface 6-2 (Marine Huey gunships) , FACs Trail 35, Trail 33 and Trail 36 (0-1). They were all headed for the A Shau Valley. The first FAC to arrive in the area spotted Schmidt under his parachute. Through voice contact, Schmidt reported that he had a broken right leg and a left arm and that he would need help.
Trail 35 reported that there was ground fire in the area as well as bunkers and trucks.
It was determined that it was too dangerous for the Jollies and Spads to enter the area unit it was made safe. In the meantime, they would hold their positions to the northwest.
Hellborne 522, Ringneck 528, Gunfighter 7 and Gunfighter 8 (Navy F-4) hit the area several times under the direction of the FAC. By 11:40 the Jollies and Spads were brought into the area for the first pick-up attempt. Around noon, Jolly Green 22 located Schmidt a few yards from a road. With Jolly Green 23 flying high, Jolly Green 22 descended in to the area in a spiraling right turn, jettisoning its tip tanks and dumping fuel in preparation for a high altitude rescue. The two Scarface gunships covered the Jolly as is descended. Soon, Jolly Green 22 received heavy enemy ground fire from the valley floor and surrounding ridges. The pilot felt his Jolly Green had been hit and pulled up in a steep left turn.
After determining that his aircraft was OK, the pilot again attempted the rescue, this time with a straight in approach from the northwest, trying to avoid the enemy ground fire area.
As the pilot pulled Jolly Green 22 into a hover, extremely heavy ground fire erupted, most of it coming from the ridge to the left of the helicopter. The door gunners from the Jolly Green returned the fire as the pilot pulled out of the area.
Jolly Green 22 returned to an orbit position as the FAC called in additional ground strikes.
After about 20 minutes of intense fire suppression activity, Jolly Green 22 once again joined the two Scarface gunships and Spads, 01 and 02 for another rescue attempt.
Once again as Jolly Green 22 slowed to a hover, ground fire erupted, but this time it was coming from literally every direction, from the hillside above to the ravine below and from the front and back of Jolly Green 22. Once again the pilot pulled the craft up and out of harms way, returning to obit a safe distance away.
Jolly Green Hit
More suppression strikes were ordered in, however, now Jolly Green 22 was low on fuel. Trail 36 asked Rittichier, at the controls of Jolly Green 23 if he would be able to make the rescue attempt. Rittichier replied that he would and that he would use the Scarface gunships as his high cover. Jolly Green 22 remained in the area until it was critically low on fuel and was forced to depart. As Jolly Green 22 headed back to refuel, he heard the radio calls of Rittichier reporting heavy gunfire and relaying the directions of the incoming fire to the Spads and gunships.
Rittichier continued his approach under fire until initiating a hover over the survivor at which time he decided the attempt was futile.
Jolly Green 23 came around for a second try. What happened next was witnessed by Lt. Col Robert C. Dubois, USAF (Ret.) who was Trail 33 (FAC): (As published on Tom Pilsch's Web site "The Search for Jolly Green 23".)
I remember it [Hellborne 215 parachute] being on the north side of the east west section of road that ran into Laos and it was hung up in a tree. I never actually saw the A-4 pilot but understood he was in the bushes next to the chute and was injured and could not move.
After the fighters had put down suppression ordinance Jolly Green 23 said he was going in for an attempted pick up. Jolly Green 23 went into a hover over the A-4 pilot and turned to face the west. The PJ was on the wire being lowered when Jolly Green 23 reported that he was taking fire. I saw fire coming out of the left side near the engine and told Jolly Green 23 that he had a fire on the left side.
He started pulling out and I advised him that there was a clearing 1,000 meters North if he had to set down. He said he was going for the clearing.
The fire appeared to extinguish and I advised Jolly Green 23 of that. He said he was going to set it down as he reached the clearing. He was in a descent but still above the height of the trees along the edge of the clearing when the main rotor stopped turning. The Jolly Green 23 hit the ground and burst into flames that consumed anything that looked like an aircraft.
After refueling and a quick check for battle damage, Jolly Green 22 returned to the area. Enroute, Anderson asked the status of the mission and was informed that Jolly Green 23 had crashed and that there were no survivors.
Although four people were now dead, Schmidt was still alive and needed to be rescued. Jolly Green 28, commanded by Capt. Jerry M. Griggs, arrived on scene at 1:20 p.m. and orbited for an hour before being cleared to attempt another rescue. Jolly Greens 22 and 24 flew high cover while the two Huey gunships, Sandy 9 and Sandy 10, as well as Seaworthy 4-1 and Seaworthy 4-2 were flying close cover.
Jolly Green 28 came in for a rescue attempt and pulled into a hover, as it did so, it was hit with server ground fire from all directions. Griggs made a diving exit as the crew of the Jolly Green 28 returned the fire.
As Jolly Green 28 was pulling out of the area, the fire warning light for the number two engine illuminated and it experienced a drop in power. Other aircraft in the area reported smoke coming from the number two engine. Jolly Green 28 was now in trouble. With only one engine, it didn’t have the power to clear the mountains in the area. Jolly Green 24, commanded by Major Harvie L. Stringer, came down to escort Jolly Green 28 out of the area by following the road. Trail 36 lead the way while Sandy 9 and Sandy 10 flew cover.
But as the group followed the road, they were coming under heavy ground fire. Griggs needed to get Jolly Green 28 higher so it could clear the 3,700 feet ridgeline for a quick exit out of the valley. He ordered the crew of Jolly Green 28 to begin throwing everything possible out of the helicopter in order to lighten it. But Jolly Green 28 kept loosing altitude as Griggs maneuvered the helicopter to avoid enemy ground fire. Somehow, Jolly Green 28 was able to regain the necessary altitude and crossed the ridge out of the valley. A short time later, Griggs landed Jolly Green 28 at Kha Sanh.
Meanwhile, Stringer landed Jolly Green 24 for refueling and then returned to the rescue mission.
The Rescue Attempt Continues
During this time, numerous air strikes were made to suppress the ground fire. At 3:15 p.m. Crown 1 was relieved by Crown 2 and Hellborne 215 had been on the ground, wounded, for four hours.
Sandy 9 and 10 flew over the area to evaluate the around before another Jolly Green came in. There was no ground fire. Jolly Green 22 was low on fuel so Crown 2 suggested that Jolly Green 24 make the attempt. While Jolly Green 22 was still in the area, Jolly Green 24 made an approach. Stringer pulled the helicopter into a hover, and just as he did, flight engineer SSGT Robert H. Baldwin called, "Pull off, Ground Fire!" as he began to return fire himself. Ground fire was erupting from every possible angle, but now it also included fire from .50 caliber machine guns.
Stringer immediately pulled the craft up to exit. But this time the North Vietnamese grounds troops were ready for him. He was headed directly into an ambush of heavy ground fire. Stringer turned the helicopter to the right and dove down a ridge line only to fly directly into ground fire once again. Apparently the previous air attack had done little to soften up the enemy. In fact they had had time to bring in more and heavier guns.
Stringer advised Trail 33 and Crown 2 that the area was still hot. That ground fire was coming from the ridge to the right of Hellborn 215 and from spider holes (which the Vietnamese troops used like bunkers) immediately below the road.
Jolly Green 27, commanded by Major Stuart H. Hoag, arrived on scene and Stringer advised him that the area was still hot with automatic weapons fire 20 to 30 yards both north and south of the Hellborne 215. Also that Hellborne 215 was not moving and that radio contact had been lost. Any more attempts would have to wait.
Stringer on Jolly Green 24 left the scene to refuel. While on the ground he called Queen by telephone and passed his evaluation and recommendations.
At 4:45 p.m. Jolly Green 27, flying low and Jolly Green 33, flying high, arrived back on scene and shortly thereafter, Jolly Green 22 also returned. All three orbited the area as the site was again hit with CBU-19 (a tear gas like agent) and napalm.
The crews on the Jollies circling overhead were instructed to put on their gas masks in preparation for the use of the CBU-19, however all three crews experienced the same problem in that the microphone fittings in that the gas masks were not compatible with the crew helmets. If they used the masks, no voice communications would be possible either inside their helicopter among the crew or with other aircraft engaged in the rescue attempt.
The crew of Jolly Green 33 came up with an alternate plan. The flight engineer SGT David Rodriquez volunteered to remove his helmet and use a headset, with which the gas mask was compatible. The pararescueman, SGT Ernest D. Casbeer, used an older type gas mask, which was compatible with his helmet. The co-pilot, Captain Paul D. Ashley devised a method of transmitting by putting his mike on his larynx. The pilot, Captain William E. Brennan had a different mike and was unable to jury rig any method of using it. The crew had devised a method of communications that would allow for the use of the CBU-19 and perhaps enable them to rescue Hellborne 215 on the ground.
CBU-19 was dropped on both sides of the Hellborne 215. Jolly Green 33 began its approach and entered a hover. However, in spite of the use of the CBU-19, in just seconds, Jolly Green 33 was driven off by ground fire. But in those few seconds of hovering, the flight engineer spotted Hellborne 215 lying on the ground partially covered by his parachute. The engineer could see that he was lying on his back with one leg under him, which appeared broken. He was not moving.
Jolly Green 33, left the area to refuel. While refueling, Jolly Greens 22, 27 and 33 received a message from Crown 2 to return to base. It was 6:30 p.m. and Hellborne 215 had been on the ground for a little over eight hours. The missions had been canceled.
At dawn the next day, a ground team was inserted into the area. During their search in and around where Hellborne 215 had landed, no trace of him or his parachute could be found. All attempts to re-establish radio contact with him also proved futile. Under the circumstances, formal search and rescue efforts were concluded, Walter R. Schmidt, Jr. was listed as a Prisoner of War.
Attempts to Locate the Crash Site
Force Looks for Missing Copter
The Associated Press - Nov 14, 1998
HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. (AP) -- The Air Force is hoping flight simulations can help solve the disappearance 30 years ago of a rescue helicopter in Vietnam.
The project may lead to similar efforts to find other aircraft that vanished during the Vietnam War, former flight engineer Bob Baldwin said Wednesday as the nation marked Veterans Day.
Baldwin is part of a team of veterans teaming up with the Air Force to find an HH-3E Jolly Green Giant and its four-man crew. The helicopter named Jolly Green 23 vanished June 9, 1968, while searching for a downed attack pilot, who also remains unaccounted for.
Baldwin was part of the wartime effort to find the helicopter. Thirty years later, he's helping with a new search despite being thousands of miles away from the scene. Black and white aerial photos taken in the late 1960s were converted into digital photos and matched with current maps to recreate the wartime landscape near the Vietnam-Laos border. Baldwin then used a computer joy stick to fly through the scene displayed on a console. "I just closed my eyes and when I opened them up, it was like stepping back 30 years,'' Baldwin said. "The only thing missing is that the tracers aren't coming at you'' from antiaircraft guns.
The simulations at the Hurlburt base in the Florida Panhandle allowed Baldwin and another former pilot to pick out three spots where the helicopter may have crashed.
A military team in Vietnam searched for four days before the monsoon season forced them to stop. They plan to resume when the rains end next year, said Maj. Mike Vaughn, who helps supervise computer mapping and flight simulator work at Hurlburt.
The team found no sign of Jolly Green 23, but did find wreckage of a Marine helicopter that had been forced down. All but one of the crew members had escaped.
In early 1973, during Operation Homecoming, the communists released 591 American Prisoners of War. In conjunction with Operation Homecoming, the North Vietnamese released a list of American Prisoners of War who they state died in captivity. Walter Schmidt was not included in this list of Americans who died while under the control of the communists.
In April 1991 the U.S. government released a list of Prisoners of War and Missing in Action who were known to be alive in enemy hands and for whom there is no evidence that he or she died in captivity. This list, commonly referred to today as the USG's "Last Known Alive" list, includes 1st Lt. Walter Schmidt.
Rittichier's widow, the former Carol Ann Laux, remarried several years after his death to another Coast Guard Aviator, who retired as a commander in 1980. They currently live in California
In the Vietnam war, 8,000 Coast Guardsman served in combat or direct support roles. Of those, seven were killed and 60 were wounded. LT Jack C. Rittichier is the only Coast Guardsmen whose body has not been recovered.
On October 12, 1991, a villager turned in to the "Office PA15 - Public Security", Dong Ngi Province, Vietnam, a dog tag and remains reportedly belonging to Lt. Rittichier. The information on the dog tag correlates with the correct data for Jack Rittichier. That information was provided to U.S. personnel, however, the dog tag and remains were not turned over by the Vietnamese. There was no information provided by the villager as to the fate of the other crewmen.
In his honor, the Integrated Support Command in Portsmouth, VA, commissioned its Administration and Electronic Systems Support Unit building the Rittichier Building, during a formal ceremony held November 10, 1998. A hangar at Coast Guard Air Station Detroit is also dedicated in his honor.