Maj. Larry Mehr directed a rescue that old hands
called "a classic."
There were few safe or simple missions in
the air war over Southeast
Asia. Many who were there
will tell you that at the top of the difficulty scale was
the job of on-scene commander in a large rescue operation. That job demanded
extraordinary concentration and ability to divide one's attention among many
demands: locating the downed airman, deliberately exposing oneself to ground
fire to locate enemy guns, controlling all the participants in the rescue
effort (the helicopters and their A-1 Sandy escorts as well as the supporting
jet fighters), acting as a forward air controller, and making the crucial
judgment when to call in the choppers.
One of the best at this task was Maj.
Richard L. "Larry" Mehr, a one-time F-100
pilot who volunteered to fly A-1s with the 602d Fighter Squadron (Commando),
based at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand. The rescue operation
on July 2-3, 1967, for
which he was on-scene commander, has been called a classic among the hundreds
of such missions in southeast Asia.
It all began on July 2 at 4:45 p.m. when
Capt. Dale Pichard, call sign "Pintail 2,"
bailed out of his damaged F-105 about 20 miles northeast of MuGia Pass, near the Laotian border. Pichard's flight reported his approximate location to
Crown, the HC-130 that coordinated rescue operations. Crown, in turn, passed
the word to the alert force of A-1 Sandys at Udorn and the HH-3E
Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopters at NakhonPhanom RTAFB.
At , four Sandys took off from Udorn, led
by Major Mehr. He and his wingman, Capt. P. K. Kimminau, went directly to the reported location of the
downed pilot while the other two Sandys escorted two Jolly Greens to a relatively safe area
nearby. One of the helicopters turned back with mechanical problems, leaving
the HH-3E flown by Capt. Gregory Etzel without a
backup in the event he was shot down. Etzel was on
his first rescue mission but elected to stay with the team.
The rescue scene was a ridge line between
two heavily populated valleys. The initial search for Pichard
by Mehr and Kimminau was
not successful. Under sporadic ground fire, Mehr saw
a chute on the ground but could not make radio contact with Pichard,
who was hiding in heavy undergrowth.
As darkness approached, Mehr
called in Etzel to look over the chute. The Jolly
Green made voice contact with Pichard. Major Mehr and the other Sandys covered
Etzel as they flew north toward Pichard's
apparent position. Ground fire now was the heaviest Mehr
had seen in his 180 missions, 82 of them over the North. Darkness forced them
to suspend the mission until first light the next day.
Back at Udorn,
Larry Mehr laid out the next day's rescue mission and
coordinated these plans with the TacticalAirSupportCenter. The Sandys and HH-3Es would be supported by20 F-105s from Pichard's wing, the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Korat RTAFB. The plan was completed near , with takeoff set for
Arriving at the rescue area at first light, Mehr instructed the jet fighters to hold "high and
dry" while he verified Pichard's position,
assessed the intensity of ground fire, and silenced some of the most menacing
guns. When he had Pichard pinpointed, he began
marking targets with white phosphorus rockets. As soon as the F-105s had
expended their general-purpose and cluster bombs on these targets, he directed
them to refuel at an orbiting tanker and return to strafe the area. Satisfied
that ground fire had been contained, Mehr told two of
his Sandys to use their rockets on trails leading to Pichard's
position and his wingman to escort Etzel's Jolly
Green into position for a pickup. After a high-speed approach through
continuing ground fire, the HH-3E, hovering at 75 feet, picked up the downed
Major Mehr's fuel
was getting dangerously low, probably from a hit in one of his tanks.
Nevertheless, he decided to stay with the mission as long as possible. He
directed the Sandys to strafe on both sides of the HH-3E's exit route.
When the rescue helicopter was over reasonably safe terrain, Mehr declared a fuel emergency, turned over control of the
search-and-rescue force to Sandy 3,
and headed for NakhonPhanom.
Thirty miles east of that base, his fuel gauge showed zero pounds remaining.
With his engine running on fumes, he penetrated an undercast
and landed safely, exactly four hours after taking off from Udorn.
Both his centerline external and internal tanks had been punctured by flak.
For his extraordinary performance directing
these two missions in a high-threat area and with no losses, Maj. Larry Mehr was awarded the Air Force Cross, as was Capt. Greg Etzel. Before completing his Southeast Asia tour in August 1967, Major Mehr
also was awarded the Silver Star. He retired as a colonel in 1972, and now
lives in Oregon, Ill. Nothing in his Air Force career is more satisfying
to him than having been a key player in several successful rescue operations.
For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for