The first American in the Vietnam War was a young lieutenant, Ken Moranville, who turned over AD Skyraiders to Saigon’s air arm in September 1960.
The Vietnam War was the longest in American history, and challenged naval aviation not only on carrier decks but also along the coasts and in the rivers. F-4 Phantom and F-8 Crusader pilots battled North Vietnamese MiGs near Hanoi and, after overcoming early flaws in training and readiness, gave a good account of themselves. But as usual, the real war was closer to the ground. Navy pilots flew armed Huey helicopters and OV-10 Bronco planes on river convoy duty and prowled the coast for North Vietnamese infiltration. When the final mission by a Martin SP-5B Marlin was completed in 1965, it marked the end of service by any Navy flying boat – although the Coast Guard’s Albatross had a little longer to go.
Navy men fought courageously in Vietnam, but the brass was criticized for applying air and naval power unevenly. 7th Fleet carrier battle groups in the Gulf of Tonkin did not come under the U.S. air commander in Saigon. North of the 17th Parallel, those fierce rivals the Navy and Air Force parceled up North Vietnam, with each service claiming part of the geography for its targets. The result was a confusing command-and-control arrangement. None of this detracted from the incredible sacrifice of individual heroes – men like Rear Adm. James B. Stockdale, who resisted torture as a prisoner of war, and helicopter pilot Lt. Clyde Lassen, who flew into a hail of gunfire to rescue a downed pilot, both recipients of the Medal of Honor.
Lassen’s mission was supposed to be simple: Take off from a destroyer and fly in daylight to rescue the pilot of any battle-damaged aircraft that came out of North Vietnam and ditched in the Gulf of Tonkin. But Lassen’s crew left the safety of the Gulf, crossed the coast, and flew 25 miles inland in sheer darkness. As co-pilot Lt. j.g. Leroy Cook put it, “Nobody had ever done a night inland rescue. It just wasn’t done.”
Lassen, Cook, and crew were launched after a missile blasted an F-4 Phantom out of the night sky near Vinh. The pilot, Cmdr. John Holtzclaw, and back-seater, Lt. John “Zeke” Burns, parachuted into the darkness.
Said co-pilot Cook: “It was after midnight June 18, 1968, when we got the call, and the F-4 crew had been on the ground about half an hour.”
Lassen went into the combat information center, the CIC, to get a briefing while Cook got the UH-2A Seasprite ready to fly. “When Clyde came in and strapped in, with his survival gear on – we had all of this stuff stored in the aircraft, so we could put it on right there and jump in – he released the rotor brake, which started the generators going. We got safety power going and the aircraft became self-sufficient as far as its needs electrically, and we would disconnect the power cord. There were several people on the deck guiding this process. One of the detachment crew people stood out in front of the aircraft and signaled when we were clear to go.”
“We went in at about 5,000 feet. We were more concerned about being shot down by small-arms fire than by heavy stuff. We had never faced heavy stuff, really. Our major fear was, you go down below 2,000 feet and you’re in range of somebody shooting you down with an AK-47 or whatever weapon of choice they happen to have at that time.”
Added Cook: “We had no defensive electronic equipment on the H-2 that would have detected a radar-guided missile. We were a shipboard, ‘fly over the water and pick people out of the ocean’ rescue vehicle. As we were flying up the valley at 5,000 feet, somebody on the ground shot something very big at us. It went past my side of the aircraft and it left a big trail of sparks. Without threat analysis capability in the aircraft, we could only guess what it was but it must have been a SAM [a Soviet-built SA-2 ‘Guideline’ surface-to-air missile]. Am I certain it was a SAM? Not really. It was big enough that with doors closed and over the noise of the aircraft and the transmission it still made this big loud ‘Whoosh!’”
Lassen was given vectors toward the spot where Holtzclaw and Burns were evading the North Vietnamese in heavy foliage.
Lassen brought his Seasprite in at low level in sheer darkness with small-arms fire whipping around him and 200-foot treetops reaching out from nocturnal shadows. Phantom pilot Holtzclaw was guiding the helicopter with a flare when the device suddenly sputtered out.
Lassen grazed a tree with the helicopter and heard the impact. He fought for control while his crewmen unleashed machine-gun fire on North Vietnamese troops who were closing in on Holtzclaw and Burns. It took four attempts by the helicopter crew, all while under fire and shooting back, to get into position to snatch the F-4J crew away from what seemed like certain capture.
Said Cook: “On the way out, we were taking some additional Triple-A. I saw what I can describe only as a handful of flaming arrows coming straight at us on the horizon. I scared the hell out of Clyde. I yelled, ‘Get down!’ I grabbed the collective and put us into a dive. But they exploded a mile or two away, harmlessly.
“As we were climbing out, another problem arose. The H-2 had an air-speed restriction with the doors open. You could not exceed a hundred knots. You wanted to have the doors shut by about 85 to 90 knots. We were able to pick up speed pretty quickly now – we were light because we had just 400 pounds of fuel left – so we were climbing pretty quickly. Clyde told crew member Bruce Dallas to shut the door. It was a common door with the pilot and crewman on that side. Bruce reached out and tried to push the door forward and the door departed the aircraft. It separated, fluttered to the ground and became a souvenir for some Vietnamese. It had been damaged when we hit the tree. When Bruce touched it, it just fell out of the tracks.
“When we hit the tree we also banged the tail rotor and the horizontal stabilizer. That made the aircraft go through little shudders all the time that we were flying after that.
“We got feet wet. The Jouett closed. They turned on a bunch of their lights, which made them a target for shore batteries. As the Jouett got closer we told him, ‘OK, we need you to turn into the wind. We need to make an immediate landing. This will be a straight-in approach.’”
The helicopter was flying on fumes when it touched down on the pitching deck.
Lassen was one of only two naval aviators to be awarded the Medal of Honor for action in Vietnam. “He was a quiet hero,” said Cook. Lassen retired as a commander but sadly died young, at age 52, on April 1, 1994, after a gallant battle with cancer.
This article first appeared in Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation.