Given how deep he was inside enemy territory and how close he was to populated areas, Locher wasn’t sure if a helicopter rescue attempt would or even could be made. The mountainous area to his west was more sparsely populated. Though he had to cover 90 miles, and cross the Red River, to get there, he thought that if he did, his chances of getting rescued would increase. By the time he went to sleep that night, he had formulated a plan. He’d “live off Mother Nature” regarding food, and try to average two miles travel a day. Along the way, he’d give periodic calls, trying to connect with a friendly aircraft, to let everyone know he was alive and relatively safe. Locher knew the odds were stacked against him. He didn’t know just how long those odds were.
The local cadre had rounded up the members of a nearby village, including children, to help in the search. The only things they didn’t bring were the village dogs. If they had, Locher admitted he probably would have been captured.
One of the few bright spots for the United States military in Vietnam was its combat search-and-rescue service, which came into its own during this conflict. Many experts have called it the “golden age of combat search and rescue.” But successful search-and-rescue missions under combat conditions are among the most time-sensitive of operations. Air Force studies begun during the Korean War and that continued throughout the Vietnam War revealed “an airman’s chances of being rescued were very good if recovery forces could reach him within 15 minutes.” There’s always a “but” and in this case it was a big one. The studies revealed “the probability of recovery decreased significantly if the ACR [Air Combat Rescue] force took longer than 30 minutes to reach the area.” Ominously, that recovery dropped to less than 20 percent if the aircrew member was on the ground more than four hours. When Locher went to sleep that night, he had already clocked in more than 11 hours deep inside “Indian Country.”
Locher was up at first light the next morning. He had only covered about a couple hundred yards when the sounds of a search party forced him to seek cover beneath a patch of rotting vegetation. The local cadre had rounded up the members of a nearby village, including children, to help in the search. The only things they didn’t bring were the village dogs. If they had, Locher admitted he probably would have been captured. He later said, “Some little kids came within 30 feet of me.” But they were more interested in using the opportunity to enjoy the officially sanctioned opportunity to “play hooky” from village chores. They didn’t see him. Locher waited until well after the search party had left before he pulled out his emergency radio. He turned it on and began monitoring voice traffic on the Guard channel. What he overheard didn’t help him. A rescue attempt south of him was ending in failure.
Locher’s second full day in-country fared about the same as the first. Again, he only covered a couple hundred yards before he had to hide from a search party. On the fourth day, the search was called off. By this time, Locher had settled into a routine of traveling in two stages. At dawn, with the sun at his back, he would try to travel at least a mile before finding a place to hide. Then, as dusk was approaching, he would leave his hiding place and head toward the setting sun for as long as he could before finding a new hiding spot.
By the end of May, he had traveled about 12 miles and reached the end of the forested high ground. Before him was the flat, cultivated Red River Valley. Beyond was his objective: the wooded high ground.
As the days and nights passed, the hilly, wooded terrain both helped and hindered him. The lush forest, with its thick ground vegetation and high canopy provided good cover. But the steep hills and occasional thick undergrowth drained his energy. Food also was a problem. Locher ate what wild fruit and shoots he found, but it was spring, so little was available. The one good thing was that because the region had numerous streams, he didn’t lack water.
Though he was getting weaker (ultimately he would lose thirty pounds), Locher kept heading west. And miraculously, despite some close brushes with villagers, he still had not been discovered. By the end of May, he had traveled about 12 miles and reached the end of the forested high ground. Before him was the flat, cultivated Red River Valley. Beyond was his objective: the wooded high ground. Locher found a hiding spot and went to sleep. When he awoke the following morning, June 1, he discovered that he had overslept and would have to remain where he was for the day. At first he was bitterly disappointed. Then a SAM battery at the nearby Yen Bai airfield launched a missile. This got Locher’s attention. If the North Vietnamese were firing SAMs, then American planes must be in the area. He pulled out his rescue radio and, after monitoring the airwaves for a few minutes, pressed the transmit button and said, “Any U.S. aircraft, if you read Oyster 1 Bravo, come up on Guard.”
Locher’s call was heard by Phantom pilot Lt. Jim Dunn of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, flying under the call sign Oyster 2. He later said that he found Locher’s use of the same Oyster call sign “kinda spooky.” He informed his flight leader of what he had just heard. The flight was en route back to base and out of range before a reply to Locher could be made. The information was passed onto Fletch Flight, who established contact. A rescue force was assembled, composed of two Jolly Green Giant helicopters, one of them flown by then-Capt. Dale Stovall, four A-1 Skyraiders (Sandys) for air-to-ground support, and four Phantoms for air-to-air cover. Once they reached the area, they confirmed that this was not a North Vietnamese trick, that it was Locher on the ground, and that he was not being coerced. But the rescue had to be called off when the rescue force came under heavy fire from guns and surface to air missiles, and a pair of MiGs. Locher would have to spend another night in North Vietnam. And Locher’s wing commander was determined that it would be his last night there.
As Vogt later said, “The Wing at Udorn called me and said they wanted to get him out. The problem was that it was going to involve a substantial effort . . . There could be a major air battle; we might lose aircraft.”
Vogt then made his decision, “Go do it!” For one day, the prosecution of the war would be suspended. As Stovall said later, “We shut down the war to go get Roger Locher.”
If he needed a reminder about the enormous risk regarding an attempt, Vogt had the recent example of the rescue of Bat 21. On April 1, an EB-66 Destroyer was shot down over Quang Tri Province just south of the Demilitarized Zone. There was only one survivor, Lt. Col. Iceal “Gene” Hambleton, Bat 21 Bravo, who landed beside the main route of a six-division advance into South Vietnam. Five days of air rescue attempts had ended in tragic failure: 24 aircraft damaged or destroyed and 14 men missing—with 11 of them presumed killed in action. Military Assistance Command Vietnam commander Gen. Creighton Abrams reluctantly was forced to suspend further air rescue operations. Hambleton was rescued 12 days after being shot down in a ground rescue operation led by SEAL Lt. Tommy Norris, who would receive the Medal of Honor for that mission.
Vogt recalled, “I had to decide whether we should risk the loss of maybe half a dozen airplanes and crews just to get one man out. Finally I said to myself, ‘Goddamn it, the one thing that keeps our boys motivated is the certain belief that if they go down, we will do absolutely everything we can to get them out.”
Vogt then made his decision, “Go do it!” For one day, the prosecution of the war would be suspended. As Stovall said later, “We shut down the war to go get Roger Locher.” All the assets of the Seventh Air Force would be committed for one mission: the rescue of Oyster 1 Bravo.
On June 2, 1972, a total of 119 aircraft – from KC-135 refuelers and radar-jamming EB-66s, to F-4 escorts, F-105 Wild Weasels, A-1 Sandys, and rescue helicopters – took off to rescue one of their own. Capt. Ron Smith, in one of the A-1 Sandys, was in tactical command of the pick-up. He was in perfect position to watch the support operations suppressing Yen Bai airfield. He later said, “Everything was going like clockwork. As I crossed the last hill before the Red River, with my wingman, the bombs went off at Yen Bai.” He then told Locher to get ready with his mirror, signal flares, and radio; in 30 to 45 minutes they’d be overhead. He was to signal with his mirror to the first A-1 he saw.
At the appointed time, Locher saw the A-1s and began waving his mirror. It was the second A-1 who saw the flash of reflected sunlight. As soon as he said, “Tally-ho!” signaling that Locher had been found, the Sandys laid down a protective smoke screen. The rescue Jolly Green Giant, flown by Stovall, then came in. Within two minutes, Locher hopped on to the fold down seat of the jungle penetrator at the end of the HH-53’s cable, and was hoisted aboard and heading home.
The return trip proved eventful. The aircraft encountered not just small arms fire from the villages, but they also passed over the North Vietnamese version of a World War II “flak train.” But three hours after pick-up, the flight arrived at Udorn unharmed. When Locher stepped out of the helicopter, he encountered a large and enthusiastic welcoming party that included Vogt. The highly-decorated Stovall, who would also earn two Silver Stars and a Distinguished Flying Cross for other Vietnam missions, received the Air Force Cross for his two flights into North Vietnam to recover Locher. They constituted the deepest penetrations into North Vietnam to rescue a downed pilot during the entire Vietnam War.
Locher had survived for 23 days inside enemy territory, a record for the Vietnam War, and one of the most remarkable combat evasion episodes in history.