In December 1973 I reported to the 56th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron (ARRS) at Korat RTAFB, Thailand. I was assigned as an Aircraft Commander (AC) in the HC-130.
Our primary mission was “Combat Rescue.” The Vietnam War was “essentially” over with the signing of the Paris Peace Accord earlier that year, but “hostilities” were still going on in theater (South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia). And, because we still had a presence in Southeast Asia, we maintained a combat rescue posture.
Our HC-130’s were configured as airborne “on site” combat rescue command centers. We had quite a bit of communications gear on board, as well as an 11,000 pound fuel tank in our cargo bay for refueling helicopters. If someone was shot down, we would respond and set up in an orbit a safe distance away – then coordinate assets for the pickup of the downed airmen. To this end we had two crews “on alert” 24/7, with response times of 30 minutes during daylight hours, and 45 minutes at night. This meant that from initial notification, we had either 30 or 45 minutes to be airborne.
Our ‘alert day’ typically began at 0900 hrs., meeting at our ‘hootch’ (quarters) area. The officers (aircraft commander, copilot and navigator) met at their hootch, and the enlisted crew members (engineer, radio operator and load master) met at their area. From there the officers proceeded to the Intel (Intelligence) Shop for an Intel Brief, a weather briefing and to pick up our side arms (S&W .38 Combat Masterpieces). Then when that was complete we met up with the enlisted guys at the alert aircraft. Once we checked the aircraft forms and stored our gear, we locked the door and the aircraft was ‘cocked.’
I was my 2nd day of “Alert,” that day, the 12th of July 1974. We were just about to head into the O’Club for dinner when we got the call that we had been ‘Scrambled.” In those days we didn’t have cell phones or the like. As we pulled into the O’Club parking lot for dinner, a squadron member came running out to tell us that we had been “scrambled,” that we had a “mission.” Without even stopping, our navigator who was driving, dropped the tranny into low gear and we were off!
We headed off to the Intell Shop, ‘Ft. Apache,’ to get our Mission Briefing, a weather briefing and our weapons (pistols).
From there it was off to the Flight Line where the aircraft was being readied. The enlisted guys had pulled all the safety (gear) pins and the like, and had started the APU (auxiliary power unit) so we had power on the aircraft. Once we climbed aboard, as we were strapping in, I reached up and started Nr.3 engine. Then when it spooled up to Idle we started Engines Nrs. 1, 2 and 4, and taxied shortly thereafter.
We had been alerted at 1737 hrs. and launched at 1707 hrs., just at our 30-minute commitment.
In the Mission Brief we received there was little information about the actual mission; other than to get airborne ASAP, and head South. That didn’t make sense to me at the time, as the “bad guys” all lived up North. But off we went, to the South…
During the climbout, our Radio Operator made contact with our command center, Joker, in Nakhon Phanom (NKP). It was then we were told to make contact and rendevous with a HH-43 rescue helicopter out of UTapao, Pedro 36. Our objective was to locate a Nationalist Chinese destroyer in the Gulf of Thailand (Siam) with an injured sailor on board. The destroyer was a former US destroyer, now named the “Dan Yuang,” ship number 11. Then we were to escort the helicopter to the destroyer where it would land and take the injured sailor on board. Once the patient was on board the helicopter, we were to escort it to Bangkok, providing navigation and communications support. Our initial rendezvous with Pedro 36 occured at 1735 hrs., just after we coasted out over the Gulf of Thailand (28 minutes after our launch).
This mission shaped up to be an interesting mission for a number of reasons. First of all, it involved a warship from Nationalist China. Once the Nationalist Chinese ambassador to Thailand learned of the severely injured sailor, he contacted the American ambassador (to Thailand) to request assistance. The US embassy then had to contact the Joint Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Group (ARRG), ‘Joker,’ located at NKP, to coordinate for the Search and Rescue/Recovery (SAR) effort. This entailed notifying and launching the HC-130 from Korat RTAFB and the HH-43 helicopter based at UTapao RTAFB. The year before, in 1973, the Air Force had lost a single-engine helicopter off the coast of California, and from then on instituted a policy wherein single-engine helicopters would have to have an ‘escort’ if they were to operate “offshore.” That was one our roles, escort. The other roles we were to play was to find the destroyer in the Gulf of Siam all the while providing communications and navigation support for Pedro 36.
Just after making initial contact with Pedro 36 our focus became on finding the Nationalist Chinese destroyer. Fortunately we had an IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe) radar interrogator on board. The navigator had the primary scope at his station and I had a ‘repeater’ scope up front. When I turned on my scope the ‘returns’ looked like someone had tossed a handful of rice grains on a blacktop driveway! Holy cow! However after ‘tweaking’ the scope a bit to receive only the larger returns, it became relatively easy to see the larger ships. And this was a good thing because the sun was setting and we were quickly losing visibility.
About a lot of things began happening now, all at the same time. The navigator and I began looking for ‘our’ ship, and the Radio Operator established radio contact with the rescue helicopter, Pedro 36. As we got serious looking for the destroyer, Pedro 36 began heading out to our general vicinity.
Soon I spotted a ‘potential’ target and I dropped down to a couple hundred feet, and flew by the ship. It was the ship we were looking for, and a ‘good thing,’ for by this time the sun had set and it was getting tougher to see.the ‘returns’ A couple things jumped out at me right away. First, there was no one on deck; nary a soul. I thought that a bit strange but, oh well. Then I saw a signal lamp flashing…
From the image above you can get a nice idea of how it all played together. Korat RTAFB is located just South of Nakhon Ratchasima. From there to the Gulf is just over 100 NM. Utapao RTAFB is just a little bit south of Pattaya City on the map above. From the destroyer to the landing field in Bangkok was about 50 NM.
As we cruised by the second time, the signal lamp flashing, the radio operator told me, “Sir, I think I have identified another training deficiency at Hill.” (Hill AFB, UT was the host for the Rescue schoolhouse). “We were only required to read 20 words of Morse Code per minute, and they are transmitting 40 words per minute,” he explained. Oh great! At this time, Monte Thames, our copilot, said, “How about on the next pass you write down the letters, and I’ll read the words!” Thanks, Monte!
From the time we reached the gulf, we had been attempting to raise the ship on various “Guard” radio frequencies; UHF, VHF, HF and so forth. No luck. Our radio operator was also working with Joker to attempt to find a compatible radio frequency. Again, no luck. So, as I pulled up for another pass by the ship, I asked the radio operator to come forward with his notepad. My plan was to fly as slow as I was comfortable with as he took the (Morse Code) message from the ship. Great plan, but it didn’t work.
Once we were reasonably sure that we had the right ship, we made contact with Pedro 36 and headed East to fetch him. As he had already been heading our way, it didn’t seem to take long, and soon we were all headed back to the ship.
When we left the ship, there was not a sole on deck. Then as we approached it seemed as if every door on board opened up, and ‘thousands’ of Chinese began running all over the place! It truly looked like an authentic “Chinese Fire Drill,” for sure.
Pedro 36 landed on the destroyer, the injured sailor was loaded and soon we all were on our way, at 1828 hrs. Just after Pedro lifted off I discovered that the sun had set. I had been so preoccupied with watching everything I hadn’t noticed the sun setting. Now we were escorting this small, little helicopter towards Bangkok – to a soccer field we had no idea where it was!
The HH-43 cruise speed is 105 knots. Our minimum maneuvering airspeed, for our weight at that time, was around 140 knots or so. So, it was challenging at first, with us doing figure 8’s behind Pedro to keep him in sight. Then it got downright “sporting” when we began to encounter the city lights of Bangkok! It was tough to keep that small helicopter in sight.
Once we made contact with Bangkok Approach Control our role was essentially over and we headed home. Bangkok ATC identified the helicopter and vectored it into the soccer field. We landed after 2.7 hours of flying that evening, with 1 “Save” credited to our crew.
About a month later I learned that the Aircraft Commanders of King 21 (me) and Pedro 36, as well as the Joker support staff, were invited to Bangkok to attend an awards ceremony – to be presented with the Nationalist Chinese Medal of Hai Chih, the Medal of Naval Distinguished Service.
I have always been grateful for being recognized by the Nationalist Chinese government. However, it was a total effort by everyone involved. I have always been somewhat disappointed in that ‘someone’ from the US Air Force didn’t pick up on what we had accomplished, and recognized the whole crew accordingly. If I ‘could go back in time,’ I am certain today, that ‘someone’ would have been me…
King 21 Aircrew:
Holliker, Robert F. Jr., Captain, Aircraft Commander
Thames, Monte A., 1st Lt., Copilot
Buchanan, Delbert R., Captain, Navigator
Hansen, Troy W. MSgt, Flight Engineer
Inerich, William R., SSgt, Radio Operator
McCray, Arthur L., TSgt, Load Master
Raubach, James B., Sgt., Med Tech