by Pat Dingle
While on station patrolling the Gulf of Tonkin waters off North Vietnam, CIC stayed at our modified general quarters by a rotating of watches with 7 hours on, 5 off, 5 on, 7 off every day of the week for up to two months continually at sea. I was like most of our guys who ate in the mess hall once a day and the rest of our food came from going through the hamburger/hotdog line in a forward gallery that stayed open 23 hours a day. It closed for a hour from 2300 to 2400 hours for cleaning. We'd grab a burger kept warm by heat lamps, add whatever condiments tasted good to us, walk over to the drink dispenser for coffee or powdered milk if we were going to eat it there on some stools or we'd eat on our way up a number of decks to CIC. If enough of guys on duty were hungry we'd send a seaman down to get the burgers for us. We had our own 30 cup coffee maker filled often each shift. With four or five hours sleep, stand watch, repeat, spread out over twenty four hours, we stayed alert enough and the system really worked well. Devised by some wise Chief during a past war or two no doubt.
I came on duty in the air section on one such day and was briefed by the radarman I was relieving on a downed pilot rescue underway in the jungles of North Vietnam. We were monitoring it over the radio headset tuned into that particular frequency our Sea King helicopters used but we ourselves were not directly involved at this point in the rescue. Our duty was the very first step in an operation, we're the first to detect and identify where an aircraft gets hit and general location where it goes down below our radars and pass the data on. The pilots carried a beeper that sent out a signal as to their location for the rescue crews to work from. We were not involved at that point other then monitoring if we chose to and if we had the time. I had the time as I sat down on the scope and put the headset on. One pilot, strong beeper signal, two helicopters, one jungle miles in from the coast and another hour of daylight. I listen intently to learn who the voices in my ear belong to. They should have him any minute now I thought. Nothing but static in my ear then "I see him, he's on this hill waving his arms, jumping up and down, he's OK".
I can't began to describe the feelings I felt at that moment. I'm still focusing my attention on my air search radar for other aircraft in trouble or bogies as duty demanded but hearing we got one alive really gave me a rare good feeling, most of the time it didn't work out like this and seldom do I get to monitor a rescue. The lead helicopter is over him but radios the trees are too thick there to safely lower the sling and bring him up. Just then the second bird radioed he's taking ground fire. The first one reports he is too then ABORT, ABORT, ABORT came over the air. As they climb for altitude one of the two radioed there must be a hundred NVA at the base of the small hill firing up at them. The soldiers were making their way up the hill towards the pilot as dusk set in and the two helicopters returned to the Yorktown some fifty-seventy five miles away. I felt sick at heart. All I could think of was that American pilot on the ground watching his rescuers fly away, abanding him to his fate and what must be going through his mind. I really felt for that man and here I am all comfortable and safe aboard a ship. There was radio chatter for a while about coming back for him in the morning but of course hearing that trash talk only pissed me off more. In my mind I just kept saying you can't leave our man behind. I knew this was hard on me but no where nearly as hard as on our pilot. That was beyond my comprehension. I was in turmoil the rest of the watch and when relieved I went down to my rack where I couldn't shake it off or let go, tears came to my eyes in frustration and sense of betrayal but I didn't cry for him.
After a hour or two of restless sleep I was rudely woken in the dark as our man went around waking us up for the next watch in thirty minutes. And no, the shit, shower and shave thing only worked in boot camp, we were permitted to look scruffy and did. I was back in CIC by 0500 and traded stations with a guy so I could be on the same one I had five hours ago. I had to be here and hear the final verdict of this event. Maybe then I can let it go. Maybe. It's dawn now and several helicopters and prop fighters are approaching the hill where the downed airman was last seen about ten hours ago. I had no hopes of a recovery, not with that many NVA. In my mind the pilot is still being tortured by the commie bastards or was shot and killed last evening. The movies I watched growing up didn't have a clue as to the way it really is, and neither did I those first few times.
I was so obsessed within my circle of thoughts I was shocked to hear in the headset "There he is, he's OK". There was a lot more chatter but that's all I remember hearing. He's alive, the NVA didn't get him, he's OK, wow. I was so overwhelmed with relief I can't began to describe it. I have no idea who that American pilot was or what branch of service he belonged to. All I knew was that we went back and got him and that's all that mattered. One more thing, I'd like to meet that pilot today over a drink or two and try to find out which one of us had the worst night back in April 1965, him on a hill in North Vietnam or me on the Yorktown in the Gulf. But truth be known, I give it all to you and I salute you American pilot who ever you were. You earned it big time.