Valor: Down in the Delta

July 1, 1992

It has been noted in earlier “Valor” stories that during the Vietnam War, USAF’s Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service saved more than 3,800 lives. Of that number, 2,800 were US military, including 680 Naval aviators. This is a story about the rescue of one Navy pilot, Lt. j.g. Larry Duthie, downed by enemy ground fire near Nam Dinh in the Red River delta about 45 miles southeast of Hanoi, on July 18, 1967.

The Navy had its own air rescue system, using carrier-based helicopters. When Lieutenant Duthie bailed out of his burning aircraft, his wingman alerted the carrier on emergency frequency. A Navy helicopter was dispatched to locate and pick up the downed pilot.

Almost simultaneously, the Air Force launched a search-and-rescue (SAR) force of two HH-3E helicopters escorted by four A-1E “Sandys” as backup to the Navy. The lead was flown by Maj. Glen York.

This was going to be a difficult and dangerous mission for all concerned. At the time, North Vietnam had about 7,000 AA guns and automatic weapons in the field, most of them in the north where Duthie had bailed out. There also were MiG fighter bases within 75 miles of the rescue site.

Navy pilots escorting their rescue helicopter located Lieutenant Duthie. As he was in reach of the rescue bird’s forest penetrator, the helicopter took a burst of flak that killed one crew member, and the Navy rescuers had to pull out. In the meantime, Duthie’s wingman, who had stayed in the area to cover his flight leader, was hit by ground fire and punched out a few miles from Duthie’s position.

Now Sandys One and Two, who had arrived ahead of the HH-3Es, set about silencing enemy guns. A MiG made one unsuccessful pass at the USAF on-site commander, Maj. Theodore Broncyzk (Sandy One). He jettisoned his bombs, rockets, and external fuel tanks in evasive action, then continued attacking the guns with his 20-mm cannons. With extensive battle damage and low on fuel, he and Sandy Two, flown by Capt. William Carr, were forced to depart.

After a pause to regroup the rescue force, Capt. Paul Sikorski, pilot of Sandy Three, assumed control of the rescue effort, with Capt. J. W. Kilbourne (Sandy Four) on his wing. Sikorski continued to lead Air Force and Navy planes in attacks on enemy gun positions, taking many hits but staying in the game. With enemy fire at least temporarily quieted, he called in Major York, who had been orbiting his HH-3E at 8,000 feet. York was well aware that he was flying into what the enemy troops believed would be his death trap. He knew they were holding fire until his chopper hovered directly over their guns.

Major York broke his dive and slowed to 30 knots as he neared the hill where Duthie was hiding. The rescue force had lost voice contact with the Navy pilot, and as York circled the hill trying for a visual sighting, the enemy gunners zeroed in on his HH-3E. The huge Jolly Green, moving at a snail’s pace just above the treetops, was a target that could not be missed. How much damage could it take?

As the seconds dragged toward what seemed imminent disaster, Major York’s copilot, Lt. W. N. Privette, spotted Duthie through the jungle canopy. Enemy troops were only a few feet from him. York maneuvered the helicopter in a 180-degree turn and hovered over Duthie while the forest penetrator was lowered. As soon as Duthie was in the sling and clear of the trees, York moved out at full speed, using the terrain as cover.

At this point, Sandys Three and Four, critically low on fuel and with battle damage, had to head for home. Nevertheless, the rescue coordinator asked York to try for a pickup of the second Navy pilot. With unknown damage to his chopper and marginal fuel, York agreed. Escorted by Navy fighters, he flew into an even more hostile area, closer to Hanoi. The rescue force was driven off by the most intense fire they had seen that day. Major York headed for an emergency strip where he had to make an instrument approach in mountain terrain, homing on another aircraft. He landed with fuel lights on, a nose gear that would not extend, and a Navy pilot who would fly another day.

There were many heroes that day, when both Air Force and Navy men faced the concentrated enemy fire in Route Package Six-B. On the Air Force side, Major York was awarded the Air Force Cross. The other members of his crew and the four A-1E pilots all received the Silver Star for one of the most daring and dangerous deep-penetration missions flown in the early years of the Vietnam War.

Published July 1992. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.