Valor: Into the Jaws of Death

May 1, 1987

There are enough stories of heroism by Aerospace Rescue and Recovery crews in Southeast Asia to fill a book. One of the most memorable took place on the night of Nov. 8-9, 1967, before the huge Jolly Green Giant helicopters flown by ARRS crews were equipped with infrared and other sophisticated electronic gear for night rescue operations.

That afternoon, an Army reconnaissance team operating a few miles west of the A Shau valley had been ambushed and surrounded. Two Army helicopters were shot down while trying to extract the survivors. At 11 p.m., a 37th ARR Squadron HH-3E Jolly Green took off from Danang to attempt a night rescue. It was joined en route by another HH-3E. The primary chopper was flown by Capt. John B. McTasney, a 1963 graduate of the Air Force Academy; his backup was Capt. Gerald Young (see “Valor,” July 1985).

McTasney’s crew located the besieged men on a steep hillside The enemy had set up heavy automatic weapons around the few survivors. Two A-1E Sandys were reported on the way to strafe and bomb enemy positions, but could not be contacted by radio. Army UH-1 gunships at the scene were low on fuel. The terrain ruled out a landing. Extracting the men with a penetrator was not feasible because of the long hover time required. McTasney could, perhaps, get the nose wheel and one main gear on the slope, hoping his rotor blades would clear the ground above, and hover while taking the survivors aboard, some of them wounded.

McTasney went over the situation with his crew–copilot Capt. Jerry Clearman, flight engineer Sgt. Al Malone, and rescue specialist Sgt. John Stemple. They decided they could pull it off. It was a team decision, says McTasney, and a team effort all the way.

The HH-3E took the first of many hits as it touched down, the area lighted by flares from a C-130. While Malone and Stemple fired at muzzle flashes, the Army troops ran from cover. But the surviving troops headed for the wrong side of the helicopter and had to be led by Stemple to the cargo door.

During the “several minutes” that that took, the Jolly Green hung there, a fat, illuminated, motionless target that the most inept enemy gunner could hardly miss.

Both generators and the interphone were knocked out, two fuel lines were cut, and the cargo compartment was flooded with fuel. Warning lights flashed, sparks lit the bird’s interior, and the engine instruments fluctuated wildly.

Before McTasney, no longer able to hold position, had to pull away from the hillside, Stemple and Malone got three men aboard, one of them shot as he came through the door. Only enough fuel remained in the tanks to let them reach the strip at Khe Sahn in a mountainous area that was unfamiliar to the crew.

Some combat veterans will tell you that the most nerve-wrenching part of a mission is not always the fire fight, when adrenaline flows, but the withdrawal over enemy territory in a battle-damaged plane with the imminent possibility of fire, explosion, or loss of control. As the minutes dragged by, Clearman got the generators back on line. Using a flashlight, Malone and Stemple stopped the flow of fuel into the cargo compartment by bending the broken lines and then administered medical aid to the wounded men.

Two miles out of Khe Sahn, contact with the tower was finally established. Bad news. No approach aids were operating, and the outpost was dark, except for two repair lights on the runway. McTasney spiraled down into the bowl at Khe Sahn, guided only by those two faint lights.

Then, at 200 feet, the number two engine flamed out. Enough power was left to slow the rate of descent and forward speed, but that was all. With landing lights on, McTasney and Clearman could see radio towers above and a dirt road directly ahead. In a cloud of dust that reduced visibility to zero, McTasney put the big bird down on the edge of the ramp for a rough but safe landing. Another mission completed, another save, but for their Jolly Green, the war was over.

Rescue and Recovery crews are credited with saving 3,883 lives in Southeast Asia. It will surprise no one who was there that a quarter of all Air Force Crosses, one of 12 Medals of Honor, and many Silver Stars were awarded to ARRS crewmen. One of those Air Force Crosses went to McTasney for his heroism on that November night in 1967. Silver Stars were awarded to the other members of his crew–the other members of a valiant team that flew willingly into the jaws of death so that others might live.

Published May 1987. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.