I stumbled out of bed around 4 A.M. Some days I would be aware of the day / date / time remaining – some days, not. This was a NOT day. I only remembered it was a Friday. Later it would be given a first name—Black Friday. I also didn’t realize it was Veterans Day-11/11/67. That wouldn’t have made a difference. I had a job to do. It was just Friday. I made my way towards the chow hall for some pretend eggs and just enough coffee to get my heart started. The warm night air always smelled the same – sort of a mixture of rotting trees, cordite and an incense-like smell that was probably marijuana. The breakfast meal was as expressionless as our faces at 4 A.M. Briefing was at 0500. Same stuff, different day.
This day was a recce of the monsoon-laced Pack 1 and 2, then perhaps targets of opportunity from MuGhia Pass to Attapou over in Laos. That’s where we’d be for sure I thought. The monsoon weather had made Packs 1 & 2 impossible lately. The “Brown Bar”( 2nd Lieutenant) giving the brief cautioned about more SAM launchers showing up in the lower Packs. He also commented in passing about an F-4, callsign AWOL 01, being shot down Wednesday night at Ban Laboy Ford and would we keep a listening watch. That always went without saying, but we had worked that area the previous day and much to our chagrin we found no signs of life. At 5:15 I headed for the “chute shop”, where I went through the religious checklist that never varied – parachute pack date “good” – emergency radio w/ spare battery – 2 baby bottles of frozen water – a loaded .38 revolver good for morale purposes only – my pencil flaregun w/ 3 cartridges and my pockets emptied of anything that might be of propaganda or intelligence value to the NVN – and so on.
I was eager to get going because the best targets were always found just before first light. My 2-seat F-100 that morn was on the schedule as F-100F / #951, but I referred to it as “Leakin’ Lena”, since this 2-seater was a tired horse that went through oil like I went through beer in those days. After the getting started rituals were behind us, we finally got started, putting the “gear in the well” around 0615. I found a hole north of the DMZ and dove down into the murk of the gathering morning. We made a high speed “burner” dash up route 1A and found only the twinkling of some small arms fire as a greeting. We surmised that Packs 1 and 2 weren’t “workable” on this day so we headed for “the Trail” (Ho Chi Minh trail) where the weather would be better if a target presented itself.
I headed straight for the Ban Laboy area for the obligatory pass over a fallen comrade, and once overhead came in and out of “burner” 3 times in what I thought would be a “no chance” deal to raise AWOL 01, shot down 32 hours earlier. To my immense surprise I immediately received the eerie wailing beeper signal that would only come from a hand-held radio. I called, “I read your beeper,” and got a clear reply. “This is AWOL 01 Bravo, How do you read?” “Loud and clear AWOL-hold on for a sec!” I said, trying to mask my disbelief. “Crown, Misty 11!” “Roger, Misty, Crown here and we heard!!! You’re talking to AWOL 01???” “Roger” I replied. “Bravo” (the back seat pilot). “And I need his authentication” (information that we used to determine both, that the voice was really “this” pilot and that, in ‘his opinion’, we weren’t being lured into a trap). “Misty, – stand by –ready to copy?” “Go Ahead” I said. “Ask him the car he drove in high school. Authentication 2 is – What is the best team in the NFL?” “Be right back” I replied. “Break. AWOL, authenticate the car you drove in high school.” “57 Chevy” came the crackling reply. “And who is the best team in the NFL?” AWOL 01B shot back with a fiery, “The goddamned Green Bay Packers, now get my ass outa here!” “You got it AWOL! Be right back.” I felt myself smile inside my mask. This guy still had spunk and that would help. “We copied,” replied Crown, “That is the correct response for AWOL 01 Bravo. His name is Lt. Lance P. Sijan.” “Yes sir, Crown. Could you put everything in motion?” (meaning the recovery effort). “Roger, Misty. And we’ve already scrambled 2 Sandys. They should be there is about 0+30” (thirty minutes). “Good Crown. I’m gonna go gas-up and I want you to get Misty 21 headed this way. He should be airborne anytime. And, Crown, I’d ‘spect we’ll need some top-cover for AWOL.” What an understatement that would turn out to be! “Roger, Misty, I’m going to divert some sorties from up North your way. Everyone should join the party ’bout the same time”. “Thanks Crown, be right back.” “AWOL, Misty 11 here. Don’t move.” (a stupid remark – as I’d later learn Sijan had a compound fracture of his leg and a severe concussion). “I’ll be right back. Help is on the way and I’m going to gas up.” “I’ll be here.” came the laconic reply from the bravest of the brave. We found our Blue Anchor tanker (KC-135 refueling aircraft) at the south end of his racetrack pattern (luckily nearest the area of the downed aviator) and in what seemed like an eternity got our “Hun” gassed up. I remember as I was separating from the KC-135 one of the guys said, “We’ve been listening, Misty. Good luck. We’ll hang-around the south end down here for you guys.” “Thanks for the thought” I said and headed back to Ban Laboy. “AWOL, Misty 11 is overhead and Sandys are on the way,” I called. We were loitering at about 12,000′, as I remember, so as to not draw attention to the downed pilot until reinforcements arrived. “AWOL, do you have any knowledge of ‘Alpha’”(the front seat pilot of that F-4). “No, sir.” Sijan called out. “About where are you from the (Ho Chi Minh trail) crossing?” “Just a minute, I’ll shoot a flare” came the reply from the jungle. And before I could properly react, a small red fireball arched out of the jungle on the karst barely northeast of Ban Laboy.
“Wow,” I thought, “This is going to be tougher than I had wanted. He’s in-among ’em!” We dropped down for a closer look and saw to our immense dismay that the survivor was just over the hill (the hill being a karst ridge rising maybe 1000′) northeast of the ford. This was going to be a ‘toughie’. Little did I know! The Sandys, the fighter help, Misty 21 and the flak all showed up overhead at about the same time. It was just 8 A.M, and it already seemed like a long day. We pointed-out the general area to Sandy 3, as he assumed command, and briefed him on what we had seen as a threat, so far.
He made his first pass north to south as Sandy 4 flew top cover for him while Misty 21 and I started the flak suppression festivities. The next 20 minutes would be horrific. Sandy 3 almost immediately called, “I’m hit” and my backseater screams to me, “He just ejected!!!” (I remember an abstract thought that I wish I had witnessed the ejection since I had heard that the Sandy A-1’s were being retrofitted with a new experimental rocket extractor system for just that scenario). Almost simultaneously, an inbound Jolly Green (rescue helicopter) called that he was hit and was making a controlled crash-landing about 7 miles southwest. His partner helicopter was going-in with him to pick up the crewmen from the disabled ‘copter. Another Jolly Green, that had just arrived from out of nowhere and was readying for a pick up of the survivor, swooped in on Sandy 4’s guidance for a quick pick-up of Sandy 3. In the meantime, Misty 21, a Nail (L-19) FAC and I were putting-in airstrikes as quickly as was feasible. I vividly remember two things at that frozen moment: 1) As I looked south during a high-G pullout, I thought it was strange that it was clouding up so quickly, only to realize the white clouds were flakbursts – a lot of flak, and what’s more, I’d never seen white flak before and wondered what it meant and 2) this is a goddamned trap!
I was jerked out of those abstract thoughts by a much more sobering situation. Just as the “Jolly” plucked Sandy 3 out of the jungle, he called that he was taking hits on egress. He wasn’t sure he could make it out and wanted us to watch him. Misty 21 obliged, and I turned back and got a ‘visual’ on Sandy 4 just in time to see him get his left aileron shredded by 23mm anti-aircraft fire. “Jesus H. Christ!” my brain screamed, “We may well have 21 guys on the ground in a minute.” Two Jollys were already on the ground just southwest of the ford with a total of 12 guys, and another Jolly was getting ‘hosed’ bigtime as he egressed with Sandy 3, and now Sandy 4 was dis-assembling before my very eyes. Just as I thought it couldn’t get any worse, Sandy 4 took another 37mm hit that put a hole in his left wing big enough for a smiling Jane Fonda to crawl through. “I’m hit! I’m going in!” shouted Sandy 4. “Keep it heading west!” I implored. “Misty 11 has you covered!” “Hey, it’s still flying!” called Sandy 4 a moment later, sounding just like a kid on Christmas morning! And so it went. It did keep flying; how, I don’t know. But, Sandy 4 made it all the way back to Nakhon Phanom, looking like an airborne junkyard. I dropped him off about 20 miles east and over the radio heard him crash on the runway and walk away from the aluminum pieces.
We immediately headed for my friend, the Blue Anchor tanker, as we were on fumes. When we got back to the ford, we learned all the Jollys had found safe-haven. Another Sandy (Sandy 1) had been shot up, and the process was starting all over to pin-point Lt. Sijan. I now knew why I had an eerie feeling, when Sijan shot the first pencil-flare for me. He had now fired his third and last flare for Sandy 2, who promptly got shot-up and had to egress.
The next 4 hours were frustrating in the extreme. The crews of the Sandys and Jollys took turns laying their lives on the line, getting excruciatingly close, only to be driven-back in the face of killer groundfire. We kept pounding-in airstrikes. The NVA were paying a terrible price. No one was winning, but I sensed that both Lt. Sijan and his radio were losing strength. This kid had kept us going for 6 ½ hours and it was tearing my heart out that he was still there. Then, I realized, “My God, 6 ½ hours!!! This particular F-100 was not supposed to have enough oil to last that long!” (at the rate the crew chief said it was using oil). I was heartsick! I had to leave because of a goddamned OIL LEAK, and Misty 21 and I were the only 2 aircraft that had a good handle on Sijan’s exact location.
Crown told me to proceed to Ubon to debrief senior officers about the events. The next thing I vividly remember was that we were in the chocks at Ubon. The hours of being constantly in and out of burner (afterburner operation), the high Gs and the huge adrenaline drain had taken its toll.
I was 27 years old and could not get out of the airplane. I’d never felt such total exhaustion and emptiness in my life. After being helped out by the transient aircraft ground crewchief, I made my way to the Command Post for the debrief. I remember very little about that debriefing, except that the senior officer, seeing that I was so upset by not accomplishing the mission, made the comment “Don’t worry Captain, we’re going to insert a ‘Black Team’ in there tonight.” I had only heard vague rumors of super-secret rescue teams and felt by the tone of his voice that this was just such a group. There was also the strong atmosphere of “don’t ask,” so, I didn’t. If a Black Team was put in, we know it was not successful. Lt. Sijan acquitted himself well above the call of duty, died for his bravery and received the Medal of Honor, posthumously.
You will also note that events on the morning of 11/11/67 differ a bit from those in the McConnell book, Into the Mouth of the Cat. What I have authored is only from memory and may have some flaws. But it is accurate, as best I can remember. The main thrust of this account is to recap for the Sijan family that a lot of ordinary guys laid their lives on the line for an extraordinary young man – their son.
I counted 34 airstrikes that Misty 11 and 21 directed in support of the effort. The bad guys paid a terrible price to take him from us. I had, in the past, been in on several Rescaps (rescue attempts of downed airmen). This was the first where I had left the aviator behind. That was a terrible feeling. Still is!
~ Jim Mack, Misty 24
To learn more go to www.mistyvietnam.com