Jim Kelm – Caterpillar Club

It was a Saturday, July 28th, 1968, about a month before I was due to rotate back to the States. My replacement, Maj. Val Robertson, had arrived at Phan Rang and this was his first ride in-country. Val was in the front seat of the F-100F & I was in the back. Our callsign was “Devil 51”, a single ship flight.

Jim KelmWe did a brief tour of central S. Vietnam at medium altitude & then picked a location south of Phan Rang near the coast to practice various types of weapons deliveries, primarily low angle stuff. We were near a small village. I demo’d hi-drag, slick, nape & a strafe pass & then gave the stick to Val to do some. On Val’s first or second pass, I thought I noticed some flashes on the ground off to the side as we were coming in and, in the recovery, the engine blew & smoke filled the cockpit. The smoke was so thick I had to get within a foot of the instrument panel to see it. Of great prominence was the BIG red fire warning light.

I immediately took the bird, had Val go to Guard Channel, & I made the first of several radio calls while going for whatever altitude we could get & headed out over the South China Sea. In the process, I also tried a couple air starts. I know, I know, the book says that (as I remember) if the engine explodes or is on fire, do not attempt a restart. Believe me, if you only have one engine and that one quits over bad-guy territory, you’re gonna try to get it running. No dice. I told Val that we were going to eject & to get ready. I wasn’t sure how high we were cause of no visibility in the cockpit but guessed about 3 K feet. Val confirmed he was ready, so I made our final radio call that we were ejecting and raised the handles.

The wind blast was impressive when the canopy left & up I went. I immediately went blind, was slammed by something, & then felt the chute open. I realized that my helmet had rotated 90 deg., so I moved it back to its normal position so I could see again. I checked the chute – OK. I looked over my shoulder & saw Val in the distance with a good chute and then looked for the aircraft. I saw it in a wings-level attitude heading for the coast. It then nosed over & went into the sea.

As I approached the water, I disconnected the mask from the harness, took off my helmet and threw them both into the water. Looking down, the water looked a tad rough. (I found out later there were about ten foot swells.) I landed in the water, dumped my chute and attempted to get in my one-man life raft. I got in on my first try by pulling myself in from the small end using the handles – as taught in water survival. Only problem is that I am now laying face down in a raft full of sea water. As I forcefully rolled over to a sitting position, I forcefully rolled right out of the raft! Back to square one, I started my boarding process again. This time both handles on the life raft broke, which made getting in much more interesting, particularly in 10′ swells. I finally got in the raft, gingerly rotated to a sitting position, pulled in my survival kit, and looked around to see if there was anything in sight except water. Nothing. I looked down and there was my helmet floating & bumping up against my raft. I picked it up & placed it in the raft.

I took stock of my physical condition. All was fine except my left shoulder was sore & stung a bit. After a short while, as I topped one of the swells, I noticed a small boat in the vicinity. I popped a flare and in short order a U.S. Navy patrol boat pulled along side and a sailor leaned over the side, grabbed my arms at the top of a swell, and yanked me into the boat. I was glad I hadn’t broken anything up to that point, because it would have gotten a bunch worse when he hauled me into the boat. I had been in the water only about 20 minutes. Anyway, I was glad to see him and the whole crew, as you can appreciate, and expressed my thanks to one & all. I also drank every bit of water I could get my hands on. Boy, was I thirsty. They told me at that time that they had been racing a VC gun ship to see who could get to me first. I had not seen any other boat before I was picked up. I thanked them all again for a hell of a good job. The boat skipper quickly found Val and they got him on-board as well. Shortly thereafter, the rescue helicopter (Pedro) from Phan Rang came and hovered over the boat, hoisted us up and returned us to Phan Rang.

We were taken to the base hospital and checked over. I had a minor cut on my shoulder which the experts surmised was caused by the seat when I separated. I was released to quarters, but they kept Val overnight for observation. I’m not sure why. En-route to the Q, I had whoever was driving drop me at the Squadron where, and you may find this hard to believe, I hoisted a few with the guys.

As an aside to this whole thing, while still at the hospital, I asked to call my wife in Phoenix. I tried for over an hour but couldn’t get through. The Wing Commander heard about my problem, got on the horn, and I was connected in about three minutes. As it turned out, my wife had already been informed that something had happened – in a most unusual way. She received a phone call from someone who identified himself as a ham operator for Barry Goldwater. He said that I was down on a mission and missing, but that was all the info he had. He then hung up. She knew basically what “down” meant and, obviously, was shaken. She called the base but they had no information. She then called a friend who started making calls. After a while I was able to get through and reassure her that I was OK. We never found out who had called her initially.
-Jim Kelm