Jim Pollak – Caterpillar Club

Jim PollakOn Jan. 4, 1968, about a month before the Tet Offensive, I was sitting on alert at Tuy Hoa AB in the Rep. of Vietnam. At about 14:00 the call came to “scramble Litter 3 and 4”. ( Each of us was loaded with 4 750 lb. “slicks”. ) My wingman and I launched for a rendezvous with a FAC whose call sign was Helix 41. Our target coordinates were about 50 miles west of Nha Trang. The further that we got from Tuy Hoa, the worse the cloud cover got. We finally had to descend and fly under a solid overcast. When we finally rendezvoused with Helix 41, we were about 10 miles south of the target and had a solid overcast with bases at about 2,000 AGL. The FAC briefed us that as he was flying in the target area, he was fired at by what sounded to him to be a “heavy” automatic weapon.

Since this area was uninhabited and solid jungle, he couldn’t figure out what a gun like that was doing there. He claimed that a heavy weapon was usually accompanied by a sizable number of  troops. Although he had no idea of where the gun was located, he suspected a couple of possible locations and wanted us, if nothing else, to blow away some of the thick tree canopy so that he could get a look underneath. (Another tree buster mission!!) The weather and terrain pretty much dictated how we would proceed. We would have to make level deliveries and be restricted on our run-in headings. The target was in a narrow valley ( about a mile wide ) with a row of mountains on one side that disappeared into the clouds and a row of hills on the other side that went up to about 1,000 ft. AGL.

As Helix was about to put in his mark, a flight of 5 Huey choppers flew into the valley and he quickly contacted them and told them to leave ASAP as a strike was in progress. As they departed the area, the FAC fired his Willie Pete and cleared us in hot. My first pass was uneventful as I flew up the valley, dropped my bomb, broke hard left, passed over the low hills and flew back to the IP to set up for my next pass. The FAC did mention that there was a burst of gun fire as I flew over the target area, but again could not tell where it came from. My wingman went through “dry” on his pass as he had trouble getting up to his proper delivery speed. The FAC requested that my next bomb be dropped 50 meters short of my last one. As I released the bomb at the point that he wanted and broke hard left, my attention was on the row of hills that I would soon be skimming over. Something flashed past the canopy, then another. Tracers.

Much to my consternation, they appeared to be coming off of the top of those hills and coming right at me. Obviously, the gun was on that hill and not in the valley. Before I could even say “Oh ****,” I was over the hills and directly at the spot from which the tracers seemed to be coming. There was a loud bang and smoke started coming into the cockpit. I radioed “I’m hit” (no call sign) and then realized that I was in the clouds and climbing. The engine was making “ugly” noises and the smoke inside was getting thicker. I knew that I couldn’t make it back to Tuy Hoa so I figured that my only chance was to get below the clouds again and get to the nearest runway. ( That happened to be a very short strip at Ban Me Thout…but any port in a storm! )

I rolled inverted, pulled the nose below the horizon, and as I was about to roll out, there was an explosion somewhere in the engine. Smoke poured into the cockpit, every light on the annunciator panel lit up, and the controls locked up. I radioed “I’m getting out” (again no call sign) and ejected. My wingman heard the first call but thought that it had come over Guard channel. He recognized my voice, however, on the second call and broke off his attack and started to look for me.

I remember raising the handles and a deafening wind noise. I remember squeezing the triggers and then I remember … nothing. My next recollection was silence. I woke up hanging in my chute a couple hundred feet in the air. My helmet and my mask were gone, I had a pretty good gash on the top of my head and my mouth was full of blood. (During the bail out my jaw had apparently slammed shut on my tongue … luckily I didn’t bite it off.) I’m sure that I was only in that chute for a short time, but it seemed like an eternity as I waited for the shooting to start. It never did. Luckily I came down in a small area that had no trees, unfortunately, it was a swamp. I landed softly on my back in some tall elephant grass in that swampy area. I released my parachute canopy and sank slowly until only my head and toes were sticking out of the water and the high grass was pretty much covering me. I dug out my emergency radio, shook out the water, turned it on and it worked just fine.

I called my wingman and told him that I was on the ground, was OK, and tried to describe where I was located, although trying to talk with a tongue that was now swollen to twice its normal size was no easy trick. Helix 41 found me first when he spotted the swamp among all the trees. My wingman was soon circling my position and giving me a small sense of security, even though every few minutes there would be a burst of gun fire. I had no idea of who was shooting, nor what they were shooting at. As we were discussing whether I should move to another location, stay where I was, or whatever, a new voice came over the radio. It was the flight of Hueys that we had chased away just a few minutes before and they wanted to know if they could be of assistance.

Within a few minutes they were circling me and one of them popped into the middle, hovered near me and a special forces type jumped out and helped me climb aboard. They flew me to a special forces camp in the middle of nowhere, dropped me off and then took off immediately never to be seen by me again. (They did, however, ask for the Capt.’s bars from my flight cap. They stuck it on their instrument panel to signify a rescue.) I was given a clean set of fatigues, some medical treatment for my cuts, and a canteen cup half full of Johnnie Walker which the “Doc” (a medic who looked to be about 18 yrs. old) figured that I needed. Scotch never tasted so good! Shortly thereafter, a “Crown” C-130 arrived at their “landing strip” (a dirt patch that I swear was not much bigger than a tennis court). A few minutes after that they had me back at Tuy Hoa with the dubious distinction of having one of the fastest Vietnam rescues on record.  — Jim Pollak