Here’s the story… by Ron Bigoness
My squadron the 615th of the 401st Tactical Fighter Wing out of England AFB in Louisiana was the first to operate in North Vietnam (NVN) and Laos. We were TDY to the Philippines in June 1964, when Lt. (JG) Everett Alvarez, the USN pilot, was shot down in Laos; thereafter becoming the very first US aviator POW in Southeast Asia (SEA). Shortly after that event, several of us flew “retaliatory” strikes in Laos near the Plain-of-Jars. That 1964 TDY provided most of us with our first taste of combat.
The 615th returned to SEA in March 1965. This TDY sent us to Da Nang, South Vietnam. On March 31. 1965, I found myself leading one of the very early “Operation Rolling Thunder” missions headed up North. My tow-ship flight’s mission that morning (call signs Panther 10/11) was a weather recce for the strike flights scheduled for that afternoon. The target for the strike package was on the border between NVN and Laos at the northern end of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail – a place called Mu Gia Pass.
When we arrived at altitude in the target area, there were multiple layers of clouds below. Descending through the layers we finally go under the broken ceiling at about 1500 feet. We set up our weaving recce formation headed toward the pass, individually jinking like crazy. But as fate would have it, I was immediately nailed in the tail section by automatic weapons fire.
“I’m hit! I called out to my wingman, Lawrence “Dutch” Holland. “Yeah, you’re on fire, Lead! You better get out!”, Dutch replied. “I ain’t getting out here yet. This thing is still flying!”
My immediate concern was maintaining aircraft control. Somehow, I was able to get the nose headed up before the flight controls froze, and the good old Hun eventually climbed to about thirteen grand. I still had trim control, but soon all systems failed, and every red light in the cockpit was flashing.
The heading remained between 200-220 degrees, sending me toward the nearest friendlies. The right wing was on fire, and there were small explosions in the aft section’ but that J-57 just kept on churning! As we topped out, the airspeed fell off, and the nose dropped below the horizon as the old bird tried to maintain the “trimmed-for” airspeed of around 400 knots. About then, with the frozen controls and throttle, I was just a passenger riding a roller coaster. But as long as I was getting further away from Mu Gia Pass, I was more than willing to go along for the ride … with good ol’ Dutch in chase.
As we descended through about 8000 feet, the speed and lift increased, the nose rose, and we climbed back to about ten grand. However, as the next descent began, the aircraft started a slow roll toward the inverted. Either rolling or upside down, I knew the nose would never come above the horizon again. It was time to leave. But I knew the leaving wouldn’t be easy because I was doing about 450 knots, nose down and upside-down – well out of the safe ejection envelope.
I raised the ejection handles which blew the canopy and ejected. Upon hitting the slipstream, my helmet was torn off along with my kneepad and other unsecured objects; and worse yet, my right arm was jerked out of its socket. Then came the chute deployed. It looked like a streamer because of the high speed, and I just knew that was gonna be the end. But suddenly the stream ballooned into a “good chute”, albeit one with two adjacent panels blown out. Those missing panels compounded my concern about my impending penetration of the rapidly approaching, triple-canopy jungle.
Meanwhile, Dutch had watched my ejection, seen the apparent streamer, and noted the two blown panels. He also saw the stricken bird go in, leaving a long flaming scar on the ground. Dutch circled until he saw me disappear into the vast jungle, and wisely marked the range and bearing of that spot in reference to the wreckage, having figured out rough coordinates for both. Then he climbed for maximum endurance altitude and got on the horn with the initial “May Day” call. The Search and Rescue (SAR) was about to begin.
The Main Event
After Dutch Holland put out the initial “May Day” call on Guard about 1000 Hours Local, he contacted the airborne alert HU-16 “Albatross” (Callsign Basil 66, playing the later to be developed role of the C-130 Kingbird) on a secondary SAR frequency and told them his lead was down about 65 miles from NKP in Laos. He gave them my coordinate information and reported that he was unable to contact me vias his hand-held UHF survival radio. The proto-King bird asked him to orbit the area, conserve fuel, continue trying to contact me on the UHF, and stay as long as he could. Dutch did just that until he RTB’d at BINGO fuel… but he never heard from me on the ground.
While the SAR was mounted, and the Huskies launched, I was taking stock of my situation. As I descended toward the ground… I was concerned about further injury to my arm and shoulder as I crashed into the jungle canopy. Luckily, my arm didn’t catch any tree limbs as I passed through the branches. The chute hung up in the treetops leaving me suspended about ten feet above the jungle floor. I got out of my harness and managed to drop to the ground with only minor further injuries.
I could hear my wingman, Dutch, circling helplessly overhead, but I couldn’t see him through the thick jungle canopy. As I moved about in the dim light below it, my shoulder was very painful. I tried to raise Dutch on my hand-held UHF survival radio, but the radio wouldn’t work. I guessed that the battery was dead. Our entire supply of PE came directly from our TDY kits which, obviously, were not well maintained.
It was a little after 1030L when the noise from Dutch’s plane disappeared, and suddenly it got real lonely. After that, I heard nothing… except for screaming monkeys.
After about 2 hours on the ground listening to the monkeys, and starting a fire hoping to create a smoke beacon, since my UHF radio was useless; I heard the noise of the SAR flight. When I heard the choppers, my dismal thoughts soared with hope. I tried to position myself in a spot where I could see through one of the few mall openings in the jungle canopy.
One brief moment in time, which I vividly remember, was when I looked up through one of those small beaks and saw a PJ (Sgt. Farmer) looking out the back of a Husky and staring straight at me. I’ll never forget it. I was the proverbial needle in a haystack of the jungle! And, they had found me!!! I wildly waved back. I could almost taste a cool one in the club. But Jay and his crew’s pick-up work was just beginning.
The SAR rescue-chopper pilot, Jay Strayer recounted, “All we had at that time, for lowering a PJ or bringing up a survivor with our power hoist cable was the ancient “horse collar”. Unlike the “tree penetrators” that would come later and could carry both a PJ and a survivor, this one-person device was not very sophisticated. So, Sgt. Farmed donned the horse collar and Sgt. Romisch lowered him into the dimness below. Upon reaching the ground his first words to Bigoness were, “Don’t worry Captain, we’ve got you now.”
When Sgt. Farmer discovered the pilot’s (Ron’s) arm and shoulder injuries he told the Capt. That it would hurt like Hell, but that he’d have to put the horse collar under both his arms. This he did, and up went the captain, screaming in agony.
He was still screaming when Sgt. Romisch pulled him in and kept screaming as Romisch began lowering the horse collar to get St. Farmer, still on the ground. … I told Romisch to give the pilot (Ron) something for his pain – it was tough enough holding the hover in the tops of trees without this distraction, and I really did “feel his pain”.
In a couple of minutes, the morphine administered to the injured pilot took effect, and St. Romisch resumed and complete the retrieval of Sgt. Farmer.”
Ron recalls… An HU-16 flew me from bare-base NKP to Ubon where US Army doctors put my arm back in its socket and pronounced me fit for further travel. (Also, it turned out that my upper arm bone was fractured, but we didn’t know that at the time). The following day was returned to my squadron at Da Nang where I remained for about a week before departing to the States. After 5 months of rehabilitation in Wilford Hall Hospital in San Antonio, I was discharged and returned to flying status. I managed to get back to Nam in 1968 by volunteering to complete my tour, flying another 220 combat missions before being reassigned to USAFE Headquarters.
For more about Ron, go to https://supersabresociety.com/biography/bigoness-ronald-albert/