Oyster 01 Bravo SAR

From Ron Smith: This is the “original” version/note that I sent to Bob Layman publisher of (Today in SEA History) that he used to write his article.

Re: ‘Oyster 01 Bravo' SAR Effort Bob, I have appreciated being on your email list, and your Today in SEA History emails so I will give you what I remember about the Oyster 01B SAR.  Over the years I have heard or read several accounts of the Oyster 01B SAR that have some inaccuracies in them. 

Some were written by people who weren't there or were not directly involved.  I mean no disrespect to anyone.  We all remember things differently. But this was a defining day in my life, and I remember some things about it like it happened yesterday. 

What I will tell you today will conflict with some of the other accounts, but everything will either be first-hand knowledge or I will say I did not directly know what happened.  I will try to give you the “short” version, but I am sure it will be long.

More than anything else, the success of this mission depended on one thing — the extraordinary courage of Roger Locher. 

On Jun 1, 1972, I was the Sandy lead for the strike package being sent into NVM.  Our mission was to fly to a “Safe” area north of the “Fishes mouth” very close to the NVM / Laos border, arrive as close to the strike time as possible, and wait for any SARs to develop.  2 Jolly Green HH-53s had the same mission, and were holding in the same area.  After the strike was over, I received a call from the C-130 King aircraft that an F-4 had made radio contact with someone in the vicinity of Yen Bai airfield.  I directed the Jolly's to follow the Sandys north as we collected more information.  I was hoping that the survivor might be in the mountains south of the Red river — an area I knew offered lots of cover for the Jollys, and an excellent chance of evading the enemy for both the SAR forces and the survivor.  As we proceeded north at low altitude, we got the word that the survivor's call sign was Oyster 01B and that he had been shot down 22 days earlier. 

The F-4 talking with him had been given his authentication questions, and he had answered them correctly.  He also told the F-4 that he was on the side of a hill and could see the Migs taking off and landing at Yen Bai.  As we approached within about 10 miles of Yen Bai, still in the mountains to the south and east, the F-4 flight passed by us overhead flying toward the MIG field.  As they overflew it, they had Sams fired at them, and one of them took a hit.  They had to depart the area and luckily made it back to Udorn.  By then, I had established direct radio contact with the survivor still hoping that he would be south of the Red River. 

We found a good orbit location for the Jollys and Sandy 2, and I started trying to find the survivor's exact location.  I flew parallel to the Red River toward Yen Bai along the ridgeline, but the survivor could not hear or see me.  As I started to turn back to the southeast, a MIG flew through the Sandy 2 / Jolly holding pattern departing headed in my direction.  Sandy 2 did not fire at the MIG stating later that he thought it was another F-4, and that he did not have a clear shot because of the Jollys.  I had everything that would fire forward armed on my airplane, but I never saw the Mig.  I was close enough to Yen Bai to have put my gear down, turned final, and landed.  That is probably what the MIG was trying to do when he flew into the Jolly flight.  After flying about 6 or 7 miles southeast of Yen Bai in the hills the survivor had told me enough to realize he was on the north side of the valley and river.  I knew a pick-up was very unlikely that day but wanted to get a good location on the survivor so we would not have to do that on any future rescue attempt. 

I turned north, crossed the Red River and a railroad track, and headed into the Red River valley.  I tried to avoid anything that looked like a military compound, town, etc.  As I flew north the survivor still could not see or hear me.  I found a large lake that was not on any of my maps.  The lake had a dam on the northeast side.  I realized I had been preoccupied with this lake, and not jinking enough so I broke left just as the guns of the dam opened up.  Sometimes it is good to be lucky.  I also had been talking with the survivor eliminating places he might be, and even though he had not seen or heard me at that point, I was pretty sure where he was located.  I told the SAR forces I was taking ground fire, told the survivor we would be back for him and to stay where he was, and quickly headed south toward the mountains. Sandy 2 heard my call that I was taking fire, then lost contact with me, and led the Jollys south toward home.  After crossing the Red River, I climbed enough to make radio contact with Sandy 2, and began tracking them to rendezvous with them for the return trip.  2 more Sandys had been launched from NKP, but they arrived after we were on our way home. 

During the long trip home, I was making plans for our next attempt.  There were 3 things we needed other than Sandys, Jollys, and King. We needed an F-4 flight for AAA suppression on the guns at the dam. We needed a MIG cap while we were within Mig range in NVM, and we needed the runway at Yen Bai cratered so they could not use it to launch Migs. Our Wing commander was very supportive of me, and my assertion that we could successfully rescue Oyster 01B.  The information about what we needed and our plan was sent up the chain of command, and information from the F-4 and from Roger's squadron was sent to us.  We needed other questions to ask him on the second-day attempt since his “official” questions had been used the first day.  Unfortunately the F-4 “pinpointed” his position right in the middle of the Red River valley at almost the exact location I was flying when the guns on the dam began firing.  I knew he could not be there for 2 reasons — there was no hill that he described or a good place to hide (lots of hooches, farms, etc), and he had not seen or heard me.  However, the F-4 was sure, so we had to develop a plan for this location along with the one for the place I believed he was located.  The cratering of the runway at Yen Bai was evidently also a problem. 

I have never confirmed this, but during his visit to China that year, President Nixon had given the Chinese either 60 or 90 days to remove their “advisors” from MIG fields before he would allow targeting to those locations.  We were still within 60 or 90 days.  I was told that the decision was made at the White House.  Don't know for sure who made it, but we did get permission for the strike. 

We had some previous F-105 experience in the wing at NKP, and we used them to help plan the best route across the Red River, and to the survivor's location.  The ridge Oyster 01B was on was just to the west of “Thud Ridge”. I was allowed to pick my Sandy 2 pilot, but not Sandy 3 and 4.  The squadron commander, Jim Harding, made those choices.  I picked Capt. Buck Buchannan and it was one of the best decisions I made that day.

HHQ also told us there would be an F-4 Fast FAC sent in to pinpoint the survivor's location while we were en route. Jun 2, 1972.  We launched from NKP at first light with the A-1s going direct to the holding point (south of the Red River in the mountains used the day before), and the Jollys taking a less direct route so as to not overfly some defended areas.  En route we were told that the fast FAC had aborted.  I really didn't consider this a setback since I was sure I knew where Oyster 01B was located. The over-confidence of youth can be a wonderful thing at times. 

We joined the Jollys, arrived in the holding area, and left the Jollys and Sandy 3 and 4 there while Sandys 1 and 2 went into the Red River valley to pinpoint the location of the survivor.  Just as we crossed the river about 8 miles southeast of Yen Bai, the F-4 flight hit the runway.  Exactly on time and they cratered the runway in 2 places.  It was a beautiful sight and a real morale booster to see the smoke coming up.  I was in contact with the AAA suppression flight holding over the lake as we flew at about 500 ft along ridgelines toward the dam.  

I was also talking with Oyster 01 and had asked him one last question to authenticate him.  I asked him “What is Kites?”  Without hesitating, he told me “It is a place you go to drink beer”.  I ask him to repeat and he did.  This was part of the information we got from his squadron the night before.  Kites was a bar where he went to college.  When I told him “It sounds like you are the guy we are looking for”, he answered, “You're damn right I am”.  That was the last time I had any doubts about whether this was a trap or not. 

As Buck and I approached the dam from the southeast along a ridgeline that formed the SE end of the dam, I told the F-4 crew to be watching so they would see where the guns were located.  They started shooting at us a couple of miles out, and we broke down and to the south heading away from the dam.  I asked the F-4s if they needed me to mark the target, and they replied that they had no trouble seeing the guns without a mark — I really didn't want to turn around and fire rockets into the guns, so I really appreciated that. 

As we egressed to the south, Oyster 01B told me he had heard us and had seen the guns shooting at us, and that he was on the other side of the dam from our position — just where I thought he was located.  Buck kept telling me to jink since the guns continued to shoot until the F-4s rolled in.  They were right on target on both ends of the dam. 

I told Oyster to stay put, that he would not see or hear us for at least 30 minutes, to get his signal mirror ready to use by practicing and be ready to hit the first A-1 he saw, to have 2 signal flares ready, one with the day smoke ready to pop, and one with the night flare ready.  He acknowledged, and we rendezvoused with Sandy 3 and 4 and the Jollys and started flying parallel to the Red River about 1 mile into the mountains on the southwest side of the river. 

King called to tell me that our MIG cap had gone to the tanker, and we did not have any support in the area.  We really didn't have any choice but to continue or leave the area and RTB.  I elected to continue.  We flew about 20 miles NW of Yen Bai to a crossing point that had been used by the F-105s heading to Thud Ridge.  As we crossed the river, we took some small arms fire from some hooches on the south side, but no damage to anyone.  Flew along ridgelines until we were on the north side of the ridge Oyster was on (he was on the SW side about halfway up).  Dropped the “high” Jolly off to hold on the north side, and the rest of us crested the ridge into the Red river valley.  Oyster immediately saw us and hit Sandy 2 with his mirror.  Sandy 2 told him to pop his day smoke and started to guide the Jolly to his position. 

We were so close that the Jolly overflew him on the first attempt, and had to come back to make the pickup.  The guns on the dam were still smoking but were only a couple of miles away so the Sandys laid down a smokescreen with CBU-22 while the Jolly was in the hover for the pickup.  It seemed like forever, but within a couple of minutes, they had him on board and were ready for egress.  Sandy 1 and 2 were in front of the Jollys with Sandy 3 and 4 behind them as we exited to the NW and then turning SW. 

We flew close to the same ground track used to ingress but varied it where possible to avoid flying over some of the same areas.  As we approached the river and railroad we were planning to drop some CBU on the south side of the river where we had taken ground fire on the way in.  As we crested the last hills before the river, I saw a train stopped on the tracks just north of the river and directed the Jollys to “push it up and get low”.  Sandy 1 and 2 dropped CBU even though I am sure we missed the train, the Jollys quickly crossed the river and got into the cover of the mountains on the SW side, and Sandy 3 and 4 made repeated passes on the train finally seeing the engine explode.  I was not witness to the train explosion or the MIGs that Sandy 3 and 4 chased off while rejoining the flight (you will need to talk with Jim Harding about those actions).  After Sandy 3 and 4 rejoined the flight, we were again told we had no MIG cap, and that there were MIGs reported to the east closing on our position.  Sandy 2 and I climbed away from the formation, armed everything that would fire forward, and turned toward the reported position of the MIGs. 

Our MIG cap contacted us saying they were en route and would be there in a few minutes.  The MIGs evidently turned away and we never engaged them or even saw them. The MIG cap arrived, and shortly after that we rendezvoused with the C-130 tanker for the Jollys — they had crossed into NVM much further than they were supposed to go in order to get them fuel.

The rest of the return trip was uneventful except for the fact HHQ told us to RTB to NKP and let the Jollys RTB to Udorn.  There was no way I was not going to meet Oyster 01B that day, and the “high” Jolly gave us the only excuse that seemed to work.  They said they had an engine problem and needed the Sandys to escort them home.  We all landed at Udorn. I am proud to have been able to play a part in this mission. 

We knew that it would be a terrific morale booster for every man flying combat missions in SEA.  They would not doubt that the Sandys and Jollys really would go anywhere to get them back home.  The courage of the people who directly supported us that day was unbelievable. The other Sandys, the Jollys, the King aircraft, the F-4 AAA suppression, and runway crater flight — even the MIG cap that was gone much of the time but chased off the last MIG threat, the people who helped us plan the mission the night before, and got us clearance for the mission all played a huge role in the success of Oyster 01Bs rescue. 

The write-up for the PUC was written with a few liberties taken stretching the truth in some places.  BTW we never did receive the PUC. 

The Google Earth pictures are interesting, but I can't identify much from them.  The pictures of Yen Bai are very good — the only thing you could see of the field was the runway with some taxiways going into the jungle/hills on the NE side.  The lake was much smaller than covering only a small portion of what looks like the SE section of the current lake.  Roger was on the first ridgeline north of the lake — about 2 miles NW of the dam. Hope this helps.