Talking Proud --- Military

Nail 65

By Steve Whitton, in cooperation with Ed Marek

On the morning of Februay 6, 1967, Capt Lucius Heiskell (Nail 65), 23rd Tactical Air Control Squadron (TASS), Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base (NKP RTAFB), Thailand began pre-flighting his little Cessna O-1 Bird Dog to make another low flying Forward Air Controller (FAC) mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, in the area of the Mu Ghia Pass, among the most dangerous and heavily defended areas in the Indochina War.


His mission over the trail was to spot camouflaged trucks. Once found, he would mark the location with a smoke rocket. In a matter of moments, an F-4 Phantom circling at 20,000 feet would be assigned a coordinate and a strike order from command center (Crown) would be issued. The F-4’s bombing run would commence with the FAC pilot still in the area as an observer for accuracy.

On February 6, 1967, Capt. Heiskell (Nail 65) was not so lucky. As he spotted a group of parked trucks under the jungle camouflage, he was hit by ant-aircraft fire. Capt. Heiskell bailed out. During the Vietnam War, Capt. Heiskell was one of only a few FAC pilots that was ever able to bail out and survive.


SAR missions for the USAF were really in their infancy at this point in time. A critical part of the SAR process was to have a command and control aircraft. The HC-130P was used early on for this purpose, known as the “Crown” aircraft. Its main mission was to serve as a helicopter refueling aircraft.


However, the HC-130P carried mission coordinators whose job it was to assemble and manage a SAR Task Force of helicopters, escort fighters, and tankers, and they also did the same when FACs spotted a lucrative target. Here is a very good photo from Vietnam. You see the HC-130P refueling one of the SAR HH-3 “Jolly Green Giant” SAR helicopters being led by four A-1E “Sandy” fighters which would support the rescue as required, usually with suppressive fire at enemy forces that might threaten the rescue. The Sandies belonged 602nd Special Operations Squadron (SOS). They started at Bien Hoa, Republic of Vietnam (RVN) in May 1964, went to Udorn RTAFB in Thailand, and was disbanded in 1970 at NKP RTAFB. It was really a self-contained SAR team.

In the case of a SAR mission, Crown would direct SAR helicopters to a downed flyer, as well as to their refueling and rendezvous points. It also worked as a communications link with higher headquarters, most notably the rescue center “Queen” at DaNang AB, RVN, and the rescue coordination center “Joker” at Tan Son Nhut AB, RVN.

In the timeframe we’re talking about, the Crown aircraft would fly four orbits, two over the Laotian-North Vietnam border, one over central Laos, the fourth over the Gulf of Tonkin.

FAC pilots flew low (often at tree top level) so, if there was a problem, recovery or bailing out was close to impossible. The red arrow points to a Dawg, I believe, after marking a target with his phosphorous rocket.

The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers went out looking for Capt. Heiskell. Heiskell spent the night in a crack in a footpath. Although he was in fear of being over-heard, he was in contact with Crown through his emergency radio. Capt. Heiskell said that on several occasions, the NVA ran right over his hidden position.

US pilots, USAF, USN, Army, Marine and CIA’s Air America would always do their very best to rescue a downed US pilot. Our country is one of the few countries that will send other people in harm’s way to save one of their own.

Capt. Heiskell must have felt great hope knowing that a rescue operation was being planned.

The small NKP RTAFB, located in Thailand’s northeast, right next to the Laotian border, got the call. Once in the air from NKP you were in Laotian airspace in five minutes. Another 10 to 20 minutes over Laos, pilots could encounter hostile activity. In fact, on the way over to Vietnam, pilots never took the same route twice over Laos for fear of getting shot down.


Flight time to the Mu Gia Pass is approximately 50 minutes. The two HH-3 Jolly Greens and two Sandies (one shown here) were called into action. The Sandies, more formally known as Skyraiders, were piston-driven aircraft that were used because they could fly for hours suppressing ground fire.


Once the HH-3 (shown here) went in to rescue a pilot, Sandy would search for ground activity and shoot.

Jolly Green 05 and 36 were both from the 37th Air Rescue Recovery Squadron (ARRS), DaNang AB, RVN. Approaching the entrance to the Mu Gia Pass, Major Patrick Wood, commanding Jolly 05, advised Jolly Green 36 that he would go in and pick up Nail 65. That meant that Jolly Green 36 would stay up high and look for enemy fire.

On the way to the Mu Gia Pass, they heard “Crown” call for any pilot in the area to respond and assist in suppressing ground fire in the heavily fortified pass.


An F-4 Phantom on his way back from a mission in North Vietnam responded to Crown. He had one 500 lb bomb, and a gatling gun, but was low on gas. He volunteered to make one pass at the 37mm anti aircraft gun that was causing havoc. He did not want to use his gun against the 37 mm anti-aircraft emplacement because that was “risky business”. In the early ‘60’s, F-4’s were known to be notorious for inaccurate bombing accuracy. The F-4 pilot dropped the 500 lb bomb and missed by hundreds of yards. Low on fuel, the F-4 pilot promptly vacated the area to make it safely back to Ubon RTAFB, Thailand.

In 2001, Col. Jimmie Butler introduced me to that F-4 Phantom driver that missed that 35mm gun emplacement. Ralph Wetterhahn from Long Beach, CA expressed to me in a face to face interview that he has “always felt bad about missing that 37mm gun”. That anti-aircraft gun was the gun that brought down Jolly Green 05.

This is an excerpt from the Incident Report that Major Oliver O’Mara (shown here as first lieutenant) filled out to his superiors:

“When they arrived in the area, Major Wood was advised by Sandy that they had observed 37 mm fire from a ridge to the north. O’Mara observed several air bursts of flak during the time at about 8,000 feet. Major Wood remained low, keeping below and between ridges, which protected him from enemy guns. At this time, Nail 65 advised that he had heard some noises and was terminating his radio transmission for fear of being observed. Major Wood knew that this might mean capture for Nail 65 and elected to press on his search of the karst in a vain attempt to locate the pilot.

“The weather was cloudy and foul. Jolly Green 05 dropped (Airman Second Class - A2C - Duane) Hackney (a pararescueman, known as PJ, shown here) into the jungle to look for Capt. Heiskell. On the first attempt, the PJ (Airman Duane Hackney) could not locate Nail 65. They had to get out of there because the weather was closing in rapidly. They flew back to NKP.”

Capt. Heiskell was no doubt nervous but he knew that they would return.

Continuing from the O’Mara report:

“At approximately 1630 hours, an airborne fighter pilot in the area of Mu Gia reported resumed voice contact with Nail 65. Major Wood in Jolly Green 05 and Jolly Green 36 were again launched to the area as low and high bird respectively. Approximately an hour and a half remained until darkness. Major Wood expedited his entry into the general area, overflew Mu Gia and stationed himself in an area where he could make a let down.”

When the Jollys and the Skyraiders returned they encountered ground fire. Wood (Shown here) determined that it was “now or never”. So he and Capt. Richard Kibbey, his co-pilot, supported by their flight engineer, SSgt. Donald Hall, took Jolly 05 down through holes in the undercast of clouds, which were lying on top of some mountain peeks. Heiskell assisted Wood in locating his position with voice vectors.

They established contact with Nail 65. Jolly 05 dropped Hackney down a second time and found Nail 65. As the men were lifted into the HH-3, ground fire and anti-aircraft fire erupted again. At the time that they were hoisted onboard, they took a round from the 37mm in the rear of the fuselage. An immediate fire broke out and the ship lost hydraulic power. Major Wood notified Sandy Lead that he had Heiskill onboard and was leaving the area to the south while looking for a hole in the clouds to ascend through.


Typical karst in Laos and North Eastern Vietnam

But then Jolly 05 transmitted he had been hit and was on fire. The Sandy pilots immediately saw extremely heavy and accurate 37mm AAA fire directed toward Jolly Green 05 as they raced through the clouds. Fire was observed in the top part of the helicopter just below the rotor blades. Lead continued to the south with flames streaming behind, and continued forward for approximately one mile after being hit. Just before crashing into a karst peak, Major Wood transmitted that the whole aircraft was on fire. Other pilots and aircrews watched in horror as Jolly Green 05 flew directly and perpendicularly into the karst outcropping at a high rate of speed while on fire scattering flaming wreckage everywhere. The crash site was located less than one-half mile east of Route 15, three miles northeast of the North Vietnamese/Lao border, six miles due north of the Mu Gia Pass and 59 miles northwest of Dong Hoi, North Vietnam.

Hackney immediately put his parachute on the injured Capt. Heiskell. As Hackney was reaching for a spare parachute, another burst of 37mm hit the HH-3 causing an explosion that blew Hackney out the door. Falling towards the jungle canopy, Hackney pulled the rip cord just before hitting the tree tops. At that moment, Jolly Green 05 hit the side of a karst and exploded. Witnessing this terrible explosion and now under fire himself, Jolly 36 dove down and passed over the crash site three times looking for survivors. Having survived the fall, Hackney activated his distress signal.

As Jolly Green 36 was inspecting the debris field, Firefly flight heard an emergency beeper signal emanating from the area of loss. A2C Hackney, the Lead helicopter's PJ, ignited a smoke flair to identify his position and was recovered by SAR personnel near the parachute farthest away from the crash site. No other survivors were seen near the other parachute or the wreckageMaking evasive maneuvers to get into position to pick up Hackney, Jolly Green 36 dropped their PJ to rescue Hackney. Hackney was terribly burned and suffered broken bones. They rescued Airman Hackney. Jolly Green 36 was in a bad situation.

OMaraOliverKnowing that it was their turn to get hit, the pilot (Oliver O’Mara, shown here as a major) performed climbing turns and evasive maneuvers to avoid the same fate.

With the help from the Skyraiders and luck, they were able to fly to the top of the ridge and fly safely back to NKP.

In 1999, I was introduced to Oliver O’Mara by a PJ who knew Hackney. Oliver O’Mara was a P-51 pilot in WW-II, a rescue helicopter pilot in Korea and Vietnam. He explained to me over the phone that he witnessed his best friend, Patrick Wood, die during what he described “an act of bravery”.

Even though so many years have passed, O’Mara remembered very clearly that once they got into safe air space they started working on the injured Hackney. The PJ yelled, “Hackney’s blood pressure is rising”, so they passed a bottle of brandy back. The PJ yelled, “Hackney doesn’t want any”. So, O’Mara yelled, “pass it back”. Both he and his copilot toasted the lost crew. O’Mara remembered that evening, “climbing to 12,000 feet, clear air, no turbulence and tears in my eyes yet so happy to be alive”.

O’Mara (Ollie) took bereavement leave in Hawaii. He was quite shaken by the loss of his war buddy. Keep in mind, this guy flew a P-51 in World War II. He was shot down in the China Sea and was picked up by a US submarines. Besides flying P-51’s in WW-II, he also flew helicopters in Korea and in Vietnam. While in Vietnam, he and Patrick Wood must have been considered “old timers”.
He met his wife in Hawaii for bereavement leave. Because he was stationed in Thailand, the military base in Hawaii would not offer them base housing because he was not stationed in a “combat zone”. Even though his detachment was 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron based in Da Nang, Vietnam, he was stationed out of Thailand. Thailand was a “secret war” at the time and not considered part of the Vietnam War effort. In my interview with Oliver O’Mara, he still sounded angry because of the official treatment that he received. Strange politics were a sign of the times back then.

Oliver O’Mara and Patrick Wood were best friends. They flew helicopters together in Korea and in Vietnam. O’Mara has always missed his friend. Through my conversations with Ollie O’Mara, I was able to introduce the son of Patrick Wood to him. He appreciated those occurrences. The two conversed several times over the phone. Ollie sent both David and me his original flight maps of South East Asia. Ollie died at the age of 91 in 2008.

Several notes that I took during my conversations with Oliver O’Mara:

When things got slow, the two HH-3’s would land in a school yard in the provincial capital of Hue. While the school kids would crowd around their HH-3 with their typical smiling faces, the crew would pass out candy bars similar to what our GI’s did in WW-II.


When they were low on fuel or weather kept them from going back to their base in Thailand, they would stop at Lima Site 20A Long Tieng, Laos, shown here. Long Tieng was General Van Pao’s base of ground operations. Even though Lima Site 20A was a friendly outpost, they slept in their helicopter with loaded pistols under their blankets.

O’Mara recalled that they witnessed Gen. Vang Pao interrogating one of his soldiers. The method of interrogation was no questions asked just put a gun to the soldiers head and Vang Pao pulled the trigger.

On an earlier mission in 1967, Oliver O’Mara was awarded an Air Force Cross (the highest award that the Air Force awards) from a previous rescue mission. He is a multiple recipient of the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross).

Airman Duane Hackney was an incredible human being. He served three tours in Vietnam as a PJ. It is said that Hackney rescued many people of all branches of service. Many that were rescued by Duane Hackney faced either death, a POW camp or torture. The lives that he saved eventually became dads and grandfathers decades later.

Hackney was highly decorated. In fact, he was the most highly decorated enlisted man in the Air Force’s history at that time.

As a reluctant participant, Ed Sullivan brought him up on the stage one Sunday in the early ‘70’s. Duane Hackney passed away from a sudden heart attack in the ‘90’s. He retired at the rank of chief master sergeant, the highest in the enlisted ranks.

In 1996, I met the son of Patrick Wood at a VFW meeting in La Habra, Ca. He was invited in to our meeting to talk about his Dad and the rescue mission. I became very interested in that mission. With over two years of networking on line with hundreds of veterans involved in Southeast Asia (SEA), I was able to attain information, establish eye witness accounts and meet people directly involved with this famous rescue. For me, it has been a life changing experience. And, to this very day, I am learning about people that continue to contact me that have been wearing their POW/KIA bracelets since the ‘70’s. God Bless them!

Along with these brave heroes that paid the ultimate sacrifice, the families also suffered through the decades from their loss. From the wives that lived daily with their personal heartbreak to the children growing up without a Father, all have unique stories. Although this story focuses on the brave airmen that gave their lives on 6-Feb-67, there is also information on the survivor and the families of the deceased.

David Wood was two years old when he lost his Dad on 6-Feb-67. Rick Kibbey was two when he lost his Dad on 6-Feb-67, Ms. Hall was one year old when she lost her Dad in North Viet Nam on 6-Feb-67 and Luke Heiskell was also two years old
when he lost his Dad.

I have spoken to the son of Capt. Heiskell. Luke Heiskell, now in his mid forties, he is a hunter, outdoorsman, real estate agent and family man. He is thriving. Luke stated that his family has always been appreciative of the sacrifices that Wood, Kibbey and Hall made to try to save his Dad. “His Mom and family will be eternally grateful”.

Although the Heiskell family attempted to contact Duane Hackney, they never made a connection. The Heiskell family knew that Hackney was the last person on earth to see their Dad alive. They wanted to thank Hackney for his multiple attempts to save their Dad, Lucius. The Heiskell family felt that either Hackney resisted the contact or the Air Force insulated Hackney from additional contact with the families of 6-Feb-67.

On Memorial Weekend of 2012, I established my first email contact with the son of Richard Kibbey. Rick was around two when his father went down that day. Rick spent 20 years himself in the Air Force. Although Rick and the Kibbey family never met Hackney, they conversed over the phone several times over the preceding decades. Rick wrote that he was asked to present the eulogy at Hackney’s funeral.

Speaking over the phone to the daughter of Donald Hall in Oklahoma, I was able to respectfully provide information that was never disclosed to them by the Air Force in such detail. Throughout the years, they never realized that Jolly 36 went over the crash site to look for survivors. They still refer to their fallen father as “Donnie Joe”.

As most crash sites have been investigated in North Vietnam and parts of Laos, this crash site has had accessibility (side of a mountain) challenges. The Joint Task Force was able to find some large helicopter parts in the over grown jungle, however, after decades of monsoon seasons, bone fragments have been washed down the steep mountain during the heavy rains.

The information gained on this incident was the result of hundreds of veterans from all over the world helping me establish contacts that would lead me to credible information. The families appreciated the fact that so many people remember their loved ones.

I would like to thank and acknowledge Col. Jimmie Butler, the Thailand, Laos, Cambodia Brotherhood (TLC) Brotherhood and many other veterans for helping me on the most interesting fact finding project of my life time. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the men and women who did pay the ultimate price of their life. Also, we think about the impact that these loses had on their families. They are tragic reminders of a home without a father lost in a foreign war 13,000 miles away.

Happy Memorial Day! As we light our barbeques, flip burgers on the grill, pop open that carbonated drink, pull skiers on a lake, take that R.V. for a trip, visit family and take that Monday off, “We Shall Never Forget”.

Steve Whitton
Fullerton, CA Ubon, Thailand ’69 –’70 F-4 Phantom Phixer

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