The rescue of Capt. Roger Locher, Oyster 01 Bravo
December 2, 2016
Extracts from a briefing presented by Ross “Buck” Buchanan” with introduction by Ed Marek, editor, “Talking Proud”
As life on the internet would have it, a former USAF navigator and pilot, Ross “Buck” Buchanan contacted me on November 25, 2016. We exchanged several e-mails during which time he told me he was the pilot of an A-1 “Skyraider” from the 1st Special Operations Squadron (SOS), Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base, “NKP,” for the mission that would rescue Locher.
The 1st SOS had the nickname “Hobo.” NKP was a most important Search and Rescue (SAR) base and in 1972 was the home of the 56th Special Operations Wing (SOW). At that time 56th SOW commanded the 1st SOS A-1H/J “Skyraider” fighters, the 18th SOS AC-119 “Stinger” gunships, the 22nd SOS A-1E/G/H/J “Skyraider” fighters, and the 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron (TASS) which transitioned over time from O-1 “Bird Dogs,” to O-2 “Skymasters,” to OV-10 “Broncos.”
It also hosted the 361st Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (TEWS) and Detachment 3, 6994th Security Squadron EC-47s, the 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron (ARRS) HH-3E helicopters, the 38th ARRS H-43 and HH-53E helicopters, and the 40th ARRS flying the HC-130P.
As one who was stationed at NKP during 1972-1973, I can tell you all kinds of aircraft flown by all kinds of people flew in and out of NKP, a story for another day.
Buck had been an USAF C-130 and KC-135 navigator, went to pilot training and became a pilot, flew F-100 “Super Sabre” fighters for a short time at Replacement Training School (RTU), and then saw his assignment changed to A-1s, about which he was happy. After leaving Southeast Asia, he was an instructor on T-37s “Tweets” used for training prospective pilots. He and his family then left the Air Force and moved to Montana where they owned and operated an aerial-application business.
At the time of this SAR, Buck was a “Sandy” (A-1 used for SAR escort and cover) qualified line pilot and the scheduling officer for the 1st SOS.
Just a quick few words on USAF SAR in those days. The USAF, other services, even CIA’s Air America and the CIA-run Army composed of indigenous Hmong fighters would work feverishly hard and risk a great deal to rescue downed crews. In the case of the USAF, numerous aircraft and people would be involved, quite often from only NKP, but also quite often by aircraft, often many aircraft, from other bases and from aircraft carriers at sea.
When flying SAR missions, the A-1 used the callsign “Sandy.” The rescue helicopters were known as “Jolly Greens” or “Jolly Green Giants” depending on the model employed. They would use the callsign “Jolly and then a number,” or "Low Jolly" (the pickup helicopter) and "High Jolly" in case the Low Jolly was shot down or forced to leave for some other reason. The Sandies would escort the Jollies, and provide cover against ground fire that might threaten the Jollies and their rescue of the downed crew. When the A-1s flew strike missions, they were known as Hobos.
Buck later presented a briefing about the Locher rescue to a group of mostly “older” pilots, who were members of the Daedalians organization and their wives in Great Falls, Montana. He has been kind enough to provide the briefing to me so that I can present it to you on “Talking Proud”. Ron Smith, who flew as “Sandy 01” on both days of the SAR was invited to present, but because his wife had back surgery, was unable to attend. Buck's callsign was "Sandy 02" for this mission. I say that because there was a rescue attempt the day before the successful rescue, and someone else flew using the callsign "Sandy 02," in case you have read other accounts — I don't want you to get confused.
I am a great believer in combat memoirs from those who were there. Based on Buck’s presentation and our e-mail interactions I will be making a few adjustments to my original story.
My purpose here is to convey Buck’s briefing of the rescue of Oyster 01 Bravo, Capt. Roger Locher, USAF. It is presented below. I have made only a few minor editorial repairs. This is his story.
The SAR Rescue of Rodger Locher
By Ross “Buck” Buchanan, “Sandy 02”
As you will see, the heart of the Locher rescue team. From left to right: Lt. Col. Bill Latham RIP, Major Jim Harding, Capt. Buck Buchanan and Capt. Ron Smith
I was not on the flying schedule the first day of this SAR. I was in the squadron building working on future schedules when we got the word from Tactical Unit Operations Center (TUOC) that there was a possible SAR in progress.
Most of the A-1 pilots went from our squadron building over to TUOC to listen to whatever radio chatter we could pick up to try and find out who the survivor was and where he was located.
After the Jollies and Sandies became bingo-fuel (low on fuel) and started to return to base (RTB), we learned the survivor was Capt. Roger Locher, call-sign “Oyster 0-1 Bravo.” He had been shot down 22 days earlier on 10 May1972. Oyster was the call-sign of his flight of four aircraft; Oyster 01 meant he was the lead aircraft of the flight and Oyster 01 Bravo meant he was the weapons-systems-operator (WSO), not the pilot. He had been partially authenticated by Sandy 01 who asked him questions to which only he should know the answers. These questions came from “King,” which was our SAR Airborne Command and Control C-130 aircraft. King got the questions on a secure line from 7th Air Force in Saigon. Therefore, we felt he was probably a bonafide survivor, but possibly under some enemy duress, especially since he had been in enemy territory for over three weeks. We also learned his presumed location was 60 miles north-west of Hanoi, population six to seven million, and about five miles from Yen Bai airfield, which was an active MiG base. We also heard Ron Smith, Sandy 01, had multiple rounds of 57mm fired at him on his solo search to try and find the exact location of Oyster 01-Bravo. We learned later the proximity of the guns helped Ron establish Roger’s position because Roger told him he could hear the guns shooting at him and he was just north of those guns.
We Sandy forces felt sure there would be a first light effort the next morning so the planning began.
Our squadron commander, Major Jim Harding came to me and said, “This will be an all-volunteer mission and who do you think should be Sandy 01?” I told him I had no doubt that Ron Smith would want to be in on the planning and fly Sandy 01 for the first lighter (first lighter was "Sandy talk" for early morning or first light mission). Major Harding agreed and said he would be Sandy 03 and he wanted Lt. Col. Latham on his wing as Sandy 04 because of his previous air-to-air experience as a F-106 pilot. That left Sandy 02 as the only unknown Sandy. When Ron and his wing-man landed, they came directly into TUOC. Ron confirmed he wanted to fly as Sandy 01. I asked his wing-man if he wanted to fly as Sandy 02. He answered, “If you schedule me that’s fine…….if you don’t that is also fine.”
I then asked Ron, “Who do you want on your wing?” He looked at me and asked, “What are you doing tomorrow?” With a lump in my throat and butterflies in my stomach, I replied, “I’m flying Sandy 02."
I think a little pre-mission fear was normal for most pilots flying combat. I may have had more than just a little right then though. The good thing was it always seemed to disappear once I became airborne.
I was extremely confident in Ron, the Jollies and the other Sandies. I felt IF Yen Bai were neutralized; IF we had continuous MiG CAP; IF the survivor’s exact location were determined by a fast Forward Air Controller (Fast FAC) —- a fast FAC was a pilot flying an F-4 Forward Air Control aircraft which was more able to survive in a high threat environment than a much slower FAC like an OV-10 or O-2, and……. IF some diversionary tactics were used and we had flak suppression for the 57mm guns; then our chances of success would be good. I also knew that there had never been a rescue across the Red River, that deep in enemy territory especially that close to Hanoi and that close to a known MiG base.
I went to our Hobo hooch, where I lived, had something to eat and probably a couple beers, then went to bed and tried to get some sleep.
I tossed and turned and had no trouble waking up for our early morning briefing. The weather was supposed to be good with a low broken layer. We had studied the AAA and SAM threat areas the night before and there were many. Yen Bai was supposed to be struck by F-4’s. There was supposed to be a Fast FAC recce of the area to obtain an exact position of the survivor. There was supposed to be flak suppression and continuous MiG CAP.
With that information, we drew our helmets and survival gear, pre-flighted aircraft and prepared to launch.
There were four Sandies. Ron Smith was Sandy 01, I was Sandy 02, Maj. Jim Harding was Sandy 03 and Lt. Col. Bill Latham was Sandy 04.
Here is a description of the A-1’s we were flying. They were single engine, single seat H or J model Douglas Skyraiders. They were 2,700 horsepower radial engine, propeller-driven aircraft. They weighed about 13,000 pounds empty and max gross weight was 25,000 pounds. We were usually right at gross weight for all combat missions.
We carried an array of weapons: Four 20mm guns with 800 rounds, a 7.62 mini gun with 1,500 rounds, four pods of 2.75 inch rockets, two of the pods with 18 each were High Explosive Incendiary (HEI), two of the pods with 7 each were Willey Pete White phosphorous marking rockets, and six canisters of cluster bombs. Four of these were CBU-25 anti-personnel and two were white phosphorus (smoke-screen bomblets). We also had two 200 lb. general-purpose white phosphorus bombs for marking initial points etc. We carried 350-gallons of internal fuel, a 300-gallon centerline tank and a 150-gallon right stub tank for a total of 800 gallons. This gave us about 6 1/2 hours of play-time depending upon the situation. If you subtract the fuel from 12,000 useable load you get about 7,000 lbs. of ordnance.
As I remember our take-off time was just after daylight. We launched separately from the Jollies. Dale Stovall, commanding the lead (or Low) Jolly and his wing-man in the (High) Jolly , traveled a more circuitous route to the rendezvous point. The rendezvous point was a high karst or lime-stone mountain across the Black River in NVN. It was about 40 miles south-west of Locher’s assumed position. We Sandies took off individually then joined up in finger-tip (formation of four), looked each other over, then spread to combat route formation. We flew directly to the rendezvous point which took us across the “Fishes Mouth” in North Vietnam. On our way, King notified us that the Fast FAC had aborted so we were not going to have an exact position of the survivor and King asked what were our intentions? Ron called me on Fox Mike (slang for FM radio) and asked what I thought. I’m sure this was just a courtesy call. I said I was fine with whatever he decided and I was certain he would opt to press on. He called King and said, “The Sandies intend to press on.” That increased my anxiety level because I now knew we would have to do a low-level search to locate Roger.
In retrospect, regardless of what information a Fast FAC may have been able to give us, I believe Ron Smith would have opted for him and me to go across the Red River and locate Roger ourselves. There were just too many lives at stake with the crew of two Jollies and four Sandies plus the survivor for him not to be as sure as he could possibly be of Roger’s exact position. Ron also told me later he wanted to give the 57mm AAA something to shoot at ….. us …. so that the flak suppression flight could strike the guns.
Once we had made the rendezvous with the Jollies we left Sandies 03 and 04 at the rendezvous point guarding them. Ron and I then dropped down from the mountains to the low-lands and headed deeper into North Vietnam to pin-point Roger. The foot-hills became low-lands. We crossed the Red River south-east of Yen Bai. We could see the runway at Yen Bai smoking from the F-4 strike flight. It became very, very, populated. I was trying to look for gun-fire coming from every hooch and structure while at the same time keeping good position on my lead. Ron began calling Roger on guard frequency and after some time Roger heard him and answered.
After some reassuring words, Ron told him he had a couple more questions, just to be sure he was who he said he was. (These questions were obtained the night before from his squadron mates at the Triple Nickel Squadron). Ron asked, “what kind of car did you have in college?" He answered a “57 Chevy.” This was a correct answer. Ron then asked “what is Kites?" Roger replied “a beer joint.” Ron didn’t hear him well and asked him to say again, Roger said “a place to drink beer." Ron said, “It sounds like you are the guy we are looking for.” Roger replied in a very commanding voice, “You’re damn right I am!”
All this time we were pressing toward his position at a blistering 165 knots! Ron asked him to describe where he was located and he said “just north of where you got shot at yesterday, just north of the lake.” Almost simultaneously with Roger’s description of his location we began taking 57mm fire. We pushed up our power and broke down and left. I could see the air bursts out in front of us. Thankfully, they didn’t connect. They obviously hadn’t shot at very many slow movers before. While in our turn Ron asked rather frantically, “Where are you two.” I said “right under you.” He couldn’t see me and was afraid I’d been hit. Ron told King we were taking fire and then King put the flak suppression flight up on our frequency. They asked Ron if he wanted them to hit the guns. He told them affirmative and asked them if they wanted us to mark the target? Gratefully they said no, they could see them well while we were taking fire. Just then, Roger told us he could hear them shooting at us and he was just north of the guns. With that Ron briefed him to be ready with his signaling devices, smoke and signal mirror, and that we would be back. We then headed back to the rendezvous point.
As we approached Dale Stovall in the Low Jolly and the High Jolly and the other two Sandies, Ron began a short briefing of how he wanted the formation. We were all on the deck. Ron and I were out front, then the Jollies and then Sandies 03 and 04. We went from the mountains to the valley below. We went by the Yen Bai MiG base to its north-west, across the Red River, the road, the rail-road and then started up the foot-hills on the other side of the valley. It was then that we got a call from King telling us our MiG CAP was on the tanker and asked what were our intentions? Ron told King, “We don’t have enough fuel to wait. We will have to press on and advise us when they were heading back from the tanker." So we were without MiG CAP. We then continued up the foot-hills until we got to a low ridge-line. At the ridge-line we turned right and started down the ridge-line.
Ron was talking to Roger but Roger said he couldn’t hear our airplanes or see us. Ron told the Jollies and Sandies 03 and 04 to hold their position while Ron and I went on down the ridge to pin-point Roger. We then proceeded on down the ridge-line. Ron was in front and I was flying an off-set trail position. It wasn’t long until Roger excitedly said, “I can hear you, I can hear you, ” and then as we broke over a dip in the ridge-line he told Ron, “You are right over me." He had his mirror out and flashed Ron but Ron was directly over him so Ron couldn’t see the flash. It was then that he flashed me and I could see him standing there. I told him to pop his smoke and Ron told Dale and the other Sandies to come in for the pick-up. Everyone was super, super amped-up! As I remember Dale over-shot him a little but was soon in the hover. The Sandies joined up in what we called a daisy-chain and circled the Jolly. We dropped our smoke CBU-22 providing a smoke screen around the Jolly. It only seemed like a couple minutes (I’m sure it seemed much, much longer than that to Dale) that Roger was on the penetrator in in the helicopter.
We picked up the other Jolly on our way out and egressed the same way we had ingressed and in the same formation. When we approached the rail-road next to the Red River, we saw there was a train with some guns mounted on it. We were really low and came on it very quickly so there was no time to veer off. Ron and I put down CBU-25s as we crossed over. The Jollies were close behind and Ron told them to tell us when they were clear of the train. Soon they told us they were across safely which was a big relief! In the meantime, Sandies 03 and 04 made multiple passes on the train. I remember thinking, God, I hope they don’t get shot down.
The next exciting event was that we got a MiG call. I don’t remember what agency made the call …. but …. we were told it was headed in our direction. (Remember our MiG CAP was on the tanker). Ron and I had our HEI rockets ready to fire and our 20mm guns armed. We climbed above and in front of the helicopters and peeled our eyes, looking for bad guys. Thankfully we weren’t engaged by any MiGs. King then called and said the MiG CAP was off the tanker, inbound. I believe North Vietnamese GCI spotted our MiG CAP and notified the MiGs so they turned away from us. I doubt seriously that they were afraid of Ron and me. Sandies 03 and 04 said later, they did see a MiG.
As we got farther south in Laos everyone began to relax a little. The Jollies were going to land at Udorn, which was Roger’s home-base. We also wanted to land there to be in on the celebration. Ron called King and said, “The Sandies are going to also land at Udorn." King came back, “Negative Sandies RTB NKP." It was then that the High Jolly told King that he had a mechanical issue and requested escort to Udorn. The good old Jollies were looking out after their buddies and we also got to go to Udorn. We Sandies joined up in echelon formation and flew an initial, over-head pattern. I’m sure we all made excellent landings. After we shut down we walked over to be close to where Roger was being greeted by almost all the people in Udorn. General Vogt, the 7th Air Force Commander, had flown up from Saigon early that morning to be close to the mission while it unfolded and hopefully, hopefully, offer his congratulations upon its success. I think he really “stuck his neck out” by committing over a hundred aircraft and many hundred crewmen to this effort. I remember I just hung back and watched and felt happy and thankful.
In my opinion, the key people; or heroes if you will, of this mission were…. Roger Locher, Dale Stovall, Ron Smith and General John Vogt…..in no particular order.