Our Pedros, rotors of wood, men of steel
The sweaty business of searching for and rescuing (SAR) our downed pilots in the Vietnam-Laos wars produced acts of heroism that nearly defy articulation --- unparalleled daring and valor is the best we can do. One SAR commander said, "They'll go anywhere and do anything, and they act like they're spring loaded to go down the line to aid a downed pilot." They faced a triple jungle canopy in wild terrain, hostile enemy fire, and a target with a bounty on his head, either evading being caught or too injured to move. Many brave souls flew a variety of helicopters, attack aircraft, transports and even amphibian aircraft to get their man or men. This report is about one group of them, callsign "Pedro," the men of the machines known as the HH-43, the USAF "Huskie."
February 1, 2005
The good news is that those natural fears are tempered by the knowledge that if his aircraft goes down, there is a group of men he doesn't know and who don't know him who will risk everything to come and get him, seemingly “out of nowhere." There is a group of men who, when asked, "Who will go for us," long ago answered, "I'll go. Send me."
The opening photo shows you a young Vietnam-era fighter pilot just rescued by the 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB), Thailand. His name is Lt. George "Bob" Zesinger. Stop a moment and stare at him. Look at his face. Look at that smile. That's one fascinating smile, the unforgettable smile of a guy who is tickled pink that his Air Force spent what it had to spend to grab him from the jaws of captivity to get him back to safety. To the lower right is Pararescueman (PJ) Tony McFarr, a young sergeant steered by his "Jolly Green Giant" HH-53 air crew to pluck that lieutenant from the grass and hoist him to the angel from above. McFarr was later awarded the Silver Star for helping save five downed American aircrew members and 46 indigenous personnel. (Photo credit: Jim Corcoran, presented by Jolly Green Association)
Those in the business of search and rescue (SAR) in combat are among America's greatest heroes, daring, courageous, selfless, committed to service and sacrifice, "That others may live," their motto.
Among the more well known Air Force (USAF) SAR capabilities in the Vietnam War were the "Jolly Green Giants," the HH-3E helicopters, and the "Super Jolly Green Giants" the HH-53 and their fearless air crews --- "Fighter pilots have no fear, Jolly Green Giants are always near."
HH-3E "Jolly Green Giant" in rescue training
The HH-3Es arrived in Vietnam in 1965. To many, this ushered in a new age in combat SAR operations. It is a twin-engine, heavy-lift helicopter. It boasts titanium armor plating, jettisonable external fuel tanks, internal self-sealing bladder-type fuel tanks under the cabin floor, a retractable in-flight refueling probe, two 7.62mm machine guns, a forest penetrator and a high speed rescue hoist with 240 feet of cable. Its cruising speed is 154 miles per hour
HH-53 "Super Jolly Green Giant"
Then came the HH-53 Super Jolly Green. It entered the Vietnam conflict in 1967. It was the largest, fastest, most powerful heavy-lift helicopter in the Air Force inventory, capable of carrying 38 passengers, or 24 litter patients with four attendants plus a crew of five at speeds up to 195 miles an hour. It could even carry heavy loads on a sling underneath. To protect itself, the helicopter had three 7.62 miniguns capable of firing 2,000 to 4,000 rounds a minute. It was air-refuelable. The photo above does not adequately convey the size of this "bad boy." Here's a photo of this machine at a 2000 Air Show at Nellis AFB that puts its size in perspective.
Both editions of the Jolly Green were welcome sights to those fighting in Vietnam and Laos. When you examine SAR history in these Southeast Asian wars, you realize, perhaps for the first time, that American military involvement in these wars began in the late 1950s and early 1960s, years before the first Jolly Greens and their heroic crews showed up. You also become absorbed by how the men and machines involved in SAR in the early days made the seemingly impossible work with a brand of ingenuity under fire that makes your "pitter-patter go heart-heart."
You learn about the HH-43 "Huskie," more affectionately known as the "Pedro." Here's one at work, a "Little angel from above," with rotor blades made of wood and men made of steel.
Major Jay Strayer and his HH-43 crew rescue a downed F-100 Pilot near the Mu Gia Pass in Laos, one of the most dangerous places at the time on Earth. Note the "Bearpaws" (landing gear assemblies) in the trees. This is when HH-43's were equipped with only 100 ft. of cable. They were later equipped with 218 ft. of cable. If you look closely at the bottom, center of the photograph, you can see the PJ, named Farmer, being lowered to the ground to assist the injured pilot. Photo provided by Colonel Jay Strayer, USAF (Ret.), and presented by the "Unofficial" US Air Force HH-43 "Pedro" web site. As an aside, Strayer later was a HH-53 Jolly Green Giant co-pilot on the Son Tay POW Camp raid of November 20-21, 1970, Callsign "Apple Two."
This history is central to understanding and appreciating the service and sacrifice of these Pedro crews, and the professionalism with which they flew their tough little machines.
We therefore are compelled to address that history. As a result, we are going to divide up this report into sections.
Crucial history: This stuff is somethin' else. Read it, go out and find a Pedro vet, and hug him until he begs you to stop!
A look at the HH-43 "Huskie" aircraft: At first sight, especially when compared to the Jolly Greens, this helicopter looks like a toy. It surely was not made for the job it was given. But by the time the crews finished with her, she was one "lean and mean fightin' machine."
The HH-43 deployment to war: The HH-43 was the first USAF SAR bird put into the Vietnam and Laos wars. Its deployment is not easy to understand, lots of acronyms, and a bunch of weird unit designations that said a great deal about the state of affairs with regard to SAR operations at the time they deployed.
Those daily acts of bravery that will mark the Pedros as heroes forever: The Pedro crews like to brag that their rotor blades were made of wood, but the men who flew her were made of steel! That must surely be true. One Medal of Honor, six Air Force Crosses, a host of Silver Stars, and some 888 saves in Southeast Asia from 1966-1975. That's quite a few, and does not include saves from 1964-1966, when they were not getting counted, and those in Laos and North Vietnam which we believe are classified.
The fire suppression and local base recovery mission: This is the mission for which this aircraft was designed, one that demanded rapid response and an in-depth knowledge of a wide variety of aircraft carrying a wide variety of munitions. When the SAR mission was added, the Pedro air crews and their mighty machines were truly jacks of all trades, and they had to be exceedingly good at each one.