It was first light in the early morning of March 18, 1970. Despite rain, fog and low cloud cover, an oppressive heat already hung heavy over Da Nang Airbase in the Republic of Vietnam, home of the United States Air Force (USAF) 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service (ARRS). On the flight line two HH-3E Jolly Green Giant (Jolly Greens) helicopters spun up their blades and lifted off into the gray, overcast skies.
Early the next morning, huddled in the eerily quiet early jungle, the survivors of the crash and their protectors were relieved to hear the sound of approaching helicopters. A Huey appeared overhead, and onboard a young Lieutenant Colonel Norman Schwarzkopf, along with other crew members, tethered a rope to the deck of the helicopter and lowered Battalion Surgeon Captain Luis A. Oliver to the ground to render medical aid to the badly injured survivors. Shortly after, two Jolly Greens of the 37th ARRS arrived.
While one HH-3E orbited high (“high bird”), another hovered low (“low bird”) over the jungle canopy. Two PJs, Staff Sergeant Jules Smith and Sergeant Steven Samo, were lowered through the trees to the jungle floor to secure and bring up the survivors. General Ramsey, semi-conscious with a badly broken arm and severe back injuries, was the first to be hoisted aboard the hovering helicopter, followed by Battalion Surgeon Captain Oliver. As they reached the
open door of the Jolly Green, HH-3E Flight Engineer and future Lyon Air Museum Docent Bob LaFramboise reached out and brought them aboard. Within minutes of extraction they were en route back to Da Nang, where General Ramsey received life-saving medical treatment (Major General Ramsey was ultimately medically retired as a result of his injuries sustained in the accident, and passed away on February 23, 2016 at age 97).
Bob was born in a small town in northern Vermont, near the Canadian border. In August of 1966, shortly after his 18th birthday and with the conflict in Vietnam rapidly escalating, he enlisted in the USAF. “I wanted to learn aircraft maintenance and mechanics; skills that I could build a career on” Bob remembers, “and I didn't want to be drafted. By enlisting I was able to choose my branch of service and speciality.”
After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base (AFB) in Texas Bob went to Chanute AFB in Illinois for aircraft mechanics school. After graduation he was assigned to Dover AFB where he worked on C-141 Starlifter cargo aircraft. A little over a year later Bob heard the USAF was searching for helicopter crewmen for the often dangerous and perilous missions of rescuing downed American airmen in the Vietnam conflict, including those trapped behind enemy lines.
In 1968 Bob returned to Texas and reported to Sheppard AFB for basic and advanced helicopter mechanic school. He then went to Eglin AFB in Florida for helicopter Flight Engineer school. The next phase of his training had little to do with aircraft mechanics, but rather with the stark realities of serving in an active theatre of war.
In preparation for deployment to Vietnam, Bob was sent to survival school at Fairchild AFB in Washington. “They taught us escape and evasion tactics; what to expect if we were captured and taken Prisoner of War (POW), how to deal with enemy interrogations, sleep deprivation, and psychological warfare. They kept us awake for two days, marching us while verbally berating us. We were even put in small cages out in the hot sun. It was all about finding your physical and mental breaking point.” After Fairchild, Bob went to the Philippines for jungle survival training, where servicemen were dropped in the dense jungle with little to no provisions. Their task was to make it back to base without being caught by the indigenous people who had been hired by the US military to try to capture the men.
In July of 1969 Bob arrived in Da Nang, Vietnam to start his combat tour as a member of the 37th ARRS. Though some missions were benign and routine, many were “hot” rescues performed behind enemy lines in North and South Vietnam, as well as Laos, often close to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. “The NVA and VC had 23mm and 37mm anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) on the ridges and peaks of the mountains of Laos and North Vietnam, including Hanoi. These were usually what brought down the aircraft of the pilots we were rescuing, lots of F-4, F-100 FAC (Forward Air Controller) and F-105 crews. One of the most dangerous elements of rescue was when we were lowering or raising the rescue hoist. The pilots did not have much room to maneuver, and that is when the NVA and VC would open up on us with AAA, heavy machine gun and small arms fire, when we were most vulnerable.”
Luckily, on most rescues performed behind enemy lines, the Jolly Greens had several “Sandy” (Douglas A-1E Skyraider) escorts to provide cover fire for the rescue helicopters as well as to mark the location of the downed airmen. “The Skyraiders carried a huge amount of ordinance. They also had white phosphorous rockets for marking targets as well as tear gas bombs to disable enemy forces. They typically escorted us to the target, stayed with us during the rescue and escorted us out to a safe distance. Often times, after they had escorted us out, the Sandy would return to the rescue area and continue the fight.”
Bob LaFramboise at the headquarters of the 37th ARRA at Da Nang. Vietnam
Though some days were spent on the ground in Quang Tri or Da Nang in an “alert shack” waiting for a rescue call, many days ARRS crews would fly in orbit close to the DMZ or over the Gulf of Tonkin, which allowed for a quicker response time in the event of a call for rescue. “We could refuel in flight, so some of our orbit missions would be as long as eight hours. Those missions were tough, especially in a helicopter. After a while the noise of the aircraft and constant chop of the rotor blades would make you feel like you had been beat up. Once we got back on the ground it would take a while for us to get our land legs back and stabilize our equilibrium.”
The thick jungle foliage of tropical Vietnam often made their missions all the more dangerous. “Some of the trees were 150 feet tall, and the tops were so thick you often couldn't see the ground. If the rescue target was injured or not able to secure himself to the rescue hoist, I would lower a PJ down to the ground to assist. Often times he would have no idea what was awaiting for him under the canopy of the trees. The PJs carried .38 caliber pistols and M-16 or AR-15 rifles as standard issue. However, many of them carried other weapons they had creatively procured such as .45 pistols, AK-47 rifles and grenade launchers. It was against the regulations but not really enforced, because the unit commanders knew and understood the reasoning behind it.”
Bob remembers one ARRS helicopter pilot who left little to chance in defending his aircraft and crew. “He was a Major and had a M79 Thumper 40mm grenade launcher that he would fire at the enemy from out of the cockpit window, while he was flying the aircraft! He never went on a mission without it. He was one crazy guy.”
On one particular mission Bob and his crew were dispatched to rescue the navigator of a USAF AC-130 Spectre gunship, who had somehow fallen out of the aircraft into the jungles of Laos, along the south Vietnamese border. “That AC-130 was flying a Blind Bat mission” Bob remembers. “Blind Bat missions involved dropping parachute flares at night to illuminate the battlefields and movement on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I don't know how the navigator fell out, but he was lucky. He was at 3,000 feet when he fell out and his parachute was less than one-half deployed when he hit the ground. He was only slightly injured and able to radio for extraction. Because we typically did not fly at night we had to wait until first light to pick him up.” For this mission Bob earned his first Distinguished Flying Cross.
On another perilous mission in April of 1970 Bob and crew were called upon to rescue the pilot of a Marine Corps OV-10 Bronco who had been shot down late in the day over Laos. Heavily-armed enemy forces were closing in on his position, making the rescue all the more risky. Two rescue attempts were made by the Jolly Greens that day. In the first attempt Bob was in a “high bird” while a “low bird” went in first. The “low bird” had to ultimately abort the rescue as it was low on fuel (though Jolly Greens carried external fuel tanks known as “tip tanks” these were typically jettisoned during rescues to keep the aircraft weight low, thus improving lift performance and increasing the amount of available payload). When the “low bird” aborted, the “high bird” went in for pickup.
“As soon as we got to the pickup area we were hit hard by the enemy” Bob remembers. “They were using armor-piercing rounds, and we got shot up pretty bad. We lost an engine and our hydraulics, eventually having to break off our rescue attempt. When we got back to base that evening we had to land on mattress-like padding because our landing gear had been damaged to the point where it was unable to be lowered. Three of our crewman got hit, leaving them with serious injuries. I was lucky to come out of it uninjured. The pilot was able to evade capture that night, and the next morning a heavily-armed HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giant was able to successfully rescue him.”
As a result of that mission, the Jolly Green aircraft commander was awarded a Silver Star, and the co-pilot received a Distinguished Flying Cross. Both PJs were awarded a Purple Heart, with one also receiving a Distinguished Flying Cross with one Oak Leaf Cluster. Bob was awarded his second Distinguished Flying Cross, for which the official citation cites his heroic efforts in delivering suppressive fire, giving the pilots an opportunity to egress the area and make it back to base with no loss of life.
Bob LaFramboise at the HH-3E induction ceremony into the Air Force Museum in Daytona, Ohio 2010
Bob was in attendance in 2010 when the HH-3E Jolly Green Giant 22 was inducted into the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. “I happened to run into the aircraft commander from the mission that day” Bob remembers. “He had saved the aircraft checklist he had onboard with him and it had a huge hole through it from one of the armor-piercing rounds. You could still smell the gunpowder on it!”
In the course of his tour in Vietnam Bob flew over 100 rescue missions, earning him two Distinguished Flying Crosses and Five Air Medals, truly exemplifying the motto of the ARRS, “That Others May Live.” By the time he left Da Nang in July of 1970, the 37th ARRS had successfully rescued over 500 airmen. He fondly remembers that the day of his departure back to the United States proved the perfect fodder for a prank at the hands of his fellow airmen. “I had set my alarm clock to get up early to catch my plane home, a chartered DC-8. Well, I woke up that morning several hours late, and my alarm clock was nowhere to be seen. I missed my flight home, and had to wait another week. At a Jolly Green reunion in Fort Walton Beach, Florida just a few years ago, the guy who took my alarm clock fessed up to the prank. We all had a good laugh! Pranks were pretty normal for us, I think it was one way we kept our sanity.”
Reflecting back on his time in Vietnam, Bob solemnly recalls one of his comrades who never made it home. “I had a good friend named Bill Shinn, who was a FE with the 40th ARRS based at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand. On January 28, 1970 his HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giant was called to rescue the two-man crew of a F-105G Thunderchief callsign Seabird 02. They had been shot down by a NVAF (North Vietnamese Air Force) MiG-21 Fishbed fighter near the Laotian border while conducting Wild Weasel operations. Bill’s helo was holding about 20 miles from the crash sight, waiting for clearance from the FAC to come in and pick up the downed aircrew when another MiG-21 fired an air-to-air missile at their helicopter, instantly blowing it to pieces. Bill Shinn died that day at only 21 years of age, along with all five other crew members on the helicopter. The two men from the Thunderchief were unable to be rescued due to heavy enemy activity, and also lost their lives. Bill was one of the bravest, most selfless people I have ever known and I think about him often.”
After his discharge from the USAF Bob returned home and put his military experience to use by enrolling in Airframe & Powerplant (A&P) school, eventually earning a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification as an aircraft mechanic. Bob spent the next few years as an aircraft mechanic in Florida and then as a plane captain (crew chief) working on the F-14 Tomcat at Grumman Aerospace in Long Island, New York. In 1975 Bob came west as a newlywed and found work at Parker Hannifin Aerospace in Southern California. There he worked in the Air and Space Fuel Division in various engineering and management positions, including elements of the Space Shuttle program. Bob and his wife, Donna, have two grown children, Sara and Darin. He retired from Parker Hannifin after 32 years of service in 2007.
Despite the domestic acrimony of the Vietnam conflict, the men and women who served did so with valor and courage. Far from being deservedly welcomed home as heroes, many found themselves rejected and isolated, their service not celebrated, but condemned. Fortunately, today we rightfully recognize Vietnam veterans such as Bob LaFramboise as the exemplification of heroism and bravery that has been the hallmark of our country for over 240 years. Lyon Air Museum is thankful to have Bob as a member of our team, and for his service to our country we are forever grateful.
For more information on the rescue of Major General Lloyd Ramsey, please visit the Rattler/Firebird Association web site for an excellent article written by Army Colonel Johnnie Hitt:
Article by, Dan Heller