Monday, July 20, 2020

Hmong find F-105 pilot hanging from the trees, Laos, 1969

“The body bag held the contents of one Major Sanders, former F-105D pilot, whose remains had been retrieved and returned to (Lima Site 20) Alternate that very afternoon by a CIA case officer whose Hmong team cut them down out of the trees where he had been hanging for several weeks still in his ejection seat.”

“Secret Soldiers-Shadow Warriors, portraits in Courage,” by Dan Moody

The pilot's remains found were those of Major Steven Roy Sanders, USAF, F-105D pilot, 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) "Licking Lizards" based at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB). This photo shows him on his first tour in the Indochina War, when he was a captain flying F-105s with the 469th TFS at Korat RTAFB, 1965-1966. A family member has said he was assigned to an air base in Oklahoma to train pilots after the first tour. He didn't like it, and asked to return to the F-105 and the war. His wish was granted and he arrived at the 357th during February 1969. The F-105 was officially known as the "Thunderchief."

Major Sanders was shot down over Northern Laos, August 25, 1969. He began serving with the 357th TFS in February 1969. This photo is of a 357th F-105; they were coded "RU" on the vertical stabilizer. The "100" is its tail number. Sanders' tail number on the day of his loss was 591818, but only "818" would show up on the tail in large letters. The digits "59" indicate the year the aircraft was produced, 1959. Major Sanders had been at Takhli since February 28, 1969 so his aircraft crashed less than two months after his arrival for his second tour with the F-105.

Overall, during his Air Force career, Sanders received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart and by my count 15 Air Medals. He also flew 100 missions, mostly over North Vietnam (NVN) on his first tour. That was an important milestone marker of pride for pilots flying combat missions over hostile territory in Indochina.

Sanders was flight lead of four 357th TFS F-105s attacking enemy ground forces, both North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Pathet Lao indigenous communist forces. Those enemy forces were moving through northern Laos near the Plaines des Jars (PDJ) as part of their effort to fully control the PDJ and position themselves to overthrow the Royal Lao Government (RLG). The white area on the graphic marks the PDJ. The red dot roughly marks the crash site. 

This map also shows CIA landing sites, called "Lima Sites," "LS" to be short, each one numbered. These landing sites were built, and often lost and retaken several times over time. In the lower left, note LS20A, the site to which Sanders' remains were taken. I'll touch on this crash site again in a moment.

The official statement listed Sanders as “killed during operations on ‘Barrel Roll’ while making a strafing pass after five bombing passes on enemy troops." The report said he was hit by ground fire. I have learned from Sanders' brother that Sanders' wingman said he saw the aircraft explode but did not see a chute. This graphic shows the Barrel Roll region. Broadly speaking, the Barrel Roll included all northern Laos while Steel Tiger included the southern Laotian panhandle as shown on the map. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, heavily protected, extended from roughly Steel Tiger East all along the Laotian-Vietnam border and into Cambodia. Also note the location of the PDJ in Barrel Roll West. 

The USAF provided the coordinates of Sanders' crash site. I think "crash site" where the aircraft was found  Keep in mind that Long Tieng is where Sanders' remains were taken after being found.

The crash site coordinates are very close to the modern town of Then Poun. Crash reports said he went down near Ban Thien Phoun which was renamed Then Poun. You can get a feel for the terrain. It is quite mountainous just a bit to the north.

The jungles can get very dense and terrain very difficult such as shown here east of the PDJ. 

Hmong indigenous fighters living in Laos, controlled by the CIA and fighting against the NVA and Pathet Lao, were usually briefed to be alert for downed American and allied pilots and told to attempt to rescue them or retrieve their remains if that was their status.

In Sanders case, a CIA-led Hmong team did find him as described earlier. You saw this photo at the opening. It is a photo of Jack Jolis, a CIA case officer operating out of LS-20A, with what was known as a Hmong Rascal Team, which meant the Hmong dressed in civilian garb, trekked through the mountains looking for NVA-Pathet Lao concentrations, after which they would pass through the enemy and drop markers that emitted electronic signals for friendly forces to locate.

Major Sanders' remains were brought to Lima Site 20A (LS-20A) or Lima Site 20 Alternate, which was a major CIA base at Long Tieng, Laos (shown in the photo). 

It was also the headquarters for General Vang Pao, who led the Hmong fighters on the ground, working closely with the CIA. CIA's Air America used the site and USAF pilots and maintenance people were also posted there, many working covertly for CIA, flying out of the base. The presence and missions of the CIA and USAF were classified until many years later.

I do not know exactly when Sanders' remains arrived there, but I do know his remains were in a body bag at LS-20A on December 8, 1969.

On the surface it looks like there is a disconnect between the date of his loss, August 25, 1969 and the day I know his remains were at LS-20A, December 8, 1969. I will address that later.

Let me address how I know he was at L-20A on December 8, 1969. Dan Moody wrote about a December 8, 1969 visit to LS-20A by Major General Robert Petit, USAF, shown here, at the time the commander 7/13th AF, Udorn RTAFB, which is a story of its own.

Moody wrote this about one part of the Petit visit:

"General Petit's 2/Lt aide noticed an olive drab bag over in a corner. He casually asked what it was. Someone answered, slightly incredulously, that it was a body bag. 'What’s in it'? The Lt demanded somewhat imperiously. 'Why', said Mike Byers, 'I believe that it may be a body'.

"The Lt. leapt some five feet to the side of his master. Indeed, the body bag held the contents of one Major Sanders, former F-105D pilot, whose remains had been retrieved and returned to Alternate (LS-20A) that very afternoon (December 8, 1969) by a CIA case officer who’s Hmong team cut it down out of the trees where he had been hanging for several weeks still in his ejection seat. The body was not recovered without risk or casualty."

Dan Moody, who wrote “Secret Soldiers-Shadow Warriors, portraits in Courage,” and Karl Polifka, who contributed to that article, were both Raven Forward Air Controllers (FACs). Polifka was at LS-20A when Sanders' remains and General Petit were there. The remains were in the Raven FAC facility when Petit's aide and Petit spotted the body bag.

I knew Polifka while at the Air Staff. So I called him. He confirmed Moody's account.

On the surface it looks like 14 weeks passed from the time of Sanders' loss, August 25, 1969 until I can for sure place his remains at LS-20A. Why that long? The short answer is I don't know, but will address the question later in my analysis.

We should thank the Hmong for a job well done — Sanders' remains were returned to the US and he was interred in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific Honolulu Honolulu County Hawaii. 

That is about as much as I know for certain about Sanders' loss.

One could spend a good part of life studying the F-105, its crews, and support people in the Indochina War. There are a few things relevant to Sanders' last mission I would like to emphasize.

I would like to talk briefly about a few items relevant to Sanders' loss. 

First, a few words on strafing.

The USAF account of the loss said Sanders had dropped bombs on the mission, and came back to the targets and strafed.

This is an artist's painting of a USAF F-4 Phantom strafging a target in Vietnam, to give you the idea.

A strafing run is one where the pilot uses his cannon, the M61 Vulcan 20 mm cannon, as shown in the photo. In the case of the F-105, a Thunderchief Indochina war veteran told me that "compared to other weapons delivery, strafing was used relatively little and was avoided in heavily defended areas. When strafing was required, we'd use high angle strafe above 15 degrees and as high as 30 degrees. This was in attempt to stay high and not get in the weeds with the small arms fire."

 He added:

"The strafing maneuver involves rolling in from around 3, 500 feet and diving at the target; the pepper (sight aiming point) starts below the target and tracks across the ground up to it. Just as it reaches the target you start firing and momentarily bunt the stick forward to keep the pepper on the target (for only) microseconds. You then release the trigger and pull 4 'G's to recover from the dive. At the low angle of 15 degrees, you bottom out between 200 and 100 feet. At the higher 30 degree, you start your recovery around 2,300 feet in order to not bottom out lower than 500 feet. (The pilot would remain) at very low altitude a very short time; seconds.

"Once he rolls out in the dive, he is most vulnerable as he is now on a steady trajectory until he starts his pull up. Of course he is only on this steady trajectory for a few seconds, maybe around 8 to 10 seconds max. That is the way we initially trained to strafe. In the late '60s, we started training using curvilinear descending attacks. This type of attack compounds the ground fires tracking because you never fly a steady trajectory. You start your attack roll in earlier and fly a descending turning pattern so your trajectory is constantly changing in a curving approach and you only roll out wings level microseconds before the pepper reaches the target. This type of attack naturally is more difficult to conduct but very doable with proper training and also more survivable in the low altitude environment.

"Since you are writing about (an event that) occurred in August 1969, it would be very probable he (Sanders) was using this technique.

"More trigger time is not the answer. First, it's impossible to maintain the sight (the pepper) on a non-moving ground target much longer than a second. Secondly, the barrels will burn out with long trigger times. High fire rate is the correct approach. Get as many bullets out on the target in the shortest amount of time. About the only justification for multiple strafing passes is in the Close Air Support mission; otherwise, you're just asking to get bagged."

This same pilot commented on "ground fire" as well:

"Lots of 105s were lost to ground fire but it was no more vulnerable than other fighters. In fact, it had an advantage over most fighters because it had a dry wing (no fuel in the wing) which is a relative large area as a target. I suspect he (Sanders) got hit and started burning and stayed with the plane too long trying to get out of the target area. Of course this is only my opinion. F-105's did not immediately explode upon getting hit unless it was a direct hit in a crucial location by a large AAA mm gun. The likelihood this was the case at this low altitude is extremely low."

Let's turn to the matter of ejection from a fighter and the ejection seat.

Recall Sanders was still strapped to his seat when he was found in the tree.

Regardless of what one sees in the movies, ejections from a fighter aircraft are very dangerous events and is the option of last choice, last resort. The F-105D had a rocket-propelled ejection seat. A drogue chute on the seat stabilized everything in the air to prevent the seat and pilot from tumbling through the air. The parachute was worn by the pilot and was not part of the seat. The pilot would release his seat's harness while in the air, freeing him from the seat and enabling him to fall free with his chute. He would then pull the rip chord on his own chute. Some pilots were known to have "frozen" in their seats from the shock of the ejection at high speeds, so a system was installed that was supposed to pull the pilot away from the seat by a strap system.

I do not know why Sanders was still attached to his seat. It is possible his aircraft inverted and he ejected downward straight into the trees. It is also possible he was thrown from his aircraft after it crashed. It is possible his ejection seat failed to separate and that he was either too shocked from the ejection, too injured, or already dead.

I do have one other notion here, however, and I've asked F-105 professionals to comment on it. This photo is of an ACES II Survival Kit Container used on the F-16 and F-15. It attaches to the "seat pan" of the ejection seat.

The "seat pan" was a metal area of the ejection seat strapped a bit like a pan. It and the survival kit and seat cushion are strapped to the pilot. I wonder whether Sanders was strapped to that, called by some pilots the "survival seat," instead of the entire ejection seat. Perhaps the people who found him mistakenly called that the ejection seat. Normally, if a pilot lands in the trees, for example, he would release this seat pan which would hang some 10-15 feet below the pilot on the lanyard. However if he did not release the "survival kit" it would still be attached to him and the chute harness and look like he was sitting on something. The scenario I just described is possible, but the experts who consulted with me have different views about that possibility.

When it's all said and done, we don't know what the Hmong saw. 

Failure of the ejection seat to separate after ejection is rare, but it has happened

Next on the docket are the trees in Laos.

While missions over Laos were not as risky as those over the NVN, pilots knew the Pathet Lao did not take prisoners. This photo shows a group of them, much like the Hmong, mostly poor farmers fighting against the US-backed central government. One FAC pilot commented on the Pathet Lao:

"Pilots (who had bailed out in Laos) were machine-gunned while hanging from trees in their parachute harnesses.”

Trees in Laos were at least double canopy. This photo gives you a sense for the enormity of the trees in Laos.

Major Charles Brownle flew F-105Ds for the 357th TFS. On December 24, 1968, he bailed out over Laos, successfully ejecting. Other pilots in his flight saw his parachute reply, followed it to the ground, and saw it get caught in the dense jungle canopy of trees. Attempts to contact Brownlee by radio were not successful, and there was no emergency beeper heard from his radio.

Rescue helicopters had been orbiting in the area in case they were needed. The crews aboard one HH3E, callsign "Jolly Green," immediately responded. The photo shows a HH3C version of the Jolly Green. The rescue aircraft came under heavy fire when it neared Brownlee's location, it was getting dark, so they all left.

The next morning a HH3E Jolly Green returned to the site to recover Brownlee. The crew easily spotted his parachute hanging from the trees. However, the helicopter wash blew the parachute and Brownlee to the ground some 70 feet below. The rescue crew then lowered USAF pararescueman (PJ) Charles Douglas “Doug” King, 100 ft. to the ground. Brownlee appeared lifeless, "inert" according to the PJ. The PJ cut Brownlee from his parachute, and secured him to a rescue device. The rescue crew decided to drag him about 20 feet to reach an open clearing so they could hoist him up, avoiding the trees. Airman King followed along with Brownlee. Just as the rescue crew was ready to hoist both men, the two men came under heavy enemy fire, and King was wounded. As the helicopter pulled away hoping to execute a rescue, the hoist line became snagged in the trees and broke, dropping both men about 10 ft. to the ground. Then the helicopter came under heavy fire and had to leave. The SAR attempt was abandoned, and both men, Brownlee and King were listed as MIA.

Capt. Larry Mahaffey, a F-105 pilot, was hit over NVN on November 18, 1965. Prior to ejecting, he flew his disabled aircraft to mountainous terrain, figuring it was safer there for him. His parachute landed in 100-foot high trees. He could not see the ground, decided the enemy, if they were there, would not be able to see him, so he simply remained in the trees. However, when the rescue choppers came, they could not find him. Mahaffey fired a few flares, the rescue crew spotted him, lowered the penetrator into the "dense mass of limbs and vines," and pulled him aboard.

Capt. Bob Gregory was flying a RF-4C, First Lt. Larry Stutz the co-pilot. Their mission was to follow a bombing raid 25 miles north of Hanoi and photograph the bomb damage for later assessment. They were flying 660 knots at 75 ft. altitude, "barely over the trees," and were hit by ground fire. Both men ejected. Stutz was captured almost immediately after parachuting into a NVN village. Gregory's parachute became snagged in the trees but he plunged to the ground, was knocked unconscious, and later died during imprisonment.

An Air America UH-34 large cargo hauler was shot down in 1963 over Laos. One Lao "Kicker" landed in a tree at night, saw grass not far below him, so he cut himself loose.

He then found that the elephant grass was very high, so he fell 50 ft down a hill.

Major Forrest Fenn, a F-100 pilot with the 85th TFS, ejected after being hit over Laos. The next morning, SAR crews came to rescue him. The helicopter crew let the jungle penetrator down 240 ft. to reach Fenn. He described the ride up as one “through a tangle of breaking limbs, leaves and tree trunks (that) took my breath away."

Rescue crews would encounter difficulties weaving themselves through the trees to get their man, and sometimes their cables broke and they crashed down through the trees themselves. Search and Rescue (SAR) missions were almost always very risky.

Finally, let's briefly look at the "shell-shock" of ejecting from the aircraft and spending time on the ground.

Major Dewey Waddell was shot down over NVN on July 5, 1967. He ejected and was captured. He said:

“It’s quite a shock when you’re zooming along and then all of a sudden you’re sitting on the ground.  One of the first thoughts I had when I was sitting on the ground was, Everybody I see from now on may be wanting to kill me. That focuses your attention. But conveniently they didn’t try to kill me. They just wanted to capture me.”

Lt. Commander Harvey Eikel, USN ejected over NVN as well on August 31, 1968. After landing on the ground, he had to evade the enemy for two hours. A Navy helicopter arrived for the rescue through intense hostile fire. At one point enemy soldiers were only 100 ft. away from him. The rescue chopper picked him up and took him to a ship offshore.

Martin Mahrtt was shot down over NVN flying a F-105. He landed in a mojuntainous area =south of the Red FRiver. Mahrtt described the ordeal:

"Initially, I was capped (combat air patrol cover to protect him) by members of my flight, then A1-Es protected me until the Jolly Green helicopters arrived (about two hours later). I was picked up and as we exited the area, we were attacked by North Vietnam MiGs. They fired heat-seeking missiles at the rescue aircraft, but the missiles did not guide. The helicopters landed on a mountaintop in Laos which was occupied by US Special Forces. They refueled the choppers from 50 gal drums using hand-cranked pumps. Later, I learned that my miraculous rescue was the furthest north that a pilot h. ad been rescued"

Many pilots were badly injured prior to ejecting, usually by shrapnel and fire.  Or after ejecting their bodies often would swing wildly in the air and they might also suffer from wind-blast. Once they did eject and hit the ground, they had lost a lot of blood from deep lacerations and might fall into shock, or even death. Open wounds were infected, which would be fatal whether captured or on the run.

After finishing my research, I searched for Sanders' family members. I found his brother, at the time living in Hawaii. We had a great conversation. I was the first to tell him that the Hmong found his brother hanging in the trees, cut him down, and got him to a safe base. His brother was surprised, listened intently, I led him to the article, and he thanked me for hunting him down and calling him.

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