As the UH-2 Seasprite helicopter hovered over the water, its crew listened intently on their earphones for a message from the coastline. Some where beyond the pitch-dark horizon were two naval aviators whose plane had been shot down deep in North Vietnamese territory. Their exact position was not known. No one knew even if they were still alive. They had not yet made contact with any other rescue aircraft in the area. There was nothing the helicopter crew could do but wait and listen as they had done since leaving their ship shortly after midnight some time earlier.
Flying the single-engine UH-2 was 27 year old Lieutenant (then LTJG) Clyde E. Lassen, Officer in charge of the helo detachment aboard the guided missile frigate USS Preble (DLG 15). To his right sat Lieutenant (jg) Clarence L. Cook, his copilot, and behind them, his two crewmen, Aviation Electricians Mate 2nd Class Bruce B. Dallas, and Aviation Machinists Mate 3rd Class Donald N. West.
They waited. Seconds became minutes. Finally, voice communication was established. The downed aviators reported they were sitting on the side of a steep, heavily wooded hill surrounded by tall trees, thick undergrowth, and an undetermined number of enemy troops. Conditions clearly called for a helicopter, and fast.
By the time the message was completed, LTJG Cook had located the hillside position on his plotting map. He then gave LT Lassen the course to follow and, while the pilot pressed the UH-2 over the coast into the enemy land, kept him informed on the layout of the countryside below.
The overcast sky made the terrain shadowless. Ground objects were almost indistinguishable when the copter arrived in the search area. At first there were no signs of the survivors. But, after circling in darkness a few times, the SAR crew sighted the flash of flare pistols and the beam from a rescue strobe light.
Lieutenant Lassen swung the helo toward the illumination and moved in to survey a probable landing site. A likely spot, he judged, was a rice paddy at the bottom of the hill, about 200 feet from the downed airmen. He could hover over the clearing long enough for them to make it to the helo, despite the enemy. That was his plan. And it might have workedand the whole ordeal would probably have been over in a matter of seconds. But what looked like a quick and simple rescue turned out instead to be a real cliff-hanger. One worthy of an entry in the Medal of Honor ledger.
After directing the aviators to make their way down the hill to the rice paddy, the lieutenant commenced a partial hover just high enough to keep his helo from sinking in the mud. This drew the enemys attention and they started pouring in small arms and automatic weapons fire. Petty Officers Dallas and West sighted on the muzzle blasts and returned the fire with the airships two door-mounted M-60 machine guns.
Meanwhile, the downed aviators reported over their rescue transmitters that they were unable to make it through the undergrowth. LT Lassen decided to pull up out of gun range to evaluate the situation a little further and study another approach.
Like most helo pilots in the combat zone, he was relying on limited experience. He had been flying only a little more than two years. Nonetheless, he was no newcomer to naval aviation. Before he earned his wings through the Naval Aviation Cadet program, he served with the fleet for almost three years, attaining the rate of aviation electronics technician 3rd class. He had met each challenge with success. Now he was about to make another decision from which there could be no return.
The LT called for a rescue aircraft nearby to move into the area and illuminate the survivors location with flares. They he worked the UH-2 farther up the hill toward the airmen and located a probable landing spot between two large trees. There, Dallas and West lowered a rescue hoist, which the airmen could reach. Just as rescue appeared a sure thing, the last of the overhead flares went out. Depth perception was lost momentarily and the helo veered slightly to the right. One of the crewmen yelled that they were going to hit one of the trees.
A sharp jolt went through the helo and it pitched nose down into a right turn. Instinctively, LT Lassen righted the aircraft and climbed clear of the foliage. No one was hurt, but the UH-2 had suffered serious damage. It was vibrating almost uncontrollably. Things couldnt be much worse. His fuel was dangerously low. His aircraft was badly damaged. And, he was drawing fire from every enemy gun within range. On top of this, he and the other rescue aircraft had run out of overhead flares. They were strictly in the dark. A further rescue attempt seemed hopeless.
But as far as LT Lassen was concerned, he hadnt completed his mission, and he was determined to do so, successfully. Again he sized up the situation, called for more flares and, for the second time, told the downed aviators to descend the hill and meet him at the rice paddy. As skipper, he was confident Dallas and West could suppress the enemy gunners with their M-60s until the flares arrived. But he had no desire to go another round in the dark with those skyscraping trees. He had enough of them.
Following the pilots instructions, the two men on the ground attempted once more to work their way through the underbrush toward their rescuers appointed position. The delay, thus far, had allowed more enemy to arrive on the hill. The helo, in order to cover the aviators descent, had to stay close by.
This need for close-quarter maneuvering made it nearly impossible for support from the other air rescue units to be effective against the communist force. As things stood, the airmens safety rested primarily on the accuracy of LT Lassens gunners and his ability to fly his crippled aircraft, both talents which had proven unequalled.
Before long, the additional flares arrived and the sky was again lighted, aiding the lieutenants second approach to the paddy.
The enemy kept the airmen pinned down at the spot where LT Lassen could not reach. This complicated matters even more, because time suddenly became a crucial concern.
Only 30 minutes of fuel remained in the helos tanks, and both he and LTJG Cook were aware of the distance through enemy territory that lay between them and friendly hands. There might be enough time for one more attempt. No more.
The Lieutenant called for another flare drop and commenced his final rescue attempt. For a moment the sky was bright like high noon. But, just when the helo reached an altitude of about 50 feet over the rice paddy, the flare went out. There was nothing but darkness. Luck, never of the best in this episode, had seemed to run out.
With no time to wait for another flare drop, the young pilot went for broke and turned on his landing lights so he could see to set down. This withdrew the enemys concentration on the two airmen, who unhesitatingly cleared the brush and dashed toward the lights.
In a hail of lead, the copter crew pulled the two-some on board as the pilot lifted his vibrating, bullet-riddled chopper into the darkness, out of harms way. A thimble of fuel was in the helos tanks as the SAR crew headed toward the sea.
En route, LT Lassens evasive ability was again put to the test when he had to outmaneuver a last effort by the enemy to knock him out of the sky with antiaircraft fire.
By the time he reached the water and set down on the helo pad of the guided missile frigate USS Jouett (DLG 29), there was scarcely more than five minutes flight time remaining in the helicopters fuel lines.
The account of the rescue was logged as a successful, routine SAR mission. But at NAS Atsugi, home base for Helicopter Combat Squadron Seven, the rescue flight of 19 June 1968 will be acclaimed as one of the most daring feats of flying to come out of the Vietnam Conflict.
LT Clyde E. Lassen became the first naval aviator and fifth Navyman to be awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery in Vietnam.
His copilot, LTJG Cook, was awarded the Navy Cross for his gallant part played in the rescue. The two crewmen, Petty Officers West and Dallas, were awarded Silver Stars
(The previous section was written by - Marc Whetstone, Chief Journalist, USN.)