There were few safe or simple missions in the air war over Southeast Asia. Many who were there will tell you that at the top of the difficulty scale was the job of on-scene commander in a large rescue operation. That job demanded extraordinary concentration and ability to divide one's attention among many demands: locating the downed airman, deliberately exposing oneself to ground fire to locate enemy guns, controlling all the participants in the rescue effort (the helicopters and their A-1 Sandy escorts as well as the supporting jet fighters), acting as a forward air controller, and making the crucial judgment when to call in the choppers.
One of the best at this task was Maj. Richard L. "Larry" Mehr, a one-time F-100 pilot who volunteered to fly A-1s with the 602d Fighter Squadron (Commando), based at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand. The rescue operation on July 2-3, 1967, for which he was on-scene commander, has been called a classic among the hundreds of such missions in southeast Asia.
It all began on July 2 at 4:45 p.m. when Capt. Dale Pichard, call sign "Pintail 2," bailed out of his damaged F-105 about 20 miles northeast of Mu Gia Pass, near the Laotian border. Pichard's flight reported his approximate location to Crown, the HC-130 that coordinated rescue operations. Crown, in turn, passed the word to the alert force of A-1 Sandys at Udorn and the HH-3E Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopters at Nakhon Phanom RTAFB.
At 5 p.m., four Sandys took off from Udorn, led by Major Mehr. He and his wingman, Capt. P. K. Kimminau, went directly to the reported location of the downed pilot while the other two Sandys escorted two Jolly Greens to a relatively safe area nearby. One of the helicopters turned back with mechanical problems, leaving the HH-3E flown by Capt. Gregory Etzel without a backup in the event he was shot down. Etzel was on his first rescue mission but elected to stay with the team.
The rescue scene was a ridge line between two heavily populated valleys. The initial search for Pichard by Mehr and Kimminau was not successful. Under sporadic ground fire, Mehr saw a chute on the ground but could not make radio contact with Pichard, who was hiding in heavy undergrowth.
As darkness approached, Mehr called in Etzel to look over the chute. The Jolly Green made voice contact with Pichard. Major Mehr and the other Sandys covered Etzel as they flew north toward Pichard's apparent position. Ground fire now was the heaviest Mehr had seen in his 180 missions, 82 of them over the North. Darkness forced them to suspend the mission until first light the next day.
Back at Udorn, Larry Mehr laid out the next day's rescue mission and coordinated these plans with the Tactical Air Support Center. The Sandys and HH-3Es would be supported by20 F-105s from Pichard's wing, the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Korat RTAFB. The plan was completed near midnight, with takeoff set for 3 a.m.
Arriving at the rescue area at first light, Mehr instructed the jet fighters to hold "high and dry" while he verified Pichard's position, assessed the intensity of ground fire, and silenced some of the most menacing guns. When he had Pichard pinpointed, he began marking targets with white phosphorus rockets. As soon as the F-105s had expended their general-purpose and cluster bombs on these targets, he directed them to refuel at an orbiting tanker and return to strafe the area. Satisfied that ground fire had been contained, Mehr told two of his Sandys to use their rockets on trails leading to Pichard's position and his wingman to escort Etzel's Jolly Green into position for a pickup. After a high-speed approach through continuing ground fire, the HH-3E, hovering at 75 feet, picked up the downed pilot.
Major Mehr's fuel was getting dangerously low, probably from a hit in one of his tanks. Nevertheless, he decided to stay with the mission as long as possible. He directed the Sandys to strafe on both sides of the HH-3E's exit route. When the rescue helicopter was over reasonably safe terrain, Mehr declared a fuel emergency, turned over control of the search-and-rescue force to Sandy 3, and headed for Nakhon Phanom. Thirty miles east of that base, his fuel gauge showed zero pounds remaining. With his engine running on fumes, he penetrated an undercast and landed safely, exactly four hours after taking off from Udorn. Both his centerline external and internal tanks had been punctured by flak.
For his extraordinary performance directing these two missions in a high-threat area and with no losses, Maj. Larry Mehr was awarded the Air Force Cross, as was Capt. Greg Etzel. Before completing his southeast Asia tour in August 1967, Major Mehr also was awarded the Silver Star. He retired as a colonel in 1972, and now lives in Oregon, Ill. Nothing in his Air Force career is more satisfying to him than having been a key player in several successful rescue operations.
Published May 1995. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.
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Memorial Day is a time to remember all those who died fighting for their country, just like A1C William Pitsenbarger, an Air Force pararescueman who took part in more than 250 rescue missions before he was killed at the age of 21. His selflessness and valor in the Vietnam War earned him an Air Force Cross and, eventually, a Medal of Honor.
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