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Shoot Down of Covey 264
This is the my story of the events leading up to my being shot down on January 18, 1969 over the Ho Chi Minh (HCM) Trail.
William E. Townsley, Col., USAF (Ret.) A.k.a. “Cowboy” then and until 1984. Changed to “Blister” in honor of Army Sergeant John “Blister” Grant who was my favorite Special Operations Group (SOG) / Prairie Fire observer. He loved war. He had been in Vietnam 4 years when I met him and had been in 6 “non-landings” helicopters and airplanes. He became a mercenary and was killed in Africa in the early 80’.
Undergraduate Pilot Training and still a 2nd Lieutenant, I was
assigned the O-2B aircraft. This was
a Psychological Warfare plane. There
was a mistake. When I found out more
the O-2B, I decided I wanted the O-2A, which was a FAC plane.
Same plane, and NOT a newer FAC model, but a totally different mission.
I tried to change, but MPC (Military Personnel Center) said I couldn’t
unless I could find someone to trade with me.
Well, I asked my Air Ground Operations School (AGOS) class members, and
the only thing I could muster was a 3-way trade.
I would get an O-2A, I would give my O-2B to someone who had an O-1 Bird
Dog, which was an even slower, 1 engine FAC plane.
MPC bought my 3 way trading arrangement and so we were telephonically
authorized to go off and train in our newly assigned aircraft.
Orders were to follow.
Following Undergraduate Pilot Training and still a 2nd Lieutenant, I was assigned the O-2B aircraft. This was a Psychological Warfare plane. There was a mistake. When I found out more the O-2B, I decided I wanted the O-2A, which was a FAC plane. Same plane, and NOT a newer FAC model, but a totally different mission. I tried to change, but MPC (Military Personnel Center) said I couldn’t unless I could find someone to trade with me. Well, I asked my Air Ground Operations School (AGOS) class members, and the only thing I could muster was a 3-way trade. I would get an O-2A, I would give my O-2B to someone who had an O-1 Bird Dog, which was an even slower, 1 engine FAC plane. MPC bought my 3 way trading arrangement and so we were telephonically authorized to go off and train in our newly assigned aircraft. Orders were to follow.
Following AGOS, learning to fly the O-2A in the FAC role and then a quick TDY from Florida out to northwest Washington and the prisoner survival school, I kissed my pregnant first wife and my 3 year old daughter, Tammy, good-bye at Travis Air Force Base, California on December 11, 1968. I was bound for Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines and “my” baptism by fire. We were to spend about 10 days in the Pacific Air Force’s Jungle Survival School. One of the survival instructors was, I think, named Samuels, but we called him “Sam” for short. He was my main instructor, and he plays a major role in the crux of this story.
I still didn’t have the correct orders I needed to get to DaNang and my O-2A. So I called first to the place my original orders said I was to report to in Vietnam. Someone there said, “Sure, we’ll take care of it.” Then I decided I’d better call the FAC outfit I was supposed to go to, the 20th TASS (Tactical Air Support Squadron). The Operations Officer there, a Major Carmen Anillo, said, “Don’t go there, go to ‘Happy Valley’ and get your in-country FAC orientation flying training there. I’ll call them right now and tell them to expect you and to train you, even though you don’t have the right orders.” Major Anillo’s positive approach convinced me that I had to follow that man’s directions if I was going to be a FAC. I left Clark a very well trained survivor.
The arrival in Saigon was uneventful, but I remember a very silent group of airmen and soldiers on the plane. We were looking everywhere for the enemy that would start taking pot shots at 200 plus unarmed passengers. That night I experienced my first mortar attack. I was initiated.
Then came a quick, one day personnel in-processing and briefing at some huge auditorium where they told us to look at the person to your right and to your left. “Statistically, one of you will receive a bullet hit in your aircraft.” The one to my left was one of the guys that was involved in the 3-way aircraft switch back in the States, and he now had my original O-2B.
I boarded a C-130 and headed for Happy Valley. There I flew a few missions, experienced 2 or 3 more mortar attacks, and saw our retaliatory effort via a “Puff the Magic Dragon,” a C-130 with a cannon and high-powered 7.62 mm Gattling machine gun. After three days of flying over safe areas, that’s why they called it ‘Happy Valley’, to prove we could fly aircraft and handle the mission, we were off to our final destination. I still was without proper orders, but said I was headed for DaNang per Major Anillo’s previous verbal instructions. Nobody ever looked at my orders, or if they did, it was just to insure I had some.
I arrived in DaNang Jan 1, 1969. Shortly after I arrived, I received a Red Cross notification that my cousin, Russell Townsley, had just died of Cystic Fibrosis at age 21- the full life expectancy at that time. Russell was almost a brother to me, as we were raised together for awhile during some of my high school and later years. The Red Cross asked if I wanted to go all the way back to Massachusetts. I was deeply saddened, but elected not to go back as we all had known the end was near.
Now, those in charge said I had to wait for my real orders to come before they would actually send me into real combat. I had arrived on the 1st and finally flew my first mission on January 11, 1969. In the FAC business, we needed about 50 hours or more of real combat flying with a seasoned CTIP (Combat Training Instructor Pilot) in the right seat before they would allow us over the HCM Trail on our own. Each mission in the O-2A could last up to 4.5 hours.
I flew with different CTIPs, but on the 18th, my 7th flight day, I was scheduled with Major George Blair. After the standard briefings, I went to get my gear and parachute and head for the plane. The parachute specialist in the Life Support Shop wished me “Good Luck” on my way out. For some reason I retorted, “I don’t need good luck if you’re good, just a little luck.”
We crossed over into Laos about 20 minutes after takeoff, at about noon or a little thereafter. I picked up an in-flight briefing from the ABCCC (Airborne Command and Control Center) and the Covey FAC coming off station. Covey was our callsign, I was Covey 264. The FAC coming off mentioned some trucks stuck in the mud around “the old man’s head.” This referenced a small river bent in such a fashion that it looked a lot like a profile of Ziggy, the current cartoon character, only with a one long strand of hair coming out the top of his head. It was southeast of Delta 45, one of many major HCM Trail reference points we used on our maps.
I found the two trucks, and one appeared stuck in the river ford. I called ABCCC for a strike flight. While we waited, we looked for other targets of opportunity in the area, but found none. The fighters, a set of F-4s showed up very shortly and low on gas. I went to work having them put their bombs on the two lone trucks to smithereens. We had a tendency to fly in left turns during the strike control portion, because, in the O-2A, the FAC sat on the left side of the cockpit. When there was someone in the right seat, it was even more likely we’d be in left turns because of vision restriction problems. I out-briefed the fighters as I turned to the right away from the target.
My CTIP, Major Blair, said “Let’s go back and take another look.” As I turned back to the left we were hit. It felt like the plane hit a large air pocket, or a very concentrated puff of air pushed up on the back end of the plane. There was not much sound with the hit. Kind of a “woomp.” We immediately went into a slow, flat left spin. I switched to Guard frequency and called “Mayday, mayday, mayday.” Then I went into that slow motion phase of survival; the Air Force later gave it the name, temporal distortion (TD). I had been in TD once before while spinning out in my ‘68 Mustang on a new, rain-slicked road, and 3 times since in other a/c incidences.
I looked over at Maj. Blair and saw that we both were desperately trying to recover the aircraft. It was not responding and the spinning was becoming faster and faster and pointing downward, straight at the ground. I looked forward and could see exactly where it would crash. Still about 3,500 to 4000 feet up, but going straight down fast. The next emergency procedure was to remove the right hand door of the aircraft and jump out. My part in that procedure, when there were two people on board, was to reach behind the right seat passenger and unlock the door with my right hand. The right seat passenger was briefed to pull a foot long red lever by his right knee rearward about 6” (this removed the door’s hinge pins). Then they were supposed to hit the door with their shoulder to send it flying. I unbuckled my seat belt, while George, that’s what I call him now, pulled on the lever and pushed the door out. I remember reaching to start to undo his seat belt, but his own hand beat me to it. I can remember the whining or screaming of the plane as it gained airspeed. I can remember George going out and hearing a “thunk” sound. I dove out and down to avoid the wing strut. I was outside and free-falling. I reached immediately for my ripcord and pulled on it. I pulled and, in my slow motion temporally distorted mind, nothing was happening. I pulled some more, and then, using both hands, I pulled and remember the rip cord coming out about two feet. (The Life Support parachute people said it couldn’t be done. I definitely remember about 2 feet of cable in my hand.)
I felt the ‘whuump’ of my chute opening. My TD ended with the opening of the chute. I looked up quickly to check the chute, and I remember hearing the plane crash while I was looking up. I looked down and watched George’s chute fully open and then start to close just as fast as you’re reading this sentence. I watched him land 15’ to the left of the crashed and burning O-2A. I then realized there were rifles shooting, and it was probably at me. I tried to swing in my chute because I still had about 1000 feet to go. I swung for all I was worth. I don’t know if it really worked, but I wasn’t hit, so I guess it did.
I later decided that George had briefly knocked himself out when his head hit the wing strut while diving out of the a/c. He thought it hard to believe, but afterwards, when I told him about his chute opening and immediately closing from my vantage point, he had to concur.
I crashed through a tree and scraped my right knee and leg a little. I finally landed 15’ or so to the right of the a/c. I was still hearing the gunfire. I released my snaps. My chute was stuck in the tree, so my trained instruction to bury it was abandoned in a flash. I started running away from the rifle fire. I was taking the path of least resistance, a troddened path, and “Sam,” who was now perched on my shoulder, told me to get off that well-worn path. “Sam” represents all the survival training I received which occurred only 3 weeks previous in the Philippines. All of his training was as fresh in my mind as it could be. I landed in an area of light, young trees and bushes, not jungle as one might imagine. I came to a spot where the path went left, up away from a stream, so I stopped, turned right and jumped across the stream. I remember leaving a footprint in the muddy water of the far side of the stream, but it would soon fill in with water and lose its shape. Nevertheless, I worried about it for hours. I went about 10 or 15 feet up a little hillside and found a small bush. It might have been big, but it felt like a small bush. It wasn’t more than 3’ high. But, it was time to stop moving, or so “Sam” whispered in my ear. Live or die, this was my spot. I can remember my main thoughts were about my Grandmother. She was well into her 70’s, and she and I were very close as I would stay with her often for summer vacation months at a time. She had lost her oldest son, Harold Townsley, a B-24 Liberator navigator in WWII somewhere in the Mediterranean or Atlantic. I didn’t want her to lose me too.
My new helmet was white in color and I had on a gray flight suit, not the green one later adopted. I could only be thankful it wasn’t orange, except my hair was a shade of orange. I pulled out my survival knife and dug a quick hole to bury my helmet upside down. The loose dirt I grabbed, spit on it to make mud and started rubbing it on my face and in my hair. I had a nice, new, shiny, gold Cross ball point pen in my left sleeve shoulder pocket. I threw that in the hole. I had (T.E.) Lawrence of Arabia’s book, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” in my right calf pocket. I had enjoyed the movie and wanted to read his book. I threw that in the hole with my helmet. I had a blank check or two with my ex-wife’s and my name and address on it. I ate them. This all seemed to have happened within 20 to 30 seconds.
I could hear the enemy gathering around the a/c wreckage and lots of talking. I had only gotten about 50 yards from the a/c. Then the gunfire started again. They were shooting randomly around the woods. Bullets were ticking the leaves and branches all around me. This lasted about 5 minutes, then nothing, except their occasional talking. If I could hear them talking in a normal voice, I knew they could hear me make any sound. I was on my stomach with my face turned to the side and I just froze in place.
Then the first ant made his presence known to me. Then hundreds, probably thousands. The were crawling all over my body. Everywhere. They got in my ears and nose and eyes. Repeat everywhere. I could keep my mouth closed, but I had to breathe carefully through my slightly opened mouth so I could exhale forcefully through my nose to keep them out of there. The ears and eyes didn’t bother me too much, as I had to concentrate on my nose. This went on for about 2 or 3 hours, in my sense of time, anyway. Again, Sam jumped up on my shoulder and reminded me that ants were a good source of protein. I ended up eating several by crushing them with my lips or teeth. There was no taste, and I have no regrets.
I then heard a/c overhead. They had to be ours. We had total air superiority, except for the occasional loss due to ground fire, like me. The closer they got, and the louder they got, I began to feel I could get on my survival radio. Every once and awhile I could see an aircraft off to the west. They were the A-1 Sky Raiders. The noise would be close and then drift away, and then come back again. I pulled out my survival radio, the PRC-46, if I recall correctly. When I turned it on, I could not keep the volume low enough to suit me. “Sam” reminded me of the rubberized speaker cover and how we had been trained to use it. This cover had a listening tube, so that when you wanted to listen you would just place the end of the tube in your ear, and when you wanted to talk, you would hold down on the mic button, lift the speaker cover and speak into the mic, which was also the speaker.
When I first turned on the radio, I could here conversation going on between George and the lead A-1E Sky Raider, “Sandy 1” the callsign of all SAR (Search and Rescue) aircraft. I was listening to their conversation, but I was still afraid to speak, when I heard George tell the Sandy that Covey 264 was dead. George thought, since I had to follow him out the right side door of the O-2A and since he only had minimal time in the chute, my chute never had time to open. I overheard the Sandy ask George one of his survivor verification question, “What is your favorite drink.?” George replied, “Bourbon and water,” but I distinctly remembered him ordering a bourbon and ginger the night before. I was worried for us. I thought he was wrong and I was still thought dead by the friendlies. I tried to butt into the conversation with my callsign, but I was being ignored, or I wasn’t being heard because of my whispering. I continually tried to butt in, but now they thought they were being “spoofed” (radio deception) by the enemy. Without yelling, and barely whispering, I had to use a few choice, very American words to let that Sandy know that Covey 264 was alive and kicking. He began to believe me, and when I heard him ask Hillsboro to get the verification data on me, I felt like I was making progress.
My verification question came in from Sandy, “What’s your favorite pie?” I answered, “Aunt Martha’s Apple Pie.” I heard Sandy tell the ABCCC, “Hillsboro, we have two.” After that, all the radio conversation started sounding like it was working in our favor. But, I had trouble holding the tube to my ear to listen, then lifting the rubber cover containing the tube to talk. I could still hear the enemy talking, so I knew they could hear me talking. I then tried talking into the tube by talking into my closed fist holding the tube outstretched. It was a much quieter way to talk. “Sam” hadn’t taught me that, but it worked. Not well, but it was readable to the Sandy and that’s all I cared about. Sam told me they started teaching that method at survival school thereafter.
As the afternoon wore on, I had gotten across to the Sandy that I wasn’t very far from the downed aircraft. The enemy would occasionally fire randomly into the woods around me. But, then there was silence. “Sam” told me they were setting up to shoot at the Jolly Greens (SAR helicopters) when they came in for the final phase and when they were most vulnerable. I passed the word to Sandy that the “bad guys” are only about 50 yards from me set up someplace around my a/c. Apparently Sandy had located George by one method or another. Around 5 p.m. I could hear a helicopter. Sandy 1 briefed me to listen up on the radios, and on his command I was to direct the Jolly Green to my location. Jolly Green was 200 yards to my west when I first saw him and immediately the gunfire erupted. I saw the Jolly Green pull up and away with somebody hanging from the penetrator cable. I was commanded to silence, so I couldn’t ask anything, just listen. I later learned they didn’t get George with the first chopper, but had sent one of those very brave PJs (Para-rescue Jumper) Airman down to help George since he indicated his leg was hurt pretty bad in a conversation I never heard.. The PJ was who I saw hanging from the Jolly’s cable. I also later learned that that chopper received about 50 small caliber bullet hits.
More time passes, and in came another Jolly Green. I never looked up to see this one. This time they do not send down an airman, and George was able to hook himself to the Penetrator seat at the end of the cable. Sandy then says, “Covey 264, started talking.” I sat up from my cover behind the bush and took the cover off my radio speaker. The wind began rushing my way as I successfully directed that Jolly Green towards my position. When he got about 20 yards away, the gunfire opened up again and that Jolly Green pulls up and away. I later learned he received about 50 hits too. George was inside that Jolly Green and later told me his side of the story, and it made me shiver just to imagine being in there with all those bullets flying around inside.
Shortly, there was silence again. I had placed the cover back over the speaker and was just listening to the radios. Daylight was beginning to fade. I heard Sandy say, “Sandy flight, go channel 2.” Right then, I knew they were going to have to leave me behind. They didn’t have any more choppers available and it was getting dark. Sandy Lead came back up Guard and said, “Covey, we’re going to have to go. You need to dig in and be quiet. Do you have your survival equipment?” I said, “I’m OK, I’ve got the works.”
He said, “Understand you’ve got the works. OK, we’ll see you in the morning. Stay off your radio and your signal to come back up in the morning will be a Misty (F-100) going afterburner overhead.”
I replied, “Roger, I’ll see you then.” I immediately thought to myself, probably because I came from a military family and had been a Marine enlisted before transferring to the Air Force, “I’m a soldier, some of us make it and some of us don’t, but I’m going to try till I die.”
The area became deathly silent as I waited to see what was going to happen next. It was getting darker, but I could still see 100 yards if I needed to. I put my head down as I heard the enemy, either Pathet Laos or NVA, begin talking and walking along the path I had first taken. I think three to five men, but I wasn’t looking, passed within 15 yards of me and to this day I felt like one of them was arguing that there was still one guy out here and the others were saying, “No, no, there was only two chutes and they brought in two choppers, so that means they got both of them out.” Then the first guy would argue again and they would put him down again. I remember being glad he wasn’t persuasive. Nobody looked for me from that point on.
I had a good place to hide and I wasn’t going to move from it. I now had to pee. I sat up and unzipped my flight suit but found it very difficult to pee because after a moment a puddle would form, and that meant noise. I’d have to stop, let the water become absorbed in the ground, and begin again. You might laugh at my paranoia about making noise, but I didn’t want to make even the slightest sound and every little sound I made was magnified by the jeopardy I felt. This noise problem became more apparent as I began unwrapping all the survival equipment in my survival vest. Most of it was wrapped in a kind of waxed paper. As I tried to unwrap it, I definitely was making too much noise. I had to proceed so very slowly as I got out my signaling mirror, my smoke flares, my spare radio battery, my orange signaling panels, my luminous compass, and my tracer signaling bullets. It was night, so I decided to load my 38 caliber revolver with the signaling bullets. I set everything around me so I knew where it was as darkness settled over the woods. It became pitch black and I literally could not see my hand in front of my face. I could see some stars straight above.
As the night wore on I concentrated on the continuous noises I could hear. First was the encampment of the soldiers who had just walked by my position. All I could figure about this was that there must have been several more soldiers there. Then I could hear some trucks driving close by and parking someplace to my Northwest, then those drivers walking and talking their way towards the encampment. Then I heard this sound of what I later described as a lasso or rope in a clothes dryer going ‘ka-lump, ka-lump’, steady and continuous, all night long. “Sam” had taught me about my luminous compass. But, only two thing were luminous on it; a dot on North end of the compass’ floating pointer and a dot on a turnable dial cover. Each click of the dial cover represented either 2 or 3 degrees of the compass. I knew then. So, if I aligned the dots to begin, I would be pointing North or 0 degrees. As I counted the clicks of the dial’s cover dot around to the east, I determined the lasso noise was coming from 100 degrees at about 200 meters, probably somewhere along the stream that I crossed earlier. It was later pegged to be an ammunitions factory. I kept clicking to the south and southwest and determined the encampment was about 190 degrees from my position at about 75 to 100 meters. Finally, I clicked off the trucks’ parking area, which I determined to be about 300 meters at 300 degrees.
Later that evening, I heard a distant rifle shot. Then, a little bit later, one sounded closer, and then another, closer still. Then a plane flew by overhead. It took me a couple of time to realize that this was their way of signaling ahead in the Laotian countryside that a plane was coming into their area. The third plane that flew over lingered awhile and I watched a 37mm “triple A” (anti-aircraft artillery) open up on it. I only heard the airplanes as they always flew with all external lights out so as not to make it easy for the enemy gunners. Its engines change pitch back and forth, so I knew it was dodging those bullets. I had something else to click off with my handy compass. Especially since this was the 37mm that probably shot me down, or so I imagined. It was about 100 meters southwest of where I figured the encampment to be. I went over the numbers and burned them into my memory. Then, I didn’t have anything to do.
I got out the orange panel and rolled it up and put it under my head and I rested. I actually fell asleep just listening to the noises around me. Suddenly I was awakened by two voices getting closer and closer. I was on my back, so I turned my white, partially muddied face away from them and held my breath. These two soldiers or villagers casually passed 3 feet from my head and didn’t see me. It was so dark I wondered how they could walk so without flashlights, but they did, and I was thankful once again. I laid back again and rested some more. I knew I was on a path, but I couldn’t bring myself to move. I didn’t know where I’d be going, and I’d survived two close calls so far.
Sometime later in the night, as I was laying there, something started pulling at my hair. It startled me awake. Whatever it was, I presume a rat or some other rodent, scurried away, making so much noise that it scared me again. I laid back down and I could hear the rodent approaching again, and again it start pulling at my hair. I decided to let it pull away as long as he would remain quiet. This lasted about 20 minutes. The rest of the night was generally uneventful, except for the occasional noise of the 37mm AAA, the continual noise of the factory, and conversation over at the encampment.
Morning came slowly, and my confidence began to wane as I could again see - and be seen. I laid there and heard an O-2A overhead. I figured it was looking for me, but I needed to conserve my radio batteries. I figured there wasn’t anything they could do for me without the Sandy and the Jolly Green contingent on station. So I waited. Well, little did I know that Russ Howard, Covey 256, was supposed to locate me for my squadron, the 20th TASS, that morning. But, that wasn’t what I was told, and I needed now to believe that Sandy Lead would do what he said he would. Also, by regulation, I had to be officially listed as MIA (Missing in Action) the night before.
Finally, an hour after sunrise, after I heard other aircraft flying around, an F-100 Misty finally went afterburner overhead. I pop up on my radio and Sandy Lead says, “Where have you been, sleeping?” I replied, “Actually yes, and I’ve got several targets here for you.”
“What’s your situation, Covey.”
“I’m fine. From my position, I’ve got a factory at 100 degrees, 200 meters. An encampment at…” and I kept ticking off the targets.
“Slow down, slow down, Covey. Did you say a factory, like manufacturing plant?”
“OK, start over to make sure we have these.”
So I listed the targets again, now speaking through the tube all the time. I would just speak louder when the planes were overhead.
“Covey, it looks like we’ll have to work out here for awhile before we pull you out.”
“Roger. Let me know when you’re ready.”
“OK,” said Sandy, “now what I want you to do is turn off your radio for ten minutes and then come back up and listen. Check in briefly then go back down for another 10 minutes. We’ll do that until we’re ready to pick you up. Are you injured?”
“OK, shut down 10.”
After a couple of check-ins, Sandy started working over the area with several sets of F-4s and A-1s. I just laid back down and listened gratefully as the bombs hit the ground around me.
Then suddenly, (seems like everything is “then suddenly”) a “Willy Pete” (White Phosphorous) rocket hit very close to me and the fire ball was coming right at me in the air, but dissipated just 10 feet over my head. I jumped on the radio and hollered “Knock it off, knock it off. That last Willy Pete was too close to me.”
“Covey, are you all right?”
“Yes, it’s just that that last Willy Pete was about 10 feet from me.”
“OK, OK, we need to reconstruct exactly where you’re at.”
I pulled out my signaling mirror. I didn’t want to sit up and expose myself, so rather than aiming the signaling mirror as was intended, I had to use the nearby leaf concept. The only direction I could see the Sandys was to the West. I raised the mirror upwards. The sunlight was coming in from the east. I found a leaf to my West and concentrated on getting the Sun’s reflection on that leaf. When a Sandy flew near the leaf, I would move the sun flash back and forth onto the Sandy and back to the leaf.
After about 5 minutes of this, the Sandy asked, “Are you hearing gunfire, or is that you with a mirror.”
“That’s me with a mirror.”
“OK, Covey, you can stop now, we have you pinpointed.”
They worked over the area for about 3 hours, and I would faithfully pop up on the radio every 10 minutes. No one was looking for me, so I would shut back down for another ten minutes.
Finally came the moment of truth.
“Covey, we’ve been working over the area for 3 hours. Do you hear anything?”
“I need you to move away for a couple of minutes so I can listen.”
“OK, we’ll fly away for two minutes and then come back..”
“After two minutes I came up and told them I didn’t hear anything but the CBU still going off to the East.”
“OK, Covey, we’re coming in with “salad.” This was the code word for CS type tear gas. “Do you know what I'm saying and will you be able to handle it.?”
“I’ll know, and I’ll be fine.” While in the Marine Corps, during advanced combat training we had to stand in an enclosed shed full of tear gas without masks and sing the Marine Corps Hymn and then be called out alphabetically. Out of 50 Marines, my name, Townsley, got me out with about 3 left guys inside. When I got outside I was fine, save for the tears and a very cleared out sinus system.
So the gas came down, and soon I could hear the Jolly Green approaching. I was using my radio to vector him to my position, I watched the penetrator begin to come down as he got nearly overhead. But then he started heading East, dragging the penetrator with him. I got up with my pistol in one hand and radio in the other and I started running after that penetrator. I ran back by my crashed aircraft and finally caught up with the penetrator, pulled down the seat and gave the trained thumbs up. I started going up, but the cable had been so twisted in the previous dragging maneuver that I was spinning very fast all the way up into the Jolly Green. I was just looking for some enemy to pop out of the woods, but wasn’t sure I’d be able to hit him spinning the way I was.
When I got inside the Jolly Green, everybody was crying, and a combat photographer was trying to take pictures of me, but he was crying too. They slowly peeled the pistol out of my hand and unloaded it. They laid me on a cot and covered me with a blanket. They knew I’d start shivering from my adrenaline rush. They weren’t kidding. I soon started shaking and could not bring it into check for about 15 minutes. I’ve got a picture of me finally relaxed, with cigarette in hand.
When I got in to NKP, Thailand to debrief with the Intelligence folks, I found out I had been declared MIA, and that my wife and parents had been notified. Also, that I couldn’t have a beer until after I’d seen the doctor, and that they never laid CBU down on the target to the east of my position, or anywhere for that matter. Those were secondary explosions I had heard, they told me. When I arrived back at the 20th TASS four days later, George greeted me and we sat down and exchanged what happened to us, trying to make the stories match up and make more sense.
I was asked by my Squadron Commander if I wanted a Command Post job. I said, “No, I’ve got to get back on that horse.” My nickname, thereafter, was “Cowboy,” until I assumed the “Blister” nickname when Army Sgt. John Grant died as a mercenary in South Africa in the late 70s. Grant was someone I flew several Prairie Fire Special Operations missions with over Laos.
Ten days after my shoot down, I was asked if I wanted to fly over “my spot” because a B-52 ARC LIGHT raid was scheduled to destroy my spot and everything around it. This was also the day I made 1st Lt and I certainly wanted to, and did. Later, my Squadron Commander put me in for a Bronze Star for ground action, but somewhere upstairs in the Air Force hierarchy they bumped it up to a Silver Star. The day before I left Vietnam I was awarded that Silver Star by the future Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General George S. Brown, 11 months after I was shot down.
The Air Force Times used to have a section called “Stake Your Claim. The guys in the squadron submitted my name as “The only Air Force Second Lieutenant to be shot down and rescued in Southeast Asia.” I never heard of a counter claim, and I don’t know if it’s really true or not. Some sergeants from Clark AFB’s PACAF Jungle Survival School came to DaNang especially to debrief me, (“Sam” wasn’t with them, but they promised to pass the word that I felt him perched on my shoulder) took back one of my hats with the 2nd Lt. bar on it and nailed it to the Successful Recovery Board with my name attached. For years thereafter I would have guys tell me “my story” (as they remembered it) and that my 2nd Lt. hat was the only 2nd Lt hat on “The board.”
“Oh, you’re the guy who left the footprint in the riverbank.”
“Well, yeah, but they started using cloth instead of waxed paper to wrap your survival gear because of me, and also you learned something new about the PRC-46. Why do they teach you about that footprint thing.”
“Because it was a mistake.”
“Hell, getting shot down was a mistake!.”
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