MIGHTY HISTORY

The crazy Coast Guard rescue of an Air Force pilot in Vietnam

Yeah, the Puddle Pirates were assigned the mission of flying into the teeth of enemy fire and scooping up downed U.S. pilots in Vietnam — and they were good at it, as the crazy events of July 1, 1968, prove.

During the Vietnam War, some Coast Guard pilots were given the chance to volunteer for service on the front lines, relieving the pressure on over-tasked Air Force pilots. Some of those Coast Guard pilots who volunteered would go on to dramatically rescue a downed Air Force pilot and were later awarded Silver Stars for their actions.


Pararescuemen leap out of a HH-3E during an exercise. The HH-3E, known as the "Jolly Green Giant," was widely used in Vietnam.

(U.S. Air Force)

The 11 Coast Guard pilots selected for the program went through months of special training in survival, tactics, and the aircraft they would be flying, the HH-3E, before flying to Vietnam to start their tours.

In country, they were folded into flight crews, often with Air Force copilots, engineers, and pararescuemen. Their job was to pick up isolated personnel — usually downed aircrews — provide immediate medical care, and deliver them to field medical facilities.

A U.S. Air Force F-105G, similar to the one lost on July 1, 1968, leading to a dramatic rescue by U.S. Air Force and Coast Guard personnel under fire.

(U.S. Air Force)

On July 1, 1968, an F-105 Thunderchief with the callsign "Scotch 3" was hit over the Vietnamese peninsula and made for the gulf, but fell too fast and the pilot was forced to eject into a jungle canyon. Lt. Col. Jack Modica was knocked out by the impact of his landing, and woke up two hours later.

He reported his condition to the forward air controller, and the HH-3Es attempted to get to him. The first attempts were unsuccessful due to ground fire, so the Air Force sent in another HH-3E with ground attack aircraft suppressing enemy air defenses.

A Douglas A-1 Skyraider like the one shot down July 2, 1968, while trying to suppress ground fire in Vietnam.

(Clemens Vasters, CC BY 2.0)

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Lonnie Mixon flew the helicopter during these attempts, taking fire that damaged his fuel tank, a hydraulic line, and the electrical system. Shockingly, even after all that damage, he made one more attempt, but was again forced to break off due to anti-aircraft fire. This forced the pilot to spend the night in the jungle. Mixon later received the Silver Star for his brave attempts.

So, the rescue birds came back again in the morning, but it went even worse than the night before. One of the ground-attack aircraft, an A-1 Skyraider, was shot down, and the rescue chopper was forced back home after suffering heavy damage, including having an unexploded rocket lodged inside of it.

With this list of failures, dangers, and damage, the Air Force turned to Jolly 21 pilot U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Lance Eagan and asked him to fly in behind a B-52 bomber strike. Eagan and his Air Force crew accepted the mission and went to work.

An Air Force crew lowers a jungle penetrator from a HH-3E helicopter during an exercise.

(U.S. Air Force)

Again, ground fire opened up, striking the rescue bird, but Eagan was able to get through the flak intact and spotted smoke thrown by Modica. He found a nearby open patch to lower the PJ into the jungle to go grab Modica. The PJ found that Modica had a pelvic break.

Eagan was forced to lower the helicopter down into the trees, striking some of the high branches, to get the jungle penetrator as close to the pilot as possible, but the PJs still had to carry the injured man a short distance. As the crew began raising the men from the jungle floor, the Vietnamese sprang their trap.

Automatic weapons fire thundered into the helicopter, shattering the windscreen and penetrating the thin metal skin, but Eagan kept the bird steady until the hoist cleared the trees and the HH-3E was able to tear away low and fast.

The injured pilot was successfully delivered to a hospital, and the rescue crew was later decorated for their bravery. Eagan was awarded the Silver Star by the Air Force for his actions.

He and Mixon weren't the only Coast Guard pilots to receive that award. Lt. Jack Rittichier had been shot down the month before during a rescue attempt, and he was awarded the Silver Star along with the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart.

The Coast Guard's involvement in combat air rescue continued for another four years, ending in 1972.