Saturday, July 21, 2007

South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: Carrier Pilots Unable To Get Pal Who Ejected Into Swarm Of Junks

November 14, 1966

Aboard USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gulf of Tonkin—The carrier Roosevelt lost her first pilot in action Nov. 1. Aircraft 508 of the Blue Hawk Attack Squadron did not return from a strike over Haiphong.

Lt. (JG) Terry Thies of Indianapolis, wing man for the downed craft, brought back a second-by-second account of the gallant rescue effort.

The Roosevelt's Capt., George C. Talley Jr., announced the loss over the intercom.

But he did not have to.

The flight deck crews which groom the planes for missions knew immediately that Lt. Allan R. Carpenter of Springvale, Me., had failed to return from his 127th mission.

That night at supper, everyone tried not to look at the empty chair in the ward room. There was little of the usual laughter.

Carpenter, married and the father of four, and his two wing men, Thies, and Lt. Robert M., 26, Arlington, Va., left the carrier about noon to attack missile and anti-aircraft installations.

"As we dropped down on the target," Thies related, "I heard Al say: 'There's a missile coming at us.'"

"Al followed the smoke trail of the rocket down toward the ground and I followed him in. He cut loose with his rockets and I dropped my bombs. Wilson was with us."

"We knocked out the site and got some secondary explosions. Pulling out, I saw Al's plane smoking badly and I called him. Then a fire broke out on the right side of his ship."

"We took off and headed for open water," Thies explained, "but the fire was so bad, Al had to eject 500 yards from the beach."

Wilson took up the story. "I saw the plane go in the water with a big splash," he declared. "Then I saw Al drifting down in his chute. There were dozens of small boats underneath him. Terry and I began trying to drive them away from him, but we were out of ammunition."

"All we could do was buzz those junks and try to keep them away until we could get some help. Terry clobbered one of the junks with his wing tank."

"Finally a couple of pilots from the (carrier) Coral Sea came in, but by that time a junk had picked Al out of the water. So the Coral Sea guys couldn't shoot. They might have hit Al."

Low on fuel by then, Thies and Wilson had to hurry back to the Roosevelt.

It was the second time Carpenter had his aircraft shot from under him. The first time, in early August, he was lucky.

Then, his plane was so badly shot up during a mission over Than Hao, that he was forced to eject on the return trip. Lt. John R. Reardon, 36, Cincinnati, Oh., pulled Carpenter out of the water with the Roosevelt's rescue helicopter.

"Awfully glad to be with you--I feel fine," Carpenter told Reardon after getting aboard.

"When I found out he was captured," Reardon said, "it made me feel rotten. It put a damper on the whole ship."

The Blue Hawk Attack Squadron ready room, right below the flight deck, is small and its walls are cluttered with maps and bulletin boards containing weather and other flight data. It is here that the pilots get their attack assignments into North Viet Nam. Sometimes they sit in the comfortable lounge chairs and watch video tapes of their landings aboard the Roosevelt.

On this particular day, the squadron leader, Cmdr. H.S. Southworth, Mexico, N.Y., a pilot with 21 years service, was interested in finding out why a ground crewman's screw driver had been left inside one of the A-4 attack bombers.(Scooters).

"It jammed the rudder pedal," Southworth commented. "I sure hope someone tries to claim it."

Southworth, Carpenter, and Wilson were on their second tour of duty at Yankee Station. Each recorded more than 100 missions during their first tour in 1965 aboard the carrier Independence.

"Al," Southworth said, "came up through the ranks. He was an enlisted man seven of his 11 years in the Navy. He was a naturally talented pilot and leader and as aggressive as they come, but he was all Navy and a team man."

"I've lost a lot of good friends, and I can't say I've gotten so hard I don't think about it."

"We tried hard to get to him, but it couldn't be done," the squadron leader concluded.

For more than a week before Carpenter was shot down, planes from the three carriers operating in Yankee Station had been unable to fly to targets because of bad weather. But when the weather broke, the planes from the carriers, swarmed like bees over North Viet Nam, pounding the docks, railroads, trucks, warehouses, storage tanks, anti-aircraft sites, and missile bases.

However, the North Vietnamese were hungry for action too, and put up a wall of flak, "so thick you could walk on it," one pilot said.

"Al was a real likable guy," Wilson declared. "I just can't put into words how I feel about him. I hope he's treated OK."

Thies, a 1960 graduate of Shortridge High School who has been in the Navy two years, explained:

"We know we can't expect to do the kind of work we're doing and not have some of us get hurt. But even when you expect things like this to happen, it's awful hard to take."

Al Carpenter's name has not been erased from the pilots' list in the ready room. Nor has his cup been removed from among the 21 used by the Blue Hawk Squadron, which hang in neat rows near a large coffee urn.

The Blue Hawks hope Al can return to claim that cup soon. It's what they want, not for themselves, but for his wife, his young son, and his three daughters.

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