It isn’t common knowledge that United States Coast Guard helicopter pilots served with United States Air Force helicopter pilots in the performance of Combat Rescue and Recovery during the war in Vietnam. Beginning in mid 1968 and continuing until 1972 ten volunteer Coast Guard aviators flew with the 37th ARRS at Da Nang, RSVN.
Lt. Richard V. Butchka (1969)
Lcdr. Joseph L. Crowe (1971)
Lt. Lance A. Eagan (1968)
Lt. Robert E. Long (1972)
Lt. James M. Loomis (1969)
Lt. Roderick Martin III (1971)
Lcdr. Lonnie L. Mixon (1968)
Ltjg. Robert T. Ritchie (1969)
Lt. Jack C. Rittichier (1968)
Lt. Jack K. Stice (1972)
During the Vietnam War, between 1965 and 1972, helicopters came under significant hostile fire in 645 opposed combat rescue operations involving downed aircraft. Crews were rescued in six hundred, or 93 percent, of these cases. This was not accomplished without cost. The 37th ARRS lost 28 men including Lt. Jack C. Rittichier USCG.
The Coast Guard aviators served proudly and for their dedicated efforts toward saving lives they were awarded 4 Silver Stars, 16 DFC’s, and 87 Air Medals.
On November 8, 2005 these Coast Guard aviators were inducted into the U. S. Coast Guard Aviation Hall of Fame.
Experienced helicopter pilots had been a problem since shortly after initial deployment of the 37th ARRS. The situation was further impacted with the formation of the 20th Helicopter Squadron activated in October 1965 and the 21st Helicopter Squadron formed in 1967. These squadrons, part of the 14th Air Commando Wing, operated out of NKP and performed counterinsurgency missions and mission support in the CIA war in Laos. This “Top Secret” operation, called Pony Express, further depleted the supply of experienced helicopter pilots available to the ARRS. ARRS requirements were met by transitioning fixed-wing pilots to helicopter operations. These pilots arrived in Southeast Asia directly from initial helicopter training. The Coast Guard aviators, well experienced helicopter pilots, arrived fully qualified.
Lieutenant Colonel Charles R. Klinkert, USAF, the 37th ARRS Commander in October 1968 said “The Coast Guard Aviators have been a terrific assist to the Air Force. Very few of us had any experience in this helicopter. These gentlemen came in here and helped us become real effective in this type of mission. I can’t say enough about them.”
MSgt. Jack Watkins put it another way. “The crews liked to fly with the Coast Guard pilots. It went beyond personalities. The Coasties were all experienced and excellent helicopter pilots and when on a mission they were able to readily adapt to any situation. Flying the helicopter was natural to them. Their “saves” were duly recorded. What really cannot be determined is — how many of us made it through our tour due to the willingness of Mr. Mixon and Mr. Eagan to pass along their skills to the other pilots.”
The praise was not just at the local level. The Commander 3rd ARR Group wrote a letter to the Coast Guard Commandant praising the Coast Guard aviators for their courage and flight ability and additionally noted the extensive work they had performed in developing highly proficient crews. Mixon was further cited for developing new improved water recovery tactics and medical evacuations from surface vessels.
General Howell M. Estes, Jr., USAF, Commander, Military Airlift Command, parent command of the Air Rescue and Recovery Service, made the following statement about these Coast Guard aviators:
I am personally aware of the distinguished record achieved by the pilots flying in combat with our Jolly Greens. They have flown many difficult and challenging missions and have consistently demonstrated their unreserved adherence to both our mottos – Always Ready and That Others May Live – they are indelibly inscribed in the permanent records of the stirring and moving drama of combat aircrew recovery in Southeast Asia.