Retracing the flight of Jolly Green 23
By BRUCE ROLFSEN, Daily News Staff Writer
A dirt trail used by the North Vietnamese snakes along the side of a ridge in between a patchwork of jungle blown and burned away by the war that has been raging for years.
Somewhere in that landscape of 30 years ago is the solution to the mystery of where Jolly Green 23, an Air Force HH-3E rescue helicopter, and its four-man crew crashed.
At Hurlburt Field, two generations of veterans have been working to find the answer - Vietnam War vets who flew alongside the lost crewmen of Jolly Green 23, and airmen too young to know about the Vietnam War except from the stories they have been told.
The team is blending the Vietnam vets' memories with high-tech computer mapping gear to recreate the landscape of the Vietnam-Laotian border on flight simulators typically used to train air crews for new missions.
The idea is that by having the Vietnam-era airmen fly over recreations of their old battle zones, they'll be able to make an educated guess as to where Jolly Green 23 was shot down.
"I was amazed," said Bob Baldwin of Navarre, a helicopter flight engineer on countless Vietnam rescue missions. "I just closed my eyes and when I opened them up, it was like stepping back 30 years. The only thing missing is that the (anti-aircraft) tracers aren't coming at you."
By using a joystick on a computer console, Baldwin and the pilot of another rescue helicopter, retired Lt. Col. Jerry Griggs, were able to retrace their efforts of 30 years ago.
"We sat here and flew that trail over and over," Baldwin recalled.
Jolly Green 23 had been lost while it tried to pick up a Marine Corps jet pilot who parachuted to the ground.
Airmen from the 37th Aerospace Recovery and Rescue Squadron at Da Nang made four attempts to reach the jet pilot. Jolly Green 23 was lost on the second try. A pilot in a circling spotter plane saw a dual-engine helicopter crash and explode into flames, presumably killing the four airmen instantly.
Two more attempts were made that day to reach the Marine pilot, but each time enemy ground fire drove back the rescuers. The next day, no trace of the Marine pilot or his parachute could be spotted from the sky. The pilot was listed as missing and presumed dead.
The project to find Jolly Green 23 began during the summer when Baldwin was contacted by the Defense Department team that has been working to locate Vietnam War crash sites in hopes of finding the remains of airmen killed in the downings.
The investigators mailed Baldwin topographic maps of where Jolly Green 23 crashed and asked him to mark down areas where he thought the helicopter might have been forced down.
Baldwin, a retired chief master sergeant who now works at Hurlburt maintaining helicopters for the 16th Special Operations Wing, asked wing commander and friend, Col. Donald Wurster, for help with the maps.
"He's the one who said, 'Let me check this out. I think I've got something that works better,'" recalled Baldwin. "I didn't know what to expect."
Wurster arranged for Baldwin to sit down with the mapping and computer experts from the wing's 19th Special Operations Squadron. The squadron is home to an array of full-scale flight simulators and the agency in charge of creating computerized maps for the U.S. Special Operations Command.
"This took the highest priority," said Maj. Mike Vaughn, an AC-130 gunship pilot who helps supervise the squadron's computer mapping and flight simulator work.
The squadron was working on a late-September deadline because the monsoon season was approaching in Vietnam and the search teams on the ground would have to finish this year's work before the rains started in mid-October.
Earl Miller, working at Hurlburt for the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, located black and white aerial photos taken of the border region in the late 1960s.
Employees of Lockheed Martin who work for the squadron took the photo negatives and converted them into digital photos. The surveillance photos were then matched with maps of the region to recreate the area's Vietnam War-era landscape.
The Hurlburt squadron also obtained recent photos and maps of the area that could be matched to the decades-old landscape.
"After 30 years of jungle growth and little use you can barely see the trail," Miller said of the recent photos.
From flying over the recreated landscape, Baldwin and Griggs picked out three likely spots where the helicopter might have crashed. Their sites were higher up a ridge than past searches had been.
Four days of searching in Vietnam last month didn't find any wreckage from the Jolly Green 23, said Vaughn.
However, the ground team did find the wreckage of a Marine Corps CH-46 helicopter.
The Marine Corps wreckage came as surprise because the team had no record of that crash, Vaughn said. The team collected identifying pieces of the aircraft and other items such as a rain poncho.
A later check of records showed that helicopter had been forced down and one of the crewmen had died. The team learned the other Marines had fought their way to safety, but had to leave behind the body of their comrade wrapped in a rain poncho.
When the rains end next year, the ground investigators may return again to the hillsides and look for Jolly Green 23.
Baldwin said he had sometimes wondered if the U.S. government was doing all it could to locate troops still missing in action. The effort to find Jolly Green 23 ended Baldwin's doubts.
"It puts closure in my mind," Baldwin said. "I'm impressed with the extent that the federal government is prepared to go."
? Staff Writer Bruce Rolfsen can be reached at 863-1111, Ext. 435, or email@example.com
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