Mar 20

In a Death Grip: Lieutenant James S. Greenwood’s Escape

Sunday, March 20, 2011 12:01 AM

Lieutenant James S. Greenwood and his RIO, Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Richard R. Ratzlaff, flew an armed reconnaissance as Silver Kite 202, a Phantom from VF-92 Silver Kings flying from Enterprise (CVAN 65), during a strike near the Vinh Luu Bridge in North Vietnam, on the evening of 20 March 1966. They had dropped to barely a hundred feet when enemy gunners suddenly opened fire.

Flames erupted in both of the Phantom’s engines, and Greenwood lost control as the jet pitched nose down, which forced both men to eject. Greenwood, with legs feeling “numb” from tight straps attached to his leg restraints and bleeding from a laceration to his head, hit the water about three miles out, but Ratzlaff went in barely a hundred yards from the beach. Fifteen to twenty junks and sampans sailed in the vicinity, and numerous people ashore ran out and captured Ratzlaff.

Observing the fate of his backseater, Greenwood hesitated to draw attention by inflating his flotation gear and waited until he spotted Crown Bravo, an Air Force Albatross flying search patterns. The men could not spot Greenwood through the gloom of the overcast, however, so the downed pilot fired a pencil flare to alert them; but the enemy spotted the flare. Turning around, Greenwood was stunned to see a boat closing rapidly.

The North Vietnamese fired at Greenwood so the crew of the Albatross made two passes over the junk, exchanging automatic fire with the North Vietnamese and dropping two empty fuel tanks that narrowly missed the boat. Although enemy fire hit the Albatross, the men were undaunted and refused to abandon the downed pilot. Hobokens 402 and 410, a pair of Skyhawks, hurtled in strafing and rocketing the junk, which caused about half of the North Vietnamese on board to jump overboard, but the others bravely returned fire at the Skyhawks.

Meanwhile, frigate Worden (DLG 18) launched Clementine Angel, her Seasprite, Lt. Comdr. David J. McCracken, Ens. Robert H. Clark, Jr., Chief Davis and AMH2 G.E. McCormack of HC-1 Detachment 5 Froggy Five. As they approached, the enemy shifted fire toward the helo. “I flew toward what I thought was the flare,” McCracken later reflected upon their close call, “got too close to some junks near the beach….”

McCracken made a firing pass from fifty feet, which enabled McCormack to return fire with the M-60. McCormack’s caused more North Vietnamese to jump, but the firefight became so intense that Clark lent a hand with an M-1 Thompson.

Mortar and machine gun fire from shore began to rain down on the scene. Clementine Angel hovered over Greenwood and lowered a horse collar sling as the pilot gratefully grabbed the sling “in a death grip,” mortar rounds straddled the helo and the splash of the first shell lifted the Seasprite’s tail and put it into forward motion. McCracken later noted that “Getting out of there was my intention anyway–but not in so violent a maneuver!”

Greenwood spent about an hour in the frigate’s sick bay in shock and another several hours recovering. The enemy did not release Ratzlaff until 12 February 1973, however, the men of Froggy Five rescued forty-eight shipmates during this deployment and received a Navy Commendation.

 
 
 
 
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