It started out like any other work day at the radar site in Vietnam.  It was my first night back to work after two days off.  Since the 2 1/2 ton trucks, in which we rode, left for the top of the mountain at four, most of the afternoon was always spent getting ready.  This particular day the dismal feeling was accentuated by the heavy overcast.  It had blown in off the ocean the day before and hung around ever since.  It rained on and off which added to the dreariness.


Most of the crew ate a light supper in the mess hall with not much conversation.  We'd said everything a million times before and now all most fellows looked forward to going home.  The one thing we did know was that it would be a busy night on scope. With most of Vietnam blanketed with clouds virtually everyone flying would want close control.  This was especially true for the F-100, Super Sabre pilots.  That's because these single seat fighters had no radar in their nose such as the F-4 Phantom.  The F-4 had both radar on board and two crewmen to share the duties of looking for other airplanes in the night skies. 


Adding to this anxiety for the F-100 pilots was the recent loss of two airplanes and pilots in bad weather after taking off from Phan Rang on a night mission.  Taco 81 and Taco 82 were under our control going through heavy clouds when the pilot flying in trail made an unintelligible radio call and soon after both airplanes disappeared from the radar scope.  Because it wasn't uncommon for the "blips" to disappear and with numerous radio calls coming in all the time it was several hours before it was discovered that there had been an accident.  When we went back over the tapes there was that radio call which answered the question.  The pilot in the rear had said, "I can't hack it back here in trail."  That was the only shred of evidence to determine the last moments of these two before they disappeared into oblivion ever after.  What had occurred was the second pilot was unable to keep sight of the fellow flying in front.  The procedure should have been for the one in front to slow down slightly and allow the second to join up much closer as they went through the heavy clouds.  It was surmised that both airplanes had collided in the join up.  The manner that the accident occurred had prevented them for calling for help or perhaps in that instant when they did say something on the radio it was blocked out by another transmission.  Regardless all of us hoped that was the last time that would occur and hoped that this particular night would be trouble free.


Things were going fine until about 9:00.  I had just come back in from outside and noted that the fog was so thick you could cut it with a knife but the traffic wasn't especially heavy when a call came over Guard.  Guard is a special frequency that is to be used only for emergencies.  Rather than go directly into our headsets it was broadcast throughout the area around the radar scopes.  It was also broadcast to every pilot flying in the area.  When there was a call on Guard one of the controllers would switch to that frequency and talk with the pilot to determine the nature of his emergency.  This one was different.


The transmission was not very clear because it would stop and after a few moments it would start again.  The caller said he had been a passenger on a helicopter that had crashed.  He was the only person still alive and he couldn't get out because he was pinned in the debris.  He said he could just barely reach the microphone to talk with us and had trouble keeping the transmit button down for very long at a time.


Even with as many things that the people around me had seen you could see a look of astonishment on their faces.  In a matter of moments every one wanted to help.  Several pilots flying in our area immediately came on the radio channel and offered to help.  Most of the airplanes were equipped with a device called a Direction Finder or DF.  This allows one to determine the direction or azimuth from the receiver to the transmitting radio.  Several pilots tried to use their DF but this requires several seconds of constant transmission and unfortunately it never was long enough.


But we were going to save this person by working together.  The controller that was talking with him tried to find out more about the situation.  Where was he from and where was he going?  Did he know the call sign of the helicopter?  We needed more information to rescue him.  There would be several minutes with no response.  When he did reply he would tell us he was scared and didn't want to die.  Sometimes he would start crying and tell us not to contact him because he thought he heard someone walking through the jungle toward him.  He was definitely frightened.  After some time he indicated that he didn't expect to make it out alive and then said he had a wife back home along with a newborn child that he'd never seen.  He asked us if we would pass on to them that he loved them very much.  You could have heard a pin drop in the dark room and more than one person had a tear in his eye.  Probably not only for this fellow but as they thought of their own families so far away.


I stepped down to the lower dais and began calling anyone I could think of.  What helicopters were missing?  I found out that all but a couple had arrived safely that day.  I tried to telephone the airfields of those to see if they had arrived.  Frustration.  They had gone to places where the phones were not answered at night.  Had they arrived or was this fellow one of the passengers on a bird that was lost.


Finally the pilots in our area thought they had a location where the helicopter was lost.  We called to the rescue helicopter unit at Cam Rhan Bay and asked if they would go out.  They looked outside and said that they couldn't do it.  It was too foggy and uncertain to be going out into the mountains looking for someone that didn't know where he was from or where he was going.


There was also a C-47 cargo airplane with a gun mounted on the side that was flying around.  These fellows were called "Spooky" and would drop illumination flares over hamlets or camps under attack.  Spooky had also been helping to locate the helicopter.  Finally the pilot said he had some holes in the overcast and thought he saw a fire at about the location where the helicopter should be.  As he went down for a closer look a very strange thing happened.  As Spooky said, "I think I see him."


The person at the crash site said, "Say your position Spooky, say your position."


Immediately the controller on the radar scope said, "Negative Spooky.  Do not say your position.  I have your position on the radar scope.  I repeat do not say your position."


And instantly the situation had changed.  Spooky flew over the fires and decided it was not a crash site.  But more important the fellow in the crashed helicopter became much more defensive.  In fact in just a few minutes the transmissions stopped.


What had happened?  There was still some uncertainty but most were in agreement that the entire episode had been a hoax.  The next morning we determined that all helicopters had arrived safely.  In fact some believed that the interest that the fellow shown in determining Spooky's position suggested that he was working with the enemy to lure a rescue aircraft into a position to destroy it.  And it almost worked.


For awhile everyone involved was convinced that the poor fellow was hurt and needed help.  His speech while stressed, was consistent with a member of our Service.  Spooky went on to continue to illuminate the night and the guy in the crash was never heard from again.  We sent the audio tapes of the incident to our higher headquarters so they could listen to it and warn other radar sites if it happened again.  But one lesson was learned by everyone present that night -- sometimes things are not what they seem.