Alexander's Column

'Miraculously, We Found Bill's Crash Site'

A personal account of three days in a Vietnam veteran's life — separated by many decades.

Mark Alexander · Feb. 14, 2018

“Our obligations to our country never cease but with our lives.” —John Adams (1808)

Shortly after midnight on Saturday, two weeks ago, I received this text message: “Miraculously, we found Bill’s crash site and the farmer who was nearby that day.”

That message was from halfway around the world in Vietnam, where my friend, Gen. Bill Raines (USA Ret.), was with another friend, also a Vietnam veteran, on their return trip to a country where, as young men, they gave much and lost many. Our national sacrifice there includes the incalculable cost of 58,220 U.S. military fatalities, and the countless walking wounded who returned home — some of those wounds visible, many not.

I’ve known many “old guys” a half generation ahead of me, Vietnam veterans – American Patriots who served our nation with honor and dignity. It has been a humbling privilege to profile a few of them, and by extension, to honor their generation of veterans.

Among those profiles is a man who was a lifelong mentor, former POW Col. Roger Ingvalson (USAF Ret.). Two of his grandsons are now flying A-10 Warthogs. Another friend was also a POW and Medal of Honor recipient, Col. Leo Thorsness (USAF Ret.), who passed away last year.

Leo was the author of “Mike’s Flag,” a brief but powerful tribute to a fellow POW, a young Navy pilot named Mike Christian. It is the preface to a children’s book sponsored by The Patriot Post, “I’m Your Flag.”

There are also the Marine profile tributes — Col. “Big” Jim McGinn and another Medal of Honor recipient, Col. Wesley Fox (USMC Ret.), who also passed away last year.

My friend and colleague Roger Helle was hit with an NVA RPG, shot twice, bayonetted and left for dead. But they couldn’t keep him down. Roger has returned to Vietnam 19 times to assist orphanages and build rural medical clinics.

I now serve with several of these men on the board of the Medal of Honor Heritage Center. Gen. Raines chairs that board, and Roger Helle is the Center’s executive director.

But there’s another Vietnam-era Air Force aviator who’s been on my profile radar for some time. He is Lt. Col. Bill Gauntt (USAF Ret.). Gauntt is a gentle giant of a man, a bear-like 6'6" but with a remarkably tender heart, a common trait I have noted among many POWs. (As I have counseled young war fighters over the years, a warrior without heart is little more than a mercenary.)

Gauntt is an Air Force Academy graduate (‘68), who became an RF-4C Phantom II pilot, and the recipient of three Distinguished Flying Cross citations. In 1972, he and his WSO rear-seat weapons systems officer, 1st Lt. Francis W. Townsend, were shot down on a reconnaissance mission 10 miles southwest of Vinh Linh in Quang Binh Province. Their fate was not known until Bill was released from POW in 1973 – Operation Homecoming. Townsend was not among those released, and he was classified as MIA until many years later.

Though I have known Bill for 10 years, I came to know him best because, in his retirement, he has devoted his life to the care of members of the Greatest Generation at the end of their lives. He was the caregiver, and moreover the companion, of my father in the last year of his life. Two fighter pilots from different generations who became very close … and I will forever be grateful to Bill for walking my father through his final days.

Bill’s return to Vietnam was sponsored by Patriot Foundation Trust as part of our mission of service to American military personnel and veterans.

I asked both Bill Raines and Bill Gauntt for some perspective about Vietnam then and now, just ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive. Their answers will resonate not only with Vietnam vets but all combat veterans — those who have defended Liberty at the greatest personal risk and sacrifice.

I began by asking Raines two questions: What were your departing memories of Vietnam? And what were your apprehensions about returning compared to what you actually experienced on your return?

Gen. Raines:

I was glad to be heading home in 1971 and kissed the ground when I returned and wanted to put that into the past and never return to Vietnam. I refused to buy Vietnam products and at West Point reunions, I experienced a lot of grief for my roommate and classmates who died there at such young ages — and who did not live to enjoy a full life. Notably, a significant aspect of my departing memories would include returning home to a reception by many Americans who did not appreciate nor recognize our sacrifices — which still causes me and many of my fellow warriors grief. (This is in stark contrast to the current CINC’s proposal for a parade honoring active duty military and veterans.)

My apprehensions about returning… I felt the people of Vietnam had suffered with our “failure” and would harbor great resentment towards Americans. I felt reluctant to return to a place with bad memories and hard times. I was concerned that the Communist atmosphere would be a challenge and they might try to use anything I said as “propaganda.” And I did not want to help “prop up” a regime who had committed so many atrocities.

My actual experience on return was not what I expected. My apprehensions went back 47 years ago — “black and white” memories. What I witnessed on return was in “color” and very dynamic. The Vietnamese people love Americans, are industrious and the 90 million non-card-carrying Communists of the 92 million total would like for us to become closer friends! The Vietnamese people understood that we were not there to colonize them. We tried our best to help them achieve Liberty and contain the communist threat in the region — and they appreciate that. The “dominos” did not fall because of our military efforts.

We did not win on the battlefield but, as is the case in China, free enterprise is leading to freedom. My desire now is to tell other Vietnam veterans that our sacrifices were not in vain!

(Note: Pictured above with Bill Raines is Paul Jacobs, who commanded a quad 50 gunship platoon, and now also serves on the Medal of Honor board.)

For the record: The tyrannical toll of communism in Southeast Asia was enormous, particularly in Vietnam. The Vietnamese people have endured six wars over five decades — Indochina War, Vietnam War, Cambodian War, subsequent guerrilla warfare in Cambodia, guerrilla warfare in Laos, and Sino-Vietnamese War. It is estimated that more than 3.8 million Vietnamese died as a result of warfare and political violence. Of these, about 1.2 million were murdered and, as was the case in China, another 2.5 million would die from communist “land reforms.” Of the 1.5 million who attempted to flee the tyranny after the war, it is estimated that 200,000 died.

From Bill Gauntt, I asked him to provide, in substantially more detail, his recollections of three days in Vietnam — separated by many decades. I asked about the day he and 1st Lt. Fran Townsend were shot down, the day of his release as a POW, and the day he returned to find the crash site where his backseat friend perished. (I have only slightly abridged Gauntt’s reply because this post serves as a benchmark record for his perspective.)

Lt. Col. Gauntt:

SHOOT DOWN — Sunday 13 August 1972 — the day that the RF 4C I piloted, then as a Captain, with my Weapons System Officer, Lt. Fran Townsend, was shot down in the DMZ between North and South Vietnam. Call sign Atlanta 10 Alpha and 10 Bravo down.

Up at 0400 for a 0630 launch into Route Pac 1, the area just north of the DMZ. I had found several AAA guns moving around the area during the previous week. This was my 14th straight day flying since I had returned from two weeks of leave. I had been checked out for “Fast Fac Reconnaissance” shortly after I returned, a job which entailed overflying the same area on a daily basis so that I could observe any changes in troops or Vietnamese weapons movements in that area. If I found changes, the fighters would then launch a quick reaction force to eliminate or disrupt the enemy’s plans.

On several previous flights we had noted changes in the number of anti-aircraft guns, 37MM and 57MM weapons.

I was flying with another Air Force Academy graduate and friend, Lt. Fran Townsend, who I had flown with many times before. He was competent and eager to do a good job looking outside the aircraft to help identify changes in the enemy posture. I had met Fran at the Academy almost four years earlier and we had developed a friendship since we were both natives of East Texas. We flew our first recon mission in Vietnam six months earlier in February, and I knew he was an accomplished Weapons Systems Officer and Navigator.

As we strapped on our flight gear and survival vest, Fran lamented that he wished he was carrying a 1911 M45 instead of the S&W short nose .38 we were issued. He did let me know he carried an extra 100 rounds just in case…

The launch at 0630 was uneventful, as was the tanker rendezvous to top off fuel. We proceeded over to the DMZ and contacted the Forward Air Controller who was flying an OV-10 just south of the DMZ. He indicated he was busy handing another strike near Khe Sanh at the west end of the DMZ. He suggested we go ahead and start our run north across the DMZ and then return to Military Region 1 to see if he needed any special runs there.

We headed north across the DMZ at the bend in the river where we had seen multiple gun emplacements before. After crossing the river we turned east to go “feet wet” before heading back south to rendezvous with the FAC. About one-third of the way through the turn at 450 Kts and 4 G’s, we were hit by AAA rounds. The aircraft shook hard and then pitched up into a 9-11 G snap-up. The immediate physical reaction was a narrowing of the vision due to the blood rushing into the lower parts of the body.

I attempted to regain control by pushing the stick forward, but it felt totally loose in the socket and the aircraft would not respond to any control surface movement. A quick look in the cockpit told me that the utility hydraulic system had completely failed. Fran yelled at me that we were headed toward the ground and I responded with “EJECT-EJECT-EJECT”! I reached for my ejection handle located just aft of the stick and pulled it up with all my strength.

According to the text book, I should have been hanging beneath a parachute in 3.7 seconds. That was the longest 3.7 seconds I have ever experienced as I listened for the 34 distinct steps that had to take place for me to be hanging in that chute. But it worked, and there I was about 600-700 feet above the ground descending toward a burning pile of wreckage.

I quickly recalled those parachute instructors showing us how to locate where we would land if we just looked off the toes of our boots. And if we wanted to move, we needed to use the aerodynamics of the chute to propel us somewhere else. Since I didn’t believe landing in the burning wreckage was a good idea, I reached up and grabbed my harness and pulled it as near my butt as I could and saw that I in fact was moving away from the wreckage and into a greener area.

As I looked back up to the horizon, I had lots of thoughts going on in my head. The first was that I was moving rapidly into a new phase of existence and it was Sunday morning — I could have been at the chapel back on the base instead of over 600 miles away in bad-guy territory and without my glasses and helmet. How was I going to see things clearly for whatever time I had left? About that time, I felt my feet sinking to the soft mud of a bomb crater as my parachute began collapsing around me.

As I surveyed the area, no one was within sight, so I bundled the parachute up and stuck it in the pool of water at the bottom of the crater. Loosing the harness, I climbed out of the crater and listened for gunfire or movement. I heard some gunfire going on off to my left. I didn’t see any movement out there, so I headed toward an area that seemed to have lots of brush available for cover.

I wondered if Fran had survived the ejection and wondered if he was involved in the firefight I thought I was hearing across the small valley we had crashed in.

I ran hunched over for what seemed like 20 minutes, but was probably only 5-10 minutes. I began to hear more gunfire, closer, so I found an area with multiple large bushes and lots of leaves. I dove under the bushes and covered myself with as many leaves as I could. Realizing I was still in a state of shock, I found my water bottles still in my g-suit harness and began to consume them until I began to calm down.

As I listened, I could still hear small arms weapons firing and AAA-type weapons firing. The FAC must have returned to the area when our emergency beacons went off as we ejected. I found my radio and began talking to the FAC. He had heard the beacons and saw the burning wreckage with people still in the area. I told him I was concealed for the time being and he indicated he had a direction finder on my transmissions, so he knew approximately where I was. He also said the other fighters were in the air and they would be attempting to suppress the AAA so the rescue forces could complete an extraction. About this time I saw a group of about 19 or more villagers and North Vietnamese Regulars moving through the area. I had previously taken my S&W 38 out of the holster, but now realized the futility of engaging in a firefight.

During the next three and a half hours, the FAC and four different flights of F-4s had taken out two 37MM gun sites and one 57MM gun site. The Vietnamese locals and Regular NVA soldiers had moved through the area two more times. The F-4 fighters had attempted to keep them away from my location with gun passes on either side of my position.

About 1100 that morning, the Vietnamese assisted by a dog, passed through the area and the dog tracked my path right to the clump of bushes I was using for concealment.

As the local Vietnamese began yelling for help, the NVA Regulars rushed forward and, using their AK-47 weapons, sprayed the bushes over my head and in front of me while motioning for me to stand up.

With my hands in clear view and clutching the radio, I pressed the microphone button to say I was being taken prisoner. I managed to snap the radio antenna off as I dropped it to the ground. In that instant I realized my status had changed from evading airman to prisoner of war.

Later in the afternoon, my guards and I were subjected to a gas attack that was used to suppress enemy resistance while rescue forces attempted to pick up downed airmen. When that event occurred, I assumed there was a possibility that Fran was being recovered. At least there was some hope in my mind that he was okay.

The events over the next 24 hours were equally disconcerting as the previous four hours, but I was now much more in control of my emotions and actions toward the NVA guards and interrogators. Surviving the initial capture while under gunfire gave me new confidence that this was now a survivable situation which I had been well-trained for at home, at the Academy, and at multiple survival schools in the Air Force.

We began to move north, walking along jungle paths. My hands were tied with what appeared to be piano wire. Before the first day of captivity ended, I was taken to a hut where an English-speaking NVA interrogator put a gun to my head and asked for information. I provided the authorized information: Name, Rank, Service Branch and Date of Birth. This angered the interrogator, who cocked his pistol and asked again. When I refused to answer, he then pulled the trigger — I could hear the spring drop the hammer, but it was on an empty chamber.

The next day, we began the 400-mile march to Hanoi, and 40 days later reached the infamous Hanoi Hilton, the NVA’s Hoa Lo prison — which translates as “fiery furnace” or “hell’s hole.”

(The month before Gauntt was shot down, “Hanoi Jane” Fonda took her traitorous anti-American protests to the Hanoi Hilton, posing on NVA anti-aircraft guns while American POWS were being tortured a hundred yards away.)

FREEDOM — 27 March 1973

The last group of prisoners being held in Hanoi by the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam was scheduled to be flown to Clark AFB, PI, on March 20, 1973. There was a glitch in the plans, however, when the U.S. government discovered that there were another nine prisoners being held by the PRGSV from Laos. We had dressed up and cleaned up our cells on the 20th as instructed, but told to wait. About 4:00 PM we were finally told that our departure was delayed.

As we wondered what was going on, our spirits were wounded, but not broken. The next couple of days were quieter than normal. We continued our routine knowing that if some of our fellow POWS had already been released, it wouldn’t be too much longer for us.

On the morning of the 27th we were awake early and told to get ready. By 8:00 we were ready, but told to stay in place. Finally, about 11:00 we were ushered out to a waiting bus. We were driven out of town and across the bridge toward the airport we all knew as Gia Lam. As we rounded the corner of the hangar, we could see that big white C-141 waiting on the tarmac. As we filed out of the bus, we proudly formed up in two columns and marched to the area where the release was to take place.

Everyone was finally giving a sigh of relief as our names were called and we marched up to the colonel receiving each man, rendering a salute. After returning the salute, he motioned crew members of the C-141 to escort us to the tail ramp where we quickly found seats and waited silently until all returnees were aboard. We relaxed even more as the engines started and the taxi out to the line started. When the Freedom Bird finally lifted off the entire group started celebrating with shouts of joy and hugs for all the nurses and crew members.

After the hour-and-a-half flight landed in the Philippines, we were greeted by crowds cheering and waving flags and banners — WELCOME HOME. The ride to the hospital was short and we gladly changed our Vietnamese-made suits for a shower and pajamas and bathrobes. Next was a trip to the cafeteria for the best tasting hamburgers, steaks, fried chicken, fries and ice cream we ever had!

We were given the opportunity to make telephone calls home and then began the debriefs, physical exams, uniform fittings and gathering for one last picture of our group. Finally, asleep without the lights beeping on all night.

The next couple of days included more exams, debriefs, visits with local school kids and uniform fittings. When all was done, we headed for the states. First to Travis AFB CA and then transfer to a C-9 Nightingale aircraft for transfer to local hospitals and meetings with our families.

On April 7, 1973, our C-9 approached Sheppard AFB TX. As we flew over the green and yellow fields of sunflowers and cotton, I knew that we were home and lucky to live in the most beautiful land in the world. As our names were called over the loudspeakers we stepped off the airplane and were offered a chance to say a few words. I could see my family eagerly waiting as my wife was silently signaling to me to keep it short and sweet, so I did as we gathered for a family hug and kisses.

All I can remember of that day is how grateful I was for this land we live in.

After some check flights, I spent the next 15 years flying, then picked up a second engineering degree and worked in base management until retirement.

RETURN TO THE CRASH SITE — 27 January 2018 — Finding the crash site where my friend Fran Townsend perished.

My primary goal, returning to Vietnam, was to find the crash site of my RF-4C, to better understand why I survived and Fran did not – and to seek closure.

Leave no man behind… Our country has always endeavored to identify all sites on foreign soil where Americans may have perished. In 1999, Army (CILHI) investigators, with the cooperation of Vietnamese officials and local farmers, identified the crash site of an F-4 in the dense jungle near Vinh Linh.

At that time, forensic excavations were made in an effort to recover parts of the aircraft wreckage and any human remains to identify the aircraft and crew. Among the items recovered, local Vietnamese provided investigators with a silver-colored identification tag with a nylon-type cord that referenced Townsend, Francis W 458-xx-xxxx, O Neg, Methodist.

In 2002, Army investigators completed a DNA match to confirm that the fragments of remains recovered at the crash site were those of 1st Lt. Townsend, and his remains were then returned to his family.

Using the Army report I endeavored to find, again, the site where my aircraft impacted the ground. It was a difficult task because the tropical growth overtakes such sites very quickly.

Once in the area, we contacted local farmers who might have knowledge of the crash site. The Army team had identified local Vietnamese nationals that had knowledge of the original crash in 1972. From the maps included in the report and names of local hamlets, we traveled to the area as best we could determine the site to be. Amazingly, we found an individual in the area who knew some of the local farmers who originally found the crash site. They soon arrived at his house and we traveled by motorcycles several miles to a location where we had to then walk to the site.

There, we met Mr. Phong and his family, who had lived in the area all their lives. Although he was only 10 years old at the time, he remembered the crash. He recalled that one man had been captured (me) and led away, but he did not know his status. Now he does.

Mr. Phong and the other locals were very sympathetic with my presence at the site of the crash. He assisted me in placing a token of remembrance in the pond at the site, and then asked that I wait there for a few minutes while he went back to his house. When he returned, he brought back three pieces of the aircraft that he had recovered over time while working in and around the pond. I will be sharing those with Lt. Townsend’s family.

Mr. Phong told me about his grief for the pilot and that he and his family had held a memorial service every new year to honor the spirit of the pilot who died there. I was impressed with the dignity that the local people demonstrated in regard to how they treated the crash site, honoring Fran for the past 46 years. I understood that there was humanity on both sides of the conflict. He said he knew one day the captured man would return.

I also gained a greater understanding of the ground war fought in South Vietnam and the Air War fought primarily in North Vietnam – the engagements were distinctly different. The Army helicopters in the south were much more in direct contact with the enemy, and suffered more casualties than the Air Force and Navy pilots did.

My return and finding the crash site has provided me a newfound peace in my heart, especially for all that we did to honor one of our lost warriors. For the last 46 years, I have assisted Fran Townsend’s family in any way I could. Both of his parents are still living in Texas, and I look forward to sharing the news of my return to the crash site with them personally.

(1st Lt. Francis W. Townsend is honored on Panel 1W, Row 66 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.)

It is not sufficient to just say, “Thank you, Bill Gauntt and Bill Raines,” but a simple thanks must suffice in this forum. We thank God for all American Patriots who have defended Liberty since the dawn of our Republic, mutually pledging “to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” Please join us in daily prayer for the protection of and provision for our military Patriots defending our nation today, and for their families.

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

(Please support our mission of service to American military personnel and veterans, by supporting Patriot Foundation Trust online or make checks payable to Patriot Foundation Trust, PO Box 507, Chattanooga, TN 37401-0507.)

Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776

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