The Rescue of "BASHER 52"
By Ross W. Simpson - Originally Published September 1995
"They risked their lives to get me out. If you want to find some real heroes, that's where you should look, because they are the biggest heroes in the world."
At Aviano Air Base, Italy, a tearful U.S. Air Force Captain Scott O'Grady thanked God and the U.S. Marines who flew deep into Bosnia to rescue him after his F-16C Fighting Falcon was shot down by a SAM (surface-to-air missile) on June 2.
O'Grady, call sign "Basher 52," and his flight leader, Capt Bob Wright, were flying a NATO mission in support of Operation Deny Flight over northern Bosnia at the time of the attack.
One of the "real heroes" Capt O'Grady spoke of after his dramatic rescue was Sergeant Scott Pfister, the crew chief on Dash-2, the call sign of one of the CH-53E Super Stallions that flew 87 miles deep into enemy territory to get O'Grady before the Serbs got him.
"Thundering Eagles" was the nickname of the helicopter squadron that sent two of its birds into Bosnia. With their seven blades, the Super Stallions sound like thunder approaching a landing zone.
"I saw him [O'Grady] running toward us out of the mist about 20 yards off the nose of the bird," said Pfister. The sergeant was manning a .50-caliber machine gun on the starboard side of the aircraft just behind the night deck as the pilot of the 16-ton helicopter hunted for a level place to land.
Visibility was so poor due to fog that the Super Stallion set down inadvertently the first time on a big boulder and a barbed-wire fence that prevented the crew chief from lowering the rear ramp so a 20-man security team could deploy.
"The LZ was tight," said Capt Paul Fortunato, the pilot of Dash-2.
Fortunato estimated the diameter of the LZ was no more than 100 feet, barely enough room to do some pedal turns as he gently set his helicopter down.
Dash-1, the other Super Stallion, landed across the barbed-wire fence in another "mini-LZ" without incident.
"I have to give credit to the pilots of the Super Stallions. They did some incredible flying. When we were going in, it didn't look like there was going to be enough room to land, but they somehow squeezed the aircraft through the trees anyway," said Sgt Christopher White, a security team leader.
Before they left USS Kearsarge (LHD-3), the flagship of a three-vessel force of 2,000 Marines in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Bosnia. Lieutenant Colonel Chris Gunther, the mission commander, and First Lieutenant Martin Wetterauer, the officer in charge of ground security, discussed what they might encounter on the ground.
"We talked about two possible scenarios," said LtCol Gunther before they left the hangar deck and boarded Dash-1.
"We envisioned everything from having a pilot down in the trees and having to hoist him out, to a situation where he was literally running for his life, being chased by Serb soldiers," said Gunther.
And then there was the unknown question: How close could the choppers gel to O'Grady?
"My greatest fear was that we wouldn't be able to find Captain O'Grady, that he would have either gotten run off or scared off, and couldn't get to a place where we could pick him up," said Colonel Martin Berndt, the commanding officer of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, who went along to coordinate the search and rescue mission.
Why would the CO of a MEU risk his life on a mission like this when there were junior officers available?
"My take was that I had to be with them. It was that simple," said Berndt, a brigadier-general selectee, who's been shot at before and felt his men would benefit from a steady hand at the tiller, one who would have a calming effect.
Besides, Berndt didn't have "a lot of other balls in the air" and felt he could afford to be away from his command duties with the MEU for a few hours.
Lt Wetterauer and his 20-man security team scrambled down the rear ramp of Dash-1 and began heading in the direction of yellow smoke that the pilot of a Marine AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter gunship dropped to mark the spot where Capt O'Grady had fired a pencil flare to identify himself and his position.
On the way in to the last known location of O'Grady, the aircrews could see heavy ground fog below them. The terrain reminded LtCol Gunther of West Virginia.
"The fog laid like a blanket in deep valleys in dense layers, blotting out small towns and villages," said Gunther, who worried that the fog might cause the rescue mission to be aborted.
When Dash-1 and Dash-2 arrived over the LZ they had to "auger in" through a tiny hole in the cloud cover. The site was all but socked-in.
"The fog was a two-edged sword. While it masked our noisy approach to the pickup point and probably prevented us from waking up townspeople in the valley below, it also made it difficult to see where we were going," said Gunther.
About five miles from where O'Grady was hunkered down, the two Super Stallions had to orbit over a good-sized town in one of those deep valleys. Two Super Cobras carefully crept through dense fog up a mountainside to where O'Grady was talking to them on his survival radio. Visibility was down to a few hundred feet.
"When we landed, we noticed there was a plateau that O'Grady was on; the lower areas around it were blanketed in fog," said Gunther.
As Wetterauer and his men "pushed through a thicket," they found a smoking canister, but couldn't find O'Grady. By that time the captain was moving away from his would-be rescuers toward the sound of freedom: a pair of Stallions in a clearing just beyond the tree line where he had been holing up, awaiting their arrival.
Coming out of the thicket like a rabbit that was being chased by beagle hounds, O'Grady made a beeline for Dash-2.
"Seeing him running through the brush, covered in sweat with a six-day beard on his face and his pistol in his hand is a scene I'll never forget," said Gunther, who had just directed his forward air controller to come up on the emergency frequency and give O'Grady a call.
"I said to myself, 'He looks good and moves pretty good for someone who's been on the ground for six days.' "
Waiting for the right time to signal was key to his survival.
"That's what they're [pilots] trained to do: wait until the best time to signal," said Wetterauer.
O'Grady's efforts to let the world know he survived the shootdown and was alive were thwarted by bad weather which kept NATO search planes away for days. O'Grady was also afraid of being detected. He used his radio only at night. But that decision had a downside. There were fewer planes in the air at night.
When he moved, he moved in darkness so he wouldn't be seen, and he quickly discovered that it's very difficult to talk on a survival radio and move about at the same time, especially at night without a flashlight.
O'Grady knew his chances of survival depended on staying away from Serb soldiers who were searching for him. He also knew that he had to find high ground to broadcast from and a suitable landing zone for a large helicopter, one that would not be too vulnerable to enemy fire. That's why it took him 5 ½ days before he made radio contact with one of his squadron mates.
When Sergeant Major Angel Castro Jr. saw the man he came to save heading his way, Castro ordered everyone on board his helicopter "to stay put."
But Sgt Pfister had already sated his gun, climbed out of the crew chief door on the right side of the aircraft and was running to meet O'Grady.
"I remember him coming across the LZ, wearing an orange survival cap, waving his Beretta and babbling," said Pfister, who was forced to physically disarm O'Grady when he refused to give up his weapon for safety reasons.
"I hated to hit an officer," said Pfister, "but I hit his right wrist and knocked the weapon out of his hand."
Pfister then hustled the weakened aviator to the waiting chopper and shoved him in, slamming him into some seats.
"I was so anxious to get him in the bird, I just picked him up and slung him into the cargo area," said Pfister, who laughed when reminded that he could have broken O'Grady's neck.
"Wow," said Pfister, "I didn't even think of that. What a terrible thing to have done to a guy who had survived six days in enemy territory."
Before climbing aboard the helicopter himself, Pfister ran back to where he disarmed O'Grady and retrieved the 9-mm. Beretta.
"He'd probably have been charged for the weapon if we had left it on the LZ," said Pfister. Asked about the orange survival cap, the sergeant said it blew off O'Grady's head when he walked into the downdraft from the blades. The cap was left in Bosnia.
O'Grady's survival was in doubt until the early morning hours of June 8 when he was able to make voice contact with his wingman via his PRC-112 personal radio communicator.
Once the weak signal was validated, a platoon-sized element (41 Marines) from Weapons Company, Battalion Landing Team 3/8 boarded two Super Stallions from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 464, Marine Corps Air Station, New River, N.C., lifted off the deck of USS Kearsarge in the Adriatic Sea and headed east toward Bosnia.
Two AH-1W Super Cobras from Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 269 at New River and four AV-8B Harriers from Marine Attack Squadron 231, Cherry Point, N.C., rode shotgun, scanning the countryside for any resistance.
All of the Marine helicopters are attached to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 263, a composite squadron.
The so-called TRAP (Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel) team headed northeast through enemy territory to a spot about 20 miles southeast of Bihac, a Muslim safe haven for refugees that has been the scene of heavy fighting over the past year.
A backup team of U.S. Army Special Forces was en route by helicopter to the area from a base in Brindisi, Italy.
Above the Marines were 40 additional aircraft: a mix of F/A-18D Hornets (attack fighters) from Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 533 from MCAS, Beaufort, S.C., Air Force A-10s (tank killers) from Aviano Air Base, Italy, and Navy EA-6B Prowlers (electronic jamming aircraft) from the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). Some electronic jamming USAF EF-111As were also airborne to assist, as were other types of aircraft.
In addition to the vast armada of heavily armed aircraft being vectored into holding positions over Bosnia by a NATO AWACS early warning aircraft, there were also additional Marines standing by on deck of Kearsarge in case the TRAP team got trapped and had to battle its way out of Bosnia.
"I had a Sparrow Hawk package or reinforced rifle platoon on deck with their weapons and ammo ready to launch if the TRAP team got into trouble," said Col Berndt, "and right behind them there was a reinforced rifle company that had the capability to do the same thing."
Berndt went into Bosnia loaded for bear. In addition to individual infantry weapons such as the M16 and 9-mm. Beretta, members of his TRAP team were also armed with SAWs (squad automatic weapons), M60 machine guns and hand grenades.
Most MEUs have five different TRAP packages ranging from very, very small to fairly large.
"In this particular package, which was not the largest available, we had a three-man FAC [Forward Air Control] party, specialized linguists and people from our radio detachment."
Thanks to intelligence-gathering sources brought to bear on Bosnia, everything from satellites to photo reconnaissance, Col Berndt had a pretty good handle on major enemy weapons systems that might pose a problem.
"But it's difficult to get a handle on the soldier who moves with a very small unit or perhaps is a soldier/farmer," said Berndt.
That's why the TRAP team was backed up by helicopter gunships, attack fighters and tank-killing A-10s.
O'Grady was shot down south of Bihac, a beehive of activity the past year or so. There were Serb soldiers in the general area, but Berndt wasn't worried. He had assessed the risk and had sufficient force to deal with it.
LtCol Gunther said the TRAP team could have stayed on the ground in Bosnia for two hours and fought an engagement if necessary. But as it turned out, they were on the ground for only five minutes and never fired a shot.
TRAP teams prefer to operate at night. This is the standard to which they train. But Berndt couldn't make that happen.
Higher headquarters realized there was a very small window of opportunity that was likely to close soon and didn't have the luxury of waiting another 12 to 15 hours for it to get dark again.
The "Delta Support Package" Col Berndt customized for this mission could have been on the ground before dawn, but he would have had to sacrifice much of its backup capability. That's why the primary rescue package orbited over USS Kearsarge for 45 minutes until backup units could fly up from Italy and get into position.
Without the support package, Col Berndt felt the risk was too great to manage.
Scott O'Grady got in touch with Capt Thomas Hanford at 2:08 a.m. (8:08 a.m. EDT) Thursday, June 8. The 24th MEU got the "call" to go get him at 2:30 a.m.
"It was an electrifying call," said LtCol Gunther, who rousted his men out of their racks (bunks) at 3 a.m.
The 81-mm. mortarmen who made up the TRAP team had trained for nine months on worst-case scenarios involving downed aircrews in Bosnia, but had been in the Adriatic for only four days when O'Grady's F-16 was shot down.
Most of the shootdown scenarios involved twin-seat aircraft like the F-14 Tomcat and A-6 Intruder where the pilot and radar intercept officer, or in the case of the Intruder, the pilot and bombardier, would be separated by a half-mile or so. One would be severely injured; the other stuck in a tree. Specially trained climbers would go to their rescue in these rehearsals.
"The one scenario we never trained for was the one involving a single downed aviator who comes walking to us," Gunther said, laughing, as he recalled the textbook mission that came off without a hitch.
"It was not a perfect mission," said Col Berndt during a trails-Atlantic telephone call from the flagship, "but we had practiced rescue missions so many times, we were on automatic pilot the day we flew into Bosnia and got O'Grady."
If he had the mission to do over again, Berndt would have taken along a combat camera crew to have recorded the rescue.
"Because we had always anticipated doing this mission at night, we didn't include a camera crew in our package," said Berndt, who simply overlooked the need for such a crew when he made the switch from night to day.
The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit has a rich history dating back to the devastating bombing of a Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in October 1983. Interim stops in between include the Persian Gulf war and Operation Provide Comfort for the Kurdish refugees fleeing Saddam Hussein's regime in Northern Iraq.
The 24th MEU also recovered aircraft and equipment in Somalia from December 1994 to March 1995 when it covered the successful withdrawal of U.S. forces from that war-torn country.
Returning from the Mediterranean in the summer of 1994, the 24th MEU turned around after being home only two weeks and steamed to the Caribbean waters off Haiti. There, it provided a visible show of force for about six weeks until relieved by a special task force that eventually went ashore in Haiti.
The TRAP team concept has been on the books for about 10 years, but had not been well-advertised until the hair-raising rescue of Capt O'Grady.
Every forward-deployed MEU has a TRAP team. There are three teams at Camp Lejeune, N.C., three at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and a seventh TRAP team is stationed on Okinawa.
But this was the first time a U.S. Marine TRAP mission involved a "live person." And as Capt O'Grady said when he arrived back at his home base in Aviano, "These guys are the real heroes, not me."
Another of the heroes O'Grady will never forget is SgtMaj Castro, a Marine from the Bronx, who has spent more than half his life in the Corps.
Castro was aboard Dash-2 when it landed to the right of Dash-1, the other Super Stallion, on a rugged mountaintop.
When Castro looked out the starboard gunner's portal and saw O'Grady running toward them, he yelled, "We got him," at the top of his lungs.
As soon as the rescued pilot was inside the aircraft, Castro strapped the VIP into his seat, put a cranial (crash helmet) on his head and prepared for liftoff.
"When I sat him down, he said, 'Thank you,' and just kept saying, 'Thank you, thank you,' over and over again," said Castro.
O'Grady was cold, severely dehydrated and soaking wet. Hypothermia had set in, and he was shaking violently.
Castro got a jacket from Col Berndt in the jump seat on the flight deck and put it on O'Grady.
As Castro snapped the buttons on the jacket, tears of joy streamed down and stained the dirty face of the fighter jock from Spokane, Wash.
Once airborne, Castro asked O'Grady if he was thirsty. O'Grady nodded, and Castro gave him a canteen of water.
O'Grady took a long swig, almost draining the canteen in one swallow.
Asked if he was hungry, he nodded again and was given an MRE, a meal, ready to eat.
"But he could only eat five or six spoonfuls of the chicken stew," said Castro. O'Grady's stomach had shrunk after six days of eating only grass and insects. He couldn't eat any more.
When he began to shiver and shake again, a space blanket was passed forward. Castro also gave his special guest a pair of gloves and ordered two young Marines to flank him with their bodies in order to keep him as warm as possible.
The temperature was about 45 degrees as winds whipped through the portals through which the helicopter's two machine guns protruded.
Castro wasn't the only one aboard Dash-2 who could see that O'Grady was emotionally spent.
"When he first got on the helo, he was sobbing and weeping," said Lance Corporal Paul Bruce.
"It was more than just a tear or two. His chest was heaving. He was so happy to be alive. So grateful. So glad to be rescued," said Bruce.
It took just over five hours to rescue Capt O'Grady from the time his wingman heard his voice on a hilltop in Bosnia until the downed pilot was back on board USS Kearsarge.
While the flight into Bosnia was a "clean" flight, the trip home was "down and dirty." When the primary rescue package cleared the fog-shrouded mountains and deep valleys and moved into a flat level plain that stretched to the coast, the Thundering Eagles became visible and vulnerable.
"About two-thirds of the way home, we began taking AAA [triple A or anti-aircraft artillery] and small-arms fire," said Capt Fortunato.
"I saw a Russian-made SA-7 fired at us," said the co-pilot, Capt Jim Wright. "It came corkscrewing up at us from the left side of the aircraft." Fortunato and Berndt also saw the SAM go flying by. The heat-seeking capability of the shoulder-fired SAM isn't that great, and it missed.
At least one other SAM was fired at the pair of Super Stallions.
The Cobra pilots who were flying at 5 and 7 o'clock positions behind the Super Stallions had a ringside seat for the fireworks.
They spotted another smoke trail corkscrewing toward the formation, but didn't engage the Serb missile men with their 20-mm. cannons or Hellfire missiles.
Their mission was to escort Capt O'Grady safely back to the ship, and they thought everyone in the primary rescue package could accomplish that mission with speed and maneuverability.
Fortunato and Major William Tarbutton, who was flying the other Super Stallion, popped flares and took some violent evasive action to avoid the surface-to-air missiles and a barrage of ground fire from triple A possibly ZSU-23/2 (a double-barreled weapon) and some automatic small arms like AK-47s.
"We flew into Bosnia at about 200 feet over pine forest," said Fortunato, "but we flew at 50 feet and lower on the way home."
Fortunato and Tarbutton also flew faster. On the way into Bosnia they flew at about 120 mph, but on the way back to Kearsarge, they skimmed across the treetops at 175 mph, hoping to avoid Serbian gunners.
"We were zigzagging around, banking hard all over the place," said LCpl Bruce, who later admitted it was a terrifying ride. "The roughest helicopter ride I've ever been on."
Ammo boxes were banging around. A couple of grunts were sick as Fortunato and Tarbutton twisted and turned to avoid being bracketed by triple A.
The shoulder-fired missiles the Serbs launched at the helicopters missed. The SA-7s flew underneath them. But both aircraft took a few hits from small-arms fire.
One of the rounds hit the leading edge of Tarbutton's blades. Another one struck Fortunato's tail rotor. And at least one more round pierced the rear ramp and ricocheted around the cargo area, hitting SgtMaj Castro in the canteen.
"As Captain Fortunato rocked the aircraft back and forth, I felt something slap me in the back," said Castro, who didn't give it another thought until Corporal Arthur Parham handed him a spent 7.62-mm. slug.
Without batting an eye, Castro handed the bullet back to the Marine.
"Keep it as a souvenir," bellowed the sergeant major. "No big deal."
Inside the choppers, Marines swayed back and forth in their seats as Fortunato and Tarbutton popped up to clear power lines and dropped down again to hug Mother Earth in case anyone else on the ground wanted to take a shot at them.
Sgt Pfister on the starboard gun received permission from Fortunato to engage two AAA sites.
Pfister, who didn't fire a shot during Operation Desert Storm, ripped off a 5-to 10-round burst of .50-cal. ammo as he passed almost level with the gun positions.
"I could see tracers coming at us, but we were going so fast, they [Serbs] couldn't bring their big stuff to bear on us," said Pfister, who could see clusters of hand-held automatic weapons winking at him as he roared by.
"I don't think I hit anything," said Pfister, "but I'll bet I kept their heads down long enough for us to escape the kill zone."
"We escaped serious damage because of outstanding crew coordination," said Capt Wright. "There was a constant flow of info from the gunners to 'Tuna' [Fortunato's call sign] and me up front. We knew where the stuff [AAA, etc.] was coming from and were able to avoid most of it."
Scott O'Grady clenched his teeth as Dash-2 made a beeline for the ship.
The two Marines sitting on either side of him to keep him warm just looked at him and told him he was with Marines and that everything was going to be all right.
When Col Berndt turned in the jump seat between the pilot and co-pilot to check on his passenger, O'Grady looked at the MEU commander, grinned and gave him a thumbs-up.
"I knew then," said Berndt, "that he was OK."
Secretary of the Navy Lauds Rescue Efforts of Navy/Marine Corps Team
Editor's note: The following is a reprint of Secretary of the Navy John Dalton's message to the Marines and sailors of the 24th MEU (SOC) and USS Kearsarge.
"Fortune favors the bold, and there is no bolder force than the Navy and Marine Corps team. During the past week, all Americans and our allies have been praying for the young Air Force pilot shot down over Bosnia. The Marines of the 24th MEU(SOC) and all sailors and Marines aboard the USS Kearsarge answered those prayers and proved yet again that ours is the finest naval service in the world.
"Your daring rescue of Captain O'Grady and his own heroic efforts at work you are doing, because you are each making a difference, and what you are doing is critical to our freedom.
"I am extremely proud of all our Navy and Marine Corps forces now deployed in the Adriatic. You are faced with a difficult situation, and you are performing superbly. Remain focused on the task at hand and sail proudly. God bless you."
The Honorable John H. Dalton
Secretary of the Navy