Tullo and the Giant

For pilots shot down over North Vietnam, the way home was jolly and green.

The interior of a Sikorsky HH-3E Jolly Green Giant, possibly at Ta Son Nhut AFB, circa 1966-67. (Richard Keller, National Air and Space Museum (SI Photo 2001-1887))
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Tullo heard shots. They built to a crescendo, then stopped. The shooting had started at some distance but had grown closer. Soon he was able to hear voices as the troops worked their way up the hillside. He burrowed into the dense grass and waited, his heart pounding. He raised his head and saw an older man about 150 to 175 feet away wearing a cone-shaped straw hat. It was all Tullo could do not to make a run for it, but that was exactly what they wanted him to do. He forced himself to sit quietly. The troops made a lot of noise but they kept moving to the east, down the hill. Silence returned and Tullo continued to wait.

George Martin was flying his Sikorsky CH-3C helicopter to Lima 36, a remote staging area in Laos about 120 miles from Hanoi, to prepare for another day of rescue alert duty. Only a few weeks before he had been flying cargo support at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Today, he was commanding a small detachment of men and helicopters on a 120-day assignment in Vietnam. He and his crew had been tasked to learn a new mission for which they had little preparation.

In 1965, as the number of U.S. airstrikes and reconnaissance missions in Vietnam multiplied, pilots faced the increasing possibility of being downed deep inside Laos or North Vietnam. Crews flying the small and slow Kaman HH-43 Huskie, originally designed as an air-base firefighting and rescue helicopter, were already pushing the aircraft to its limits. There was clearly a need for a faster rescue helicopter with longer legs. The cargo-carrying CH-3C fit the bill, and the Air Force began sending crews from Eglin for specialized training. The crews practiced mountain flying, ground survival, and rescue operations, which involved coordination with controller and escort aircraft. The training was projected to last several months, but the escalating conflict wouldn't wait.

Martin, who was too close to retirement to be selected for the additional training and the accompanying extended tour, was ordered to fill in with 21 men and two CH-3s until the fully trained crews arrived. "I found out Friday afternoon and was gone Sunday evening," Martin says. "It was just like in the movies--I said, 'When do I leave?' They said, 'How fast can you pack?' "

Martin was about to land at an intermediate refueling base when he was asked by radio to divert and try to rescue a downed F-105 pilot. Martin still needed to proceed to Lima 36 to drop off cargo and extra crew. He had to lighten his aircraft to take on as much fuel as possible and still be able to pick up the pilot. "The big consideration in helicopter pickup is gross weight," Martin says. "If you're too heavy to hover, all you can do is fly around and wave at him."

Upon landing at 36, Martin's number two engine warning lights indicated an "overtemp" condition, which meant significant problems, possibly foreign object damage or a compressor stall from air starvation, and under normal circumstances would have grounded the aircraft. The crew looked to Martin for a decision. "Everybody was pretty apprehensive. I told them, 'We're his only hope. If the engine will start again after cool-down, we'll go.' " His crew reluctantly agreed.

The engine restarted without incident and Martin's CH-3, call sign "Jolly Green One," took off for Hanoi. Martin had no idea where to locate the downed pilot. He was unescorted until he was about 50 miles from Hanoi, at which point he was joined by Canasta flight, flown by Ed Greathouse and Holt Livesay from USS Midway's Attack Squadron 25.

The oppressive heat of the afternoon wore on. Finally, Tullo heard the sound of prop-driven aircraft again. Darkness was about 40 minutes away as he turned on his radio. The aircraft responded immediately. "Dogwood Two, this is Canasta. I have a chopper for you." Seconds later, Canasta flight flew directly over Tullo's position, and there, not far behind, came a helicopter. Tullo was expecting a small chopper, but this one was a big green monster, Martin's Jolly Green, the first in the theater and headed for its first combat recovery--Frank Tullo.

"Dogwood Two, this is Jolly Green. How'm I doing?" Martin said to the man on the ground. He was coming right up the valley from the south-southwest. Tullo said, "You're doing great!" and popped his pen and smoke flares. The chopper's blades made the smoke swirl as Tullo aimed his .38 straight up and fired all six tracer rounds. Crew chief Curtis Pert spotted the pilot through the thick ground cover as soon as the smoke made its way above the trees. As Martin hovered, Pert lowered a "horse collar" sling.

Later, better equipped rescue crews would have a specialized hoist attached to a "jungle penetrator" designed to pierce thick tree canopies. "We just had a jury-rigged cargo winch that you could turn into a 10-cent, Mickey Mouse rescue hoist," Martin says.

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