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Combat Search and Rescue in Southeast Asia

During the war in Southeast Asia, the U.S. Air Force's air rescue improved dramatically. Beginning in 1962 with just three officers and three enlisted Airmen at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, South Vietnam, the mission grew into powerful teams with astounding capabilities for rescuing downed aircrew deep in enemy territory.

Early Search and Rescue
The Air Rescue Service (later the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service) first used Kaman HH-43 Huskie helicopters, unofficially known as "Pedro" from their radio call sign. They later added larger Sikorsky H-3 helicopters, nicknamed "Jolly Green Giants," with greater range, and Grumman HU-16B Albatross amphibians to rescue Airmen who went down in the Gulf of Tonkin.

The Evolution of Combat Search and Rescue
Air operations over dangerous enemy territory forced Search and Rescue (SAR) to evolve into Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) teams. While the helicopters made a rescue, U.S. fighters protected them from North Vietnamese MiGs. Also, Douglas A-1 Skyraiders, known by their call sign Sandy, joined the rescue efforts. The A-1's long loiter time helped in locating downed aircrew, and its heavy armament suppressed enemy ground fire during the rescue attempt.

A major improvement came in November 1965, when the Sikorsky HH-53E "Super Jolly Green Giants" arrived. Capable of being refueled in flight by Lockheed HC-130 King Birds, the HH-53E helicopters could reach any point in the Southeast Asia theater.

During the Southeast Asia War, CSAR personnel had a significant impact and lived up to their motto: That Others May Live. They saved a total of 4,120 people, including 2,780 in combat situations. Their individual achievements earned them two Medals of Honor, 38 Air Force Crosses, and numerous other awards. However, the cost was high as 71 U.S. rescue personnel were killed and 45 aircraft destroyed during the war.

Combat Pararescue in Southeast Asia
The blood-red beret, symbolizing sacrifice, has been the pararescueman or "PJ" (for parajumper) mark of distinction since early 1966. The PJ's unique mission in the Southeast Asia War was to ride into a combat zone aboard a rescue helicopter and descend into jungles, swamps, mountains, and forests on a cable and winch. On the ground, they stabilized and helped hoist the injured to safety, often under fire. All volunteers, the PJs earned more decorations per man than any other USAF group in the SEA War.

Click on the following links to learn more about the Southeast Asia War.

Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger

Click here to return to the North Vietnam: Rolling Thunder Overview.


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Related Fact Sheets
Douglas A-1E Skyraider
Sikorsky HH-3E Jolly Green Giant
Kaman HH-43B Huskie