SANDPOINT — When Lt. Ken Sanger came to, he was peering down on the jungle canopy of Laos, drawing ever closer to the foliage below as he dangled from his parachute.
Moments before — maybe scant seconds; he had no real way of knowing — the Navy pilot had the wing blown off of his A-4 Skyhawk and years of training kicked in as he put out a call and ejected from the aircraft. The A-4 was equipped with a rocket seat and the exit, at 450 knots, was what knocked him unconscious.
“It was so fast,” the pilot said. “Canopy goes off, seat goes off and you’re out.”
But in that offhand, unemotional way that combat veterans sometimes have, Sanger wrote about the event for the Naval Academy alumni magazine in terms that can only be described as flip.
“It was 2300 (11 p.m.) in the sky over Laos on a dark, but thankfully not stormy night in July, 1969, when I had the dubious pleasure of testing the functionality of the Douglas ESCAPAC ejection seat and associated parachute,” he wrote. “Everything worked as advertised and I found myself suspended under a beautiful white canopy over the Laotian jungle, thankful to be alive and wondering what awaited me on the ground.”
What the 1963 graduate of the Naval Academy didn’t mention in the article was that the United States was not “officially” involved in Laos at that point in the Vietnam War, though, according to Sanger, the U.S. had 57 military sites in operation there, all sanctioned by the Laotian government.
“We weren’t in Laos — I wasn’t there,” the Navy man deadpanned.
“We knew where we were and we knew where we were in Cambodia,” he continued, trading the talking points of the era for candor. “It was all supposed to be hush-hush, but it’s no secret.”
All of which served to exacerbate the vulnerable situation Sanger found himself in as he slowly dropped into the jungle. Again, his descriptions take two roads — one stated in the easy bravado of military conversation and another that captures his actual thoughts at the time.
In the alumni magazine, Sanger wrote: “After settling down during the peaceful descent, I soon realized that since I had lost my radio during the violent ejection, I was going to have to get my act together to either get rescued or start walking to Thailand.”
A sentence later, the article shared that the downed pilot “hoped that getting rescued was in the cards, because the walk might be problematic and I would get hungry.”
In the comfort of his home office in Sandpoint, Sanger, who left the Navy at the rank of lieutenant commander, gave a somewhat different account of that same moment.
“What went through my mind was, ‘How the hell am I going to get out of here?’” he said. “There was no panic, but none of this was in my plans, that’s for sure. I figured the best thing I could do was hide, get some rest and wait until morning.”
Traveling uphill in anticipation of an easier rescue, he at last reached the ridgeline, burrowed into a tangle of vines and waited out the night. Minutes before, he had looked down on the burning wreckage of his plane before firing off a couple of small flares to signal he was, in fact, still alive. When members of his squadron saw the green streaks in the sky (Sanger had purchased his own personal flares from Sears, he said, because the red flares issued by the Navy looked too much like tracer bullets and might elicit an unsavory response) they relayed the news of the downed pilot and the gears of a rescue operation began to move.
On the ground, under the vines, Lt. Sanger had no knowledge of the number of aircraft and personnel being mobilized on his behalf. He simply hunkered down for what he has since come to call his “jungle camping experience.”
Maintaining the matter-of-fact tone of the article, Sanger wrote that “the crew of a Jolly Green rescue helicopter made the rescue the next day.”
“After plucking me from the jungle floor, they flew me to Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, where I was debriefed, patched up and sent back to the ship, USS Oriskany, and my squadron, VA 192 — the World Famous Golden Dragons.”
In his office, Sanger shared more details on what happened that July morning in Laos. Leading up to that day, he had flown about 150 missions and the closest thing to a close call had been navigating bad weather in flight or walking away from dicey carrier landings. Waiting in the jungle to be rescued was, up to that point, the farthest thing from his mind.
“All the pilots had the idea that, ‘It isn’t going to be me — I’m special — they can’t hit me,’” he said.
As Sanger spent a night rethinking that theory, the rescue operation was unfolding around him. By the time the Sikorsky HH-3E helicopter made its descent with the rescue crew, personnel already had been involved in surveillance, communications, close air support and a second Jolly Green crew along in case the first one got shot down.
“I’m going to guess there were 50 aircraft involved, which makes me feel special,” Sanger said.
He learned that fact only recently, after reading a newsletter article from the Red River Fighter Pilots Association that had links to other military aviation associations — among them, the Jolly Green Association.
“It struck me that I would truly enjoy being able to thank the men who made it possible for me to be writing today,” Sanger wrote in his article.
He contacted the individual listed on the Jolly Green’s site and shared the particulars of his own rescue — the date, time, location and aircraft call signs involved. Hoping for a name or two of the rescue crew, Sanger was met instead with a mountain of information.
“It turned out to be so damned easy,” he said. “Within six hours, I had all of this declassified information in my hands.”
The documents included a timeline of events that ran from the first report of the incident to the successful rescue itself, along with a thorough description of the elevation and vegetation on the ridge overlooking the river valley where he was picked up and a photo of himself with the helicopter crew that made it happen. But there was more information to come.
“The next afternoon, I received another email from the person who had sent the reports,” he said. “In it, he gave me the email address and phone numbers of the rescue pilot. I contacted him and discovered that we live only a few miles apart, when I am in Southern California.”
That man’s name is Jerry Jones and, like the Navy pilot he “plucked up” from the Laotian jungle, that night in 1969 would stick in his memory. To hear Sanger tell it, Jones and his crew were the true stars of the tale.
“The heroism of those guys,” he said. “To come in on a helo, to pick up some guy they didn’t know.”
He took a long pause before resuming.
“That went on throughout the war, all over the place.”
What Sanger learned later was that Jones and his crew got an early morning call informing them that they were heading out to save a downed pilot. The terrain was dangerous and the location was known to have enemy guns in place, just waiting to take down something as easily picked off as a lumbering rescue helicopter. Or, in military terms, the place was “hot.” Only a couple weeks before, another rescue helicopter had been downed by those same guns in the same area.
“They got a call at 2:30 in the morning saying, ‘Hey, Jerry — you’ve got a ‘hot’ rescue in the morning,” said Sanger.
When the copters moved in, one supporting the other, the pilot somehow expected to be lifted straight up on the cable that was dropped for him. But once he had hooked on and given the thumbs-up sign, the rescue crew wasted no time in clearing out.
“The helo took off and I was being hauled behind — like fish bait being trolled on a boat,” he said.
When the rescued pilot and his rescuer met this past March, each of them had parts of the story to fill in, according to Sanger.
“We sat around and talked for two-and-a-half fours,” he said. “It was interesting, him hearing my side of the rescue and me hearing his.
“Was there a lot of emotion, any hugging and stuff like that?” he went on. “No.”
And yet, there was an undercurrent of those feelings, especially from the helicopter pilot, who appreciated the guy who came by to say, “thanks.”
“Jerry was more emotional than I was,” Sanger said. “He probably had 100 rescue missions and never had anybody look him up and visit him.”
If the two men took a brief detour into emotion, it was only a break in the laughs they shared about what was a very serious episode in both of their lives. Jones, for instance, said he and the other military men involved were disappointed about the Navy’s efficiency after the rescue operation. They had a big party planned for everyone involved, he told Sanger, but the Oriskany’s twin-engine delivery plane came to collect the pilot before that could happen.
Leave it to a bunch of combat vets to take a near death experience and find a way to laugh about it. That, Sanger pointed out, is how they defused the pressures of war.
“There’s a lot of responsibility and situations where things are tense,” he said. “You break that by making light of the whole thing.”
One thing he’s not downplaying or glossing over is the role Jones and all the other rescuers played in saving his life 48 years ago.
“Those guys are heroes,” he said. “That, to me, is the real story.”