You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
Hannibal Books (August 15, 2011)
Susan Keen is a mother of two, teacher, reader, and world traveler. A native of Mississippi, she holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Mississippi College, Clinton, MS. She has written and published two cookbooks, was an interior designer, is a graduate of several French cooking schools, and is a gourmet cook. She and her husband, Jack Keen, M.D., live in Fort Worth and are active members of Travis Avenue Baptist Church.
The Vietnam War, though an uncomfortable part of America's conscience, is past history. Military personnel are home. Missing are found. Bodies are buried. Relations are normalized with Vietnam. Four decades later, we're over it. Right?
Not for Mary Lou Hall and her children, Heather and Harley Stephen. Their husband and dad, accomplished and decorated U.S. aviator Harley Hall, who unflinchingly signed on for last-gasp missions over Vietnam even in the war's waning seconds in 1973, disappeared after his shootdown—his whereabouts never pinpointed. For his loved ones and for all who still miss him urgently, the question lingers: where is Harley? how could he so utterly vanish? why did the U.S. not charge in and demand an accounting for this one who had such a brilliant future ahead as a military star? why was he left alive to die?
Susan Keen, whose physician husband once served alongside Harley as Hall commanded the celebrated Navy's Blue Angels flight-demonstration team, masterfully and heartwrenchingly profiles Harley, last American pilot shot down before the cease fire; chronicles jarring evidence indicating that Hall remained alive for years after his capture; and outlines our government's humiliating response to his wife's and others' pleas to garner attention for this compelling case.
No American can read Keen's shocking book without being moved to impassioned prayer for those such as Mary Lou who have no closure and whose lives forever are devastated by a war that many would like to believe never happened.
List Price: $14.95
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Hannibal Books (August 15, 2011)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
CDR Harley Hall, handsome former commander of the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Team, walked across the flight deck of the gigantic carrier USS Enterprise and over to his F-4 Phantom. The time was around noon, January 27, 1973. Hall, the Executive Officer of VF-143, was preparing to fly his last mission over Vietnam before the ceasefire. On the flight deck he saw LCDR Ernie Christensen and waved. Christensen wandered over near Hall’s aircraft.
“Boss, I guess this is it; neither of us will ever get our MiG!” Christensen, who had been a pilot on Hall’s Blue Angels Team, reverted to the familiar term of respect for his former commander.1 Christensen, the Operations Officer of Harley’s sister squadron VF-142, had flown Blue Angels No. 4 on Hall’s 1970 team but in 1971 returned to combat on the Enterprise.
“Yes, looks like we missed our chance,” Hall answered. The MiG, the supersonic jet-fighter aircraft developed by the Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau for the USSR and flown by the enemy during the Vietnam War, posed serious threats for American aircraft and ground troops. American crews that successfully shot down a MiG had a red star painted on the fuselage of their aircraft—one red star for each MiG. These pilots were highly revered.
Hall and Christensen talked for a few seconds more. Christensen headed back to his plane. That afternoon a quiet and growing elation of the “last real” combat mission over Vietnam underscored actions and thought. If one had been bold enough to stick his head up and look around for hope, he almost could see the end of this high-risk life—that of being a naval fighter pilot stationed on a carrier flying missions over Vietnam.
Hall climbed into his F-4 and joined his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO), LCDR Al Kientzler, who sat behind him. Kientzler was replacing Hall’s regular RIO, LCDR Gary Hughes, who was Squadron Duty Officer (SDO) that day. Hall strapped in, scanned his instruments, and completed his pre-flight check.
Streaking off the deck of the USS Enterprise, the powerful General Electric J79 engines threw rocket-like plumes behind as the catapult in two-and-a-half seconds hurled the big Mc-Donnell Douglas jet 300 feet through the sky at 165 mph and pinned Hall and Kientzler against the backs of their seats. For about two seconds Hall’s vision, affected by the G-forces, saw a blur rather than the buttons and dials of the instrument panel. “Catapult shots feel like being shot from a cannon!” he commented over the loud engines.2
Hall’s plane, still in afterburner, continued climbing to top speed and correct altitude to hook up with the overhead tanker and take on fuel. Over his left shoulder Hall saw his wingman, LT Terry Heath, with his RIO, LT Phil Boughton, also flying an F-4. “Taproom 113 to 114. Let’s go get ’em!” Hall said over the flight frequency designated for the two-aircraft formation.
“Let’s do it!” Heath, Taproom 114, answered.
After checking in with Hillsborough (the U.S. Air Force controller working northern South Vietnam) they were assigned to the Forward Air Controller (FAC) Covey 115 and directed to their target area. They reached their target at the Cua Viet River just south of the Demilitarized Zone. Then Covey 115 assigned them their mission—enemy trucks moving south from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). On this last day of war, communist
Vietnamese troops rushed south to occupy as much land in non-communist South Vietnam as possible, while United States bombers did everything they could to stop the aggressive Viet Cong troops. Heath made his bomb run to the north, while Hall went one mile south to work a different group of trucks. Finding his target quickly Hall called in to his FAC and released his bombs.
Climbing out after his last bomb run Hall heard the dull thud of bullets or shrapnel hitting his plane. Instantly his master caution light flashed red; this indicated serious danger.
“Taproom 113 to 114. Mayday! Mayday! I’m hit!” Hall reported calmly.
“Mayday! This is Taproom 113! I’m hit! Lost PC-1 and utilities, heading feet wet!” Hall repeated.
Hall’s warning light continued flashing red. His jet became a flying boulder with no maneuverability. With the tail section hit and hydraulics lost, this meant no flight control, with all hope of flying the aircraft gone. Somehow though, through sheer guts, Herculean and adrenalin-fueled body strength, and technical skill, Hall managed the jet into an almost-level position and turned east.
“Give us your position! Give us a flare—anything to tell us where you are!” Heath’s backseater RIO Boughton called. Heath spotted Hall’s plane two or three miles to the southeast, about 4,000 feet below. Hall’s plane blazed fire from the tail section but remained flying and aloft.
“Taproom 113, I’ve got you! You’re on fire!” Heath shouted over the radio. “Get feet wet!”
Hall needed to maneuver the plane over the water to eject so a rescue team more easily could find them. The dense jungles of the area in which Hall and his wingman were working made them vulnerable to being captured by waiting enemy ground troops. The vegetation of the jungles also prohibited clear sighting by airborne rescue operations. Landing in water also meant enemy ground troops could not capture them as easily. Thus, feet wet gave Hall and Kientzler more advantages than feet dry.
“We’re trying, Terry!” Hall replied calmly.
But by the second the jet became heavier and continued to fall.
“Al, eject! Eject!” Hall told his backseater.
Al Kientzler yanked the face curtain, an action which set in motion the ejection sequence. This instantly fired the canopy away and ejected Kientzler through the sky. Three-fourths of a second later the rocket under Hall’s seat fired. Both flyers shot clear of the plane and over water.
Heath watched as Hall and Kientzler ejected. Their plane suddenly did a roll, went into a spin, and pitched vertically— straight down to the ground.
Strong winds blew the downed crewmen away from the water; Hall’s parachute was higher than that of Kientzler’s. Unfortunately both men were blown west back over land to feet dry. Feet dry put them into a critical situation, since they were trying to stay over water to be rescued.
“Mayday!” Boughton called over the universal guard frequency. “Attack and radio, two F-4 crewmen are in the air!”
“Roger, I’ve got them,” FAC Nail 89, who along with LCDR Christensen’s division of aircraft had watched the ejection and crash, answered. He immediately called people to help with the rescue. Hall’s plane had gone down in the target area of Christensen, whose Dakota section of F4-J aircraft was working against VC headquarters area south of the Cua Viet River. During their runs moments earlier they had received SA- 7 and 37 fire. A USSR-made portable, shoulder-fired, low-altitude, surface-to-air missile, the SA-7 Grail presented threats to low-flying aircraft. Antiaircraft Artillery 37-millimeter guns posed additional threats. Christensen, who had just finished his final bombing run when he saw Hall’s F-4 pass in front of him, immediately sent the remainder of his division into high holding and remained at 5,000 feet of altitude for support.
Within moments another SA-7 raced through the air. It fired straight at Heath and Boughton and went just under their plane’s nose.
“Wow! That was real close!” Boughton said.
Heath descended to 3,000 feet, near the spot in which Hall and Kientzler hung from their parachutes. Heath could see that the two men looked OK, with no arms or legs missing. They still hung in normal positions from their parachutes.
“Taproom 114 Bravo, how do you read?” Kientzler called. However, trying over and over, he raised no response. Heath continued to descend to 1,000 feet, at which he saw the two chutes land about a half-mile apart. Kientzler landed first. Heath saw Hall, as soon as he landed, instantly get up and run. His parachute drifted off in the opposite direction from that of Kientzler’s. Kientzler was hit in the thigh; a bullet tore through his leg and passed out the other side. This left him semiconscious and unable to run. Heath and Boughton saw that Hall and Kientzler’s landing area was barren sand and dirt with few trees on an island in the Cua Viet River at the point the river empties into the Gulf of Tonkin. Visible from the air and unfortunately too visible from the ground, the two men had few chances of hiding. The area was covered with North Vietnamese troops. Heath and Boughton knew for certain Hall did get up and run; therefore, he was alive, but they weren’t sure about Kientzler.
“SA-7! SA-7!” FAC Covey 115 shouted on guard; this alerted Taproom 114.
“Break right! Break right,” Boughton ordered. As the backseater, part of his duties were to scan the sky forward and aft, right and left, above and below for possible enemy aircraft or missiles.
Heath quickly turned the plane right. The F-4 barely missed the SA-7 missile as it shot past their canopy. “Well, that was the second SA-7, just like they are plenty cheap!” Boughton replied.
Meanwhile Hillsborough, monitoring the guard frequency and in control of multiple aircraft ready to be assigned to bombing missions, began to vector aircraft into a holding area above the search and rescue (SAR) position. Each reported ordnance on board and time available before fuel exhaustion.
Since the shootdown was in his target area, Nail 89 was assigned SAR On-Scene Commander. “Roger, I’m on-scene commander,” FAC Nail 89 answered.
Almost immediately Nail 89 radioed Covey 115, “We can’t see them moving. I’m going down for a low pass to get a better fix on the situation. Cover me high; I’ll be low. Stack all the other planes on top. Keep ordnance [bombs] overhead. Give me a report of any SA-7s.”
“Watch your six! Been SA-7 fire here,” Covey 115 warned.
“Rog, 115,” Nail 89 acknowledged the warning.
“SA-7! SA-7!” Covey 115 shouted on guard.
Directly overhead of Nail 89, his FAC, Christensen, on guard frequency with Covey 115 saw an SA-7 lift and knock the tail off SA-7 Nail 89’s plane—an OV-10, a two-seater spotter aircraft. End over end the plane began to tumble.
“I can’t get out! I can’t get out!” Nail 89 Bravo screamed into the radio.
Seconds before impact, both Nail 89 A, Lt. Mark Peterson, in the front seat, and Capt. George W. Morris, Nail 89 B in the back seat, managed to escape the aircraft. Because they were at less than 500-feet altitude, they landed almost immediately. Overhead, Christensen watched.
Peterson and Morris hit the ground. Nail 89 yelled on his PRC survival radio, “This is Nail 89 Bravo. Looks like I’m going to be captured! Yeah, I’m going to be captured! Out!” Immediately his transmission continued, “Oh, my God! I’m getting hit! I’m getting hit! Oh, my God!”
Heath and Boughton were farther away and couldn’t hear the radio transmission, because they weren’t on the same radio frequency. But they did see Nail 89’s plane impact. In total amazement Heath and Boughton saw Nail 89 pilots eject from their plane, their parachutes sailing above the ball of fire, but the two crew members drew heavy fire from the ground as they landed. Heath saw about 30 Viet Cong soldiers in the area looking for downed pilots and firing at Peterson and Morris as they parachuted to the ground. Nail 89’s plane crashed south of the Cua Viet River, near the site on which Hall and Kientzler’s parachutes landed, but not on the island. Heath and Boughton continued circling. They searched for Hall and Kientzler and the downed FAC pilots and broadcast the landing site to Covey 115. AAA and SA-7 missile fire was intense and incessant. Although flying too low to the ground was suicide, they kept looking.
Shortly after the first shootdown, USS Enterprise officers in the Carrier Intelligence Center (CVIC) listened as Heath and other crews scrambled to find the downed pilots. An A-6, an E-2, and six A-1E Skyraiders (Sandys) arrived; they hoped that from the downed pilots they would hear a beeper or radio or see a flare. Several times Heath and Boughton, with the Sandys, went through the clouds. They dodged AAA and SA-7 fire and pointed out the site on which Hall and Kientzler landed but saw no sign of the downed pilots. Heavily burdened in heart, Heath and Boughton returned to the USS Enterprise.
Recently Christensen commented, “Returning to the carrier was horrible after the terrible combat day—having seen and heard what occurred and realizing there was nothing I could do to influence their survival. I had released my ordnance and didn’t have an absolute spot on the survivors. Watching people walk around in their clean, starched khakis—people who had nothing more on their minds than what the movie of the evening was going to be or when the next big mail call would take place—was surreal.”
Officers on the USS Enterprise later debriefed Heath that South Vietnamese Bright Light Soldiers, trained by the U.S. to rescue downed pilots, reported finding Nail 89 pilots Morris and Peterson tied to a tree and decapitated. The officers received no word about Hall or Kientzler.
What happened to Hall? Herein lies the story of Harley Hall, husband and father, U.S. Navy pilot, Blue Angels Commander, Prisoner of War.
1 & 2Christensen and Heath furnished much of the material for chapter 1. This includes tapes of flights and debriefings.
Left Alive to Die is one of those riveting books that, once you open it, you can’t put it aside. I sat down to read one evening and didn’t get up again until I finished it about 1:30 AM the following morning. I should have been more than ready for bed by then, but the tragic story of Harley Hall weighed so heavily on my mind that I found it impossible to sleep.
This is the story of a true American hero. A Vietnam era military pilot who did everything right, only to be wronged by his government in the name of political expediency. It meticulously documents the struggle waged by his wife, and other wives like her, for the truth of what happened to their husbands. The callous attitude of bureaucrats and politicians, both Democrat and Republican, toward our MIA’s frankly amazed me.
The book is a real eye-opener. If, like me, you think you’ve heard it all, you haven’t. The truths this book exposes are shocking beyond belief. It is a must read. Get it, read it, and pray for the families and the men like Harley Hall who have been Left Alive to Die.
—E G Lewis