VICTOR – It was a reunion a long time in coming.
It had been 44 years, two months and a handful of days since they last laid eyes on each other on the tarmac of the DaNang combat base in Vietnam.
That was a day that neither will ever forget.
Dave Heddich of Victor was the pilot of an F-4 fighter jet that had been shot down Feb. 25, 1971, while dropping napalm on enemy tanks just inside the Laos border during the Vietnam War. For 23 hours after the crash, he had remained hidden in a shallow depression in the earth as a determined enemy attempted to find him.
Until Thursday, Heddich had never heard the story of his rescue from the man who piloted the Sikorsky HH-3E that braved enemy fire to swoop in and save both him and his co-pilot.
Karl Bakke of Minnesota told him that story Thursday afternoon.
It came after the two men met just outside Heddich’s home. They hugged, smiled and told each neither had changed that much.
“I don’t know whether to kiss you or shake your hand,” said Heddich’s wife, Roxie. “You’re the man who saved Dave’s life.”
An Associated Press news account from that day in 1971 reported that communist troops backed by a contingent of tanks had overrun Hill 31, an outpost 15 miles inside of Laos that was manned by South Vietnam paratroopers.
It had been a terrible week for Americans already weary by war. Nearly 100 U.S. soldiers and airmen had died that week and many helicopters had been lost in the fighting.
The news account said pilots had reported heavy anti-aircraft fire around Hill 31.
Sitting around the kitchen table of Heddich’s home, the two men looked through a well-worn album filled with black and white photos taken following the rescue and yellowed copies of articles that appeared in newspapers across the country.
“It got quite a bit of press,” Bakke said.
Heddich remembered the briefing he and his “back seater” co-pilot received just before they flew that fateful mission.
“I told him that if we go down there, there’s a good chance that we’re going to get shot down,” Heddich said. “But we knew they needed our help.”
Decades later, he still feels the emotion of that day. Heddich stopped for a moment to gather himself before continuing the story.
“It was a low-altitude mission,” he said. “That place was hot. I always figured that if I could get close to the speed of light, I would become nearly invisible.”
Heddich said he was travelling close to 600 mph hour at 100 feet above the ground.
It wasn’t fast enough.
On his first pass, he dropped napalm on the enemy attempting to get over the barbwire that ringed the base. The observer told him he’d just killed nearly 100 on that bombing run. The next pass was focused on some enemy tanks. He’d just dropped the third load of napalm when he felt a thump. He immediately lost control of the aircraft.
Heddich yelled at his co-pilot to eject.
“I went right after him,” he said. “He told me later that he saw me separate from the airplane about a second before it hit the ground.”
He was in the air for just seconds. He can still remember the sound of a machine gun that he feared would cut him in half.
“I started running as soon as I hit the ground,” he said. “Probably about 75 to 100 yards from where I hit, I remember thinking I wasn’t sure where I was going. If I kept running, I might run right into someone.”
He found a shallow depression in which to hide and rubbed dirt onto himself in an attempt to provide some camouflage. Then he got on the radio to let people know he was alive.
“When I spoke, it sounded like stereo,” he said. “I could hear myself on their radios. They had our frequencies.”
A few minutes later, he heard a twig snap. He pulled out his pistol and aimed in the direction of the sound. A North Vietnamese soldier packing a rifle came into view within in 20 feet of his position.
“I thought: ‘Do I shoot him?’ I decided if he saw me, I would pull the trigger,” Heddich remembered. “The soldier turned and walked away. Another one was right behind him. If I had shot, he would have had me.”
Through a rain-filled night that brought hypothermia-fueled hallucinations, Heddich remained as still as possible. He’d stay there for the next 23 hours as he awaited rescue.
Early the next day, Bakke and his helicopter crew joined other Jolly Green Giants tasked to rescue the downed fliers.
For hours, they held miles away as more than 70 aircraft softened the position in preparation for the rescue operation.
Finally, in the early afternoon, the decision was made to go in. Escorted by World War II-vintage Sandies – heavily armed A-1 E Skyraiders – Bakke took his helicopter down to treetop level at about 130 mph. As they neared Heddich’s position, they told the downed pilot to pop some smoke so they would know his location.
“There’s a downside to that, of course,” Bakke said. “Once that smoke is there, everyone knows where you’re at.”
Bakke guided the large helicopter in close and ordered the cable dropped.
“Bullets were coming up through the floor,” Bakke remembered. “We were fortunate that they came up through the middle of the helicopter and we were all either at the front or back of it. You are pretty vulnerable when you start to hover.”
Heddich listened closely as Bakke talked about the rescue.
“I was surprised when I saw you hovering about 25 yards away and then saw the penetrator (cable) come down,” Heddich said. “I wasn’t sure what to do at first, but then I said the ‘hell with it’ and started booking toward that cable.”
Once he got on the seat at the end of the cable, Heddich was also surprised the helicopter continued to hover as it pulled him up.
“I thought we would just take off and get out of there,” he said.
With Heddich safely inside the helicopter, Bakke moved quickly to rescue the co-pilot, Lt. Tom McLaughlin.
Both of the rescues were captured by a service combat photographer who happened to be on Bakke’s helicopter that day. The strain of a day stranded behind enemy lines was etched on both men’s faces.
As they flew back to the base at DaNang, members of the helicopter crew popped orange smoke out the side doors in a tradition that designated a successful rescue mission. After a celebratory meeting on the tarmac and later at the officer’s club, the men lost touch with each other until an article outlining Heddich’s trial by fire appeared in the Ravalli Republic back in 2005.
A fellow former Jolly Green Giant pilot named Frank Mason was living in Corvallis at the time. He sent a copy to his friend, Bakke, in Minnesota.
It took until Thursday for the men’s paths to cross again.
“It’s been a long time that I’ve waited to hear his story,” Heddich said. “It’s good to see him again.”
That rescue operation was the most challenging of Bakke’s time in Vietnam. He and his crew were all awarded the Silver Star for their effort.
“When I look back on it, we were all focused on doing our job and getting these guys out alive,” he said. “We didn’t know them, but that didn’t matter. We knew the guys on the ground were just like us. They had families who were waiting for them, just like we did.”
Heddich was shot down on his father’s birthday. His family was told that he was missing in action before the successful rescue operation was complete.
“They were just like us,” Bakke said. “We all just wanted to get home alive.”
Heddich looked up from the photo album, smiled and then nodded his head.