Pilots recall time on the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Lt. Cmdr. Reese, front, second from left, is welcomed back to the USS Ranger by members of his squadron, VAQ-196. Photo Courtesy of Evan Reese

“Pee Wee” and “Frodo” were down and in trouble but a pilot on a F-1 Skyraider, called “Sandy,” stuck close and helped get them out.

For the first time in 41 years the three men involved were together again in Oak Harbor.

From left, retired US Navy Capt. Evan Reese, retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Richard S. Drury and retired U.S. Navy Capt. Don Fraser stand together for the first time in 41 years. The trio recounted the time Drury saved Reese and Fraser on the Ho Chi Minh Trail at a luncheon Tuesday at the Officers’ Club at NAS Whidbey Island. Dennis Connolly/Whidbey Crosswind

Their reunion was at the Officers’ Club on Naval Air Station Whidbey Island during a packed luncheon put on by the Association of Naval Aviation Tuesday. Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Evan “Pee Wee” Reese was there to tell the story of how he was shot down over Vietnam and how his bombardier/navigator, retired U.S. Navy Capt. Don “Frodo” Fraser and retired Air Force Maj. Richard S. Drury, were bonded for life 41 years ago.

When a steam catapult shot him off the flight deck of an aircraft carrier in an A-6A Intruder, then-Lt. Cmdr. Evan Reese was doing his job. In 1970, that job included flying off the USS Ranger (CVA-61) and dropping bombs on North Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Which is what Reese, along with Lt. j.g. Don Fraser, his bombardier navigator, were doing when they were hit by enemy fire.

“It was during a dive- bombing run, there was a lot of flak coming up at us,” Reese said. “One minute everything looks good and the next, your airplane departs from flight.”

An A-6 Intruder in flight. Photo courtesy of Evan Reese

The two men were flying down to bomb some trucks then suddenly, “Bang and a rush of cold air,” said Reese. They were hit and their Intruder starting spinning out of control. They managed to eject, doing 485 to 500 knots.

“We were lucky to survive the ejection,” Reese said.

They landed far apart from each other. They untangled their chutes, got out of them and headed deeper into the jungle of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to avoid the enemy.

Some of the men who would be looking for them were Pathet Lao, the Laotian equivalent of North Vietnam’s Viet Minh and Viet Cong, and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. Reese said their record for prisoners wasn’t very good.

“Anyone captured by the Pathet Lao never made it into the prison system,” he said.

Reese and Fraser never got in touch with one another while on the ground, but another man, Air Force Capt. Richard S. Drury, did.

He was the pilot of a Douglas A-1 Skyraider, call sign Sandy, and he led the rescue of the two men.

Reese and Fraser had three rules if they ever were shot down: Get away from the wreckage fast; get into hiding and don’t try to get in touch with each other.

They went down around 7:15 p.m., got out of their gear and sought cover in the jungle.

Fifteen minute later, Reese heard Asian voices and gun shots. He hunkered down and got super quiet. In fact, he fell asleep. He said he fell asleep for two to 10 minutes several times that night. (A doctor later told him he released massive amounts of endorphins during his time in the jungle and that had something to do with his falling asleep.)

When he woke up, the Asian men were gone and he heard something on his radio that brought him joy and hope.

His bombardier/navigator Fraser was talking to a Douglas A-1 Skyraider pilot, asking for rescue.

“This is milestone 156, got a hurt leg, come and get me,” Fraser said.

The forward air controller told them he knew where they were and to be ready for rescue at first light.

Reese added his own similar request.

They spent the night deep in the jungle along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Reese, who had neither a workable compass nor flashlight, cut his way through the jungle. Fraser, who had two compression fractures in his back, two banged-up knees and a banged-up arm and ankle, stayed considerably quieter.

The next morning Drury and another pilot came buzzing about 50 feet off the ground. Drury had found the men and dropped smoke to let the HH-53 helicopter pilots know where the downed pilots were located.

Then a war broke out, said Reese.

There was smoke, gunshots, heavy weapons fire on the ground and weapons fire from about four dozen aircraft the U.S. rescue team had called in.

After about an hour, the fighting stopped.

The helicopters dropped the penetrator (rescue basket) and after some effort by both men, they were up and on the ‘copter.

Fraser said when they were on the ground, the Air Force rescuers had a list of questions they asked to ensure they were Americans.

“One was what’s the name of your dog?” Fraser said. “I said ‘Well I don’t have a dog but if you want I’ll get a dog and name it anything you want.”’

To this day the retired Navy captain has only words of praise for his rescuers.

“You won’t ever, ever hear me say one bad word about the Air Force, they literally saved my life,” he said.

Fraser stayed in the hospital for a while and Reese was back on the USS Ranger two days later. He volunteered to go back to Vietnam again in May. And the three were back together at the Officers’ Club on June 15, remembering their past.