HELMICH, GERALD ROBERT

Name:  Gerald Robert Helmich

Rank/Branch: Colonel/ US Air Force

Unit:  6th Special Operations Squadron 
Pleiku Airbase, South Vietnam 


Date of Birth: 17 November 1931

Home of Record: Manchester, NH

Date of Loss: 12 November 1969 

Country of Loss:  Laos

Loss Coordinates:  172800N 1054000E (WE747328)
Click coordinates to view maps


Status in 1973: Missing in Action

Category: 2

Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground:  A1H "Skyraider"


Other Personnel in Incident: (none missing)

REMARKS:

SYNOPSIS:   With its fantastic capability to carry a wide range of ordnance (8,000 pounds of external armament), great flight range (out to 3,000 miles), and the ability to absorb punishment, the single-seat Douglas A1 Skyraider became one of the premier performers in the close air support and attack mission role (nickname: Spad) and RESCAP mission role (nickname: Sandy). The Skyraider served the Air Force, Navy and Marines faithfully throughout the war in Southeast Asia.

On 12 November 1969, then Major Gerald R. Helmich was the pilot of an A1H, call sign "Spad 02," that was scrambled to assist in the overall search and recovery (SAR) mission for the crew of "Owl 07," a 2-man Army helicopter downed the day before; then later the same morning, for the crew of an F4E aircraft shot down during the first rescue effort. Spad flight departed Pleiku Airbase at 0726 hours as the # 2 aircraft in a flight of two. Their planned flight path was from Pleiku to rendezvous with other aircraft participating in the SAR operation, then return to Pleiku. Those aircraft included the Forward Air Controller (FAC), the rescue helicopter, and at least 6 other A1Hs.

The location of loss was approximately 60 miles due west of the major communist port city of Dong Hoi, North Vietnam; 1 mile south of Ban Senphan and 15 miles southwest of the Lao/North Vietnamese border, Khammouan Province, Laos. Another description of the loss location placed it 6 kilometers south-southwest of Ban Phanop, 600 meters southeast of Ban Senphan and 300 meters east of Route 23. The Nam Mo River ran parallel to and approximately 1 mile south of Route 23. To the west of the loss location, a tributary of the Nam Mo River branched off and meandered to the south-southeast through the jungle covered valley.

The highest terrain feature within 5 miles of the loss location was 2,300 feet with 6,000-foot mountains to the north, then the mountain range wrapped around to both the east and west. The area in which the downed helicopter crew was hiding was relatively level and densely forested surrounded by villages. In the early morning hours during the first rescue attempt, low stratus clouds collected around the mountaintops. In the valley it was clear with only a slight haze existing in the immediate target area. Visibility was 8 to 10 miles.

At 0455 hours, as the SAR helicopter, call sign "Jolly Green 09," was recovering the first crewman of Owl 07, a flight of 2 F4Es, call signs "Packard 01 and 02," were attacking an enemy helicopter that was attempting to interfere with the recovery operation. Capt. Jon K. Bodahl, pilot, and Capt. Harry W. Smith, weapons systems officer, comprised the aircrew of Packard 01. As they maneuvered to obtain an acceptable angle of attack while dodging intense enemy 37mm anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) fire, Packard 01 was struck by AAA fire and seen to crash 2 meters south of a ford along the Nam Mo River.

SAR efforts for the second helicopter crewman were temporarily suspended while an initial search was conducted for Capt. Bodahl and Capt. Smith. At the same time other aircraft under the control of the FAC, call sign "King 07," assaulted communist AAA sites, automatic and heavy weapons positions, and troop concentrations hidden in the dense jungle. US aircraft used bombs, rockets, CBU-22s (cluster bomb units) and strafing runs in an effort to contain the communists' ability to further interfere with overall US operations. These efforts were successful enough that another rescue attempt to recover the second crewman from Owl 07 was attempted. During this time weather conditions improved to a clear sky with 10 plus miles visibility.

After transporting the helicopter crewman rescued during the early morning operation to a US base in South Vietnam, Jolly Green 09 returned to the ongoing SAR operation. As the Jolly Green's crew prepared to enter the recovery area for the second helicopter crewman, it's pilot directed Major Helmich and his flight leader to place CBU-22 and WP smoke, between them and the intense enemy small arms and heavy weapons fire. Jolly Green 09 moved in and successfully recovered the downed crewman at the same time Major Helmich made his attack pass.

Witnesses observed Spad 02 in various phases of flight from a bomb run to impact, but no one witness observed the entire sequence of events. According to these statements, Spad 02 was observed by another A1H pilot, call sign "Sandy 13," as he began his run. As Gerald Helmich continued to press forward, his aircraft started a right roll with its nose dropping. At 1010 hours, other Americans caught sight of Major Helmich's aircraft in a 45-degree dive and 135 degree angle of bank nearly inverted when it impacted the ground and exploded. The crash took place in an area that had been subjected to intense ground fire from small arms, automatic weapons fire and from AAA. One of the Sandy pilots's reported in his witness statement that he "put a pod of rockets into a clump of trees (near the wreckage of Gerald Helmich's aircraft) to suppress enemy ground fire, then pulled off into the same smoke layer." Spad 01 made a low pass over the wreckage of his wingman, but the flight leader detected no sign of life.

In the confusion of battle, no parachute was seen departing the damaged Skyraider and no emergency beeper was heard. In spite of the witness statements, the Air Force believed there was a possibility that he could have survived only to be captured immediately. Spad 01 and two other A1H aircraft, Sandy 11 and 12, stayed in the area for 1 to 3 hours attempting to locate the pilot. Major Helmich's A1H was downed approximately 1 mile southeast of Capt. Bodahl and Capt. Smith's F4E Phantom.

King 07, the on site FAC, continuing to search for Gerald Helmich, Jon Bodahl and Harry Smith for the rest of the day. An electronic search also continued until 1430 hours the next day and was suspended due to a lack of an objective. At that time formal search operations were terminated, Gerald Helmich was listed Missing in Action.

Gerald Helmich is among nearly 600 Americans who disappeared in Laos. Many of these men were known to be alive on the ground. The Laotians admitted holding "tens of tens" of American Prisoners of War, but these men were never negotiated for either by direct negotiation between our countries or through the Paris Peace Accords which ended the War in Vietnam since Laos was not a party to that agreement.

Since the end of the Vietnam War well over 21,000 reports of American prisoners, missing and otherwise unaccounted for have been received by our government. Many of these reports document LIVE American Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.

Pilots in Vietnam and Laos were call upon to fly in many dangerous circumstances, and they were prepared to be wounded, killed or captured. It probably never occurred to them that they could be abandoned by the country they so proudly served.