A disproportionately large number of extraordinarily heroic acts during the war in Southeast Asia were performed by crews of the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service, now the Air Rescue Service. The most decorated members of those crews were the pararescue jumpers (PJs), the link between a hovering helicopter and a survivor in the jungle or at sea [see Valor: USAFs Most Decorated PJ,” March 1989 issue].
Of the 2,039 combat saves credited to the 3d ARR Group in Southeast Asia between 1966 and 1970, more than a fourth (572) were in 1968. That was the year of Khe Sanh, the Tet offensive, another enemy offensive in May, and the continued infiltration of 22,000 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops per month during most of that year. To that combat environment A1C Joel Talley, fresh out of PJ training, was introduced when he joined the 37th ARR Squadron at Da Nang in the summer of 1968. Talley didn’t wait long to put his PJ training to use.
On the afternoon of July 1, 1968, Lt. Col. Jack Modica’s F-105 was heavily damaged by ground fire over North Vietnam. Modica bailed out northwest of Dong Hoi, some 50 miles north of the DMZ, in a heavily forested area occupied by NVA regulars. An F-100 Misty FAC fixed Modica’s general position and made radio contact with the downed pilot, who was seriously injured. Four A-1 Spads were called in to pinpoint the survivor’s location. An HH-3 Jolly Green Giant helicopter was cleared for a rescue attempt but was driven off by ground fire. Two backup Jolly Greens then approached the site but were forced to withdraw. At nightfall, the search-and-rescue (SAR) force was recalled. It now was imperative that Modica be reached as early as possible the next day.
The following morning, July 2, a SAR force returned to the rescue site. During the night, NVA troops had moved in more antiaircraft guns. On the first attempt, one HH-3 suffered extensive battle damage and was forced to leave. A supporting fighter was hit and crashed with the canopy in place. The mission was suspended temporarily until more support was available.
Several hours later, another SAR force was formed. Talley was the PJ on Jolly Green 21, the low helicopter that would be first into the rescue area. The crew of Jolly Green 21 knew this would be a rough one, into the jaws of a well-established flak trap. Talley later recalled that before this first combat mission he had worried about measuring up to the standards set by such celebrated PJs as Bill Pitsenbarger and Duane Hackney. Now that the time had come, he was too busy to think about it.
Jolly Green 21 penetrated to Modica’s position, saw his smoke, and made radio contact. Modica was unable to help himself. The HH-3 commander spotted a small opening in the jungle near Modica’s smoke, and Talley was lowered on the forest penetrator. Once on the ground, blinded by the dense undergrowth and deafened by the HH-3s down-wash and by friendly and enemy fire, Talley could not determine where to search for the injured pilot. Looking up, he saw the flight engineer point in the direction of Modica’s smoke. Although Talley was only a few yards from the survivor, it took more than 15 minutes to find the man, whose pelvis was broken, and determine that he must be moved as little as possible but quickly, before enemy soldiers zeroed in on the smoke.
Talley directed the pilot closer, secured Modica and himself to the penetrator, and radioed the crew to haul them up. As they reached the tops of the trees, intense enemy gunfire erupted, scoring more than 40 hits on the rescue bird. Before the two were aboard, the HH-3 broke away, “taking the tops of the trees with us,” but the injured man was safe. Talley had done his job with professional competence. That save was the start of a lasting friendship between Modica and Talley.
Talley participated in many more rescues before the end of his tour in Southeast Asia, but none more dicey than his first, for which he was awarded the Air Force Cross, the fifth PJ to earn that distinction. In the years since Vietnam, Talley lived up to his early promise. He later became a chief master sergeant and senior enlisted advisor in the Azores.
Published November 1990. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.