The Intruder pilot didn’t want to leave at first with “Big Mother” hovering overhead.
The Navy lieutenant was an emotional wreck over the death of his crewman killed when their attack aircraft crash-landed into the jungle of Vietnam.
“He didn’t want to leave the co-pilot,” recalled Terry L. Naugle, 64, of Lower Frankford Township. “He refused to climb the ladder. There was no other way to get him out.”
Forty-plus years ago, Naugle was a Marine Corps lance corporal assigned to man a rear gun position on a helicopter dispatched to rescue the crew of an A-6 combat jet lost over Southeast Asia.
Nicknamed “Big Mothers,” CH-53 Sea Stallions were used to retrieve downed aircraft and extract crewmen from hostile territory. The helicopter Naugle was on flew off the deck of the carrier Saratoga where he was deployed as part of the Marine security detachment.
The Marines were put on a rotation where every so often Naugle and a sergeant were paired with a Navy helicopter crew tasked with a rescue. The most memorable involved the A-6 Intruder pilot whose friendship with the co-pilot ran so deep he could not abandon his friend to the jungle.
Tense moments went by as the crew kept “Big Mother” level over the treetops while the two Marines manned a machine gun and mini-gun position toward the rear of the helicopter. Attempts by radio to coax the pilot up the rope ladder failed, prompting the sergeant to take action.
“He finally got him to come up,” Naugle said. “Army troops went in and got the body of the co-pilot.” He added pilots operated under certain protocols when they are brought down over enemy territory.
“If there are insurgents and they are able to get around, they are told to evade if they can,” Naugle said. “But if there is no VC or NVA, they like for them to stay in that area to pick them up.”
When dispatched to save a crew, a “Big Mother” was only given a location. “We never got any of the details on why a plane went down,” Naugle said. “We had a mission. We were supposed to do the best with could with it.”
The Marines were tasked with using the gun mounts on the helicopter to suppress any ground fire long enough for the stranded crewmen to climb the ladder and for the “Big Mother” to leave the scene.
Unless someone was hit, it was difficult at times to tell whether the “Big Mother” was taking ground fire. Engine noise combined with radio equipment in the helmet made it hard to hear to bullets coming up from below. Enemy troops only used tracer rounds at night, so during the day ground fire was harder to spot.
At times the helicopter pilot or co-pilot was able to guess where the enemy was hiding. They would radio this to Naugle and the sergeant who would open fire on the general location. “I don’t know if I ever hit anything,” he said. “I just feel I tried to keep it safe for someone to get out.”
There were limits to what the Marine gunners could do. The helicopter carried no spare barrels, so a sustained rate of fire from the machine gun could overheat the weapon and cause the metal to warp, increasing the risk of a misfire. There were only so many bullets before the ammunition belt ran out.
Upon return to the Saratoga, the helicopter crew and Marines would inspect the entire fuselage for any holes made by enemy bullets. Sometimes the repair job involved a piece of duct tape and a dab of black paint.
On the carrier, the duty rotation had Marines taking turns guarding prisoners in the brig. Most were sailors caught smoking marijuana. A chief petty officer with more than 17 years of experience was locked away for dealing in drugs and was busted down to seaman. “He spent a lot of time moaning and crying about it,” Naugle said.
Other times the Marine detachment was tasked with guarding nuclear warheads stored deep within the bowels of the Saratoga. Crewmen assigned to handle those weapons were issued special security badges and had to pass through two gated checkpoints to access the storage area.
Every so often Naugle was assigned to a security detail that ringed aircraft on the flight deck whenever authorized crewmen conducted a training exercise to mount and arm the nuclear warheads on strike planes.
There were times when the Saratoga was put on General Quarters, requiring Naugle and the other Marines to rush topside carrying machine guns and ammunition to their designated battle stations. Usually, this was just a training exercise, but there was one occasion where enemy aircraft were on an approach vector.
The air wing of the Saratoga had racked up such an impressive track record of airstrikes that the North Vietnamese had put on a bounty on the carrier, Naugle said. The enemy had dispatched two MiGs to attack the warship but both were intercepted by U.S. Navy fighters. While one plane was shot down over the ocean, the other was chased back inland before it could attack.
Naugle served on the Saratoga from 1971 to 1973. He returned stateside to serve with a Marine sensor control and management platoon before leaving the service in September 1974. Since then, he held down several jobs including a position with the Naval Support Activity in Hampden Township where he retired after 27 years.
A Harrisburg native, Naugle is married with a son, a daughter and two grandchildren.