Message from 'Nam - After barely surviving an aircraft crash following a bombing mission over North Vietnam 40 years ago, a pilot says lessons he learned still apply to today's aviators

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Torch Magazine
Through the blackness of the moonless night, an eerie hush fell over the jungle as if all the wildlife had fled or gone into hiding. First Lt. Pete Nash sat upright against a tree, bleeding to death. His body had been scrambled like an egg. He didn't know it, but he had 17 broken bones, a collapsed lung, and his chest was filling up with blood.

His labored breathing and low groans broke the silence and seemed to echo through the darkness. Confused, he couldn't recall how he came to be here. Where was he? What had happened? Was anyone coming for him?

The answers to these questions escaped him. He only knew one thing. ...


After returning from a bombing mission over North Vietnam Sept. 19, 1968, 1st Lt. Peter R. Nash and his aircraft commander, Maj. Roger O. Clemens, crashed their F-4D fighter jet nearly three miles short of the runway at their home base of Ubon Airfield, Thailand. Sadly, Clemons died in the crash. Nash, however, survived to tell the tale and, hopefully, pass on some lessons learned that still apply to modern aviators.

Nash grew up in Townsend, a small Montana farming community along the Missouri River. His dad served as the town's physician/surgeon and as a part time farmer and rancher. During the summers, young Pete worked hard on his father's ranch, cutting and stacking hay, fixing fences, irrigating fields or any other number of chores.

But his head remained in the clouds.

"From as early as I can remember, I loved airplanes," he said.

His town had an active Civil Air Patrol program, which had sparked Nash's insatiable appetite for jets. So it was no surprise to anyone when at the age of 18 in 1961, Nash went to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Seven years later at age 25, he found himself assigned to the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon, flying his 61st combat mission in the F-4. Fifty-one of the missions, including the latest, had been over North Vietnam; the other 10 had taken place over Laos.

"We flew around the clock at Ubon -- airplanes going all the time," Nash said. "I primarily flew at night."

The lieutenant belonged to a strike squadron, and its primary mission was armed reconnaissance. Or more specifically, most of their missions were to bomb enemy resupply and troop vehicles along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a complex route through rugged mountains, dense primeval rainforests and raging rivers.

"There were always trucks along the trail, but they weren't that easy to spot in the daytime, much less at night," Nash said. "They were camouflaged and hidden by the tree canopies in the jungle."

That's why most missions involved two-ship formations. The first F-4 would drop flares to light up the trail. The second aircraft would then "unleash hell on any enemy vehicles" they spotted below.

Of course, North Vietnamese soldiers never did take to kindly to that.

"We were fired on all the time," Nash said. "Boom! Boom! Boom! All around us. One good thing about flying at night, though, you could see the tracers coming at you. If you saw a red ball headed your way, you could take evasive action."

Still, it wasn't uncommon for planes to return to base sporting small holes from 85-milimeter rounds.

"But you don't have much time to think about it or be afraid," Nash said. "There's a lot to do, and you're so focused on the mission."

On Sept. 19, Nash and Clemons flew together for the first and last time. As the senior pilot, Clemons served as the aircraft commander, flying in the front seat of the cockpit. Nash was the pilot systems operator, commonly referred to at the time as the GIB (guy in back).

"They tried to pair you up with guys you were familiar with because communication is better; but often that didn't work out," Nash said. "If you were low-ranking like me, then you flew with just about anybody. In 61 missions, I must have flown with 20 different guys."

With the lead plane carrying flares, Clemens's and Nash's F-4 had been stuffed with a load of 500-pound bombs that night.

"We took off, did a refueling, and then headed out to do an armed reconnaissance on a river ferry system," Nash said.

The ferry and the area around it were favorite targets of the Americans because enemy trucks would get backlogged there as they waited to cross the river.

"It was a pretty routine mission," Nash said. "The lead aircraft dropped the flares, we dropped our bombs on some supply trucks, and then we headed home."

Who would have thought that the combat mission over hostile territory would be a piece of cake, and the landing over friendly territory would turn into a nightmare?

As had been agreed upon during the mission brief, the lead aircraft executed a ground control approach and landing back at Ubon without incident. During this type of approach, the air traffic controller vectors the aircraft and crew in for a landing.

For some reason, however, Clemens requested a tactical air navigation approach as they neared the airfield. During this approach, the pilot uses ground navigational aids to land the plane.

"You really shouldn't change briefed plans without a good reason," Nash said. "If we'd stuck to the flight plan, what followed would have never happened."

As they approached the runway, Nash knew something was wrong. He should have been able to see the runway on radar, but wasn't getting a reading.

Perplexed and distracted by this anomaly, the lieutenant hadn't noticed that his aircraft commander had dropped the nose of the F-4 and was descending too fast.

"Our normal approach rate on final descent should be around 750 feet per minute," Nash said. "We were coming down a little more than 2,500 feet per minute -- over three times as fast as we should have been.

"I was probably distracted too long trying to find the runway on the radar, and, of course, the reading was being affected because the nose of the plane was too low," he said. "Still, I certainly should have been watching the approach lights closer because nighttime approaches are difficult. There are no visual cues at all, no horizon; it's completely black out there."

When Nash finally realized they were getting too low, he voiced his concerns to Clemens. But he said the aircraft commander seemed confused or spatially disoriented, because he didn't react.

"Actually, even though a pilot is supposed to trust and use the aircraft instrument panel at night and in weather, he probably looks outside some too," Nash said. "But that's when you can fall victim to the black hole effect."

This phenomenon happens when it's completely black outside and the only things pilots see in front of them are darkness and the runway lights. Fliers can get fixed on the runway lights and then have a tendency to drop down into the "black hole" in front
of those lights.

"(Clemens) simply didn't comprehend what I was telling him; perhaps his instruments were 'hung up' and giving him false readings," Nash said. "I probably waited too long to take control of the aircraft because I was waiting for him to react. I finally took the stick."

Just as Nash began to level off the aircraft, it hit the trees.

"About that same time, I decided to eject," he said.

That's when things went really bad.

"The ejection system did not perform as advertised," he said. "I ended up blasting through the canopy."

Because the aircraft was damaged in the impact with the trees, the canopy was stuck on the F-4. But it moved just enough to make the ejection seat "think" it was gone. Nash shattered the canopy like a brick smashing through glass. The impact splintered his helmet into pieces and knocked him unconscious.

"But the helmet did its job because my head was still intact," he said.

Between hitting the canopy and already being so low, his parachute didn't have time to do its job either. It trailed behind him like a long streamer and got caught up in a tree. Somehow, Nash ended up propped against a tree trunk in a sitting position, still

Unbeknownst to him, the downed aircraft slid along a muddy rice paddy and hit a small hill, which propelled it 30 feet in the air before it landed nose first in the watery paddy, some 50 feet from the injured lieutenant.

Clemens never ejected. Stuck in the wreckage and wedged underneath the instrument panel, the pilot's head and shoulders were trapped under water. Nash seemed fortunate by comparison.

"Not too many people survive through-the-canopy ejections, so I guess I was lucky," Nash said.

Yes, he clung to life, but barely. He regained consciousness about 20 minutes after he'd punched out of the aircraft. His head and his right arm were about the only things spared. He used his right hand to activate his survival radio and send out a homing beacon.

"When I came to, I was obviously hurting," he said. "Thankfully, because of shock, I don't remember too much."

Busted up seemingly beyond repair, he had 17 broken bones, to include a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula in his right leg, a broken left ankle, a shattered left hip, three pelvic fractures, four broken ribs, a broken left shoulder, fractured vertebra, and more. He also suffered a collapsed lung, internal bleeding and massive bruises to his shoulders where he hit the canopy.

Shortly after their F-4 had disappeared into the trees, two HH-43 helicopters were dispatched from Ubon with rescue crews aboard. Sgt. William C. Murphy, a medical technician from the first helicopter, found the injured pilot. Meanwhile, the second aircraft dropped off Capt. Vernon P. Wagner, a flight surgeon.

"I'd seen the parachute stream draped over the trees and figured someone must be attached, so I had the helicopter set me down nearby," Wagner said. "But it was pitch black out there, and I had to walk along rice paddy dikes to try to find him."

Suddenly Murphy yelled, "Hey, Doc, he's over here."

Wagner made a beeline in the direction of the medic's voice.

"I stepped into the rice paddy and sank," Wagner said, his eyes widening at the memory. "I actually had to swim to get to them."

When the doctor arrived at the scene, the first thing he noticed was the sickening fractures to Nash's legs.

"His feet were pointing in a direction they shouldn't have been pointing," Wagner said.

But more concerning to the flight surgeon was the injured pilot's labored breathing.

"I knew he had a collapsed lung and probably had blood pooling in his chest," Wagner said. "And there was not much I could do to help him. It was simply too dark, and I didn't have the right equipment."

"I'm hurting, Doc," Nash said in a hoarse whisper.

"Looking at him, I had a rough idea that was true," Wagner said with a slight chuckle. "The one thing I could do was provide him some comfort; so I gave him some morphine."

Then, with a deep breath, the doctor said, "Pete, I know you're hurting, buddy, but I have to get you out of here."

Murphy and Wagner loaded Nash onto a litter and started carrying him to the helicopter, which was about 100 meters away. With Murphy on the front of the litter and Wagner on the back, they had to traverse a slippery, muddy dike between the rice paddies.

"I'm small and I was no bigger in those days," said Wagner, who had nearly died from meningitis as a boy. "Suddenly I felt this sharp pain as my back gave out, and I slipped."

He dropped his end of the litter and dumped Nash into the rice paddy.

"Pete hollered in pain and had a few choice words for me -- all justified, of course," Wagner said with a laugh. "Luckily, he has amnesia, so he doesn't
remember that part. The standing joke in my unit was that he had only 15 fractures before I picked him up, but 17 by the time we got him to the helicopter."

After loading him on the chopper, Wagner stayed behind to help locate the wreckage and the other pilot.

"When we found Major Clemens, he was already dead," Wagner said. "I spent the night in the jungle -- I got out there about midnight and didn't get back to the base until about noon the next day. The whole incident shook me up pretty good; it was my first rescue and the first time I'd ever had to put anyone in a body bag."

Meanwhile, the helicopter took Nash to Camp Friendship, near Korat, Thailand, where he was stabilized and treated for pneumonia. Five days later, he transferred to Utapoe Air Base, Thailand, where Dr. (Capt.) Courtney Brown put him back together again.

A month and a half later, he was shipped to a Navy hospital in San Diego. They let him go home right before Christmas. He spent seven months with a cast on his right leg and another five months in physical therapy. A few months later, still not able to walk properly, he marched into the flight surgeon's office at George Air Force Base, Calif., and tried to convince doctors to let him back on flying status.

"They just laughed at me and said, 'You shouldn't even be in the Air Force,' " Nash said.

They may have snickered, but they were dead serious. They put him on a temporary disability retirement.

Six months later, using money from the retirement and his GI Bill, Nash decided to go to medical school. In 1973, the Air Force declared him fit to return to duty. He finished up the last two years of his medical school through the Air Force Institute of Technology as a captain in the service and then did his internship at Keesler AFB, Miss. After his internship, he went to flight surgeon school at Brooks AFB, Texas. Next he went to Luke AFB, Ariz., "because that's where all the fighter jets were."

But even though he manned the back seat of jets as a flight surgeon, he still hadn't been medically cleared to fly them. It wasn't until 1978, 10 years after his ejection, that he received waivers to pilot Air Force aircraft again. He "drove" F-4s for a year, then moved on to A-10 Warthogs.

Ironically, as an aircraft crash victim, flight doc and pilot, Nash became a natural to serve on mishap investigation boards. It was through his work on these investigations that he became the first person to document actual cases of a pilot killer -- G-induced loss of consciousness. His work helped lead to G-LOC prevention programs that still save pilots' lives today.

"If it hadn't been for guys like Vernon Wagner, I wouldn't have been around to make these kinds of contributions to safety," Nash said.

Speaking of Wagner, because Nash ended up as a flight surgeon, just like his rescuer, the two found themselves at the same global medicine course at Brooks 10 years after the mishap.

"I'd often wondered what happened to Pete, because I'd never seen him or talked to him since that day in the jungle," Wagner said. "Then between lectures, I'm standing around the coffee pot and see an officer with pilot wings, a physician's badge and a nametag that read, 'Nash.' "

Wagner walked up to him and asked, "Is your first name Pete?"

"Yeah," Nash replied.

Wagner smiled and said, "Man, you look a hell of a lot better than the last time I saw you."