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Crash of Jolly Green 23
June 9, 1968
By Ken Freeze, PACS, USCG (ret)

Lt. Jack Rittichier Comes Home - Photos on Page 8

The U.S. Coast Guard At War

The name "Coast Guard" is a deceiving title. While the general public is familiar with the U.S. Coast Guard's role as lifesavers and protectors of the environment along our coasts, the Coast Guard, through its forefathers, is the oldest continuous seagoing service and has fought in almost every war since the Constitution became the law of the land in 1789. The Vietnam War was no exception. 

From May 1965 to January 1972,  the U.S. Coast Guard played a significant role in the Vietnam War. Some eight thousand Coast Guardsmen served in Vietnam and 56 different Coast Guard combat vessels were assigned to duty there. They participated in, and were normally the primary unit in all trawler destructions and boarded nearly a quarter of a million junks and sampans in the attempt to stop the supply of arms and materials to Communists troops in the south. Of the 56 Coast Guard cutters assigned to Vietnam, 30 were turned over to the South Vietnamese and the Coast Guard played a significant role in training the Vietnamese Navy to operate these vessels. The former Coast Guard cutters and the Vietnamese sailors on board them formed the nucleus of the Vietnamese Navy.

In April 1968, three Coast Guard helicopter pilots were assigned to the 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Da Nang. Coast Guard pilots  were assigned there until November 1972, while their USAF counterparts were assigned to stateside Coast Guard air stations. One Coast Guard pilot, LT Jack C. Rittichier, was to become the first and only Coast Guard aviator in the war to be killed in action. 

Vietnam - 1968

The year 1968 was the critical year in the course of the Vietnam War. The Tet Offensive initiated by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in January was envisioned to result in a general uprising by the citizens of South Vietnam and the final reunification of Vietnam. A major battle at Khe Sahn was hoped to be another Dien Bien Phu, but at a minimum they would become a diversionary force that would tie up U.S. forces so they could not be used elsewhere during the offensive.  Over 85,000 Viet Cong (VC) and NVA troops unleashed the attack and when it was over, approximately 45,000 of them were killed in action. The Viet Cong forces were virtually wiped out and the VC never recovered their strength again. The VC and NVA were forced to retreat from every city and town they had initially captured. Most embarrassingly, the citizens of South Vietnam did not rise in defense of the VC and NVA. Instead, they fed them, turned them in to South Vietnam and U.S. forces, and treated them as enemies rather than liberators. It turned out to be the most significant military defeat of NVA forces inside South Vietnam in the entire war.  But, it also turned out to be the NVA’s most significant psychological victory of the war.

While the Tet Offensive was not a military victory for the North Vietnamese, it did have a demoralizing effect back in the United Sates.  Night after night, people in the U.S. watched the nightly TV news, and were appalled by the carnage they saw on their living room TV sets; some even believed the Communists had won and the U.S. had lost. As a consequence, the U.S. sent even more troops to South Vietnam in an attempt to accelerate the time when responsibility for the war could be turned over to South Vietnam and the U.S. could withdraw its forces. As more troops were headed for Vietnam, collage campuses across the national became hot beds for protests against the war.

On March 31, President Johnson ordered a bombing halt north of the 20th parallel. He hoped once again to induce North Vietnam's leaders to return to the Paris peace table. Although Hanoi agreed to begin discussions, it continued to pour 22,000 troops into South Vietnam every month. So the U.S. doubled its air operations south of the 20th parallel, concentrating on enemy troops and supplies crossing the Demilitarized Zone. 

The stage was set for what was to happen to Jolly Green 23 and its crew in June.

 

LT Jack C. Rittichier (Coast Guard Aviator 997)

Jack Columbus Rittichier was born August 17, 1933, in Akron, Ohio. In March 1957 he received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Kent State University. That August he joined the U.S. Air Force and in December 1958 received his pilot's wings. He was assigned to the Strategic Air Command to fly as a B-47 bomber pilot.

After six years in the Air Force, Rittichier was discharged as a Captain (0-3) to accept a commission as a Lieutenant junior grade in the United States Coast Guard Reserve on September 16, 1963. His first Coast Guard assignment was to Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina for training as a helicopter pilot. 

Lt. Jack Rittichier outside one of Detroit's HH-52A.

After his training, he stayed at Elizabeth City and participated in the rescue and relief efforts for Hurricane Betsy which swept the Gulf and East coasts September 6-10, 1965. For their efforts the Coast Guard awarded Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City and its personnel with a Unit Commendation Award.

In 1966, the Coast Guard was opening up a new air station near Detroit, Michigan and Rittichier, along with many others, was sent to help open it up.  It was also about this time, in March 1966, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant and integrated into the Regular Coast Guard. The station was commissioned and really for operations in June of 1966.  Air Station personnel first occupied an excess Air Force hangar until construction could be completed of their own facilities in July 1967.  

Just a few months later, in November, Rittichier was the co-pilot aboard an HH-52A sent out to aid a vessel in distress on Lake Huron. The crew flew the HH-52A 150 miles from Detroit, in blinding snow and ice conditions, to rescue eight seaman from the grounded West German motor vessel Nordmeer just minutes before it broke up. On scene, Rittichier assisted in transferring the stranded men to safety aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw. For is role in the rescue mission, Rittichier was later awarded the Air Medal. 

A year later, the Coast Guard was looking for pilots to volunteer for exchange duty with the Air Force's 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Da Nang Air Base, Vietnam.  Rittichier volunteered.

Baker Herbert, CWO4, USCG (Ret), met with two Coast Guard pilots just prior to them heading off to Vietnam in 1966. They were Lt. Cmdr. Lonnie Mixon, USCG, and Lt. Jack Ritticher, USCG.


Jack and his wife Carol at home before leaving for Vietnam.


Jack at home with a lap full of kittens.

"They had reported to Commander, Ninth Coast Guard District, Cleveland, Ohio, just prior to leaving for South Vietnam," Herbert said. "Having returned from Southeast Asia myself in late 1966, I gave both of them the usual advice; don't drink the water if you didn't open it, don't eat the salads and if outside of a U.S. mess, eat only C-rations or fried rice."  

Herbert also said he advised them to allot all but $100 per month to their wives, which they did, as he recalls. Mrs. Rittichier was very apprehensive about Jack's going to Vietnam. "She was a beautiful lady from Mansfield, Ohio, and they were very much in love," said Herbert.


LCDR Lonnie Mixon, (left) and LT Jack Ritticher
 in front of an HH-52A before they headed off
 for Vietnam.


The crew of a Jolly Green after rescuing an F-100 pilot. Back Row: Capt.  Spray, Lt. Rittchier (USCG)
Front Row: Sgt Gunan-PJ, Sgt Beland-FE 
Photo by Duane Beland

Rittichier arrived in Vietnam in April 1968 and less than two weeks later, on April 21,1968, was  in the thick of it. On that date, two United States Army helicopter gunships had been shot down by hostile ground fire. Rittichier was the co-pilot of the Jolly Green sent in to rescue the down crews. For his heroism, Rittichier was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross

Just over a week later on May 2, 1968, again as a co-Pilot of an HH-3E, the Jolly Green had penetrated the extremely hostile, heavily defended A Shau Valley to investigate an aircraft crash site for possible survivors. In spite of numerous thunderstorms and hostile anti-aircraft positions they completed the mission. 


The A Shau Valley was one of the strategic focal points of the war in Vietnam.  Located in western Thua Thien province, the narrow 25-mile long valley was an arm of the Ho Chi Minh Trail funneling troops and supplies toward Hué and Danang. At the north end of the valley was the major North Vietnamese Army (NVA) staging area known as Base Area 611.   Because of its importance to the North Vietnamese plan for victory, the A Shau became a major battle ground from the earliest days of the American involvement in South Vietnam. In 1968 it had become a major supply point for material flowing down the Ho Chi Min trail into South Vietnam and a hot spot for military action.


Looking south down the A Shau Valley. Photo by Tom Pilsch

Then, just days later on  May 12, 1968, under the faint light of illumination flares, Rittichier pulled nine men (five of whom were badly wounded) from the side of a mountain. The survivors were located in an extremely small landing zone, surrounded by trees on the side of a steep mountain slope. Rittichier made the second approach and departed by flare light because the sight was obscured by smoke clouds. For this, he was awarded a second Distinguished Flying Cross.

It was on June 9, 1968 -- two months and a day after arriving in Vietnam -- that Rittichier would head once again into the A Shau Valley to make his last rescue attempt. 

Continued on Page 2
Anatomy of a Rescue in Vietnam

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