Lincoln vet decorated for rescue missions

By: Brandon Darnell, News Messenger Reporter
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When pilots flying deep behind enemy lines in North Vietnam were shot down, their only hope was often men like Lincoln’s Charley Smith. When a plane went down, Smith and his team, waiting at forward bases, would get the call to move out – flying vulnerable helicopters to distant crash sites to bring the pilots home before the enemy could get to them. “I carried an M16, a .38 and three grenades,” Smith said. That’s not much, considering the areas he headed into were often crawling with enemies. When the helicopter reached the crash site, Smith would descend on a rope to search for the downed pilot alone. Smith was one of about 250 Pararescue Jumpers serving in the Air Force at any one time during the Vietnam War, and he was sent on 152 rescue missions during 1967. “I got a lot of pilots,” Smith said. “Some are still alive today. Some aren’t. Some were dead when I got to them.” One of the pilots Smith pulled out of “Indian Country” was Billy “Sparkie” Sparks of Henderson, Nev. “I don’t owe him much…just my life,” Sparks said with a laugh. “You form a very special bond with someone like that.” Sparks was serving his second tour of duty in Vietnam, flying missions into North Vietnam. On Nov. 5, 1967, Sparks flew his F-105 Thunderchief in a 16-plane group to bomb Phuc Yen Airfield, about 75 miles northwest of Hanoi. Phuc Yen was the main base of operations for MiG fighters in Vietnam, and the area was heavily defended by surface-to-air missiles and more than 1,000 antiaircraft guns, Sparks said. After dropping their bombs and obliterating their target, Sparks and his fellow pilots turned for home. And missiles streaked up from the ground. Sparks was able to evade a missile, but as he gained altitude, he took several hits from antiaircraft guns, which set his plane on fire and caused his canopy to fill with smoke as he flew faster than the speed of sound. To clear the smoke from his cockpit, Sparks jettisoned his canopy. “You’ve never been in a convertible unless you’ve been in one that’s going supersonic,” Sparks said. After seven minutes, with his plane vibrating and fire reaching the cockpit, Sparks bailed out, steering his parachute toward what he thought was grass, but turned out to be 75-foot-tall bamboo. When he hit the ground, injured from his landing and the fire in his cockpit, Sparks used his survival radio to call for help. “I really didn’t expect to be picked up,” Sparks said. Charley Smith and his team got the call for the rescue, and headed north, toward where Sparks waited, starting what Smith said was the scariest mission he was ever a part of. Sparks had come down just south from the Red River – which Pararescue units were not allowed to cross due to the danger. “That’s way up by China,” Smith said. Smith’s helicopter pilot was ordered not to pick Sparks up, but replied that he couldn’t hear the orders because of static on the line. Sparks set off a smoke grenade to mark his position, Smith’s pilot put the helicopter into a hover, and Smith began his descent down a 135-foot rope to reach Sparks. “While we were in the hover, a MiG came by and shot at us,” Smith said. “I was hanging halfway down. His missile didn’t have time to lock onto the helicopter, so it flew past us and exploded on a mountain about half a mile away.” As American planes chased the MiGs off, Smith continued his descent. Approaching Sparks was an old man carrying an AK-47. “I thought, ‘please don’t raise that AK,' but he did, ” Smith said. “It was either him or me, and it wasn’t going to be me.” When Smith reached the ground, he gave Sparks first aid, loaded him into a stretcher and had him hauled aboard to return to base. Though Smith said the mission to rescue Sparks was the scariest one, he earned a Silver Star – the nation’s third-highest award for heroism – on another mission. Smith was tasked with rescuing pilot Karl Richter, who had been shot down on his 198th mission. It wasn’t until he descended onto a mountain crawling with the enemy that Smith found Richter’s body. “I could hear them jabbering all around me as I loaded Karl’s body into a stokes basket,” Smith said. With Vietnamese closing all around him, Smith was hoisted with Richter’s body into the helicopter as he was being shot at. The Silver Star was not the only medal Smith came home with. He was also awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross, a Bronze Star and seven Air Medals. The year he spent in Vietnam, the 71-year-old Smith said, was the best year of his life. Being able to rescue downed pilots was the most rewarding thing Smith said he did in his 20-year career in the Air Force. “Charley’s an awesome dude,” said Sparks, who went on to retire from the Air Force as a Lt. Colonel. “On the way to Thailand after they picked me up, we had to refuel in midair,” Sparks said. “I looked out the window at a gorgeous sunset. It was the most beautiful sight I ever saw.” Brandon Darnell can be reached by e-mail at