By March 1965, the government and armed forces of South Vietnam were on the verge of collapse under the weight of the enemy's political-military offensive. Since the year-long American punitive campaign failed to deter the North Vietnamese, the Johnson administration decided that a massive effort was required to strengthen the South's stand against its Communist foe. Even as carrier air squadrons moved to staunch the flow of men and supplies through southern North Vietnam and Laos, other fleet units moved to cut the enemy's seaborne infiltration into South Vietnam. Ship-based helicopters such as the Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King and Kaman UH-2 Sea Sprite were key components of the search and rescue (SAR) system established to retrieve downed fliers both at sea and in enemy territory.
On 6 November 1999 the Navy's newest guided missile destroyer was named Lassen (DDG 82), after the first Naval Aviator to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Vietnam. Ltjg. Clyde Lassen piloted a UH-2A Seasprite in a daring night rescue of two aviators shot down behind enemy lines. As the UH-2 Seasprite helicopter hovered over the water, its crew listened intently on their earphones for a message from the coastline. Some where beyond the pitch-dark horizon were two naval aviators whose plane had been shot down deep in North Vietnamese territory. Their exact position was not known. No one knew even if they were still alive. They had not yet made contact with any other rescue aircraft in the area. There was nothing the helicopter crew could do but wait and listen as they had done since leaving their ship shortly after midnight some time earlier. Flying the single-engine UH-2 was 27 year old Lieutenant (then LTJG) Clyde E. Lassen, Officer in charge of the helo detachment aboard the guided missile frigate USS Preble (DLG 15). To his right sat Lieutenant (jg) Clarence L. Cook, his copilot, and behind them, his two crewmen, Aviation Electrician's Mate 2nd Class Bruce B. Dallas, and Aviation Machinist's Mate 3rd Class Donald N. West.
What looked like a quick and simple rescue turned out instead to be a real cliff-hanger. One worthy of an entry in the Medal of Honor ledger. Launched shortly after midnight to attempt the rescue of 2 downed aviators, Lt. (then Lt. (j.g.)) Lassen skillfully piloted his aircraft over unknown and hostile terrain to a steep, tree-covered hill on which the survivors had been located. Although enemy fire was being directed at the helicopter, he initially landed in a clear area near the base of the hill, but, due to the dense undergrowth, the survivors could not reach the helicopter. With the aid of flare illumination, Lt. Lassen successfully accomplished a hover between 2 trees at the survivors' position Illumination was abruptly lost as the last of the flares were expended, and the helicopter collided with a tree, commencing a sharp descent. Expertly righting his aircraft and maneuvering clear, Lt. Lassen remained in the area, determined to make another rescue attempt, and encouraged the downed aviators while awaiting resumption of flare illumination. After another unsuccessful, illuminated rescue attempt, and with his fuel dangerously low and his aircraft significantly damaged, he launched again and commenced another approach in the face of the continuing enemy opposition. When flare illumination was again lost, Lt. Lassen, fully aware of the dangers in clearly revealing his position to the enemy, turned on his landing lights and completed the landing. On this attempt, the survivors were able to make their way to the helicopter. En route to the coast he encountered and successfully evaded additional hostile antiaircraft fire and, with fuel for only 5 minutes of flight remaining, landed safely aboard USS Jouett (DLG-29) .
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