This Day in History: Clyde E. Lassen rescues two downed aviators
On this day in 1942, a future Medal of Honor recipient is born in Florida. Clyde E. Lassen would go on to serve in the Vietnam War, and he would rescue two downed aviators from a nearly impossible situation.
Lt. Clyde E. Lassen (USN) simply refused to give up.
“We had a good idea our chances were about nil,” one of the downed aviators, John Burns, would later say. “If it hadn’t been for the people who were picking us up doing what they had done, it would have been nil,” the other aviator, John Holtzclaw, agreed.
Lassen’s heroism came on June 19, 1968. Burns and Holtzclaw had been dispatched on a night mission inside North Vietnam, but they got shot down. The right wing of their plane was blown clear off.
They ejected, then fled for their lives. The enemy was on their tail.
Rescue efforts were soon mounted, of course. It was just after midnight when Lassen and his crew took off in his helicopter, a UH-2A Seasprite.
Lassen’s first attempt to retrieve the stranded pilots failed. He’d tried to get close, hovering slightly above a rice paddy that was about 200 feet from Burns and Holtzclaw. But he was taking enemy fire—and the downed airmen were having trouble getting to him anyway. They’d been hiding in some pretty dense woods.
Lassen lifted back into the air, determined to find a new spot.
His second attempt was made higher up the hill and closer to the trees, with the aid of a plane dropping flares for illumination. But just as rescue hoists were being dropped into a small clearing, the flares abruptly went out. Lassen was thrown into sudden darkness and left disoriented. He hit a tree and nearly lost control of his helicopter.
Fortunately, Lassen managed to right his Seasprite, but he knew that he couldn’t make any other attempts so close to the trees. Burns and Holtzclaw were going to have to try to get to the rice paddy. In the meantime, Lassen radioed for more flares. He’d wait until they came.
The flares arrived and Lassen returned to the rice paddy, descending toward the pilots. Once again, the flares gave out during the rescue attempt. Lassen had only one, dangerous move left. He simply didn’t have enough fuel to wait for another round of flares.
Lassen turned on his landing light!
The move made Lassen a target for the enemy, but it also enabled the stranded pilots to find him. The pilots were pulled aboard and Lassen got out of there as fast as he could. Amazingly, he would manage to get everyone safely back to a nearby U.S. vessel.
When he landed, he had only 5 minutes of fuel left. The helicopter had lost a cabin door and its tail rotor was damaged—but it had only one bullet hole in it.
Weird! And amazing.
Lassen would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. In an interesting twist, he would be awarded his Medal alongside Joe Jackson, a man with whom he had much in common: Both were born on March 14. Both were aviators who served in Vietnam. Both had begun their military careers as aviation mechanics, then worked their way up. Both made miraculous rescues.
Joe Jackson’s story appears HERE.
P.S. And for those of you who are wondering: Yes, Lassen’s crew also received decorations (a Navy Cross and two Silver Stars).
Bill Kaczor, Medal of Honor winner reunited with crew, pilots (Tampa Tribune; June 21, 1993)
Edward F. Murphy, Vietnam Medal of Honor Heroes (rev. ed. 2005)
George Galdorisi & Thomas Phillips, Leave No Man Behind: The Saga of Combat Search and Rescue (2009)
Lyndon B. Johnson, Remarks Upon Presenting the Medal of Honor to a Member of Each of the Armed Services (Jan. 16, 1969)
Medal of Honor citation (Clyde Everett Lassen; Vietnam)
Teresa Stein, Stroll brings back thoughts on a hero (Tampa Tribune; Feb 13, 1994)