In June of 1972, an American Air Force pilot was shot down while on a bombing mission of weapons factories outside of Hanoi. This is the story of those men and women who captured him
Widow of the Captain that captured downed USAF pilot Charles A. Jackson in June of 1972. She watched as the pilot's plane was shot out of the sky by a Vietnamese MIG 21.
Over the 2019 Tet holiday, I made an unannounced journey to a small village in the mountains of Vietnam. I traveled deep within Son La province, over dirt roads, and through river beds to a small hamlet where I planned to meet a group of local villagers that captured a American F-4 fighter pilot back in 1972. That pilot was my father. I wanted to meet to the men and women who had been in my bedtime stories since I was a child. I didn't know if they would be alive, or even if they would want to talk to me. It was a gamble, but one I had to take.
As I and my lovely traveling companion, Dieu Anh, puttered our way there on a110hp Honda Blade I thought of all villagers in the stories I had grown up with. I wondered how much of it was real, how much was the fantasies of a prisoner of war. One story in particular stood out, it was the one my dad always told first. That of the physician who miraculously healed my father's hand on his first day of capture.
The story goes that at some point during the time between when he ejected from an exploding plane and the subsequent unconscious landing, my father severely injured his left arm. The upper portion was snapped in two as the result of a compound fracture. Still in shock, he was completely unaware of other damage. What he did know was that he was laying on his back and for some reason his left hand was coming out from under his right thigh. He agonizingly found the strength to stand up, and it was at that point he realized his thumb was also hanging from his hand. Bone and sinew lay bare to the world. While the arm would later be repaired by a surgeon in Hanoi, the thumb injury was saved by the local physician in the village of Muong Do.
To my great delight when I finally made it to the village, I was actually welcomed into the homes of the locals and they told me their stories. I heard from women who had witnessed the "man jump from the sky," and village elders that had been young when the event happened. Sadly the physician has passed on, but his story lives on and is told by his surviving wife and son.
The physician's story, however, is best told alongside that of the Captain of the local militia. He too has sadly passed on. According to the captain's family, the village's capturing of my father became a massive part of the family lore. Every time he had a few too many shots of rice wine, the late Captain would regale anyone who would listen with how he bravely captured the American pilot. When I heard this, I couldn't help but think about all the old men who tell grand WWII stories about how they single handily brought down Hilter.
The families were kind enough to share their bits of the story with us. It was the wife of the captain who had been the one to actually witness the plane getting hit, a man eject, and the rest of the plane smash into the side of a mountain. As she recalls, it was June, hot, and the rice needed to be planted. She took just enough time to go tell her husband and then get back to the fields. Farming stops for no one, not even when a mysterious fly boy's crash landing disrupts the process of planting.
As the family recalls, the Captain rounded up the local men, of which there was many. They rushed to find the dangerous enemy that floated down from the sky. While most communities were depleted of men of fighting age, the mountain ethnic group of the Muong seemingly were spared the mass enlistments in the war. Nor did they sign up to travel south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. As such the Muong men of fighting age worked the fields and formed a militia much like a local volunteer firefighter department.
While the rest of the village moved with great haste to fulfill their fighting duties and capture the downed pilot, the physician balked at the idea. He didn't want to go. He was scared. He openly voiced his opinions of “What if I get hurt? What if the American is dangerous?” After all the pilot was one the men who dropped bombs all over his country. He flat out refused to go and help find the downed pilot.
It was at that point that the Captian did what so many leaders throughout history have done to motivate men to do the right thing. He guilt tripped the physician. The Captain reminded the physician that he was a doctor, and it was his duty to take care of people, no matter who they were. He also told him that the villagers all hoped any Americans or ARVN medics would do the same for one the fighting men and women that went south.
Reluctantly, the physician accompanied the militia and they started the search for the downed enemy soldier. They knew the area that the pilot had landed in, it was only a matter of finding him. They set out into the thin woods and up the side of a mountain. When the men reached the area where the pilot “jumped from the sky” the men fanned out and started looking.
“They poked the pilot with their AK-47s indicating it was time for him to follow them. His left arm hung useless and blood dripped from the fingertips....”
Terrified and reluctant the local militia waded into the woods they had known their entire life. A safe and familiar setting had become a place where they were looking for a possibly armed man that may be aiming to kill them on sight. It would be the first and only time in this war that any member of the community came into contact with the enemy. Despite a thorough searching the militia couldn’t find any sign of the pilot. Suddenly, after about thirty minutes, the physician started to hear a faint static clicking. He signaled the other men and they all started to look for the source. It was coming out from under a rock.
They had found their downed pilot. Curled up in a little ball, covered in leaves and fragile. He looked terrified.
(It’s at this point that both my father's story and the villagers’ story line up.)
One of the men reached into the hole and pulled the enemy soldier out by his hair. He was huge compared to them. He was tall, well built, had a long handlebar mustache, and dressed in a green outfit. He seemed befuddled and a little lost, but terrifying at the same time. With the exception of a lost French explore 50 years earlier, the pilot was the first white man to ever enter these mountains. They stared at him in wonderment as they stripped him of his gear and searched his belongings. Among his things they found money, and a letter saying to turn him over to the southern government. They also found a survival guide and basic flight charts. In the hole, they found his helmet with his parachute stuffed inside. All of these they gathered up and gave to the Captain so that it could be turned over to the Regulars when they showed up to collect the prisoner. They also found the source of the static clicking. It had been the pilot's radio.
Not knowing what to do with the radio and afraid it could somehow be used by the Americans to find the pilot, the villagers did the only sensible thing they could think of. They smashed the radio on a rock breaking it into little pieces. They then put it with the rest of the American’s captured gear. From there they agreed to bring the American to the village and call for the regular army to come and pick up the prisoner.
They poked the pilot with their AK-47s indicating it was time for him to follow them. His left arm hung useless and blood dripped from the fingertips. He walked with a limp and appeared in pain. What they could not know was that the pilot’s back was also broken. During the ejection he had smashed his head into the canopy, crushing his spine.
At some point on the journey, the physician finally mustered the courage to approach the pilot. Despite having recieved modern medical training, he still relied on the local vegetation for the majority of his medicinal compounds. He looked over his new patient and saw that the pilot’s hand was split open around his thumb. A laceration around the carpometacarpal joint nearly severed the thumb from the hand. He reached into his bag and pulled out a salve and some forest vegetation. He applied the mushy salve and wrapped the wound in the lush healing leaves. Surprisingly, these leaves healed the hand leaving just a faint scar, the only evidence that the thumb had almost been lost. Sadly the exact ingredients he used are not known.
They made their way back to the village where he was quickly surrounded by the villagers. Everyone was excited and scared. They wanted to see the mysterious white man that had jumped from the sky. They spoke among themselves in bewilderment as to who he was, where was he from, and what should they do with him. At one point the pilot lifted his one good arm and everyone looked to see what he was pointing at. They couldn’t quite figure it out, but he kept pointing. Then he pointed at something else. Then something else. Then something else. It seemed he just pointed everywhere, and where he pointed they all went.
That night they would keep the prisoner in one of their homes. Despite, his broken back, compound fractured arm, and useless thumb, he would escape the village only to be recaptured the next day. It would be another three days of walking before the pilot made it out of the mountains and onto a truck for Ha Noi. That though is a story for another time.
The simple act of kindness by the physician would result in the pilot’s thumb being saved. To say the least, without it, the pilot would have never flown again or went on to live a relatively normal, functional life after the war. Sadly the physician and the Captain are no longer alive to tell the story themselves. The Captian is survived by his wife, brothers, and daughters. The Physician is survived by his children. When the physician’s son and other villagers were asked about the healing poultice, all they would say is “there are a bunch of leaves that can do that here.”
Without a doubt I can say that had it not been for this simple act of kindness, my life would be different today. From the bottom of my heart, thank you kind people of Muong Do for the humanity that you showed that day back in 1972. Your kindness has been repaid a thousand times over and been amplified to the world.
Wiley H. Jackson
Teacher, Writer, Adventurer
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