Even before he had rolled out of his narrow bunk aboard the USS Kearsarge, Col. Marty Berndt knew this was the real thing; four-star admirals don't phone at 2:30 in the morning just to chat. Adm. Leighton "Snuffy" Smith, the commander of all of NATO's southern forces, was on the line from London and he wanted to know if Colonel Berndt's marines, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, were ready.
They were, Colonel Berndt assured the admiral; he would need just one hour's notice to get the first of his hulking CH-53 helicopters off the Kearsarge's flight deck and on its way across the Adriatic Sea. The destination: western Bosnia. The mission: rescue Capt. Scott O'Grady, the downed F-16 pilot missing for six nights, who had been located in the hilly, Serb-held countryside not far from Banja Luka. Smith put the Marines on alert. At 3 o'clock, Berndt replaced the phone's receiver and hurried along the ship's narrow, red-lit passageway to the war room.
In the pine forest where he had hidden, Scott O'Grady waited. It had been less than an hour since he had finally contacted an American F-16 pilot from his own unit, the 555th fighter squadron based at Aviano AB, Italy, who was patrolling overhead. Wary of betraying his location and anxious to conserve battery power, he had used his radio sparingly; but at 2:08 that morning, 52 minutes earlier, O'Grady was heard for the first time radioing Basher 52," his call sign o n the mission that had landed him in this mess.
Twelve minutes later, the American fliers overhead were convinced that the voice on the radio was, truly, Captain O'Grady. A pilot who knew him from the barracks at Aviano recognized O'Grady's voice; that made perfunctory the ritual quizzing for the secret code words that only O'Grady and his rescuers would know.
Bad omens. It was like hearing a voice from the grave. Only in the past 24 hours had O'Grady's mates begun to hope again that he might still be alive. After all, the 29-year-old pilot had been missing in Serb-held territory for five days with meager rations of food and water. His wingman hadn't seen a parachute emerge from the wreckage of the crippled F-16 after a Serb SA-6 surface-to-air missile had split the fighter in two in the clouds 26,000 feet up.
The missile attack had surprised the F-16 pilots. Never before had the Serbs positioned the Soviet-made SA-6s--a type of missile first used in combat during the 1973 Yom Kippur War but upgraded since--in the area south of the Bosnian city of Banja Luka. O'Grady and his wingman, Capt. Bob Wright, were flying alone on June 2, without specially equipped electronic jamming aircraft or the Wild Weasel jets armed with HARM anti-radiation missiles, which home in on a missile battery's radar.
It is an unanswered question whether the F-16s should have been allowed to fly alone. The days before the shootdown had hardly been uneventful. NATO commanders had issued a pair of ultimatums against the Bosnian Serbs; when the Serbs ignored them, NATO attack planes struck ammunition bunkers at a depot in Pale, headquarters of the Serb military. American satellites overhead detected enormous secondary explosions after the 1,000- and 2,000-pound "smart" bombs hit--proof that large stores of Serb weapons had been destroyed. The furious Serbs retaliated by taking some 400 United Nations troops hostage, throwing the international peacekeeping effort in the former Yugoslavia into disarray.
It was into that maelstrom that O'Grady and Wright flew. But at the morning ready-room briefing that June 2, when the young pilots gathered in their flight gear to study the latest information about weather and enemy positions, no one worried about Serb surface-to-air missiles.
The Serbs, however, had secretly moved a missile battery south and laid a trap. They switched on their missile radars sparingly, giving the F-16 pilots little warning; in a flash, they fired two missiles skyward. In the cockpit, O'Grady's instruments alerted him that a missile was coming; but, flying in clouds, he could not see it. The first missile exploded between the two aircraft. The second caught O'Grady's plane in the belly. As the plane broke apart and tumbled toward Earth, he reached between hi s legs and with both hands pulled the lanyard that blew the canopy and ejected him from the plane.
After landing, O'Grady abandoned his parachute and plunged into the woods. He lay face down, cupping his camouflaged flight gloves over his head and ears so he could not be spotted in the brush. Within minutes a teenage boy and a man wandered past; then he saw armed men nearby. He heard gunfire and was sure he would be caught as the Serbs continued their search into the night. "Thank God there were no dogs there," he told military debriefers.
Lessons learned. O'Grady slept by day, covering himself with camouflage netting, and moved only between midnight and 4 a.m. Armed Serbs were never far away and he often heard gunfire. Once, as he lay hiding, cows grazed at his feet. Equipped with a 121-page survival pamphlet, a radio, a first-aid kit, distress flares and a compass, he put to good use the lessons learned during 17 days of Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training he had undertaken near his hometown of Spokane, Wash. He use d a sponge to soak up rainwater to fill a container. He ate grass and bugs; the survival pamphlet includes instructions to cook insects as big as grasshoppers and to eat them only after removing the hard, crunchy legs.
President Clinton, told of O'Grady's exploits on the ground in Bosnia, called him "one amazing kid." It was O'Grady's love of adventure that had gotten him into an F-16 cockpit in the first place. Born in New York in 1965, he grew up in the mountains near Spokane. He learned to fly while studying at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona and was selected for NATO flight school at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas. O'Grady had flown 781 hours in the F-16 over Korea, Germany and Bosnia.
O'Grady waited to radio for help; he had been taught that downed pilots are often captured after calling for help too soon, giving away their position. Finally, last Tuesday--O'Grady's fourth full day on the ground--he signaled his location, using a little more of the small reserve of his radio's battery power each time he went on the air. The next day,just after 2 a.m., he dared to speak into the radio. An American voice responded, and the rescue wasset in motion. At 4:40, Admiral Smith called Colonel Berndt aboard the Kearsarge again--this time with orders to "execute."
The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit is no stranger to risky missions--or tragedy. It was the unit decimated in Beirut in 1983 when a suicide truck bomber destroyed its barracks, killing 241 servicemen. Two of their CH-53 helicopters, which would carry a total of 43 marines--riflemen, assault climbers, medics, a communications team and an interpreter--were already sitting on their assigned takeoff spots on the Kearsarge's 800-foot-long flight deck. The Marine TRAP team, shorthand for Tactical Recovery of Aircraft Personnel, grabbed its gear and weapons and then assembled in the ship's hangar bay.
At five minutes past 5 the first of the big cargo helicopters lifted off, followed by two AH-1W Cobra gunships and two AV-8 Harrier jump jets. In the skies above the Adriatic and Bosnia, an armada of 40 aircraft, jammers and fighters and an AWACS air-traffic-control plane assembled for the mission. But the jets were slow to arrive. Berndt's helicopter circled for 45 long minutes before the force was ready to head ashore.
It took little more than 10 minutes for the helicopters to cross the beach--"feet dry" in Marine lingo. The marines flew head-on into the sunrise; the beauty of the morning was lost on Berndt, who would rather have flown at night, when darkness would have masked his slow-moving choppers from Serb gunners.
The marines, 50-mm machine guns peeking from their helicopters, flew through valleys just atop banks of fog, using them for cover. As they approached the last ridge line before reaching O'Grady, the two CH-53s began to circle; the two Cobra helicopters continued forward. As the lead Cobra crossed the ridge, it reached O'Grady by radio for the first time. O'Grady spotted the Cobras and guided them to the landing zone he had selected, a clearing big enough for the two sprawling helicopters to land but wit h covering trees nearby. He "popped a smoke," a smoke canister that would mark his location. "I see your yellow smoke," the Cobra commander responded.
As soon as the first CH-53 landed, more than 20 marines scrambled down its back ramp to secure the perimeter. The second chopper then set down on the remains of an old fence. Its tail blocked, it had to lift off and land again. Seconds later the pilot burst out of the pines, pistol in hand.
Hunched low against the rotor-whipped wind, he made for Dash 2, the second helicopter, where Berndt pulled him aboard. "I'm ready to get the hell out of here," O'Grady said. The crew wrapped a blanket around the shivering pilot, who collapsed, relieved and exhausted. The marine riflemen climbed back aboard. The whole operation had taken perhaps three minutes--"textbook," it would be called later. Aboard Dash 2, O'Grady was hungry. Five minutes into the flight, he was eating, a week of insects and grass making even the military's notoriously unappetizing plastic-packed MREs (meals ready to eat) plenty appealing.
O'Grady was not home yet, though. The marines and their precious passenger were still flying low over Serb-held Bosnia, the sun at their back rising higher in the East.
New threats. American jets detected a Serb missile radar along the Croatian coast, scanning for targets. An American plane recommended destroying the Serb radar, code-named Giraffe. The request was denied, partly out of concern that a strike could spark wider conflict.
Minutes later the marines reported they were under fire. Two shoulder-held surface-to-air missiles had been launched at them but missed, as the helicopter pilots--flying 150 feet off the ground at 175 mph--jinked to evade them. Serb small arms pocked both helicopters; the marines aboard heard the shells hit inside the fuselage. One door gunner returned fire. But they were almost safe: At a quarter past 7, 30 minutes after picking up O'Grady, the rescuers reported "feet wet," meaning they were over water . The Kearsarge was just 15 minutes away.
In Alexandria, Va., William O'Grady's phone rang, minutes before 1 o'clock Thursday morning. Since the Friday before, phone calls had brought nothing but bad news: He had been called at work on June 2 and told to contact the Air Force as soon as possible. "I got quite scared," he says. He dialed the number he had been given, which was answered at nearby Bolling Air Force Base. The voice at the other end of the line unnerved O'Grady even more. There was serious news, but it could only be delivered in person. Frantic, O'Grady drove home. A government car drove up and three blue uniforms emerged; one of the officers wore a chaplain's cross on his collar. "I was pretty well sure they'd say he had died," O'Grady says.
This time, it was Captain O'Grady's wing commander calling from Italy with nothing but good news: The pilot was alive. William O'Grady first saw his son on television, healthy with a week's growth of beard, as he jumped from the CH-53 onto the Kearsarge's flight deck. "He looked sensational," the father said. "He looked like he'd taken a walk in the park and forgotten to shave." O'Grady was dehydrated and hungry, and his neck had been burned when he had ejected from his plane; otherwise, he was in good health.
Later, after Clinton called to offer his congratulations, after the TV cameras welcomed him aboard the Kearsarge and at Aviano, Air Force pilot Scott O'Grady thanked the marines who saved him. "They say they were just doing their job. But they risked their lives to get me out. If you want to find some heroes, that's where you should look." The marines had indeed saved one amazing kid.
Survival gear for F-16 pilots :
Capt. Scott O'Grady relied on his survival training and equipment to elude capture for six days. Air Force F-16 aircraft carry these essential items in their seats and in a life vest.
Survival kit installed in pilot's seat: Survival radio (with spare battery); Mirror (for signals); First-aid kit; Signal kit, personnel distress flares; Compass; Whistle; Strobe light with flash guard and infrared filter; Raft repair plugs; 5-inch knife; Container with matches; Raft; Water; Blanket (can also be used for signaling); Packet of sea dye; Survival pamphlet; Drinking storage bag; Handgun; Beacon.
Survival vest components: Survival radio; Global positioning system (GPS) receiver; Distress signals; Mirror; First-aid kit; Compass; Face paint for camouflage; Tourniquet.
Rescue time line (all times local, June 8):
0208: Downed pilot (code BASHER 52) contacts Deny Flight aircraft
0220: BASHER 52 positively identified as Captain O'Grady
0545: Backup search-and-rescue team launched from a base in Italy
0550: Primary rescue team heads toward Bosnia from USS Kearsarge
0612: Rescuers contact O'Grady
0644: Rescue takes place
0707: Rescue team fired on by surface-to-air missile and small arms on takeoff
0715: Rescue team "feet wet" (over water)
0730: Team lands on USS Kearsarge
Search and rescue. The rescue force, including 40 aircraft and a Special Operations backup force, was spearheaded by the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
Primary rescue team: 2 Marine CH-53 helicopters (carrying about 20 marines each); 2 Marine AH-1W Cobra helicopters; 2 Marine AV-8 Harrier jump jets.
Note : Capt. O'Grady now flies with the 466th Fighter Squadron "Diamondbacks" (part of the 419th FW) at Hill AFB, Utah.