History remembers them as the last two American pilots to die in Vietnam, killed when their helicopter went into the South China Sea during the frantic evacuation of Saigon on April 29, 1975. Their bodies were never recovered.
Now a group of retired Marines is asking the U.S. government to search for the CH-46 Sea Knight on the ocean floor and bring the human remains home.
“I’ve thought about it every day for 41 years,” said Steve Wills, who was on the helicopter as crew chief and survived the crash. “I think it would be a healing thing for the whole nation.”
One of the aviators was Capt. William Nystul, who grew up in Coronado. The oldest of four sons, he graduated from Coronado High and San Diego State. He was 29 when he died, married with a young son. His co-pilot, 1st Lt.Michael Shea, from El Paso, Texas, was 25.
Organizers of the Yankee Tango 14 Recovery Project (the name comes from the helicopter’s ID number, YT-14) said they have coordinates for where the crash occurred, about 17 miles off the coastal city of Vung Tau. They said the water is 65 to 100 feet deep, in an area with limited sediment accumulation.
“We think the conditions are favorable, and the technology to survey the ocean floor and salvage what’s there exists to get this done,” said Colin Gregan, a retired Marine helicopter pilot from Arizona who is coordinating the effort. They’ve asked the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) to approve a search.
Nystul’s family wouldn’t object if that’s what the military wants to do, said his brother Steve, a physician in San Diego. But they also think there are better things to spend money on, such as caring for veterans with disabilities, he said.
“I know my mother feels like she really doesn’t need to have his remains home,” he added, “and I think the rest of us would be in agreement with that. I don’t really understand how it would benefit anybody. Let them rest in peace.”
So far, the government has also been lukewarm to the idea. In a letter to Gregan, a DPAA official said “underwater investigations are difficult at best” because currents and storms move wreckage around. He also noted a complication that speaks to just how chaotic things were as Saigon fell.
YT-14 wasn’t the only helicopter to go into the sea that day.
Chaos at sea
It was called Operation Frequent Wind.
In the spring of 1975, two years after the Paris Peace Accords ended U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese Army began moving toward Saigon. U.S. officials put together a plan to evacuate the remaining Americans and their South Vietnamese allies by helicopter.
On April 29, after the Viet Cong shelled an air base on the outskirts of town and killed two U.S. Marines, the order to go was issued, passed along on Armed Forces Radio by code: An announcement that the temperature in Saigonwas “105 and rising,” followed by the song “White Christmas.”
People flocked to pre-arranged departure sites. Hundreds of others swarmed the U.S. embassy. Throughout the day, 80 helicopters flew about 1,000 Americans and 6,000 South Vietnamese to American aircraft carriers offshore.
South Vietnamese military pilots also flew out to the fleet in helicopters and airplanes, adding to the chaos. There were numerous near-misses as aircraft jockeyed to land. To make room on the flight decks, some 50 Vietnamese helicopters were pushed overboard. Other choppers were ditched intentionally by pilots who then swam toward the ships to be rescued.
YT-14 was on search and rescue duty off the carrier Hancock that day, ready to swoop in if other helicopters crashed and the crews needed to be pulled from the water. It took off at 6 a.m. for what would turn out to be about 17 hours of flying, interrupted a half-dozen times to land on the carrier to refuel.
About 1 p.m., Nystul and Shea came on board to relieve the original pilots. Nystul, who had been teaching at a fixed-wing flight school in Pensacola, was sent back to Vietnam for his second tour after about 20 hours of re-training in the CH-46. Shea, a CH-53 pilot, had about 25 hours of training in the 46 before he was deployed.
Wills, the crew chief and right gunner, and Richard Scott, the mechanic and left gunner, were the other crew members. It was a busy day. They transported refugees from one ship to another. They rescued a Vietnamese man who crashed his small plane in the water.
“We were dodging aircraft left and right,” Wills said in a phone interview from his home in Kalispell, Mont. “The helicopter flew good that day.”
At about 11 p.m., YT-14 was running low on fuel and needed to land on the Hancock. But there wasn’t room. Nystul got waved off twice. Finally cleared to come in, he had to make a hard right turn away from the carrier to avoid being hit by a plane arriving from behind.
“Missed us by less than 100 feet,” Wills said.
He remembers the pilot telling the crew, “Somebody is going to die up here tonight.”
Into the water
Bruce Collison was a medic that night on board the Hancock. Now living in Sarasota, Fla., he recalls being on the flight deck, transfixed by the red, blinking anti-collision light of a helicopter overhead: YT-14.
“It continued circling the length of the ship, running out of fuel, looking for a place to land, losing altitude with every pass,” he said. “I’m convinced that if they had tried to land, with all the other helicopters there, some of them refueling, there would have been a total conflagration and a lot of people would have been killed. So they took it into the water instead.”
Others have surmised that the pilots got disoriented; it was a pitch-black night, no visible moon, impossible to see the horizon. The last thing Wills remembers hearing over his headset was a voice saying: “Pick it up! Pick it up! Pick it up!” Then darkness.
He regained consciousness underwater and made it to the surface. His left leg was fractured and his right hip dislocated. His helmet had been torn off. He fired two pen flares, then activated his rescue strobe. Scott was nearby and turned on his strobe, too.
On the Hancock, Collison remembers seeing the two strobes and thinking, “Great, there are survivors!” Then it dawned on him: “There should be four strobes.”
Another CH-46 lifted off the carrier, and to those on the flight deck, it looked as if it might disappear, too. Its landing lights went under water. Moments later, the engines roared and it lifted into the air and back toward the ship, carrying the two survivors.
The next day, on board the Hancock, they held a traditional burial at sea for the pilots. There were no bodies, so they put mock corpses under the American flags, and slid those into the ocean.
“We were numb like zombies,” Collison said. “We’d spent all day saving people and then we lost two Marines. Nobody wanted to be the last guy to die in Vietnam, and then it happened to two guys that we knew. The whole thing felt surreal.”
It’s part of military lore that no man is left behind, but the evacuation task force had orders to move on. Saigon had fallen to the Viet Cong.
A ‘difficult’ search
The idea to search for the helicopter and recover any remains came up several years ago during discussions among retired Marine pilots, said Gregan, who knew the co-pilot Shea from flight school.
He put together a website (yankeetango14.com) with information about the crash, the Navy’s underwater survey and salvage vessels, and the flow of sediment in the area. He wrote letters and phoned the DPAA, the agency that has helped recover and identify the remains of more than 1,000 servicemen since the end of the Vietnam War. (An additional 1,600 remain missing.)
“DPAA has the opportunity to demonstrate to the nation the importance of its noble mission by recovering the remains of the last USMC helicopter crewmen to perish in Vietnam,” he wrote in one letter.
In response, Michael Fowler, the agency’s director of communications and outreach, wrote, “With the technology currently available, underwater investigations are difficult at best.” He said there were more than 240 American aircraft lost over water during the war, and although many of them may contain human remains, efforts to locate them — usually relying on information from nearby villagers — have succeeded in locating only seven crash sites.
“Additionally,” Fowler wrote, “the region in question is littered with helicopters making it almost impossible to find a particular one.” He said the case file for Nystul and Shea is “in a No Further Pursuit status and not scheduled for investigation or recovery.”
Gregan said his group is undeterred. The recovery of 13 missing airmen off Cambodia in 1995 — their helicopter was shot down during the Mayaguez Incident, two weeks after Saigon fell — shows it can be done, he said.
“Our next step is to contact individual members of Congress and get their backing for the project,” Gregan said.
Last August, the CH-46, which had been used by the military for more than 50 years, was retired in a ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. The Marines loaned one of their remaining copters to the museum, which has it on display.
The helicopter is painted in Vietnam-era colors. Stenciled on one side, near the main cabin entrance, is a tribute to Nystul and Shea. It lists their names, the ID number of their helicopter, and the date they died. And it includes the familiar silhouette from a POW/MIA flag, with these words underneath it:
You are not forgotten.
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