A Personal Letter from Al Martinez to His Mother, 1966

Contributed by Al Martinez (64-68), regarding USS Arnold J. Isbell letter of commendation for action in the Vietnam war

Onboard the USS Arnold J. Isbell,
On duty, Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam
15 March 1966, Tuesday


Yesterday was a big day here for us again. The North Viet’s shot down a sea plane while it was attempting to rescue downed pilots. A plane from the (USS) Ranger went into the scene to protect them from junks, but, it got blown out of the air by heavy grown fire. Help was called for by the other planes & the (USS) Berkley & (USS) Isbell rushed to the area.

Before long, four A4’s & three Helos were also called, and the rescue of 6 pilots was made, two men were still missing.

A red lifeboat was drifting off out starboard side, about 500 yards away. The helo stood by ready but unable to drop cause of near by VC Junks firing at both the helo & pilots in the rafts with small caliber machine gun fire.

Then, three planes flew in and fired rockets at the junks, leaving them burning, smoking & damaged. This continued by more junks coming & the planes receiving & returning fire. One junk got a direct hit, it was a beautiful sight. What ever they had onboard the junk went up like roman candles.

As we commenced to close in on the life rafts to execute (the) pick-up of the downed pilots we received battery (fire) from the beach and small caliber, from the rear, from the junks.

There were 5 or more of us standing on the ASROC deck when the first battery hit right overhead,. 5 guys looked like 50 guys scrambling every which way for cover.

The Chief had walked out to take a look, I was behind him, (when the round hit), the next & another, and more blast(s) hit all around us. The Chief pushed me threw the door & got back in & locked it tightly. I was pretty shook-up. At that time I heard a scream from one of the guys out side, then M1 rifle firing. It was the ASROC guard, he was still out there. When the Chief took a look outside he was firing his M1, HA!!

The junks commenced small caliber firing upon us, then – Spencer SM3, a Signalman, manned the 30 caliber gun fired back. He shot the whole aft section of the junk off before it sunk!!

In the mean while, the beach was still bombarding us with heavy battery. We’ve made one pass & went back in for more. We were ready for a third pass when the (USS) Berkley, (Commander DESRON 13 onboard), gave us the order to get out of there, and fast, while she covered us with shore bombardment. Also, the planes covered us.

We needed cover because we had entered a small bay with land surrounding us with-in one mile on all corners & the battery was mounted at the base & mouth of the bay, (ambush)

We could hear them shooting & the blasts hitting real close, while sitting in the radio shack. We stood quite listening to them, one out of every four blasts was our ship returning fire, the rest was enemy fire, and it really shook our ship.

The helo’s finally picked up the pilots, all but two men, who were latter spotted dead in the water.

All together, we had eliminated one small fleet of heavily armed junks & silenced two of the heavy gun positions on land. They, (Vietnam guns), shot down one sea plane, one A4 jet fighter, & put holes in a helo leaving it crippled. But, they just put blast dents in the Isbell.

Oh well, ComSeventh fleet is putting the old man, (LTC M.B. Lechleiter), up for a commendation medal, for outstanding performance of the Isbell. I talked with the captain this morning, he is pretty well pleased with the crew’s performance and seems very happy!

They’d never have to give anybody a medal for bravery onboard this ship, the guys are too nuts to be scared!! Standing on the ASROC deck while a battle is going on?

Right now we are just floating around, relaxing and taking it easy, waiting for our next chance to challenge ol’ Charlie, and to see who gets the next pilot(s).

We’ll be out here up in the Tonkin Gulf, eager to do our part, so that the wives & mothers of these brave pilots know that whenever, or if ever, their son’s hit the drink & are in trouble, some one, someplace, will be searching & trying for them, ready to give his life for their rescue.

We are just one of the many rescue teams that work through-out Vietnam. Some are on land, some in the air, we are at sea.

Well mom, I guess that’s all for now. Say hi to everyone for me, and take care.

Love, Your Son,

(Personal parts of letter omitted)

7 Responses to “A Personal Letter from Al Martinez to His Mother, 1966”

  1. R. M. "Mike" Eckard Says:

    My GQ station was in the ECM shack, on top of the DASH hanger. There were two .50 caliber machine guns just outside the ECM shack door (one port and one starboard), and one either side of the bridge. I’m sure that’s what shot up the junk mentioned above. An E-6 ET (nick name Pinky) and I were in the doorway of the ECM shack talking to the .50 cal gunners, when we noticed flack “puffs” in the air and splashes, near the Berkley (counter battery). We jumped back inside as we also started receiving fire. Both ships poured on the steam and got out of there. I think we were between Hon Me Island and the North Vietnam shore at the time. Isbell made three passes shooting at AA batteries on the mainland and, as I remember, one on the island; until DESRON 13 ordered us out.
    R. M. Eckard ETSN, USS Arnold J Isbell DD869, Nov 1965 – May 1966

  2. Alfred Martinez Says:

    A story of “Valor in the Gulf” – by Robert L. LaPointe

    It was late in the afternoon of 14 March 1966. An HU-16B “Albatross”, call sign “Crown Bravo”, was on SAR orbit over the Gulf of Tonkin…

    On 14 March, the boredom of a normal duckbutt, (Albatross), would be punctuated by moments of terror and heroism. “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! This is Pluto Lead. I’ve been hit by ground fire and will have to eject. I’m trying to make it feet wet.” Pluto Lead was an F-4 and had been hit by AAA. Major James Peerson and his back-seater Captain Lynwood Bryant were desperately trying to make it feet wet. Their damaged fighter bomber was becoming increasingly difficult to control. They radioed to their wingman that they would have to eject soon after they were feet wet. “Mayday! Mayday! This is Pluto 02. Pluto Lead has ejected at 6000 feet. We have two good chutes. They are going to land in the water very close to Hon Mei Island. Crown Bravo, we will CAP Pluto Lead until you arrive.”

    Captain Westenbarger pushed the throttles on his HU-16 to full military power and raced to the area. “Pilot, this is the Nav. Intel has reported that Hon Mei is heavily armed. This might be tricky.” “Roger Nav, we’ll try to make this a quick pickup. I don’t want to hang around there any longer than we have to.” The next radio call, from Pluto 02, made it clear that speed was essential. The wind had blown the descending parachutists very close to the shoreline of the island. North Vietnamese sampans were near by. Major Peerson and Captain Bryant were floating in their survival rafts. The North Vietnamese could quickly capture these airmen and make them POW’s. This mission would be a deadly contest between the North Vietnamese and SAR forces, to see who would get to the downed pilots first.

    Complete story URL:

  3. Alfred Martinez Says:

    Valor: Rescue in the Gulf of Tonkin
    By John L. Frisbee
    Contributing Editor – Air Force Magazine
    Burned and wounded HU-16 navigator Don Price saved the injured F-4 pilot, then found himself alone in the sea, surrounded by enemy sampans.

    Complete story url:

  4. Alfred Martinez Says:

    During the rescue mission in March of 1966, Captain Westenbarger and co pilot Lt. Walter Hall landed their Albatross seaplane approximately four miles off the coast of North Vietnam near Hon Me Island in the Gulf of Tonkin to rescue two F4 Phantom aviators identified as Major James M. Peerson, 34 from Burlington, North Carolina and Captain Lynwood C. Bryant, 28 from Jackson, Michigan.


  5. Alfred Martinez Says:

    Airman First Class James E. Pleiman distinguished himself by gallantry in connection with military operations against an opposing armed force near Thanh Hoi, North Vietnam on 14 March 1966. On that date, Airman Pleiman performed as a Pararescue man aboard an unarmed HU-16 aircraft which executed a hazardous open sea landing in the face of an oncoming fleet of twenty-five armed sampans and fierce opposition from nearby shore batteries and mortar emplacements to rescue two downed USAF pilots. Without regard for his personal safety, Airman Pleiman courageously carried out his duty in the face of overwhelming odds as he dove into the sea in the midst of exploding shells in an heroic attempt to rescue one of the downed airmen. By his gallantry and devotion to duty, Airman Pleiman has reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.

  6. Alfred Martinez Says:

    The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Air Force Cross to Donald S. Price, Captain, U.S. Air Force, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an opposing armed force while serving with the 33d Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, on Temporary Duty Assignment to DaNang Air Base, Vietnam, SEVENTH Air Force, as Navigator aboard an HU-16B aircraft, in the Gulf of Tonkin, off shore of North Vietnam, on 14 March 1966. On that date, Captain Price participated in a successful rescue of the downed crew of an F-4C aircraft, in hostile waters. As they approached the area, the downed crew members were sighted. A determination was made that an open sea landing would be necessary to effect a successful rescue. At this time, a force of approximately 25 motorized sampans were observed heading toward the downed pilots. After a full stall landing was made and while they were maneuvering toward the nearest survivor, a heavy barrage of hostile gun fire was directed at the aircraft from the nearby sampans. Moments later, the aircraft was struck, exploded, and was almost immediately engulfed in flames. As the heat from the fire became intense, the crew was forced to abandon the aircraft. As Captain Price jumped into the water, he encountered the F-4C pilot who had discarded both his life raft and life jacket and was struggling to remain afloat. Captain Price towed the pilot on his back away from the burning aircraft and continued to render assistance while awaiting rescue. Several minutes later, helicopters arrived on the scene and Captain Price, although in great pain from multiple wounds received in the explosion, remained in the water to complete his mission of rescuing the downed F-4C pilot. He assisted the pilot into a sling and the helicopter departed. Captain Price was now the sole survivor in the water and artillery shells began to fall around him, preventing rescue by another helicopter. As he struggled into a nearby raft, the sampans began converging on him forcing him to re-enter the water and swim seaward. At this time, two F-4C aircraft and a helicopter arrived in the area. While the F-4Cs suppressed the hostile fire, the helicopter effected a successful rescue. By his extraordinary heroism, gallantry, and determination, Captain Price has reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.
    Personal Awards: Air Force Cross (Vietnam), 2@ Distinguished Flying Crosses, Purple Heart, 6@ Air Medals


  7. Alfred Martinez Says:

    14th March 1966 USAF F‑4C Phantom II
    480 TFS, 35 TFW, USAF, Da Nang
    hit by AAA and caught fire a mile offshore of Hon Nghi Son

    Maj James M Peerson
    rescued by Navy SAR helicopters

    Capt Lynwood C Bryant
    rescued by Navy SAR helicopters


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