Leland Sorensen heads to Southeast Asia to complete decades old mission

Aberdeen native and long-time resident Leland Sorensen will be heading back to Thailand and Laos to look for the remains of a body that was left behind during the Vietnam War.

During the war, Sorensen served as a pararescueman (PJ) stationed at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base (NKP). He flew combat missions into Laos.

In the pararescue missions, there were two different types of helicopter rescues. One was on what was called low-birds, and one was on high-birds. The low-birds went in and hovered close to the ground, usually around treetop level. The high-birds were higher in the air, generally out of gunshot range.

On March 17, 1969, they received word that a pilot had bailed out of his aircraft because he had been hit. The pilot’s wingman had watched him parachute out. He was very alert and was tearing up classified documents on his way down so they wouldn’t fall into enemy hands. His wingman watched him parachute into the jungle below. This happened at about 2 p.m.

Sorensen was a PJ on a high-bird. The low-birds went in first and high-birds were used as backups in case something went wrong with the low-bird helicopter.

The low-bird went for the pick up. The flight engineer began to lower the PJ down on the hoist to retrieve the pilot. As the hoist cable began to unreel, the jungle-penetrator seat and its occupant began to turn slowly. As the PJ sat on the seat he had his gun at his side ready to fire. While rotating, his elbow hit one of the trees and his gun fired accidentally. Those in the helicopter didn’t know what had happened, thought the enemy was firing at him and brought him back up into the helicopter.  When he was back in the helicopter he informed the pilot the gun fire he heard was his own and accidental. The helicopter again hovered into position to lower the PJ to the ground. He began to descend to the ground, but his descent was stopped and he was reeled back to the helicopter again. He was told they spotted a fray in the cable so they brought him back up.

The pilot had ejected about 2 p.m. It took about an hour before the low-bird was sent in because they didn’t have enough information. At about 4:30 p.m. the low-bird had its troubles. It gets dark around 6 p.m.

The high-bird, with Sorensen as the PJ was sent in at about 5 p.m. Thoughts of a similar mission that happened on Dec. 25, 1968, not quite three months earlier flashed through Sorensen’s head. A PJ that bunked under Sorensen was sent to rescue a downed man. They hadn’t heard anything from the pilot, just a beep from his automatic parachute beeper. It turned out to be a trap. The enemy had waited until the helicopter had lowered the PJ to the ground and was about to hoist him and the downed pilot up when they began firing. The last words received from the PJ were that he was hit and they were to pull up. The hoist cable snagged in the trees and snapped in two as the helicopter pulled away, leaving both the PJ and the pilot on the ground. Both men, the PJ and the pilot were reported missing in action, because it was not known for sure they were dead.

At this point it had been 2 1/2 hours since the pilot went down and substantial activity had been taking place with the attempted rescue. The enemy could have walked from several miles away to be there to set a trap for Sorensen.

His helicopter hovered into position over a clearing on the hillside below the pilot’s location. Sorensen climbed onto the jungle-penetrator seat. He was lowered to the ground, sure that someone was going to fire at him. He made it to the ground and immediately laid as flat as he could while he checked the surroundings for any activity. He didn’t see anyone so he cautiously started up the hill to where the parachute was.

Sorensen explained that, just like a wheel flipping a rock on the road, when it flips it shoots forward in front of the vehicle that flipped it, so does blood from a body that is rolling. As he was making his way up the hill he began to notice drops of blood on the ground. He traveled about 100 yards up the hill when he found the pilot wedged between the sloping hill and some small trees and shrubs.

When a pilot ejects from a plane there is a seat kit attached to his parachute. The kit contains things a pilot may need to survive on the ground. When he ejects the kits drops below the pilot so it is not in the way when he lands on the ground. Sorensen noticed this seat kit was high on the pilot’s back and he was tangled in the parachute cords and the bushes that stopped him. He was face down.

Sorensen could see a compound fracture on the pilot’s femur bone poking through his flight suit. The pilot was dead, but not from enemy fire. Apparently he had parachuted into the trees that were 100 to 150 feet high, his chute had collapsed and he crashed to the ground. He then rolled down the hill, becoming entangled in the parachute cords and the brush. If the bushes had not stopped him, he would have rolled to the bottom of the steep slope. He apparently died from the fall.

Sorensen radioed that the pilot was dead. He did that so, if this was a trap, at least they would know the pilot was dead, no matter what happened to him. He was told to get the body and get out.

Sorensen surveyed the situation and noted it would take considerable time to get the pilot freed from the trees, brush and parachute. It was starting to get dark and he still thought this could be a trap. He decided it was not wise to risk his life nor the lives of his three crewmen aboard the hovering helicopter so he went back down the hill to get onto the hoist.

He climbed onto the jungle seat and gave the signal to the flight engineer to pull him up. The cable began to reel in and he hung beneath the helicopter. He thought if this was a trap, now was the time he would find out. He was pulled back into the door of the helicopter as it began to move forward on their return trip to NKP. All on the helicopter were glad to see him alive and unharmed.

“All these years I have been concerned and regretted not getting the body. But they didn’t tell us anything about how hot the area was or even which way north was,” he said.

For this return trip, Sorensen was given a list of shots he needs to have before he leaves. Some of them are series shots. He received word that he would be going to do this mission because the pilot of his helicopter and the flight engineer have both passed away and they can’t find the co-pilot. He was on vacation when the word came through. On their way back from Boise, he and his wife, Laura, stopped at Mountain Home Air Force Base to get started on the shots. He had trouble getting on the base because no one there had heard of him. While he was talking to the guards at the base the man who has been in touch with Leland called him. He gave the phone to the guards and finally someone from the base clinic came and got him and took them to the clinic so he could start his shots.

He will leave Aberdeen and head to Hawaii, arriving there around Thursday, Feb, 27. He is still not sure of the exact date. In Hawaii he will get more of his shots before heading to Thailand.

In preparation for this mission, the military has interviewed residents in the possible areas of the body. They have reports of sitings, parachutes being found and other things begin found. Generally when these things are found, the person finding them takes those things and uses them for whatever they can. They have pinpointed quite a few areas the body may possibly be.

“After all these years I thought someone had found him,” he said. “If the body was found, depending on who found him, some would have buried him, some would have left him.”

He has talked to the pilot’s family and they don’t want him to feel bad about leaving the body. They knew he was dead and that was important. At least they knew he was dead and not missing in action.

Sorensen will be gone for about three weeks trying to recognize the area where the body was. “Hopefully things will look similar. If I can’t find it, maybe I can eliminate some spots. I know it is a long shot but there is a chance.”

“I have often regretted, since that day, that I did not take the time to retrieve the body of that downed pilot. I don’t know what would have happened if I had taken the time to dig the body out of the bushes. It could be that there was not another soul within 50 miles of our location. All I know is what did happen because I did not take the time to recover the body. We returned to NKP and lived to fight another day,” Sorensen said.

Sorensen added the irony of the dates. It will be almost 45 years to the day when he is looking for the pilot again.

1 comment for “Leland Sorensen heads to Southeast Asia to complete decades old mission

  1. James Donohue
    March 17, 2014 at 5:13 am

    Leland;
    I cannot imagine how hard it was then, and how hard is has been for you since then. I wish you much luck in completing your mission and finding David. Thank you for your service then and your efforts now to find David.
    Jim Donohue

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