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Holly Gene Bell, Major, USAF (KIA)January 05, 1937 – January 27, 1970
On 28 January 1970, Capt. Richard J. Mallon, pilot; and Capt. Robert J. Panek, Sr., electronic warfare officer, comprised the crew of an F-105G aircraft (serial #38-341/8329), call sign “Seabird 02,” that departed Udorn Airfield as the #2 aircraft in a flight of 2 conducting a wild weasel SAM suppression mission to locate and destroy surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites near Nui Dai Ninh, Ha Tinh Province, North Vietnam. The mission identifier was Steel Tiger, Cricket Area 4; and the location included rugged mountains covered in thick forest and heavily populated with communist military forces approximately 20 miles northeast of the Mu Gia Pass, one of the two major gateways into the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Once Seabird flight arrived in the target area, Seabird 01 established radio contact with the airborne battlefield command and control center (ABCCC) controlling all air operations in this region to obtain last minute instructions. In turn, the ABCCC handed Seabird flight over to the on-site forward air controller (FAC) who was directly in charge of this flight.
The FAC cleared Seabird flight into the target area to initiate their search for SAM sites located along Route 15, the primary road running through the Mu Gia Pass. Seabird 01 and 02 pressed forward with one aircraft flying low over the countryside trolling for the enemy gunners to turn on their radarscopes to paint it with radar waves prior to launching missiles at it. The second aircraft remained high prepared to strike the SAM site once it could obtain a lock on its radar emission. While a simple maneuver, it was also extremely dangerous for the aircrews who intentionally exposed themselves to enemy gunners.
Seabird flight identified an active SAM site and as Seabird 02 attacked it, the Thunderchief was struck by an air-to-air missile from a MiG-21 whose pilot was assigned to the North Vietnamese Air Force’s 921 Flight Regiment. Richard Mallon and Robert Panek were immediately forced to eject from their crippled Thunderchief. Other aircrews saw both parachutes deployed and heard two emergency radio beepers from the aircrew on the ground; but no voice contact could be established with either crewman. Immediately the lead pilot requested a search and rescue (SAR) mission be initiated. Within minutes the rescue force, including two HH-53B rescue helicopters, were dispatched from Udorn Airfield, Thailand, to pick up Capt. Mallon and Capt. Panek.
The location in which Seabird 02 was lost was covered in dense jungle on the west side of Route 15, approximately 12 miles east of the North Vietnamese/Lao border and 17 miles north-northeast of Mu Gia Pass. It was also 53 miles northwest of Dong Hoi and 61 miles south of Vinh.
Major Holly G. Bell, pilot; Capt. Leonard C. Leeser, co-pilot; SSgt. William C. Shine, flight engineer; MSgt. William C. Sutton, pararescueman; SMSgt. William D. Pruett, crew member; and SSgt. Gregory L. Anderson, aerial photographer; comprised the crew of one of the HH-53B search and rescue helicopters (serial # 66-14434), call sign “Jolly Green 71.”
Once the rescue force arrived in the target area, the FAC directed them into a holding area located approximately 23 miles northwest of the downed wild weasel aircrew. As Jolly Green 71 waited for clearance from the FAC to enter the rescue area, the helicopter was attacked and shot down by another air-to-air missile from a second MiG-21 piloted by Vu Ngoc Dinh, a North Vietnamese ace with 6 kills to his credit. Vu Ngoc Dinh was assigned to the 921st Flight Regiment.
Other flight members watched as the MiG-21 attacked the helicopter, then watched in horror as there was a fireball explosion that turned the aircraft into hundred of pieces that descended onto the steep mountainside. A short beeper signal was heard from the crash site, indicating that at least one person aboard may have exited the aircraft alive. At the time of loss, all six men were immediately listed Missing in Action.
Mallon and Panek, meanwhile, were in an area heavily infiltrated with the enemy, and it was known that there were enemy troops in the vicinity. It was thought very probable that the two were captured or killed by the enemy, but never known for certain, as they did not appear in the Hanoi prison system to be held with those American POWs who were released. The Vietnamese denied any knowledge of any of the eight men missing that day.
Some time later, family members were told by a squadron mate that his information was that Panek and Mallon had both ejected safely. Mallon had landed on a road near the Mu Gia Pass and was captured almost immediately. Panek landed in nearby trees and his parachute was seen 30 minutes later, being pulled from the trees. Both men were seen in a clearing within the hour, being surrounded, stripped to their shorts, and holding their hands in the air. Neither Mallon nor Panek were ever classified Prisoner of War, however, but were maintained in Missing in Action Status.
After the Incident
In April 1970, the Air Force conducted a Board of Inquiry to review all facts and circumstances surrounding the loss of Jolly Green 71. In spite of the possibility that one of the crewmen might have survived based on the short emergency beeper that was heard, the board downgraded the status of all six men from Missing to Killed/Body Not Recovered.The area in which Jolly Green 71 crashed was extremely rugged and heavily forested approximately ½ mile east of the North Vietnamese/Lao border, 10 miles west of Route 15 and 23 miles northwest of Seabird 02’s loss location. It was also 38 miles south-southwest of Vinh and 83 miles northwest of Dong Hoi.
In 1992, a National Security Agency (NSA) correlation study of all communist radio intercepts pertaining to missing Americans, which was presented to the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs in a classified format, was finally declassified and made public. According to this document, 8 North Vietnamese radio messages were intercepted and correlated to these two loss incidents. The NSA synopsis regarding Jolly Green 71 states: “USAF SAR HH-53B shot down by SRV MiG-21’s.”
In regard to Seabird 02, the NSA correlation study states, “Note; lost during attack on SAM site. Both crewmen ejected with two good chutes. Enemy ground troops in immediate area and observed to recover one of the parachutes on the ground. USAF F-105G and USAF SAR HH-53B shot down by SRV MiG-21’s. Both crewmen reported dead after bailout.”
In December 1988, the Vietnamese returned several sets of remains to U.S. control that they identified as those of American servicemen. Each of these boxes bore a number which corresponded to a name on the Vietnamese list. The remains of Capt. Mallon and Capt. Panek were among these remains.
The remains of Major Bell were also returned in this group of remains; however, there were complications. In box 18 were remains they identified as William Sutton. Those remains actually were identified as those of Holly Bell. In box 17, which was listed by the Vietnamese as being the remains of Holly Bell, proved to be unidentifiable fragments of cranium. The remains in these two boxes were found by a local woodcutter who turned them in along with William Sutton’s military ID card and Geneva Convention card.
Biographical and incident of loss information was obtained from either POW/NET and/or Task Force Omega, Inc (unless otherwise noted). Additional information may be found via remembrances at The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund or The Virtual Wall Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
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