Dedicated to the Preservation of the
U.S. Air Force Helicopter History
James Patrick McCollum, Captain, USAF (KIA)January 23, 1936 – May 23, 1968
By May 1968 the siege at Khe Sanh had been lifted, but North Vietnamese Army activity in western Quang Tri remained at a high level and the “Mini-Tet” offensive had increased enemy activity throughout South Vietnam. On 23 May 1968 three, CH-3E helicopters departed Nakhon Phanom RTAFB on a close-hold mission – according to one report, they “on a classified ordnance delivery mission”, according to another they were to deliver sensors designed to detect and track NVA forces. In any case, the area involved was near Khe Sanh, and the helos were escorted by a flight of A-1 Skyraiders. On arrival in the target area the helos dropped down through a hole in a nearly-solid cloud cover. Once underneath, the flight lead, Captain John H. McCollum, determined that the mission was not practical and directed the flight to climb back above the cloud deck. The wing helicopters did so without difficulty, but visual and radio contact with Captain McCollum’s aircraft was lost. Weather conditions pretty much limited search and rescue efforts to radio calls, and eventually the effort was called off pending improved weather. When the cloud cover broke up smoke from the burning wreckage led SAR forces to the crash site, which was located several hundred feet below the peak of a 5700-foot mountain. The aircraft wreckage was in two separate areas, with the bulk of the fuselage about 450 feet uphill from the aft-most fuselage section. There were no signs of survivors, but attempts to lower a search party to the site were foiled by heavy turbulence around the peaks. For the next three weeks Marine ground forces attempted to reach the crash site but were unable to do so. Although the crash was believed to be un-survivable, the six men aboard were classed as Missing in Action. The five crewmen from the 21st Special Ops Squadron were: Captain James P. McCollum, Pleasantville, NJ, pilot; Captain William H. Taylor, Wilson, NC, copilot; SSgt John L. Coon, Phelps, NY, Flight Engineer; Sgt John E. Albanese, Medina, NY, Flight Engineer; and Sgt Robert A. Fink, San Diego, CA, Crew Chief. The sixth man, Sgt Thomas F. Buhr, Fort Wayne, IN, a combat photographer from the 600th Photo Squadron, was aboard in a non-crew status. On 02 Nov 1968 a ground party finally reached the site and recovered human remains, believed to be those of at least five men. A mortuary report from 15 Jan 1969 stated that only the remains of Captain William H. Taylor could be individually identified. The unidentified remains were given a group burial with military honors in Site 346, Section 81, of the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, Saint Louis, Missouri.
Crew members included CAPT James P. McCollum (KIA), CAPT William H. Taylor (KIA), SGT John E. Albanese Jr. (KIA), SSG John L. Coon (KIA), SGT Robert A. Fink (KIA) and SGT Thomas F. Buhr (KIA). The following was extracted from the Department of Air Force Report of Death – Case #2 dated 21 Jan 69. Circumstances: These six personnel comprised the crew of the lead helicopter #6613295 in a flight of three CH-3’s which departed Nakhon Phanom at 0654 hours, 23 May 68. The flight, escorted by two A-1E’s, was on a classified ordnance delivery mission in the vicinity of Khe Sanh. Upon arrival in the target area, all aircraft descended through a cloud break to locate the target. The terrain of the area consisted of rugged mountains and dense jungles, and the low cloud ceiling prevented the flight members from locating the target. Temporarily aborting their mission, they began their ascent through the clouds, while maintaining radio contact. The number two and number three helicopters reached the top of the clouds, the two pilots gave their positions, and a report from the lead helicopter revealed that it was still in the clouds. Moments later, one of the escort pilots observed an explosion under the clouds. Since the lead helicopter was still out of sight and all efforts to make further contact with the crew were unsuccessful, the escort aircraft descended through the clouds to search the area. However, clouds prevented their locating the crash site, and further attempts to contact the crew of the lead aircraft were to no avail. Search was continued by the remaining flight members until they were forced to depart due to shortage of fuel, leaving other aircraft in the area to search. At no time had hostile ground fire been noted, nor were there allied artillery strikes into the area. Search Efforts: Numerous aircraft arrived in the area. When the cloud cover cleared, a smoldering wreckage was seen from the air and several parts of a CH-3 helicopter, which were widely scattered, were noted. Portions identified in one area were rotor blades, horizontal stabilizer, and the fuselage section aft of rear doors; and 150 meters up a 30 degree hill were the forward portion of the fuselage, nose, and main gear. The impact point was located on the slope of a 5700 foot mountain, about 500 feet below the peak. No signs of survivors were observed, and no beeper signals were heard. The helicopters could not go into the area due to severe turbulence which precluded lowering a man to examine the crash site. During the next three weeks, attempts by Marine ground forces to reach the crash site were unsuccessful. Supplemental Information: A message from the 366 Combat Support Group, Da Nang dated 11 Jan 69 stated that a ground party had reached the crash site on 2 Nov 68 and five remains were found. A copy of the Report of Processing Remains, dated 15 Jan 69 concluded that only the remains of Captain Taylor could be identified. Six separate remains were accounted for but the remains of the other five individuals should be interred as a group burial. Discussion: Not only were six separate remains recovered but it is also safe to assume that the large amount of ordnance being carried on the helicopter would have exploded at the time it crashed, thereby precluding any changes of survival for those aboard. (Taken from vhpa.org)
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