Dedicated to the Preservation of the
U.S. Air Force Helicopter History
James Richard Thomas, TSgt., USAF (KIA)July 05, 1943 – November 25, 1971
On 25 November 1971, two CH-53 helicopters of the 37th ARRS, call signs JOLLY GREEN 70 and 73, departed Bien Hoa Airbase to pick up survivors of a crash near Can Tho (variously described as a CH-46 CHINOOK or C-7 CARIBOU). During the pickup JOLLY GREEN 70 took hits from enemy fire. After dropping off the crash survivors at Can Tho, the crew of JOLLY GREEN 70 checked their aircraft and decided it was capable of the return flight to Bien Hoa Airbase. JOLLY GREEN 70 was crewed by Maj. Robert B. Swenck, pilot;CPT John W. George; copilot;TSGT James R. Thomas, pararescueman;SGT R. L. Sneed, pararescueman;SGT H. L. Theriot, flight engineer; andA1C Thomas D. Prose, pararescueman.The two JOLLY GREENs departed Can Tho in tactical formation for the 95-mile flight to Bien Hoa to the northeast. During the return flight, they encountered a 100 foot to 300 foot high cloud overcast with moderate to heavy rain showers. At 1550 hours, while flying below the cloud cover, JOLLY GREEN 73 lost contact with JOLLY GREEN 70. When radio contact could not be reestablished search and rescue efforts were begun. JOLLY GREEN 70 was located approximately 13 nautical miles southeast of Tan Son Nhut Airbase, Saigon, in the Nha Be River, near the town of Nha Be, Gia Dinh Province, South Vietnam. The aircraft wreckage was close to the east bank of the river. While the west bank of the river was secure, the east side was considered enemy territory.Two crewmen (Theriot and Sneed) survived the crash and reported that the aircraft had been hit by enemy ground fire. There were reports from a local fisherman that a third person was sighted alive in the water after the crash; this person was tentatively identified as TSGT Thomas.Salvage efforts began at once, with Vietnamese divers locating and searching the submerged wreckage. The aircraft was raised with cables and the bodies of Major Swenck, Captain George, and A1C Prose recovered. While the wreckage was being towed to a more secure location, the cabling broke and the wreckage sank once more. On 27 November, divers once again searched the wreckage for Thomas’ body, and the wreck was raised a second time for a further search. Thomas was not found, nor was he found during ground searches of the river banks downstream. His body was never recovered.
(Sources: the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, the POW Network, Task Force Omega, and James Henton’s compilation of Air Force helicopter losses.)
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