A bright flash lit the night sky as the Russian built surface-to-air missile roared from its launcher. In a few seconds, it passed through the cloud cover over Hanoi and raced toward its rendezvous.
It was December 20, 1972. Two days earlier President Nixon had ordered full-scale bombing of Hanoi, hoping to force North Vietnam to negotiate an end to the war.
Captain Deverl Johnson, a pilot of one of the eighty B-52s sent on this mission, leaned forward intently in his seat.
This was the time in the flight when they were most vulnerable to enemy missiles. A few minutes earlier, as they approached Hanoi, they had evaded seven other missiles. Hanoi was living up to its reputation as one of the most heavily defended antiaircraft areas in the world. Now, as they approached their designated target, there could be no dodging. The mission came first.
The missile electronically locked onto the radar signal aimed at the plane by the enemy radar crew on the ground.
The crew released its bombs on target. Johnson began a turn to their out-bound heading back to their base in Guam.
The missile exploded when it was only a fraction of a second from the plane. It was not a direct hit, but its bright ball of fire hurled thousands of tiny pieces of metal through the plane.
In the cockpit, glass gauges on the instrument panel blew out as the shrapnel burst through the plane’s shell.
Fire warning lights flashed on two of the engines. Instinctively, Johnson quickly shut down the two engines.
Suddenly the lights went out, and they were flying in darkness, uncertain how much longer the plane would continue to fly.
Much later, when he was telling about this experience to a group of young people at a fireside, he was asked if he was praying then. “No, not then. It was all I could do to fly the plane. But before every flight, even now, I take several minutes for prayer. Of course, I have to hope that my Father in heaven has a good memory because some of our flights last up to 14 hours.”
In checking with the crew, he found out that his navigator had been wounded with shrapnel, but not seriously.
“See if you can get us some electrical power,” Johnson asked his copilot. The electrical monitoring equipment was on the copilot’s side of the cockpit.
Johnson retrieved a flashlight and shone it on the instrument panel. Most of that complicated set of flight instruments were useless to them without electricity. He had four flight instruments that didn’t need power to operate: a compass, an altimeter, a vertical velocity indicator, and an air speed indicator.
Two hundred fifteen knots was the optimum speed. Any slower than that and the wings would give more drag and less lift.
“I can’t get anything,” the copilot finally said, finishing his inspection of the plane’s electrical system. The electricity for the plane was generated by air-driven generators. Apparently the shrapnel had punctured the air lines.
The air speed indicator slowly approached the critical speed—217, 216, 215, 214. Johnson edged the plane downward in order to pick up speed. They were descending at 200 feet per minute.
Johnson felt his legs getting cold. The outside air, at 40 degrees below zero, whistled noisily into the plane through each tiny hole made by the shrapnel.
“We’re heading west,” the navigator announced. “We need to be heading south. At this rate we’re going to wind up in China.”
Johnson tried to turn the plane, but it wouldn’t respond. “I can’t turn it. We’ve got a fuel imbalance on one wing.” Without electrical power, he was flying the plane with his own strength. To make matters worse, the missile’s shrapnel had made enough holes in the fuel tanks on the left side that the resulting weight imbalance made it impossible to maneuver the plane.
The air speed indicator took another drop as the plane again slowed down. Johnson nosed the plane into a steeper descent—500 feet per minute. Four of the eight engines were working.
“At least we’ve got a full moon,” he thought, looking down on the cloud cover. The tops of some of the more rugged mountains jutted above the layer of clouds below.
His copilot retrieved a hand-held, battery-operated radio from a survival pack and tried to make radio contact.
Once more the plane slowed down. They were flying on three engines. Johnson steepened their rate of descent to 1000 feet per minute.
“If we can just make it to Thailand, we’ll be all right. It’s a friendly country, and everyone who’s made it back there has been picked up safely.”
The magic line was the Mekong River. Johnson and his copilot looked out, trying to spot the river by the light of the full moon.
“My legs are so cold,” he thought. Reaching down to feel them, he touched a strange, thick wetness. He shined a flashlight on his hand and saw blood. It was the first time that he knew he had been hit.
A panic began to gnaw at him—the fear that he was approaching his death—but years of training would not allow the panic to gain control.
A few minutes later another engine flamed out. They were flying on two engines and descending with a vertical velocity of 1500 feet per minute.
He checked the altimeter—20,000 feet. “How high are the mountains around here?” he asked his navigator.
“Five thousand feet.”
“Then we’ve got ten minutes to get out of here.”
Ahead of them, Johnson could see a rugged range of mountains about five minutes from them. “That’s the safest place to bail out,” he thought, “where the enemy soldiers will have a harder time reaching us than the rescue helicopters will.”
Each of the crew prepared for the ejection sequence. Each man went in his turn. The three crew members downstairs went first.
Finally it was the copilot’s turn. A hatch above him blew open, and suddenly he disappeared, seat and all, into the emptiness overhead.
Captain Johnson was the only one in the plane. As he let go of the controls so that he could begin the ejection procedure, the plane, now dangerously out of balance, lurched over on the heavy side.
He grabbed the controls and leveled the wings. “What if my ejection mechanism won’t work?” he thought desperately. The normal procedure in that case was to get to the openings left by the downward ejection of either the navigator or radar navigator, but with the plane out of balance, it would go into a steep dive the minute he let go. He wouldn’t be able to reach the bomb bay before the plane would crash.
His mind raced as he tried to come up with a plan in case his seat would not eject him. Finally he decided that he would try to crawl out the hole where the copilot had ejected.
The plans were not necessary. He pulled the ejection seat trigger. The hatch above him blew out. Automatically the control column stowed forward. An instant later he was hurled out of the open hatch as an explosive charge fired the pilot’s seat.
Out of the plane the seat, with him still strapped in it, tumbled about wildly. A second later, on schedule, the seat automatically separated from him.
He was spinning over and over in the air.
“The chute, what about the chute?” The panic, which he had controlled before, now consumed his mind as he realized the parachute should have automatically opened.
He felt an overwhelming depression. His thoughts were of his small family; he wouldn’t be able to be a father to his two children.
Seconds flew by as he plummeted to earth.
Suddenly he remembered there was a manual parachute release. He gained control over the panic.
He tried to pull his arms into his side to reach the manual release. Because of his rapid tumbling, the centrifugal force made it difficult to move his arms.
Finally he managed to move his arm to the handle. He pulled it and felt a beautiful jerk as the parachute opened.
He looked around. A few seconds later he saw a huge fireball light the sky as his plane crashed into a mountain peak a few miles from him.
Then he was falling through the cloud cover. Still disoriented and in shock, he was unaware of the ground coming up rapidly.
He slammed into the ground. Still in the darkness of night, he felt himself sliding down a steep slope.
Suddenly he stopped. His parachute had snagged on some bushes.
He spent the remainder of the night hanging upside down from his parachute straps. He was afraid to move until he found out where he was.
When it became light enough, he could see that he was about two-thirds of the way up a steep canyon about a thousand feet deep.
Cautiously he released one parachute strap and used the other strap to slowly pull himself hand over hand up the 15 feet to a more level area where he could rest.
Eventually the gray of night gave way to the colors of day.
Looking around he saw that a bright orange life raft had inflated when he hit the ground. He stood up and walked over to the raft. Taking his knife, he punctured it, then hid it in the bushes where it would be less likely to be spotted by the enemy. He also hid his parachute.
Looking around to make sure he was not leaving any signs of his presence to be picked up by the enemy, he limped into the deep vegetation and hid.
Alone in a jungle in Laos behind enemy lines is probably as good as any place to review your life. They had landed in Laos, about four miles from the North Vietnam-Laos border.
Rescue efforts depended upon radio. When the parachute opened, a radio tone was automatically broadcast on guard channel, which all U.S. aircraft monitored. Planes flying over the area picked up the beacons and notified rescue units.
The rescue helicopters decided to wait for the clouds to be burned off by the sun before attempting the rescue.
After five hours of waiting, he heard the helicopters coming in. He talked to the helicopter pilot by radio until he was nearby. Then he fired a flare to pinpoint his position.
The helicopter maneuvered until it was directly overhead and then lowered a rope. As the rotor wash from the helicopter blew the branches of trees madly about, Johnson had to fight to maintain his footing on the steep hillside.
Finally he managed to climb into the seat at the end of the rope. He gave a thumbs up signal and was reeled up into the helicopter.
The crew members were strung out over a four-mile area, and all but one were rescued. The missing man was never heard from again. It still isn’t known what became of him.
Johnson spent a week in the hospital in Thailand. He had lost quite a bit of blood from the shrapnel wounds in his legs. When he left the hospital, he was flown home for convalescent leave.
His night in enemy territory was over.
He has since been promoted to major and currently serves as a B-52 flight instructor at Ellsworth AFB in Rapid City, South Dakota. In the Church he serves as seventies group leader in his ward and stake.
In a recent sacrament meeting in his ward, he told about this experience.
“Sometimes people ask me what it was like to go through an experience like that.
“We were in a fairly secure environment in Guam. One day we were told about a hazardous mission we were to perform. We were warned that the enemy would do everything in his power to stop us. We were assured that if we had learned the information contained in our Air Force manuals, it would be a help to us in succeeding.
“Even if we had trouble, we were told that there was help for us. There was a way to be rescued. It involved sending someone in for us, someone who would be willing to put his own safety on the line for us.
“Above all, we were assured that there would be communication channels open for us to ask for help when we needed it.
“Doesn’t this sound a little familiar? To me it sounds like the same experience that every one of us here on the earth is going through.
“We also once lived in a reasonably safe environment. We call it the premortal existence. We were told about a dangerous mission and about the obstacles that the enemy would put in our way.
“The manuals that can help us to succeed here on earth are the scriptures. If we read them and learn the lessons contained in them, they will help us to accomplish our mission on earth.
“Even if we get into trouble, there is still hope for us. The Savior put his safety on the line to come to the earth to provide a way for us to be rescued.
“There are also communication channels here on the earth for us. If we pray, God will hear us and provide help. We also have a prophet on earth who can give us help and guidance.”