|CMSgt* Charles Douglas King, USAF|
(Portrait courtesy of Colin Kimball)
On 25 December 1968, Jolly Green 17, an HH-3E was attempting to rescue Major Charles R. Brownlee, the pilot of Panda 01 an F-105 shot down near Ban Lathama, Mahaxia District, Khammouan Province, Laos. Pararescueman Airman First Class Charles Douglas King descended by rescue hoist to rescue the injured pilot. With the pilot attached to the hoist, the HH-3E and A1C King were hit by enemy fire, seriously injured, King instructed the helicopter to depart. King was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross,. The bodies of King and Brownlee were not recovered and both were listed as KIA-BNR**. (Source)Colin Kimball is a buddy of mine, though we've never actually met face to face. We've exchanged e-mails and such and have spoken on the phone. He's another old Air Force sergeant, so we've got that in common as well.
Colin is a photographer and portrait artist, he does portraits of fallen warriors. A number of his works hang in the Collin County Courthouse in McKinney, Texas. This is Colin's third guest post in this continuing series, his first two were here and here.
Chief Master Sergeant Charles Douglas King – So that others may live
By Colin Kimball
In the late 70’s I was stationed at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. We lived in old drafty wooden barracks of Korean War era Vintage. The Air Force decided to update and modernize the barracks and built a new show case “Manor” style barracks to house NCO’s right next to the barracks that I lived in. When it was completed in 1979, they dedicated this building in the name of Chief Master Sergeant Charles D. King, an Air Force Pararescueman who was missing in action from Vietnam. It was a big deal in the local paper, and there was an impressive display of Chief King’s bio and awards and decorations in the entrance to the new Manor that was named in his honor. More than three decades later, Charles King’s name still haunts me. I never forgot him.
Charles was a brave and daring young man growing up in Muscatine, Iowa. He learned to skydive in his youth and worked building grain elevators where he loved climbing high on the structures and working dangerously. He was popular among his high school peers, excelled in the sport of wrestling and was known for throwing big parties with live bands on the family farm. After graduating high school in 1964, he attended Iowa State University where he joined the Sigma Chi fraternity and majored in Forestry. In 1966, things changed, he enlisted in the United States Air Force. It’s uncertain as to why he left college, as college students in those days were given a deferment from serving in the military until they graduated. As King entered the Air Force, he selected the most difficult job the Air Force has to offer, that of an Air Force Pararescueman, referred to as PJ’s. The training is intense. I once knew a PJ who served in Vietnam and after he finished his Air Force enlistment, he entered the Navy to become a Navy SEAL. He claimed that the training was equally intense for both specialties. One major difference was that the SEAL training was purely physical whereas PJ training added a mental dimension by testing medical knowledge during the middle of intense physical training that added a degree of difficulty absent from the SEAL training. While not medical doctors, PJs are trained to conduct minor surgery in the field. As equipped as PJ’s are to save lives, they are also highly trained war fighters as once they get on the ground to rescue a downed pilot, they often find themselves out-numbered by enemy forces and they then become combatants. Like Navy Special Forces Training, the majority of those who seek the skill set of a PJ cannot complete the rigor of the training.
After completing a myriad of lengthy and intense training regimes from airborne school, scuba school and medical training, Charles King was qualified as an Air Force Pararescuman and earned the coveted Maroon Beret of a PJ. In 1968, as a young Airman First Class, King was assigned to Detachment 1 of the 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand. Nakhon Phanom was located near the Thai-Laotian border and was a perfect launching point for rescue efforts over Laos and North Vietnam. It was there that King, lived on a daily basis the creed of an Air Force Pararescueman:
It is my duty as a pararescueman to save life and to aid the injured. I will be prepared at all times to perform my assigned duties quickly and efficiently, placing these duties before personal desires and comforts. These things I do “that others may live.”
In September, King was awarded the Silver Star, our nation’s third highest award for valor, for descending into an enemy infested jungle to rescue an injured downed pilot. Once on the ground he came under fire from advancing enemy troops. King used the combination of medical and war fighter skills to successfully aid and extract the pilot and fend off the approaching enemy that were hell bent on capturing or killing a PJ and American Pilot. His gallantry saved a pilots life.
In early December, King was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for Valor by remaining in an exposed position to provide suppressive fire from his machine gun while the Helicopter he was aboard, that was receiving heavy anti-aircraft fire from the ground, was hovering and extracting a downed pilot. The mission was successful and another pilot’s life was saved.
On Christmas Eve 1968, Major Charles Brownlee (Editor's Note - that's him in the background of Chief King's portrait) was leading a flight of four F-105’s with the call sign of Panda 01 on a bombing mission on a heavily traveled route of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos when his aircraft was hit by ground fire. Panda 01’s last garbled transmission from his cockpit was “ fire and smoke in Cockpit …… bad…...” He was seen to eject from his stricken aircraft, and his wingmen located his chute, with him still in it, suspended high in a tree above the jungle floor not far from the wreckage of his plane. No other voice communications or emergency beacon signals (beeper) were heard from Major Brownlee. A rescue effort was promptly initiated from a nearby HH-3 Jolly Green Giant Helicopter, but as it arrived on scene it came under heavy and intense ground fire from enemy ground troops. As a complicating factor, night fall was rapidly approaching making further rescue efforts nearly impossible. A decision was made to call off rescue efforts until first light the next day.
First light becomes Christmas Day, a day that most people set aside their work duties, socialize, eat a fine meal and celebrate the birth of our Lord. Not Charles King. A1C King was “prepared at all times to perform his assigned duties…placing those duties before personal desires and comforts …so that others may live.” King had a mission to complete. A mission that he volunteered to do! Personal desires and comforts would have to wait.
At first light a rescue team of an HH-3 Jolly Green Giant crewed by A1C King, along with a flight of A-1 Sandy’s, a WWII Vintage propeller driven aircraft that provided air support and suppressive fire for the Jolly Green, set out to find Panda 01. By 0830 they found his parachute with Brownlee still attached suspended and hanging from the tree. To ensure that the enemy had left the area, the Sandys made several low passes to draw enemy fire. No ground fire was observed. Believing it was safe, A1C King went to work and was lowered to the ground using a jungle penetrator on the hoist from the Jolly Green. Once on the ground, he freed Brownlee from his parachute harness and reported that Brownlee was “inert.” Perhaps this term was used to indicate Brownlee was no longer alive, but we do not know for sure. As he was dragging Brownlee to a point where they could clear the dense foliage and be lifted to the safety of the hovering HH-3, King and the Jolly Green came under heavy fire from the enemy forces that laid there in wait. It was a trap. Having harnessed Brownlee to the penetrator but not himself, King asked the pilot pull out and the helicopter attempted a vertical ascent to pull them both to safety. In this process, the penetrator snagged some branches and broke off dropping King and Brownlee to the jungle floor. With the Jolly Green receiving a full fusillade of fire from the enemy and King suffering wounds and injury from the fall, A1C King thought of the safety of others first and said his last words over the radio, “Jolly Green, they are almost on top of me, get out of here.” The Jolly Green was able to limp back to the safety of the base but A1C King remained on the ground alone, wounded and out gunned. He was never seen nor heard from again.
Decades later, a refugee from Laos gave credible testimony that he saw A1C King being hauled off alive in a truck by either North Vietnamese or Pathet Lao troops. A1C King’s ID card was also discovered in Vietnam with Vietnamese written notes indicating he died on December 25, 1968. There is no other information regarding the fate of Major Brownlee. Due to the lack of communications from the ground after his ejection and the report that he was inert when King found him, it is suspected that he perished due to injury from the ejection. Other than these pieces of information, the fate of Charles King and Charles Brownlee are largely unknown. The Pathet Lao troops were ruthless and were known not to take prisoners. No one knows what ultimately happened to Charles King and those who do, certainly aren’t telling.
Charles King and Charles Brownlee were posthumously promoted through each promotion cycle until King attained the rank of Chief Master Sergeant and Brownlee attained the rank of Colonel, before they were officially declared killed in action, body not recovered. Charles King’s family was presented a posthumous Air Force Cross, the highest award for valor that the Air Force can bestow, with a citation that reads as follows:
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Title 10, Section 8742, United States Code, takes pride in presenting the Air Force Cross (Posthumously) to Airman First Class Charles Douglas King, United States Air Force, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an opposing armed force as a Pararescue Specialist in an HH-3E Rescue Helicopter of Detachment 1, 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, 3d Air Rescue and Recovery Group, Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand, in action near Ban Lathama, Mahaxia District, Khammouan Province, Laos, on 25 December 1968. On that date, Airman King was aboard a helicopter engaged in the recovery of a downed United States Air Force pilot from an extremely hostile area. With complete disregard for his own safety, Airman King voluntarily descended on a rescue hoist more than one hundred feet to the ground to aid the injured pilot. Once on the ground, he carried the rescue device to the pilot, freed him from the parachute, secured him to the rescue device, and then used the cable hoist to drag the pilot to a point near the hovering helicopter. Suddenly, enemy soldiers closed in and directed automatic weapons fire at Airman King, the injured pilot, and the helicopter. Though wounded, Airman King, in an extraordinary display of courage and valor, placed his comrades lives above his own by refusing to continue their exposure to the murderous enemy fire. Without taking time to secure himself to the hoist cable, he radioed that he was hit and for the helicopter to pull away. Airman King made this selfless decision with the full realization that once the helicopter departed, he would be alone, wounded, and surrounded by armed, hostile forces. Through his professional dedication, aggressiveness, and extraordinary heroism, Airman King reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.
The portrait I did of Chief Master Sergeant Charles D King, took me many years to complete. Mostly because of the haunting tale of a very brave man, who was not carried away from a battle field, but was last seen alive trying to save the life, or at least recover the body, of an Air Force officer to whom he was sworn to serve. Christmas Day of 1968 must have been a resoundingly hollow day for the 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron back in Thailand. I cannot imagine the grief that those who were on that mission felt when they returned to base. As of this writing, more than 1,600 men including Charles King and Charles Brownlee, remain missing in action from the conflict in Vietnam. Men who served our nation, when many would not. Brave men. Men whose fate has yet to be determined. Men who left loved ones, wives and children, behind not knowing if they were alive or dead at war’s end.
I never got to live in King Manor. I walked by King Manor daily on my way to my duty station and visited the dayroom frequently to savor the glory of the awards and decorations and the memory of a very brave man. I am grateful that my Air Force made such a tribute to teach me of the bravery of an airman. I will never forget Chief Charles Douglas King and the heroism he repeatedly displayed while serving our nation in an unpopular conflict. Not knowing his ultimate fate, or of the ultimate fate of thousands of others, continues to haunt me. All I am left to do is portray this American Hero and tell his story. By creating the portrait I try to get one to look into their eyes. If you look into their eyes, perhaps you will then stop to read their story. If you read their story you will then remember and honor their legacy. And if I am lucky, tell others. That’s my mission. Charles dedicated himself to a creed “so that others may live.” Mine is much simpler, I dedicate myself “so that others may learn.”
Please remember men like Chief King and Colonel Brownlee and pray that their loved ones continue to receive grace and comfort from our Lord.
They were very brave men indeed.Thanks Colin, for keeping the memory of these men alive.
You can see more of Colin's work here.
|L-R Maj. Paul Reagan, Sgt. Ray Price, A1C Doug King, and Maj. Stu Silver. (Source)|
* At the time of this action, Brownlee was a Major and King was an Airman First Class. After they were declared MIA, they both were promoted on each subsequent promotion cycle until Brownlee was a Colonel and King was a Chief Master Sergeant.
** KIA-BNR = Killed In Action - Body Not Recovered