It’s been 45 years since Aberdeen’s Leland Sorensen clung to a thin steel cable as he was lowered into the jungle canopy of Southeast Asia. As a member of the elite U.S. Air Force para-rescue jump team, it was his job to drop from a helicopter into hostile territory to rescue downed pilots during the Vietnam War.
Sorensen’s successful rescue efforts in 1968-69 earned him the Silver Star, four Distinguished Flying Crosses — and a return trip to the rugged jungles of Laos later this month.
A surprise email from the Army’s Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office last December asked for Sorensen’s help in finding the remains of F-105 fighter pilot David T. Dinan, who was shot down on a Laotian mountainside March 17, 1969. Sorensen was key because he was the last American to ever see Dinan’s lifeless body.
“I was the one who went to the ground,” Sorensen said about that fateful day nearly 45 years ago. “I was happy to tell what I recalled.”
Sorensen will fly to Laos on Feb. 27 and become part of a mission to find the remains of Lt. Dinan. People are counting on his memory of the location and the events of that fateful day.
In fact, the now retired biologist with the University of Idaho Research and Extension Center in Aberdeen will never forget the ground during an extensive search for Lt. Dinan. Sorensen remembers the grassy opening on the hillside that he climbed, the tree lines on both sides and the fear of ambush. It was Sorensen’s mother’s birthday.
“We hovered into position over a clearing on the hillside below the pilot’s location and I climbed onto the jungle seat attached to the hoist cable,” Sorensen recalled. “It is difficult to describe the feeling one has in the spinal column at times such as this. I was sure someone was out there waiting to commence firing at me.”
Sorensen’s anxiety at age 21 was heightened by the fact the rescue mission had been going on for more than three hours. He had been in the “high bird,” a para-rescue team in a “Jolly Green Giant” HH-53 Sikorsky helicopter. A smaller chopper or “low bird” had already attempted to put a para-jumper or PJ on the ground near the downed pilot, but scrubbed the attempt.
“That guy bumped his M-16 against a tree and it fired leading everyone to believe there were hostile forces,” Sorensen said.
Sorensen had lost a bunk mate and fellow para-rescue member to an ambush in December. Nonetheless, the young airman with medical training agreed to attempt the rescue.
His bunk mate was on a rescue and had dropped below the canopy of 150-foot trees when the helicopter crew heard shots being fired.
“His last words were that he was hit and they should pull him up,” Sorensen said. “The hoist cable snagged in the trees and snapped in two as the helicopter pulled away.”
Just three months later, Sorensen thought about the loss of his friend as he reached the ground, studied the surrounding terrain and headed uphill.
“I began to notice drops of blood here and there,” Sorensen said. “I didn’t see him until I was right on him.”
Lt. Dinan was dead. During his descent after ejecting from his F-150, the pilot had landed hard in the trees and tumbled down the hill with his ejection seat pack. Dinan was face-down and wedged into the bottom of a tree with his parachute straps tangled in the foliage above. His leg was snapped with bone showing through his thigh and his flight helmet was missing.
Sorensen said he knew it would be a long, arduous task to free Dinan’s body from the tangled cords and tree. He radioed his helicopter pilot that the downed jet pilot was dead. Another voice came over Sorensen’s radio from the pilot of a Skyraider aircraft flying overhead saying, “Then get the hell out of there.”
Sorensen scrambled down the hill, hooked himself to the hoist cable and was lifted from the area.
“I have often regretted, since that day, that I did not take the time to retrieve the body of that pilot, but considering the circumstances and the fact that he probably didn’t care one way or the other, I keep telling myself that I made the correct choice.”
Besides, Sorensen had proved his mettle as a PJ on multiple occasions. By the end of his time in Southeast Asia, he had 127 combat rescue missions. He would get the Silver Star for rescuing another downed F-105 pilot who suffered 11 broken bones after ejecting at high speed over a heavily defended target.
“I went down and got him ready to come up the hoist with me,” Sorensen said. “Today he walks with a limp, but he gets around and he’s doing OK.”
Sorensen was able to meet that rescued pilot, James Fegan, of Maine, during a Vietnam-era search and rescue organization reunion in Ohio in 2001.
“I got to meet James Fegan for the second time,” Sorensen said with a smile.
Unknown to Sorensen was that the rescue of Fegan had been captured on black-and-white video by a member of the rescue helicopter crew and it was shown at the reunion.
It was at that reunion that Air Force veterans could joke about close calls and the fact that the F-105 was nicknamed a “thud” because “that’s the sound it makes when it hits the ground,” Sorensen said.
Those who were para-rescue members with maroon berets could share stories about the intensive training that for Sorensen included Army jump school in Georgia, Navy diving school in California, medical training in Texas, Army Ranger mountain training and jungle-survival training. He graduated at the top of his class in July 1968.
Sorensen put all his experiences in Laos, Thailand and other locations where the American military “really wasn’t there” behind him when he left active service in 1971. He returned to college at Brigham Young University and married his wife, Laura. He would get his degree in microbiology and she would get hers in elementary education. Together they reared four girls. The young farm boy from Sterling, who graduated from Aberdeen High School, would spend a career working in agricultural research.
The dangers of the Vietnam War had slipped from his mind until that email came last December. Now he’s preparing to return to the past.
“They want me to go back there after 45 years and find the spot where I stood way back then,” the now 66-year-old Sorensen said. “I think it’s a lot of pressure.”
However, as the former maroon beret recalled the hard training and dangerous months he spent in the jungles of Southeast Asia, a look of determination came over his face.
“If the tree line is similar and if they send me to the right hill, I think I can find it again,” Sorensen said. “I’m probably the best chance they have.”