Submitted by: Jim Chester – 5/25/10
This book is the epitome of the unexplainable things that happen in heavy combat and how history is altered and legends are born. On January 27, 1973, while engaged in very heavy combat just below the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in what then was First Military Region, Republic of South Vietnam, I participated in and witnessed some of the most historic events of the Vietnam War, including the shooting down of CDR Harley H. Hall USN and his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO); LCDR Phillip A. “Al” Kienztler USN shortly after 1600 that day, less than sixteen hours before the cease fire agreed upon in the Paris Peace Talks. The action at the DMZ was the on a scale of combat that approximated some of the heaviest fighting in World War II and yet due to the adverse political tone of the Vietnam War back in the United States, it was grossly under reported by the main stream media and the Department of Defense bureaucrats. The remaining Americans engaged in the heaviest combat of the entire Vietnam War will never forget that last day nor will they ever deny that the ‘Fighting to Leave’ strategy was extremely hard on the American fighting man. It goes against the grain and spirit of what we hold dear in the American experience as fighting men. In 2008, the first book that dealt with the real truth of the last year of the Vietnam War titled ‘Fighting to Leave’ came out written by COL Robert E. ‘Bob’ Stoffey USMC (Ret). Bob Stoffey was there on the staff of Seventh Fleet and his boss, then VADM Jim Holloway USN (later Chief of Naval Operations) had his hands full as the Senior On-Scene Commander to develop policies and tactics from restrictive political guidance from Washington, D.C., and the strain on him must have been enormous. In some ways the strain on those of us engaged in heavy combat cannot compare.
The ONLY time I ever saw CDR Harley H Hall and LCDR Al Kientzler is when they ejected from their F-4 Phantom II Fighter-Bomber somewhere around 1615 on that last day about 4400 meters away from where I was. Watching them descend through 10 X 50 big eyes binoculars in their parachutes coming down under heavy Anti Aircraft Artillery fire, that image will always be indelibly etched in my mind. First to fix their position on the ground accurately and first to get our 5-inch automatic guns into action to deliver heavy accurate suppressing fire to the West and North of their position, we were determined to try to do our absolute best to save those men. For us in our combat team, most of us had not slept in over four days due to heavy night and day combat, but it is amazing what human beings can do when engaged in a life and death struggle to save others. It boggles my mind to this day!
Over the next 37 years, this story has unfolded through an enormous set of amazing circumstantial coincidences that can only be explained through the acts of a higher power for which we can never fully understand. Finally knowing what happened to CDR Harley Hall with a very high degree of probability after many ‘Fog of War’ issues have either cleared up or been definitively answered where the dots can finally all be connected is one of those larger than life episodes that some are fortunate enough to live to tell about and share with the American public. I am extremely humbled to be one of those survivors who can help to tell this larger than life story.
CDR Harley Hall was considered one of the top fighter pilots in the Navy and was a consummate Naval Officer with a positive style of leadership and a can do spirit. He was a former Commanding Officer of the Blue Angels aerial demonstration squadron in 1970 and 1971. The legend that grew up around the disappearance of CDR Hall has reached epic proportions and is followed to this day by many thousands of Americans. What is even more amazing is that CDR Hall was making the last pass of the last mission [of hundreds of combat missions flown] he was ever going to fly in the Vietnam War when he got shot down that fateful day. For LCDR Al Kientzler, this was the only time he ever flew with Harley Hall as his RIO. His regular RIO that day, Gary Hughes was reassigned to other duties on the USS Enterprise and Al Kientlzer took his place. Thus, Al Kientzler went into the history books as the last Prisoner of War (POW) for the Vietnam Conflict before the cease-fire and was among the last POWs repatriated at the end of March 1973. His story of survival is in itself a larger than life story.
A very powerful key figure in this larger than life story is the man that captured both Harley and Al and his name is Nyuyen duc Toan. Mr. Toan was a Viet Cong Officer who was a rarity with respect to his benevolent demeanor in his armed force. As events unfolded over the decades and verifiable information rose to the surface, it is clear in my eyes that Mr. Toan risked his life to save both Harley and Al from being executed the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). His battlefield diary that I have is genuine and those facts he described in that heavy combat can only be known by those of us that were there. He is the genuine article and has been visited by Karma Kienztler (Al’s first wife at the time of his being shot down), Nyla Kientzler (Al’s last wife and widow and by Gary Kientzler (Al’s brother) in January 2007, 34 years to the day at those exact same geographic locations after those spectacular combat events. They all had to be considerably moved by that experience. Nyla Kientzler and I have become close friends from these experiences and cherish her friendship.
The rescue attempt for Harley and Al was a super human effort for those American fighting men involved and those events are also indelibly etched in my memory. By the time the rescue effort was called off later in the evening, there was two aircraft lost, two killed in action and at least six known wounded, including me. There may have been more, because Navy Special Operations forces were involved and those operations remain classified to the best of my knowledge and have not been privy to them. But I know they happened because I followed the communications for those operations on a secure voice radiotelephone circuit.
Lastly I want to thank Dr. George Conger who flew with Harley when they first joined the Navy. George tracked me down on the Internet and we called each other and shared e-mails compiling this larger than life story so the American public can finally know what happened with reasonable certainty. To every American fighting man and woman that has served this great country of ours, this story is one for the ages and I hope that all Americans can share its rich historical impact.
United States Navy (Retired)
Leading Operations Specialist at that time
Paygrade E-5 in the rate of OS2