Not many helicopter pilots could pull off a mission to fly into enemy territory in complete darkness and rescue their stranded comrades. During the Vietnam War, however, Navy Cmdr. Clyde Everett Lassen did just that. It took him several attempts to make the pickup, and he barely made it back to tell the tale. But the valor he showed that day earned him the Medal of Honor.
Lassen was born in Fort Myers, Florida, on March 14, 1942. Since World War II was raging, and his father, Arthur, was in the service, Lassen's mother, Jacqueline, moved in with her family in Lake Placid, New York, when Lassen was still an infant. His parents reunited when he was three years old, and they moved to Englewood, Florida, and had another son, Gary.
Lassen grew up in that area, eventually graduating from Venice High School in 1960. He attended San Diego City College in California and Pensacola Junior College in Florida before joining the Navy in September 1961.
Lassen was an aviation electronics technician, but he wanted more from his military career. So, in 1964, he was accepted into the Naval Aviation Cadet Program. On Oct. 12, 1965, he received his commission and Wings of Gold as a helicopter pilot. That same month, he married his high school sweetheart, Linda. They went on to have two children, Daryl and Lynne.
Lassen's first assignment was with Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 1, where he practiced search-and-rescue techniques in the Philippine jungle. Eventually, HC-1 was redesignated Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 7. Lassen became the officer in charge of the squadron's Detachment 104 aboard USS Preble, which was deployed off the coast of Vietnam during the war.
As the aircraft commander of a search-and-rescue helicopter, Lassen was called on June 19, 1968, to rescue two downed aviators in North Vietnam. The pair had ejected 20 miles into enemy territory after their F-4J Phantom II was hit by a surface-to-air missile.
It was shortly after midnight on a pitch-black night when then-Lt. j.g. Lassen took off from the Preble in a UH-2A Seasprite light utility helicopter, despite the aircraft not being fit for the mission. According to Hill Goodspeed, historian for the National Naval Aviation Museum, the helicopter was too heavy and couldn't take off with a full fuel load; Lassen also had to make the dangerous move of diving toward the water to gain flying speed.
Once off the ship, Lassen flew deep into hostile terrain to a steep, tree-covered hill where the survivors, Navy Lt. Cmdrs. John Holtzclaw and John A. Burns, had been located. Despite taking enemy fire, Lassen initially landed in a clearing near the base of the hill. However, the undergrowth was so dense that Holtzclaw and Burns couldn't reach the helicopter.
The two survivors were asked to send up flares so Lassen could find them from the air. He successfully put the chopper in a hover between two trees about 50 feet above the men's position. Lassen was hoping he could pull them up via a rescue hoist, but the flares died before the rescue could begin, leaving the helicopter in darkness and in a precarious position. The chopper collided with a tree and fell into a sharp decent. Thankfully, Lassen's expert abilities helped him to right the aircraft and move away from the trees.
He remained in the area, determined to rescue the men. Lassen even encouraged the survivors to head down the hill to a clearing for pickup while his chopper waited for another aircraft to bring more flares.
Lassen made a second unsuccessful attempt to land. By now, his fuel was dangerously low, and the aircraft had suffered significant damage. But Lassen remained focused on the mission. He launched again and tried for a third rescue attempt, all the while enemy fire continued to come at him. During this attempt, the flares died yet again. Lassen knew that turning on his helicopter's landing lights would give away his position to the enemy, but he did it anyway so he could land.
According to Goodspeed, Lassen kept the chopper's weight off the wheels so they wouldn't get stuck in the mud, steadily hovering over a rice patty for about two minutes. The helicopter's gunners lit up the tree line with their machine guns as Holtzclaw and Burns ran toward the escape craft. Within seconds of the gunners yanking the two men into the chopper, they were in the air again and on their way out of the area, Goodspeed said.
Lassen later said it was that return flight that made him the most nervous. Along the way, he successfully dodged more hostile anti-aircraft fire. With only five minutes of fuel left to spare, he successfully landed the beaten-up helicopter aboard the USS Jouett.
For his bravery and refusal to give up, Lassen received the Medal of Honor from President Lyndon B. Johnson at a White House ceremony on Jan. 16, 1969. He became the first of only three naval aviators to earn the nation's highest honor for actions taken in Vietnam.
Lassen remained in the Navy until retiring as a commander in December 1982 after more than 20 years in the service.
Goodspeed said Lassen rarely talked about the night that earned him the Medal of Honor; however, his children finally learned the full story from their father in 1993 during a National Museum of Naval Aviation symposium that reunited the rescue's participants. Lassen donated his medal to the museum that same year.
Lassen died April 1, 1994, after a battle with cancer. He is buried at Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola, Florida.
In his honor, the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen was commissioned in 2001 and is still in use today. The Clyde E. Lassen State Veterans' Nursing Home in St. Augustine, Florida, also pays homage to him.
This article is part of a weekly series called "Medal of Honor Monday," in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military's highest medal for valor.