The Search for "Hostage Penny"

An AH-1 Cobra from Marine Observation Squadron Two (VMO-2) was providing gunship support for a CH-46 transport helicopter (squadron unknown) assigned a medical evacuation mission the night of 19 September 1969.  The Cobra was piloted by 1stLt. Kenneth E. Pennington  whose call sign was "Hostage Penny."  His copilot was 1stLt. John A. Reed.  It is unclear what actually happened during this mission except that Hostage Penny decided to stay out after completing a medical evacuation mission to shoot some ground controlled radar approaches to the airfield at Da Nang.

That evening the Purple Foxes had been assigned the standby mission known as "Bald Eagle" which was used for any emergency mission, other than medical evacuation, that might arise.  The crew of YK-11, the lead aircraft of the Bald Eagle flight, consisted of 1stLt. Charles J. "Chic" Schoener - pilot, 1stLt. Jerry J. "Raquel" Welsh - copilot, Sgt. Marvin F. Brown - crew chief and LCpl. Donald A. Sapede and Cpl. Larry L. "L3" Lawrence as gunners.

The following is a description of the events as recalled by Colonel Chic Schoener at the request of USMC Combat Helicopter Association (Pop-A-Smoke) in 2001.  It is the only known depiction of what happened. 

We launched that night at 2255 when the call came in to search for an AH-1 (Hostage Penny) that had disappeared from Da Nang's radar, was reported overdue and missing. 

With at least one other Cobra and one OV-10, we were first vectored to the last reported radar position provided by Da Nang Approach Control in the vicinity of  Hill 65.  It was pitch black and foothills all around us.  We commenced our search using our search light sparingly because we were at a low altitude in a hostile area.  However, it was so dark that we could not make out even land features and we found nothing.

The remainder of our search efforts centered on ground observations about strange flashes, and or lights, all the way from Hill 55 to An Hoa.  The search was temporarily terminated, until first light, at 0100 on 20 September.  I stayed on as the search aircraft because of my familiarity with the mission.

At 0655 we launched again with the same crew with one exception.  LCpl. Donald A. Sapede, a gunner from the night before, was replaced by LCpl. Martin T. Rabbitt.

While airborne, the call came in that an OV-10 had spotted what looked like a crash site on the side of a small hill. When I arrived over head, the other Cobra (Maj. Dep Miller) was already landing a short distance from the wreckage site. I remained at a high hover off to the side and had my gunners watch for any enemy action/fire.  Maj. Miller was beating his way through tall grass to the site which was probably 30-50 meters away.  The aircraft had impacted the hillside less than 150 feet from the crest, had broken in two and burned.

Once Maj. Miller reached and searched the immediate site, he located the body of the co-pilot 1stLt. John A. Reed.  At this point I maneuvered my CH-46 over the site to hoist up Lt. Reed.  Once we had the body aboard, Maj. Miller returned to his Cobra and radioed that we would need a ground search team to look for "Hostage Penny” (Pennington).  I moved from my hover over the wreckage and started to slide down slope following the trail of debris.

At that point, I spotted a blackened body laying face up in the middle of a 'stamped out circle'.  Immediately, I radioed that I had the other body in sight and that a search party was not needed. Positioning my aircraft directly over the site, we were preparing to lower a crew member to recover Ken.

My heart stopped when I saw the upper half of his body rise up to a sitting position. Screaming, "HE'S ALIVE!" I then slid the aircraft further down slope, backed into the hillside with ramp down and released my gunner and crew chief to retrieve the casualty.  By this time Maj. Miller was hovering off to my side voicing encouragement and haste.   With Hostage Penny safely aboard we rushed to the Naval Support Activity Hospital in Da Nang where both Marines were disembarked.  For a day or two later the report was that Ken was doing OK and talking.  Then suddenly he died.  I understand the cause of his death was from kidney failure resulting from significant trauma. 

Lt. Reed had suffered a gunshot to the head and further examination of the aircraft showed it had taken additional small arms and automatic weapons fire.  It was a tragic loss. Both were friends of mine. We came so close. The wreckage ended up being very near its last reported radar sighting. 

Some time after Pop-A-Smoke published the above account, Ken Pennington's widow posted the following.

I send my heartfelt thanks to Colonel Chic Schoener for his report of Ken's accident and rescue.  In all these years I had not read any specific details of the actual crash and rescue.

Ken was a brave and selfless soul.  He did not have to fly this last mission, I was told, for he was getting ready to meet me for our second R&R in Hawaii.  This is the kind of man he was - he cared for his squadron mates and could not refuse them in time of need.  Ken was also fortunate that his squadron mates cared for him also.

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