When antiaircraft rounds hit his plane, Guy Fowler had just seconds to decide to bail out.
He was piloting an A-1E Skyraider over North Vietnam, and ground fire had just hit his aircraft, killing the engine immediately. In order for a pilot to parachute safely, the plane needed to be at least 300 feet in altitude and traveling at 120 knots. Fowler’s aircraft met neither requirement. At best, he guessed he was 200 feet above the ground – just 60 to 80 feet above the treetops. And the last time he had checked his speed, he was traveling only 105 knots.
“Before I jumped I knew there was little chance that my parachute would have time to open,” said Fowler. “It was, I remembered thinking, certain death. I decided to go anyway. It was the only chance I had.”
In fact, as Fowler later learned, parachuting from his doomed aircraft well under the recommended altitude likely saved his life.
Learning to fly
Fowler had graduated from Sundance High School in 1957, and although he was taking college courses, in the summer of 1959, his friend talked him into taking the pilot’s test and joining the Air Force. He graduated in 1961 from Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Oklahoma, and took a position as a flight instructor at Williams AFB in Chandler, Arizona.
Fowler had married Shirley Oudin of Sundance in early 1961, and when his orders came to report to Southeast Asia for duty in spring 1966, the departure from his family was heart-wrenching.
“My daughter was four and my son was two years old, and that is a tough time to leave children,” he said. “My wife had had portraits made of her and the children after I left and had sent them to me. I carried those pictures with me on every combat mission.”
Fowler joined his unit, the 602nd Fighter Squadron, in Udorn, Thailand. For the next several months, he flew dozens of missions, from search and rescue to reconnaissance, bomb damage assessments and various combat sorties.
On Nov. 15, 1966, he and another pilot were assigned to fly reconnaissance in North Vietnam, over the Ho Chi Minh trail, an area heavily fortified with antiaircraft defenses.
Fowler followed as the lead plane descended through clouds and flew low through a valley. Fowler recognized quickly that the situation placed him in imminent danger. With the lead plane alerting enemy forces to their presence, and Fowler following as a wingman a few hundred yards behind, he was the likely target of an enemy response.
“I didn’t have time to think a lot,” he said. “When I got hit and the engine quit I didn’t even have time to try and chance a restart of any kind. I just figured my choices were either riding it into the jungle and certain death … or jump out. I immediately decided to jump.”
“I opened my canopy, and it slid back,” he continued. “I stood up in my seat, did the summersault out toward the wing and jerked my D-ring. The opening shock of the parachute was just amazingly quick to me. I had never made a jump before. I remember grunting at the opening shock of the parachute. I must have descended less than two seconds before I hit the trees. I had time to look up and see that my parachute was fully blossomed and there were no holes. I looked down and I was going in the trees. I threw up my arms and hit the trees. That is how long I descended.”
Search and rescue
Fowler landed in a tree, tangled 50 feet in the air. Even before descending from the tree, he used his radio to call his lead pilot to tell him of his situation.
“That is the first he knew that I had been shot down,” said Fowler. “After telling him that I didn’t have any broken bones and I would be able to move, I realized I didn’t want to be hanging up in that tree when the enemy came. At that point I was sure they had seen the parachute come down. I reached over and grabbed branches and pulled myself to the trunk. I just wrapped my arms around the tree and slid down the trunk. I hit the ground and took off.”
Fowler raced to find a hiding spot to protect him from the enemy forces he estimated were less than a mile away and would come looking for him. Leaving his brightly-colored orange and white parachute in the tree, he found a nearby rock crevasse that partially concealed him.
In his first radio contact, he had been told that a rescue chopper would arrive in 35 minutes. However, a later radio contact told him that the first rescue helicopter was experiencing mechanical difficulties, and a backup chopper was being sent, resulting in at least another 20 minutes of wait time.
“At that point, I was absolutely certain the enemy would be searching the area before the rescue team would have a chance to rescue me,” he said. “As excruciating as it was, all I could do was remain hidden and wait … Checking my .38 caliber pistol, I thought about how I would react and what I should do when they found me. Should I fight and save the last bullet for myself?”
But his hope was buoyed moments later when an A-1E made a slow pass above him, dropping ordnance to prep the area for the helicopter’s arrival, but also receiving machine gun fire from the ground.
“Suddenly, the valley erupted with a violent, reverberating boom from the A-1’s ordnance delivery,” said Fowler. “The ground shook. So loud and startling was the noise that I remembered jumping while lying flat on my back. It scared the hell out of me … It was absolutely the most deafening and yet one of the sweetest sounds, at the moment, that I had ever heard.”
When the helicopter arrived, Fowler was located and winched onto the aircraft.
“I was on the ground about an hour and 15 minutes,” he said. “That doesn’t sound like a long time unless you know you are less than a mile from the gun that shot you down. It was an eternity.”
Once on the helicopter, he discovered why the fighters who shot down his plane had likely not come searching for him as he expected. His very fast and very low parachute deployment went unseen. It was not until other aircraft arrived on the scene that they realized a survivor had escaped the plane and a rescue was being attempted.
Back at it
That night, back at base, he participated in the search and rescue unit’s tradition of celebrating at the local officer’s club. Also according to tradition, the rescued pilot was the buyer. But that night was a particularly special occasion. Fowler was the 100th person successfully rescued by the 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron.
“I think my bar bill was $60, which doesn’t sound like much now, but that was a lot of cheers that had been bought,” he said. “Everyone had free drinks. I’ve never regretted buying those drinks.”
Fowler was off the flight schedule for one day, but the day after that, he was back in the air.
“I didn’t want to sit on the ground and brood about it,” he said. “I wanted to get back up and fly.”
Because the Air Force reduced a pilot’s tour by one month for every 20 missions flown over North Vietnam, Fowler flew for five more weeks after his rescue and then headed home in January 1967. In eight months, he had flown 132 combat missions, 80 of them over North Vietnam. He had also participated in 26 rescue missions, half of which were successful.
Fowler finished his college degree in mathematics at the University of Oklahoma, and by the time he retired from the military in 1983, he had served in California, Utah, New York and La Paz, Bolivia.
His wife Shirley passed away in 2010 from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and he has since remarried to Cheryle Guth. His daughter lives in Idaho and his son, now an otolaryngologist, lives in Tennessee. He has seven grandchildren and one great grandchild.
Over the years, Fowler’s support for the war and America’s reasons for entering it has not wavered.
“I never felt it was improper if your neighbor’s house was on fire and needed assistance, to go to their assistance,” he said. “I never felt like we shouldn’t be there to assist them maintaining their freedom.”