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Coast Guard Series - Into the Flames of Hell

Each month, an interesting aspect of the world’s oldest continuous maritime service will be highlighted. The men and women of the United States Coast Guard follow in the fine tradition of the brave mariners who have served before them. As sentinels and saviors of the seas, the United States Coast Guard proudly continues its commitment to honor, respect & devotion to duty to maintain their vigil - Semper Paratus.

The U.S. Army-marked olive drab fuselage of the Huey UH-1 lumbered under the sound of its thump-thump rotors as it flew across the muggy sky of South Vietnam. At the flight controls, Warrant Officer Christopher S. Kilgore scanned the slinking sliver of brackish river as it wound its way through the dense foliage of the jungle. He was, like his fellow airmen and soldiers, a stranger in a strange land. No matter what the political views of he and his compatriots, they were all in it together. He eased the controls forward to take a closer look at the landscape below. Politicians waged war from the safe marble confines of the nation’s Capital, the ever-constantly turned pages of the popular press, and the flickering screens of the world’s television sets. Protesters rallied upon their beliefs and took to the streets. Others offered their support and opinions from the home front. All had a mission. The fanning flames of unrest and illusion were thousands of miles away as the UH-1 continued across the sky toward the focus of the men’s mission on that January day in 1969. Serving as the Aircraft Commander for the Brigade Commander’s command and control craft on the operation, he and his team were vital to the success of the mission. Kilgore passed word to his door gunners. All eyes open and weapons ready. One of the brigade’s helicopters, a light observation helicopter, had been downed by enemy fire, its aircrew pinned down and awaiting the rescue from their comrades. Kilgore’s Huey’s rounded nose dipped lower toward the target area. This was Vietnam. This was life or death. There was no flash of a photographer’s camera as flowers were slid down the barrels of rifles. This was not Haight-Ashbury. There were no popular opinion polls. There were bullets – theirs and ours – which meant one of two things – life or death. In this jungle environ of Vietnam, there was only life and death. There was no negotiating. There were winners and losers. There were no ribbons or trophies for second place. Only body bags and mourning. Kilgore and his crew had only one option. The UH-1 swept wide over the river as cracks of enemy fire sliced through the air. Ricocheting shots crackled into the fuselage as he continued the helicopter’s arc of the area. Enemy positions, he calmly called through his microphone to his crew, were forward and along the tree line. His door gunners replied with their steely aim of their weapons and the steady pull of their trigger fingers as expended shell casings cascaded across the swampy lands below. One of his brigade’s birds was down. Kilgore and his flight crew were going to do whatever it took to ensure that their fellow airmen were provided the cover they needed until they could be rescued, as enemy combatants sward their position. The suppressive fire of the Huey’s door guns raked the enemy’s positions, providing crucial support to the downed aircrew on the edge of the river. The downed airmen, separated from comrades, had to swim across the river to safety. The only thing that could provide that support was him and his crew’s willingness and courage to fly into the fire. The helicopter swept lower as the shell casings continued to rain down upon the aluminum decks of the helicopter and slide into the air earthward. Pulling up, Kilgore knew he would have to return into the hellish bath of fire if the men of the downed aircrew were going to have a chance at survival. The Huey banked hard as he took a tight turn to ensure a second successful sweep of his helicopter’s door gunners’ ability at providing covering fire. Meanwhile, the enemy watched as the olive drab flying dragon swept around for another pass. The enemy trained the sights of their rifles and automatic Kalashnikov’s at the belly and heart of the thumping beast. They pulled their triggers with wanton abandon. The enemy, death from above be damned. To hell with all of the invaders. The rounds of the enemy’s accurate shots struck violently along the skin of the helicopter as Kilgore and his men flew the Huey in for a second sweep of the area. The door gunner’s mounted M-60 machine guns again erupted violently. The rounds screamed across the sky into the thick swath of windswept leaves and trees of the jungle domain. Kilgore watched as the downed airmen trudged into the safety of the mud and muck of the friendly-side of the river. The instrument panel was ablaze with alarm signals and warning lights from the severe damage that had been inflicted by the enemy fire. Kilgore ensured his crew’s safety and radioed his Brigade Commander. The servicemen of 199th Infantry Brigade Light of the Republic of Vietnam would live to fight another day. For Warrant Officer Kilgore, it would not be his first or his last flight into the flames of hell.1 On November 1, 1979, Lt. Commander J.C. Cobb was on his twilight watch. This would be his last and final watch before he would ease softly into the relative warmth of retirement from the United States Coast Guard. Nothing, Cobb was about to realize, was ever that easy. The urgency of the radio call was heard by all. Cobb knew that this was not going to be an easy night. He and his aircrew were about to be called into action. “Air Station Houston, RCC.” The men of the ready flight crew leapt from their ready-racks and donned their flight gear. They were about to be launched into action. While Cobb raced to the operations center to get the details of their mission, Lt. (Jg) Kilgore, who had transitioned to the United States Coast Guard after his extensive time in the United States Army, was joined by AE2 Tom Wynn. The two men raced to their ready helicopter, a Sikorsky HH-52A Seaguard, tail number 1426. The white and orange adorned helicopter was quickly readied and prepared for take-off. Cobb joined his team as the run-up was finalized. Cobb passed word of the details of the mission. The men aboard intently listened as the Seaguard lifted into the night sky. There had been a collision off of the Galveston sea buoy. Men’s lives were in danger. The United States Coast Guard had been called to provide salvation. As the helicopter lifted off, the RADALT or radar altimeter was on the fritz. Flight after dusk was not permitted with such an instrument casualty. Kilgore looked at the flight commander. Cobb dismissed the issue. The Seaguard flew forward toward the basking glow of the collision site. The men’s mission was vital if the men aboard the two vessels had any chance of survival. Once again, Kilgore was flying into the fire. The tanker Burmah Agate, with thirty-seven officers and crew aboard, had been anchored in the waters of Bolivar Roads when she had been struck by the stubby bow of the Mimosa. The collision had taken place as the outbound motor vessel Mimosa was steaming at full speed. The horrific calamity of the navigational error was quickly evident in the clear sky. Flames of death fanned into the heavens as the fiery hell of the over ten million gallons of oil aboard the Burmah Agate fueled Satan’s sweeping scythe of destruction. The flames licked at both vessels as the Mimosa slowly pulled aft in an attempt to escape the conflagration, but the fueled fury licked at the Mimosa’s bow and quickly spread across her own decks and into her compartments. Men scrambled to safety. Little would be offered. Cobb, Kilgore and Wynn, high above the hellish scene, assessed the dire situation. They would first scan the situation and see if anyone aboard the Burmah Agate was still alive. Cobb eased the controls forward and approached the engulfed tanker from the stern on the windward, portside, of the vessel. At two hundred feet above the floating inferno, the three Coastguardsmen scanned the decks for survivors. Suddenly a body was seen floating near the tanker. It showed no signs of life. The helicopter crew continued to search for survivors when there was a horrific explosion. A fiery wall of flame and black smoke billowed from one of the tanker’s forward tanks. Wynn’s voice was heard by Cobb and Kilgore. Two of the tanker’s crew were on the aft main deck. Wynn would serve as the provider of the lifeline to the two stricken sailors. Orders were passed to rig and ready the basket. The Seaguard eased over the billowing smoke as flames continued to erupt from the tanker. The speakers in the pilot and co-pilot’s helmets offered a calming statement amidst the chaotic scene. “Two persons in the basket, basket coming up.” Cobb eased the helicopter out of harm’s way. The Burmah Agate was fully engulfed in flames from her bow to her stern. The Seaguard shifted its focus to the fire-licked decks of the Mimosa. As Wynn attended to the two rescued men from the tanker, Cobb and Kilgore scanned the motor vessel for signs of life. Within moments, it was clear that the Mimosa’s officers and crew needed to be plucked to safety. The Seaguard eased into position and within minutes, ten additional crewmen had been lifted into the survivor’s compartment of the helicopter with three hoists of the helicopter’s rescue basket. The lifts of rescue had not been routine or easy as the Mimosa steamed on a constant death roll of three hundred and sixty-degrees. Control of the helicopter passed between Cobb and Kilgore, testing both of the pilots’ skills, as they maneuvered their aircraft around the vessel’s various antennae, mast, and other hazards. With twelve survivors aboard crammed within every inch of the helicopter’s bay, Cobb had to make a critical decision. A nearby oil platform would be their best bet. The Seaguard, heavily laden with the rescued crewmen, lumbered to the safety of the platform. With the survivors safely and quickly transferred to the oil platform, Cobb, Kilgore and Wynn were soon again above the fire ravaged decks of the still circling Mimosa. The #1426 and her heroic aircrew made a total of three separate missions to the Mimosa. In total, the aircrew was responsible for plucking a total of twenty-two men from her fire engulfed decks. A second helicopter, under the command of Commander David Ciancaglini soon arrived and assisted even more souls from the Mimosa to safety. In total, the United States Coast Guard airmen had pulled all twenty-six men from the Mimosa, all of her complement, and six from the Burmah Agate, from the very clutches of almost certain death. The Burmah Agate would burn for sixty-nine days. The men aboard the U.S.C.G.C. Valiant, also on scene, were responsible for finally bringing the errant Mimosa to a halt after its propeller was intentionally fouled to stop her steaming fiery circles. “It was estimated that approximately 7.8 million gallons were consumed by the fire, another 2.6 million gallons released…the Burmah Agate oil spill is still listed as one of the major oil spills of all time.” The men and women of the United States Coast Guard were celebrated for their professionalism and heroism throughout the horrific scene and its environmentally detrimental wake. Lieutenant Commander Cobb, it was universally decided, had served out his twilight watch in a most dramatic fashion. Kilgore would go on to continue to serve the U.S. Coast Guard until 1996, retiring as a Commander. The #1426, the helicopter who had suffered through and fought on much like her aircrew, eventually was forever enshrined in the Smithsonian for all of her patrons to have the opportunity to learn about the helicopter and her service’s rich history and the sacrifices of the men like Cobb, Kilgore and Wynn. The helicopter, an instrument of the brave and resilient men and women who have served and continue to serve in the United States Coast Guard, will continue to remind museum attendees of those who have served in the world’s longest standing maritime service, the United States Coast Guard, with one vital mission at the core of its foundation – the salvation of their fellow man in the face of adversity.2 The Burmah Agate and Mimosa collision and the subsequent heroic efforts of the United States Coast Guard, both from the air and the surface, will forever remain as one of the most dramatic rescues in the service’s rich history of selfless sacrifice for humanity. It will also forever serve as one of the reasons why the United States Coast Guard is in many ways, in a class by itself and its service men and women, members of an elite calling of maritime professionals who will, no matter the odds, face the very shadow of their own human fate to save others. To race into the storm to ensure that others will have an opportunity at viewing their loved ones, another sunrise and another sunset on their own existence. The men and women of the United States Coast Guard have an important mission and it is a mission based on the foundation of the heroic, brave and selfless acts of the men and women who have served before them as sentinels and saviors of the seas. 1 U.S. Army Warrant Officer Christopher S. Kilgore joined the U.S. Army in 1967 and after one year of training, at the age of nineteen, flew his first combat mission in Vietnam. For his heroic actions during the January 1969 mission, as the aircraft commander, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism. From his Presidential Citation, “Warrant Officer Kilgore’s courage and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.” Kilgore would serve in the United States Coast Guard Reserve until 1996, during the time frame he also served to support Desert Shield/Desert Storm on active duty support. For his efforts in the mission, he was awarded the U.S. Coast Guard Air Medal. 2 While men and women operate the various equipment of the services, the equipment utilized also have a remarkable history and legacy in the services. The #1426 was for example an amazing piece of equipment that had a very rich history. Rolled off the production line in 1967, she would serve the United States Coast Guard from air stations in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Detroit, Michigan, North Bend, Oregon, and in Houston Texas. During her career she would log over twelve thousand flight hours including many spectacular missions including when in 1969, she had been utilized to rescue one hundred and four school children from a vessel on fire near Tarpon Springs, Florida and in 1977, when it participated in one the nation’s largest drug seizures of illegal marijuana. The #1426, thanks to the arduous efforts of many volunteers, was fully restored and in April 2016, to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the United States Coast Guard’s launch of their aviation wing. The retired aircrew of the historic mission – Cobb, Kilgore and Wynn rejoined their aircraft for the ceremony.

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