The Air Force was charged with combat search and rescue operations in Vietnam. The 37th Aerospace and Recovery Squadron flew the missions from Da Nang airbase using HH-3 Jolly Green Giants. The 31st ARS flew long-range mission using HU-16 seaplanes flying out of Clark AFB. From 1968 to 1973, Coast Guard pilots participated in a pilot exchange program. Two fixed-wing pilots flew out of Clark. By 1968, aerial refueling probes had been developed for the HH-3, so the HU-16s were no longer needed. The Coast Guard pilots transitioned to the KC-130s used to refuel the HH-3s. Three Coast Guard helo pilots flew out of Da Nang. They were determined to show the Air Force, and the world, that Coast Guard pilots could fly combat missions. They developed a code, “Three of many”, and acquitted themselves well with their Air Force brethren. The Jolly Greens generally flew in pairs, a “high bird” to provide cover and a “low bird” to make the pickup.
On 9 June 1968, a Marine Skyhawk pilot went down 37 miles west of Hue in the A Shau Valley. He had a broken arm and leg. He was in the middle of a VC bivouac area, and the VC were using him as bait to lure the Jolly Greens into weapons range. After A-1s Sandies blasted the area, the low bird made three attempts to get the Marine, but was driven off with severe damage. After another Sandy run, the high bird, flown by LT Jack Ritticher, USCG, went in. On his second attempt, his helo was hit, crashed, and exploded. Ritticher was awarded a Silver Star Medal and Purple Heart Medal for this action. He had previously been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. His body was recovered in 2002.
On 1 July, a pilot went down about 17 miles northwest of Dong Ha, just across the DMZ. Six rescue attempts were thwarted by heavy fire before night fell. The next morning, LT Richard Egan, USCG, made an attempt. He made contact with the pilot who deployed a smoke marker. Egan dove for the smoke and lowered his Pararescueman who found the pilot and brought him back to the hoist. As the hoist was being raised, a burst of fire smashed the helo’s windshield. Egan held his hover until the hoist cleared the trees, and then shot off a full throttle to Dong ha hospital with the two men still dangling from the hoist. His aircraft had taken 40 hits.
On 30 November 1972, the Air Force transferred the 37th ARS to Thailand for duty with the 40th ARS. A total of 12 Coast Guard pilots flew in Vietnam. Two others flew out of Thailand. The last Coast Guard pilots departed Thailand on 14 July 1973.