Idaho war hero returns to Laos to find remains of downed pilot 45 years since

Photo: Para-rescue on board a Jolly Green helicopter. U.S. Air Force
Photo: Para-rescue on board a Jolly Green helicopter. U.S. Air Force

Leland Sorensen of Aberdeen looked back at his exploits in Southeast Asia when he was still a member of the elite U.S. Air Force para-rescue jump team. 45 years ago, his job was to rescue downed pilots during the Vietnam War by clinging on a thin steel cable and jumping down towards hostile territory. The drop towards the jungle canopy from a helicopter was part of the trade.

His rescue missions in 1968-69 were successful. And due to his relentless efforts, he was awarded the Silver Star, four Distinguished Flying Crosses and a trip back to the familiar jungles of Laos during the later part of the month.

Sorensen received a surprise email from the U.S. Army’s Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office last December soliciting the help of Sorensen in salvaging the remains of David T. Dinan, an F-105 fighter pilot, who was gunned down in an area on the mountains of Laos on March 17, 1969. Sorensen’s help is key to finding the remains of Dinan because he was the last known person to see the pilot’s dead body.

“I was the one who went to the ground,” Sorensen said. “I was happy to tell what I recalled.”

Sorensen was set to fly to Laos last February 27 to become part of the mission to find Lt. Dinan. The find rested on Sorensen’s memory to locate the site of Dinan’s death and the events that transpired on that day. Sorensen, now a retired biologist with the University of Idaho Research and Extension Center in Aberdeen, said he will never forget the site when they made an extensive search for Lt. Dinan. He recalls the grassy opening on the hillside where he tread, the tree lines on both sides of the hill and the fear that he felt then of being ambushed. He could never forget because it was his mother’s birthday.

“We hovered into position over a clearing on the hillside below the pilot’s location and I climbed onto the jungle seat attached to the hoist cable. It is difficult to describe the feeling one has in the spinal column at times such as this. I was sure someone was out there waiting to commence firing at me,” Sorensen said.  Sorensen was then 21 when he joined the rescue mission which he recalled had been going on for more than three hours. He was in the “high bird”, a para-rescue unit in a “Jolly Green Giant” HH-53 Sikorsky helicopter. A smaller helicopter or “low bird” had tried to drop a para-jumper to the ground near the site where Dinan was shot. But the attempt was abandoned.

“That guy bumped his M-16 against a tree and it fired leading everyone to believe there were hostile forces,” Sorensen said. Sorensen had only lost a bunk mate who is also a member of the para-rescue team to an ambush the previous year. But, the young Sorensen who had received medical training still went ahead with the rescue. His bunk mate died during a rescue mission. He had dropped below a canopy of 150-foot trees when the members of the team in the helicopter heard shots.

“His last words were that he was hit and they should pull him up,” Sorensen said. “The hoist cable snagged in the trees and snapped in two as the helicopter pulled away.”  Three months after the fateful event, Sorensen reached the ground and started the search for his fellow para-rescue member. He studied the site and proceeded towards the hilly part of the terrain. “I began to notice drops of blood here and there,” Sorensen said. “I didn’t see him until I was right on him.”

Then, he was faced with the reality that Lt. Dinan was dead as he found the lifeless body of the pilot. Lt. Dinan ejected from his F-150 and during his descent, he landed hard in the trees and tumbled down the hill with his ejection seat pack.

Lt. Dinan was dead. During his descent after ejecting from his F-150, the pilot had dropped hard in the trees and tumbled down the hill with his ejection seat pack. Dinan, found face-down, was wedged into the bottom of tree. His parachute were in tangle with the thick foliage above. His leg was broken and there was bone showing through his thigh. His flight helmet was also no where in sight.

Sorensen, upon seeing the body, realized that it would be very difficult to salvage Dinan’s body from the trap of cords and foliage. He radioed back to the crew in the helicopter to inform them that the downed pilot was dead. The response he got from the pilot of the Skyraider helicopter hovering overhead was, “Then get the hell out of there.”

Sorensen followed the order and made a scramble down the hill. He hoisted himself to the cable and left the site. “I have often regretted, since that day, that I did not take the time to retrieve the body of that pilot, but considering the circumstances and the fact that he probably didn’t care one way or the other, I keep telling myself that I made the correct choice,” he further said. 

That fateful event did not, however, deter Sorensen from making successful rescue missions. By the end of his service in Southeast Asia, he made an outstanding record of 127 combat rescue missions. He earned the Silver Star for a rescue made on a downed F-105 pilot who suffered 11 broken bones and injuries. The downed pilot ejected at high speed in a target which is heavily defended and armed. “I went down and got him ready to come up the hoist with me,” Sorensen said. “Today he walks with a limp, but he gets around and he’s doing OK.”

The rescued pilot was James Fegan of Maine. He was able to meet Sorensen again during a reunion organized by a Vietnam-era search and rescue organization in 2001.

I got to meet James Fegan for the second time,” Sorensen said. Sorensen was unaware that the rescue he made of Fegan was recorded on a black-and-white video. The footage was captured by a member of the rescue helicopter crew. It was replayed during the reunion without Sorensen’s knowledge of its existence. Sorensen said that the reunion was full of Air Force veterans’ jokes about close calls. It was also then when they laughed about the F-105 which was nicknamed as “thud” because “that’s the sound it makes when it hits the ground.”

They also exchanged stories about the intensive training that the bearers of maroon berets had to undergo. The training included “Army jump school in Georgia, Navy driving school in California, medical training in Texas, Army Ranger mountain training and jungle-survival training.” Sorensen was also known to have graduated as the top of his class in July 1968.

Sorensen also had made missions to Laos, Thailand and other locations “where the American military really wasn’t there”. He left the service in 1971 and continued to pursue college at Brigham Young University.

The Magic Valley Times reports that Sorensen got married to Laura. Afterwards, he got his degree in microbiology while Laura got her degree in elementary education. The couple had four children, all girls. He spent the rest of his career in agricultural research given his background as a farm boy from Sterling who hailed from Aberdeen High School.

His war exploits were behind him until that email came last December to remind him of his military past. And returning to the site of Dinan’s death would be like returning to his past. “They want me to go back there after 45 years and find the spot where I stood way back then,” Sorensen, now 66 years old, said. “I think it’s a lot of pressure.” “If the tree line is similar and if they send me to the right hill, I think I can find it again,” Sorensen added. “I’m probably the best chance they have.”