Early Thursday morning, the jet pilot who had been shot down and stranded for six days in western Bosnia darted out of the pine forest where he had hidden and sprinted to a Marine helicopter that had come to rescue him.
“I’m ready to get the hell out of here,” he shouted, waving his pistol as he ran.
The dramatic rescue of U.S. Air Force Capt. Scott O’Grady of Spokane from the heart of the Balkan war zone ended nearly a week of uncertainty over his fate - and after months of bad news from the region, it provided a rare morale boost for beleaguered U.N. and NATO forces.
Shot down by Bosnian Serbs last Friday while on a routine NATO surveillance mission, O’Grady, 29, had survived by his wits, eating insects and grass when his rations ran out and drinking rainwater.
After his parachute landing, he lay face down in some underbrush, covering his head with his camouflaged pilot’s gloves so his head and ears would blend in with the foliage, according to White House officials who heard his story. He lay “totally motionless” for nearly five hours as Serb forces patrolled, sometimes only a few feet away, combing the hills for him.
For days afterward, he tried repeatedly to contact the rescuers he was sure would come - and managed to avoid the Serb patrols that wanted to take him prisoner. In the end, he used his radio to let U.S. forces know where he was, and then at the final moment, he sent up a plume of yellow smoke to identify the clearing he had chosen for his rescue.
The chopper, part of a formation of 40 aircraft, dodged bullets and two missiles on the way back to this amphibious assault ship in the Adriatic Sea. Once aboard, O’Grady smiled and shook hands with several Marines before being taken below for a medical exam. “I can’t feel any hurt anywhere,” he told his doctors.
President Clinton, who said O’Grady’s “bravery and skill are an inspiration,” spoke with the pilot by phone after he had rested several hours on the Kearsarge. “The country was on pins and needles, but you knew what you were doing,” Clinton told him, according to a White House official who heard the conversation. “The whole country is elated.”
O’Grady, according to the White House, replied that his rescuers are the “real heroes,” and signed off by saying, “Mr. President, I just want to say one thing: The United States is the greatest country in the world. God bless America.”
“Amen,” Clinton said.
The Bosnian Serbs even claimed to have taken O’Grady into custody. But although many had given the pilot up for dead, he was very much alive - and very much uncaptured. Doctors aboard the Kearsarge said he was dehydrated and had small burns on his hips and neck, probably suffered when he ejected. Otherwise, said ship’s surgeon Paul Rochereto, O’Grady appeared to be in good health.
Since O’Grady’s F-16 was shot down by a Bosnian Serb missile, U.S. forces had looked for indications he might still be alive.
It wasn’t until Tuesday, he said, that the White House began hearing from military officials “encouraging” information that O’Grady might be alive. Sources said this was the news, via intelligence intercepts, that the Serbs had found O’Grady’s parachute and were searching for him - the first solid evidence he had bailed out before the crash.
Although O’Grady was shot down while flying on a NATO mission, McCurry said Clinton had earlier accepted the recommendation of his military advisers that any rescue attempt be conducted by the U.S. military, not NATO.
“The way the missions were structured, since time would be of the essence, the president didn’t need to give a go or no-go order, but he was apprised the minute a mission was under way,” McCurry said.
At 2:08 a.m. this morning local time, an F-16 pilot in O’Grady’s squadron picked up a radio transmission with his voice and code name - “Basher 52.” The F-16 pilot immediately informed the AWACS radar surveillance plane in the area, which was able - within 12 minutes - to positively identify O’Grady and pinpoint his position.
Minutes later, a force of 40 aircraft was set in motion when Berndt, commander of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit on board the Kearsarge, received an order to wake his troops and ready their equipment.
Forty Marines from Camp Le jeune, N.C., boarded two CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters - the only craft that would touch the ground during the rescue. The pilots and crew of the Air Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 263 (Reinforced), based at the Marine Corps Air Station in New River, next to Camp Lejeune, revved their engines and waited.
Along with other support aircraft, the Marines formed a TRAP platoon a special operations-capable group trained for the Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel. The 24th Expeditionary Unit is the most experienced such unit, having launched dramatic - and sometimes unsuccessful - missions in Lebanon, the Persian Gulf, northern Iraq, Somalia and Haiti.
By 5 a.m., the 40 planes took off from the Kearsarge. First came the two Super Stallions, backed by four Harrier jump jets and two Cobra helicopters flying in close air support about 150 feet above the ground.
In the distance and almost undetectable were F-16 and F-15 fighters, A-10 Warthogs and a host of planes to jam and detect surface-to-air missiles and other enemy weapons and movement. AWACS aircraft guided the two Super Stallions and their support team to O’Grady’s location. First the rescuers established radio contact with O’Grady, and then they headed for the yellow smoke of the emergency flare - his final signal.
Arriving about 6:15 a.m., the rescue team spent only a few tense minutes on the ground. The Super Stallions landed on the rock-strewn slope of a hill. About 20 armed Marines leaped off - both to protect the landing zone and search for O’Grady.
Instead, O’Grady found them. He ran to one of the helicopters, waving a pistol.
“We trained for nine months for such a rescue,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Gunther, the mission commander. “Of course, we didn’t expect him to come right up to us.”
“He looked scared,” said Sgt. Scott Pfizer, a gunner who quickly pulled O’Grady on board. “I told him, ‘I’m going to get you on the aircraft and get you out.’ There were tears in his eyes. He definitely looked emotionally drained.”
Once O’Grady was aboard, the chopper came under fire. The aircraft zigzagged and rose to get out of range. One bullet entered the cockpit, hitting a canteen, although at a speed too slow to penetrate it. “It made you think, however,” Pvt. John Brokos said.
Members of the rescue team said two missiles were fired at the helicopters. Both missed. The Marines returned fire, but apparently hit nothing. By 8 a.m., all the planes and helicopters had returned to their ships or landing strips.