The USS Lassen (DDG-82) was named after Clyde Everett Lassen, born in Fort Myers, Florida on 14 March 1942, and enlisted in the U.S. Navy on 14 September 1961. Lassen later applied for the Naval Aviation Cadet program, and was accepted in 1964, receiving his Wings of Gold on Oct. 12, 1965. A helicopter pilot, he was ultimately awarded the Medal of Honor for his courageous intrepidity in the face of enemy fire while rescuing other aircrew.
Lassen served initially with Helicopter Combat Support Squadron (HC) 1, and after the squadron was redesignated to HC-7, he became the officer in charge of HC-7’s Detachment 104 at Cubi Point, Philippines, where he practiced search and rescues (SARs).
On 18 June 1968, Lt. Cmdr. John W. Holtzclaw, with Lt. Cmdr. John A. Burns as his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) , of Fighter Squadron (VF) 33, launched in a McDonnell Douglas F-4J Phantom II (BuNo. 155546), Rootbeer 210, in company with their wingman, Rootbeer 214, from attack aircraft carrier America (CVA-66) to escort Buckeye 504, a Grumman A-6A Intruder flying from America, for an armed reconnaissance over North Vietnamese lines of communication north, northwest, and west of Vinh, North Vietnam. It was a high overcast and moonless night.
Shortly after midnight the jets reached a position 12 nautical miles east of Vinh Son when Rootbeer 210 received electronic indications of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and the crew observed three missiles lift off. The launches did not trigger warning tones, but Buckeye 504 began to jam and dumped chaff while the Phantom IIs jettisoned their bombs. Holtzclaw avoided the first two missiles through deft maneuvering and the second weapon detonated off the jet’s port quarter.
The third missile homed in from the Phantom II’s 9 o’clock position below and exploded beneath at about 0010 on 19 June. Observers saw the jet erupt in a “blinding white fire ball.” The initial reports placed the stricken Phantom II about twenty miles inland and a half mile south of the 19th parallel.
The men ejected and activated emergency beepers as they descended in their parachutes, landing in adjacent rice paddies about three miles from the crash site. The stranded naval aviators crossed paddies toward a wooded karst hill in about 45 minutes, a feat that investigators afterward summarized as “extremely hazardous…[in]…almost total darkness.”
Holtzclaw and Burns reached dense jungle and radioed their rescuers. Meanwhile, Lt. Cmdr. George H. Crater of Attack Squadron (VA) 56 launched in a Douglas A-4E Skyhawk from attack aircraft carrier Enterprise (CVAN-65) and acted as on-scene commander, his shipmate Lt. Gary H. Tobey coordinating.
Lt. (j.g.) Lassen, his copilot Lt. j.g. Clarence L. Cook, and AE2 Bruce B. Dallas and ADJ3 Donald West, on board as aircrewmen, launched in Clementine 02, a Kaman UH-2A Seasprite (BuNo. 149764), from South SAR Destroyer (guided missile frigate) Preble (DLG-15) at 0022. Preble “handed off” the rescuers to Jouett (DLG-29), and Lassen and his crew spotted flames from the Phantom II’s wreckage.
The dense foliage prevented them from locating a suitable clearing, and Lassen asked Holtzclaw and Burns to signal. The downed aviators heard the helo’s rotors and illuminated a high-intensity strobe light, but Clementine 02 only spotted occasional glimpses of the strobe until other aircraft dropped Mk 24 paraflares. Holtzclaw fired five .38 cal. magnesium high-intensity tracers that enabled the Seasprite crew to briefly spot the men. Despite diminishing fuel Lassen unsuccessfully attempted to break through the jungle and traverse the steep hill, but landed in an open rice paddy two hundred yards below the men’s position.
Enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire ripped skyward. “Come get us, come get us!” Holtzclaw and Burns repeatedly cried over the radio. The flares faded and returned the night to pitch darkness. The helo attempted to close but the aircrewmen shouted they were about to hit a tree. Lassen added power and climbed but experienced a large jolt as the helo slammed into a tree just aft of Dallas’ position. The Seasprite pitched down into a tight starboard turn, but the pilot regained control despite heavy vibration in the controls. Cook fired from his window while aircraft dropped additional flares and the Seasprite identified the downed men’s position. A “ball of flame” suddenly passed underneath the helo with a high speed whoosh from a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG).
Holtzclaw and Burns broke cover and moved downhill, followed by the sounds of a North Vietnamese search party noisily crashing through the brush above. The fugitives separated and evaded their pursuers down the remaining hundred yards of the hillside, and Burns signaled the helo by strobe light and his radio. Clementine 02 turned on its landing light and hovered about 100 feet away from the men, who stumbled and fell in the deep grass as they raced for the helo but scrambled on board at 0225.
The helo escaped at 140 knots and ascended to 4,000 feet to begin the 15-mile return flight back to Jouett. Additional flak and heavy caliber automatic fire from coastal defense sites en route compelled Lassen to descend to avoid the rounds. The crewmen proved unable to close the starboard door and it was torn from the helo, but Clementine 02 returned at 0240 with 135 pounds of fuel remaining — barely enough for five minutes. Holtzclaw sustained minor cuts and scratches, while Burns received injuries to his right knee and back during ejection, and sprained his left ankle during the evasion phase. Lassen received the Medal of Honor and was entitled to wear the Presidential Unit Citation.
Cmdr. Lassen retired from the Navy in 1982 and lived in Pensacola, Florida, until his death from cancer on 1 April 1994. He is buried at Barrancas National Cemetery at Pensacola.
The first U.S. Navy ship named in honor of Cmdr. Lassen. Ammunition ship Lassen (AE-3) was named for a volcanic peak in California, and served from 1941-1961.
USS Lassen (DDG-82) was laid down on 24 August 1998 at Pascagoula, Mississippi, by Ingalls Shipbuilding Division, Litton Industries; launched on 16 October 1999; co-sponsored by Mrs. Linda B. Lassen, wife of the late Cmdr. Lassen, and Mrs. Barbara O. Pilling, wife of Adm. Donald L. Pilling, Vice Chief of Naval Operations; and commissioned on 21 April 2001 at Tampa, Florida, Cmdr. Sean E. O’Connor in command.
(DDG-82: displacement 9,515; length 510'; beam 66'; draft 32'; speed 30+ knots; complement 312; armament 1 5-inch, 2 Mk 41 Vertical Launch System (VLS) for BGM-109 Tomahawks, RIM-156 SM-2MR Standards, and RUM-139 VL-ASROC Antisubmarine Rockets, 2 Mk 15 Close In Weapon Systems (CIWS), 4 .50 caliber machine guns, and 6 Mk 32 torpedo tubes, aircraft 2 Sikorsky SH-60F Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System (LAMPS) Mk III Seahawks; class Arleigh Burke)
The ship’s crest recalls Lt. Lassen’s service during the Vietnam War. Interestingly the heraldic sea lion symbolizes strength and courage, demonstrated by Lt. Lassen. The compass rose symbolizes the landing lights of his helicopter, while rescuing the aviators, revealing his position to the enemy, when illumination was lost.
Original publication the NHHC blog. To learn more about U.S. Navy history, please go to the Naval History and Heritage Command website: www.history.navy.mil/ or visit the NHHC blog, The Sextant.