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Rescue of Hammer 34

Operation Noble Anvil

May 2, 1999
Rescue of Hammer 34

The following was taken from, Brothers in Berets: The Evolution of Air Force Special Tactics, 1953–2003 by Forrest L. Marion. Pages 326-329

On 2 May, Serbian ground fire downed an Air Force F-16CG, call sign “Hammer-34,” near the border with Bosnia–Herzegovina. The CSAR A force of three helicopters—two Pave Lows and a Pave Hawk—launched from Tuzla AB as soon as the downed pilot was located and authenticated and a threat assessment accomplished. Hammer’s shoot down occurred four hours later into the night than Vega’s, which gave the CSAR force less time to work. A daylight rescue in many parts of Serbia was too risky to undertake. Unlike the first mission, in this case the rescue force came under surface-to-air missile fire as it crossed the Serbian border. Each helicopter crew managed to evade no less than three missiles while inbound to the objective area. Also unlike the Vega mission, on 2 May the night was beautiful, clear, with no clouds and a full moon. This increased the threat because the Serbs fully expected a rescue attempt, and they enjoyed better visibility of the CSAR force.

The helicopters encountered large caliber antiaircraft artillery but evaded it by jinking and terrain masking maneuvers. Despite hearing radio traffic suggesting that CSAR A hold and await close air support escort, mission commander Colonel Laushine, aboard the MH-53M piloted by Capt Kent A. Landreth, pushed forward to the objective area in order to take advantage of the precious hours of darkness. Once in the area, the rescue helicopters linked up with the A-10 and a flight mate of the downed flier, another F-16CG who assumed the OSC role. Using the call sign “Hammer–33” (rather than the traditional “Sandy”), the downed pilot’s flight mate assisted by vectoring CSAR A to the survivor’s position. Two miles from his location, Capt William F. Denehan, Jr., the MH-60G pilot, came under ground fire. The flight engineer, SSgt Richard D. Kelley, returned fire using the helicopter’s minigun. Immediately, the rescuers contacted the downed pilot and directed him to turn on his flashing beacon. Making one pass over the survivor, the Pave Hawk and MH-53M failed to obtain a visual on him. However, Denehan spotted the downed Airman and started inbound to make the pickup. He landed his Pave Hawk in a field near the survivor. The ST team of PJs Jeremy Hardy (team lead) and Ronald Ellis and combat controller Andrew Kubik jumped out to secure the pilot, inadvertently knocking out a case of bottled water in the process.

Serbian soldiers nearby also spotted Hammer-34 and were closing in, the command historian later wrote. Herb Mason related that when the pilot “bolted from the nearby tree line,” Hardy, armed with an M-4 rifle, quickly authenticated him one last time. Using the case of bottled water as a convenient step, the ST team loaded Hammer-34 aboard the aircraft “and quickly piled on top of him to protect him from any incoming ground fire.” Twenty seconds after landing, with the ST men and their pilot aboard, Denehan took off to the sound of gunfire.

Denehan’s Pave Hawk and Landreth’s MH-53M quickly rejoined the second Pave Low holding a mile away and began their egress. Changing their outbound route, CSAR A encountered minimal ground fire but required a jinking maneuver near the border to avoid an enemy position. The rescue team landed safely at Tuzla, with early twilight already beginning to appear. As in the rescue of Vega-31, the pickup helicopter pilot (Denehan) and the MH-53M pilot (Landreth) each earned the Silver Star; their crews received DFC’s. Mission commander Steve Laushine compared the two rescues and noted that overall the second CSAR “went a lot smoother than the first,” despite poor radio discipline. It was ironic that the Vega and Hammer pickup helicopters belonged to the 55th Special Operations Squadron, which was slated for inactivation later in the year. This deployment was their swan song.

For rescuer and rescuee, there was at least one personal remembrance of the dramatic event in later years, as both men went on to greater responsibilities. In 2010 PJ Jeremy Hardy was promoted to chief master sergeant. The presiding official for the ceremony was Maj Gen David L. Goldfein, Hammer-34, Hardy’s rescued pilot. Six years later, General Goldfein became the Air Force chief of staff.

Special Tactics Personnel, “Hammer-34” F-16 Rescue, 2-3 May 1999

MH-53M (Chalk Lead)  

  • Robert W. Bean (PJ)  

  • Isaiah Staley (PJ)  

  • Ryan Stanhope (CCT) 

MH-53J (Chalk 2)

  • Darryl Cherry (PJ)

  • Juan Ridout (PJ)

  • Christian Begnal (CCT)

MH-60G (Chalk 3)

  • Ronald Ellis (PJ)

  • Jeremy Hardy (PJ)

  • Andrew Kubik (CCT)

Six weeks after the rescue of Hammer-34, the air campaign ended. Serbian ruler Milošević returned to the negotiating table and agreed to pull his forces out of war-ravaged Kosovo. To many Airmen, the two successful combat rescues of Vega-31 and Hammer-34 were “among the most significant tactical successes of the air war over Serbia.”  Arguably, it was only the success of both rescues—particularly the first—that precluded their strategic significance from being more readily appreciated. Put another way, had an Air Force F-117 pilot been captured and shown to the world, the situation might well have been far more than a tactical issue for the United States and its allies; it could easily have escalated to a strategic and political crisis of the highest order.

[This article references Vega 31, learn more about the events of that day on 27 MAR 1999, here:]

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