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Atascadero veteran of Vietnam risked his life for downed fliers

courtesy photos

The air was muggy, so hot and clammy that the pilots sweltered beneath their flight suits.

But the weather wasn’t the only factor causing them to sweat: They were flying into enemy territory to act as cover for the rescue of a downed flyer, and knew such missions could be deadly ambushes and go bad in a nanosecond.

It was 1968 and Capt. George J. Marrett was flying missions out of two Thai Royal Air Force bases, rescuing pilots who had been shot down while carrying out secret bombings in Laos and Cambodia.

Marrett, now an Atascadero resident, was a member of an elite group of flyboys who operated under the code name “Sandy.” There was never any hesitation in undertaking their next rescue.

As Marrett wrote in his book “Cheating Death, Combat Air Rescues in Vietnam and Laos,” “There is a code among warriors that they always bring out their casualties, living or dead. ‘If you’re down, we’ll get you out,’ we told the jet fighter pilots. ‘And if you’re dead, we’ll bring you out anyway. At least you’ll be dead among friends.’”

Marrett’s story is offered on this Veterans Day as a paean to all of the vets of our armed forces.

Born in Grand Island, Neb., in 1935, the 75-year-old Marrett has lived a life defined by flight.

He’s probably one of those people who always look up when they hear planes droning overhead or catch sight of a contrail in the sky. From Air Force test pilot to combat veteran to corporate pilot, Marrett has never let the sky limit him.

After graduating from Iowa State College in 1957 with a degree in chemistry, Marrett joined the Air Force, took advanced pilot training at Webb Air Force Base in Texas, and spent four years at Hamilton AFB flying the F-101 Voodoo.

From there, he was selected to attend what’s now called Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB. He spent three years testing the latest jet aircraft at the Lancaster installation. The point that he tested jets is somewhat ironic in light of his service in Vietnam as a Douglas A-1 Skyraider pilot.

The Skyraider is a slow moving but maneuverable plane that dates to the Korean War. Although the United States had mostly adopted jet aircraft to go nose-to-nose with Russian-built MIGs in Vietnam, the Skyraider boasted endurance, amazing offensive power and the ability to cruise along at slow speeds.

In fact, a joke among Skyraider pilots was that the plane had three speeds: 120 mph taking off, 120 mph while cruising and 120 mph while landing. Yet rescue pilots like Marrett prized all of the plane’s qualities.

In any event, because combat missions of any stripe can lead to deadly consequences, those men flying downed-pilot rescues had to have a special type of ice water flowing through their veins.

When the call came for a Sandy rescue, several Skyraiders and a couple of Jolly Green HH-3 jet helicopters would scramble.

A small spotter plane would find the downed airman and the Skyraiders would set themselves up almost like decoys, drawing enemy fire which Marrett and company could then home in on with strafing, cannons and rockets. Meanwhile, a Jolly Green would lower a basket and hopefully winch the downed pilot into safety.

The operations were lethal, yet the rewards of recovery life-affirming.

During his year of flying out of Thailand and into the mountainous jungles of Laos and Vietnam, Marrett saw his 45-member squadron lose 12 pilots and 26 planes. All told, the Air Force lost 2,587 fliers, with 1,021 wounded and 549 missing in action in Vietnam.

“It was a tremendous loss of airplanes and people,” Marrett said. “ ‘Cheating Death’ was written for those men who didn’t make it, so families would know of the circumstances their men had been in. It’s a permanent record of service to country.”

Marrett resigned his commission in 1969 after his stint in ’Nam and joined Hughes Aircraft Co. as a test pilot. Over the next 20 years he flew more than 40 different types of experimental craft, including an early version of the B-2 Stealth bomber.

By the time he retired to Atascadero with wife Jan in 1989, he’d logged over 8,500 hours of airtime. During his 25 years as a test pilot, he’d lost 35 test-flying friends.

But he hasn’t given up his addiction to flying. He helped found the Estrella Warbird Museum at the Paso Robles Municipal Airport, and wrote four books and numerous magazine articles about his flight experiences.

Marrett regularly flies his 1945 Stinson L-5E Sentinel and is the corporate pilot for D.P. Industries of Templeton.Forty-one years after his tour of duty in Vietnam, Marrett still gets together with “the guys who were over there because we owe our lives to each other.”

“In a combat situation, you’re really relying on the other guys,” he said. “You get shot down and we’ll come after you. ”