One of the most vulnerable situations anyone can face is to be a stranger in a strange land. Suddenly the things that are familiar, the things that were taken for granted, cannot be found. Suddenly, once surrounded familiarity, one now recognizes nothing. One is forced to deal with situations that are completely and utterly foreign. John Millhollan faced more than only a strange land. He faced an entire night spent in the jungles of enemy territory during the Vietnam War.
On April 23, 1967, John’s mission consisted of protecting a bomber plane from enemy aircrafts on the Northwest area of Hanoi, Vietnam. “The 105’s were the primary interdiction aircraft in North Vietnam,” John said, “They flew the primary bombing raids. They were very vulnerable to the Migs that would come up off the ground from the different airfields.”
Sure enough, the situation called for John’s assistance. Two enemy planes approached Millhollan and his crew, splitting off into two directions. After trading shots, Millhollan’s crew took down one of the planes with a sparrow missile. The other was unaccounted for. “The other Mig went down into the weeds, I’m not sure exactly whether it was a kill or not but we think it was a second kill there.”
The mission was accomplished. John began congratulating his crew, but a familiar bump interrupted the celebration. “I remember when I was in high school and driven down the old country road and ran over a dog. This big bump that I’ll always remember and I had the exact same bump and my first thought was, ‘What’s this dog doing up here in the air?’”
But as John evaluated his aircraft, the “dog” turned out to be an 85mm shell. When he made every attempt to salvage his plane, John’s crew advised him to eject—from 28,000 feet. “If you take the wildest ride that you have had on a Ferris Wheel, roller coaster, whatever they have in the things today and multiply that by a factor of 10 is exactly what the ejection from that aircraft was like because not only do you have a great big shotgun shell you also then have a rocket that accelerates the seat out of the aircraft.”
So John hung in the air--floating with nothing but the vast jungles of Vietnam lying beneath. “You just hang on and hope that things go well,” John said. Eventually, he fell through the trees and crashed against a log. When he contacted the other members of his crew, he discovered the fall actually knocked him unconscious for nearly half an hour. John’s crew informed John that a rescue plan was making its way; all he needed to do was wait. In the area he landed in, Millhollan didn’t have much of a choice.
“I was on a clearing about as big as [a living room]. I walk over to the edge and look down, it’s down a couple of thousand feet and behind me is about a thousand feet straight up.”
A couple of hours passed until help arrived. John could finally go home…Or so he thought. “I watched it as it tried to hover,” he said. “It sort of wobbled around in the sky and sort of broke off down the valley. I thought to myself ‘Radio, where you guys going? Don’t go out yet I’m not on there.’” The rescue plane circled around for a second attempt. As the helicopter came closer and closer within John’s grasp, the wobbling started again. And just like the first attempt, the helicopter was forced to pull out, leaving John alone in the jungles of Vietnam.
Daylight vanished and the rule officers continually reminded John filled his mind, “If we don’t pick you up the first day you go down, we’ll be there at first light.” So in the dark, cold rain, John Millhollan had to spend the night and wait until morning.
Daylight came at 5am. Ironically, though the circumstances were dire, the scenery said otherwise. “The birds were singing,” Millhollan said, “There were ferns and trees and it was a beautiful location. About 7500ft on the side of this mountain and you could see the heat start to rise up as the sun rose.”
Once again, John reminded himself of what his officers told him, “We’ll be there at first light.” The light had arrived, but help had not. He persevered through the night for this moment. He completed his race but the finish line could not be found. At this point, John reached the peak of his internal struggle.
“Your mind plays tricks on you at this point because of all of the trauma that you’ve gone through,” he said. “I did look down that mountain and I would look down and I would see someone ‘He’s coming to get me, I know he’s coming.’ Then I’d look away and look back and it’d be a tree stump or a tree or just a bush.”
But John’s faith would not waver. Help would arrive. His men would not leave out to dry. At roughly 9am, John’s help arrived. John could finally go home…Or so he thought. “The jungle slowly heated up that I saw the fog slowly rise and fill this valley that I was in to the point that I could not see my hand in front of my face.”
John’s camp became invisible and impossible for any helicopter to venture in. The rescue planes informed Millhollan that they had ten minutes for the fog to clear. Every protocol had been made. All tries at a rescue had been attempted. All that was left was to wait once more. The final wick of John’s faith began to burn out. Knowing there was nothing left do, John did not pray for something specific. Not for the fog to clear or the helicopter to somehow find a way, he simply proclaimed, “Lord, I need help.”
Within the minute, John’s prayer was answered. “I felt a breeze across my face, the clouds slowly drifted off over the ridge. As they did, the helicopter came over that same ridge.” Finally, John could go home, but it was all but smooth.
He spent over a month in hospitals in Thailand and Japan before Millhollan made back to the U.S. In June of 1967, someone far more beautiful than the sunrise he witnessed at Vietnam walked through the hospital door—John’s wife, Linda.
“She came in and sat on the side of the bed so it was exciting and great to be home.”