An American Hero

It was the stuff of which legends are made. Shot down Bosnia, Capt. Scott O'Grady spent six days living off bugs and rainwater, and was then rescued by a daring band of young marines. The inside story.

True members of the Brotherhood of the Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe tells us, aren't supposed to use words like death, danger, bravery and feat: The code is understated; cool. They get themselves into "a hell of a corner" and then "luck out of it." So did Scott O'Grady last week, though afterward, he "couldn't quite understand what all the fuss was about," he told his sister, Stacy. He wasn't hurt too badly, he said; just a couple of little burns and some hunger pangs.

He sustained little burns when he blasted out of a tumbling cockpit after his F-16 had been cut in half by a missile four miles above enemy territory.

He was hungry because he had been living on ants and rainwater for six days while he hid from Serbian patrols who walked within feet of his hiding place, firing rifles at anything that moved. As for the fuss, that is just beginning. "Got 'im!" exclaimed national-security adviser Tony Lake to Bill Clinton when, shortly after 2 a.m. on Thursday, he delivered the improbable news that the young air force captain had been found and rescued by the marines in a daring raid after six days behind enemy lines. The president and his top aide were so excited that they sneaked out to the Truman Balcony of the White House to smoke victory cigars. This week O'Grady will be welcomed by President Clinton at the White House; People magazine, Barbara Walters and all the rest await. O'Grady was "an American hero," said the president, and the country was eager to celebrate him. "Four words I never thought I'd say: 'Good news from Bosnia'," said grinning White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry.

O'Grady is not particularly macho. He is quiet and deeply religious, although, his sister says, he has a "need for speed." He broke down in front of reporters while listening to the tape of his voice, weak with hunger and exhaustion, croaking "I'm alive" to a squadron mate who was flying over Bosnia on Wednesday night, searching for O'Grady's beacon. "I'm no Rambo," he told the press. The "real heroes" were his rescuers. "All I was," said Captain O'Grady, "was a scared little bunny rabbit, trying to survive." Adm. Leighton (Snuffy) Smith, commander of NATO forces in Southern Europe, was less effacing. "We figured that if there was anybody who could survive this, it would be a young American flying an F-16, and by God, we were right."

The story of O'grady's ordeal and his rescue is a techno-thriller, six days of high and low drama recreated by NEWSWEEK reporters from interviews with O'Grady's rescuers and comrades. The cost of the weapons and machinery used to find and rescue the downed pilot was, conservatively estimated, $6 billion. It was Very nearly frustrated by the inadequacies of a five-inch-by-two-inch handheld radio that costs a mere $14. In the end, O'Grady survived because he "was very smart and very determined and very gutsy," said Admiral Smith. Also, because he was "very lucky."

Pilots like irony, and when they're retelling O'Grady's story down at the O Club after a few pops, they will observe that O'Grady was, in a weird way, saved by the Soviet-made surface-to-air missile that blew apart his F-16 on the morning of June 2. Reason being, the impact slowed O'Grady's plane to a mere 300 miles or so an hour. If the F-16 had been flying at its usual speed, he'd probably be dead. Ejecting at 500 miles an hour is like hitting a wall.

O'Grady figured he might be dead soon enough, anyway. As his cockpit disintegrated, he had looked down to see "the beautiful gold handle of my ejector seat" between his legs. As he yanked it, the explosive bolts hurling off the warplane's canopy singed his neck and face. A few seconds later he pulled the rip cord of his parachute and began an "extremely long" descent to earth. As he floated down, he could see a highway winding through the mountainous countryside, a track--and Serbian soldiers. "They were waiting for me," he said.

Tearing off his chute on the ground, he made for the woods, but he was having trouble breathing from the rush of adrenaline. He dropped into a bush and put his "face in the dirt." Anxious that the Serbs would see the white of his skin or the metal dips on his jumpsuit, he placed his green flying gloves over his head and ears, and prayed. He heard men moving about him, sometimes only a few feet away, wildly shooting into the brush. ("How could they not see you?" a reporter later asked him. "God," he quickly answered, then paused, as if to end his transmission. "Period dot.")

O'Grady did not move for five hours. His thirst was overpowering. At nightfall, he was finally able to begin drinking from four 8-ounce plastic packs of water in his survival gear. He finished the water and then prayed for rain. He was rewarded with torrential downpours. Unable to find a creek as he crept about the woods at night ("I was listening for frogs"), he used a sponge to sop up water from the ground and his clothes, and drank, The sponge, he later said, was a lifesaver. The only catch was its color--bright yellow. "It stood out like a beacon."

O'Grady could still see and hear search parties looking for him. He was equipped with a small, handheld radio to call for help, but he dared not use it. His voice could be heard on the ground, and the radio, a somewhat primitive model which transmitted over the open airways, could be easily tracked by the Serbian hunters. For the first day, O'Grady concentrated on staying alive.

Luckily, he was reasonably well equipped. He carried, in his pocket, an "evasion chart," a three-foot-by-five-foot waterproof, tear-resistant sheet that serves as a or a funnel for drinking water. ("Other uses for this map," the chart advised, included "plugging chest wounds.") O'Grady wrapped himself in it for the cold mountain night. At the air force's 17-day survival course at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, Wash.--with terrain much like the Bosnian country-side--O'Grady had been taught how to eat the local flora and fauna. Stinging or furry bugs, no. Ants, yes. Spying an anthill, O'Grady plunged in his finger. "Boy, they scamper away really quickly," he later observed. He snared a few shiny ones for dinner, and munched on some grass and leaves. "I figured if the cows could live off it, I could," he later explained. The cows in the rocky pasture near his hiding place were a nuisance. He was visited by a pair of them so often that he gave them names: Leroy and Alfred. He was more concerned about the nearby farmer who was herding them by ringing his bell. O'Grady called the farmer Tinker Bell.

At survival school, O'Grady had been taught to "think positive thoughts." This he did naturally. He was a striver at his high school, a determined if slightly undersized split end and erratic place-kicker (lining up a field goal, he once missed entirely and did a somersault). He could be a daredevil. As a teenager, he once borrowed the family Suburban station wagon, drove up to the top of a sledding slope and managed to get it air-borne on the Way down. But he disliked boasting. His only ambition was to fly jets. "He wanted the total control of flying an F-16," his sister, Stacy, told NEWSWEEK. His SATs were too low for a service academy, but he won his wings at a small aeronautical school in Arizona. The air force became "his life," his brother, Paul, said. "His blood was silver and blue."

"I had a beer with him once," a squadronmate told NEWSWEEK'S Daniel Pedersen at Aviano air base in Italy. What was he like? asked Pedersen. "After a beer at the club, we all have the same personality," replied the flier. "More pilots die in automobiles than in airplanes," noted Tom Wolfe in "The Right Stuff." A few weeks before he was shot down in Bosnia, O'Grady had totaled his new BMW on a winding road. Italian police were surprised that anyone could have walked away from the wreck. But in other ways, O'Grady did not fit the mold. He was quieter, more of a loner; he seemed to live in his own world. His call sign was Zulu, because he once had trouble keeping track of "Zulu" time, the standard time used by the military for all operations.

O'Grady later said that his first day as an MIA was the worst for him, but the next five were not much better. While O'Grady lay in the Bosnian brush, watching the cows, praying to God and thinking about the example of air force pilots who had been shot down in Vietnam and endured much worse, the combined forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization were trying to find him. NATO jets crisscrossed the area where he had been shot down, vainly listening for his radio signal. The CIA's Vortex and Magnum spy satellites (cost: $300 million to $500 million) were positioned to listen for electronic signals from another radio beacon that O'Grady carried with him. KH-11 and Lacrosse spy satellites (cost: $1 billion each) panned the ground for some trace of the downed prior. The KH-11's camera is capable of peering through clouds.

For all the expensive hardware, Washington could not be sure if O'Grady was alive or dead. His beacon had automatically given off a signal as he descended in his parachute, but O'Grady switched it off after he landed to avoid tipping off the Serbs. At first the Serbs claimed to have captured O'Grady, but communication intercepts by the National Security Agency told Washington that the Serbs had picked up O'Grady's parachute--but not him.

As he moved about at night, O'Grady began signaling from his handheld radio. But the radio is not very powerful; its range is only about 40 miles. U.S. intelligence picked up shippers oft garbled signal they thought was O'Grady. It was enough to allow air force officials to tell O'Grady's mother, Mary Lou Scardapane, that "your boy is out there somewhere." But it was not enough information to mount a rescue operation.

O'Grady's family was naturally frustrated. "I couldn't understand why we just don't send in commando teams," said his brother. But the Pentagon was afraid of a trap. They thought it was possible that the Serbs had found O'Grady's radio or his beacon and were planning to lure rescuers into an ambush. In addition to getting a number of soldiers killed, a botched rescue operation could suck the United States further into the Bosnian conflict, something the administration has been trying to avoid.

O'Grady, however, was running out of time. His radio batteries, which last at most seven hours, were running down. After nearly a week of living off ants and grass, he was physically weakening. Although he did not know it, he was beginning to suffer from hypothermia; his body temperature was dropping to dangerous levels. He knew he was wet and cold. Typically, he tried to make a virtue of his wretchedness, wringing his soggy socks out for drinking water.

As he huddled in a rocky pasture on a clear midnight, June 8, O'Grady heard three clicks on his radio that "made my heart race," he said. And then, ever so faintly, came the sound he had been longing for--another American air force pilot. "Basher 52. This is Basher 11 on Alpha," came the voice. "Basher 52" was O'Grady's call number. "Basher 11" was Capt. T. O. Hanford of the 510 Squadron, the "Five and Dime." He had been flying over Bosnia, searching for his downed mate, for more than an hour. He had about three minutes of fuel left before he would have to turn back to base at Aviano.

Basher 52 reads you loud and clear!" called O'Grady in a hushed cry. "Say again for Bash-er 11," Hanford called back. The transmission was weak and full of static. "You're breaking up," Hartford said, repeatedly demanding, "Say again." Finally, Hanford exclaimed, "Bash-er 52! This is Basher 11. You're loud and clear." From the ground, his voice strengthening, O'Grady exclaimed, "I'm alive! I'm alive!" Ever professional, wary of traps, Hanford quickly asked, "What was your squadron in Korea?" O'Grady told him. "Copy that," said Hanford. "You're alive. Good to hear your voice." Hanford's own voice was cool and steady; later he said he had trouble flying because he was crying.

Admiral Smith, the overall NATO Southern Europe commander, was asleep in his bed in London when he got the call a little after 1 a.m. "Basher 52 just checked in," he was told. The admiral jerked to attention. He immediately called Col. Martin (Marty) Berndt, commander of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, aboard the USS Kearsarge, floating in the Adriatic Sea. Berndt, 47, who had commanded a rifle company in Vietnam and can still bench-press 300 pounds, was the man who would lead the rescue of Captain O'Grady.

The two commanders measured the risk. They could go in immediately and attempt an unprotected night rescue, or they could wait, and by dawn assemble a force big enough to suppress whatever the Serbs might throw at them. A pair of choppers full of marines would make large targets for the handheld SAM-7s that every Serb seemed to carry, or the more lethal mobile SAM-6s, like the one that had shot down O'Grady. They weren't sure how much longer O'Grady could survive. The only solution was surprise: a dawn raid.

Dawn was three hours away. Aboard the Kearsarge, suddenly-alert marines tumbled from their racks, gathered their already-packed gear and headed for their rally points in the hangar bay of the small carrier. They had been through the drill countless times, although this time they were filling their clips with live ammunition. There was little chatter, observed NEWSWEEK photographer Peter Turnley, who watched the men lock and load in the gray light.

At 0545, an entire air force began to assemble in the brightening sky off the Croatian coast. From the Kearsarge, there were the two CH-53E Sea Stallions (cost: $26 million apiece) bearing 41 marines-29 "shooters" and a dozen reconnaissance scouts. Then there were two AH-1W Sea-Cobra gunships ($12.5 million apiece) and four AV-8B Sea Harriers ($24 million apiece). From the USS Theodore Roosevelt came F/A-18 fighter bombers ($30 million); from Aviano came F-16s ($20 million) and F-15Es ($35 million) to fly cover and attack threatening ground forces, and EF-111s ($60 million) to jam radar. Overhead, to direct traffic, circled AWACs ($250 million apiece). All in all, 40 warplanes were launched to bring back one pilot.

He was waiting, with elation and anxiety, at the edge of a pine forest. Morning fog was creeping up the valley below--useful to shield the rescue craft from Serbian gunners, but potentially disastrous if it engulfed the landing site O'Grady had chosen--a boulder-strewn pasture. Shortly after 6, O'Grady radioed one of the approaching planes and said, "I'm good, but I'm ready to get out of here." He knew the price of failure; the roar of the helicopters would bring the Serbs down on him.

In fact, the Serbs knew the americans were coming. At 0621, an EA-6B detected Serbian radar tracking the raiding party. Less than 15 minutes later, the first marine helos, the Cobra gunships, spotted yellow smoke from a flare set off by O'Grady. At 0644, the ma-fines landed. Dash-1, the first Sea Stallion, disgorged a score of leathernecks to establish a perimeter. Dash-2, however, was tin-able to open its tailgate; the helo had landed against a boulder and a wire fence. As the craft shuddered back into the air to find a softer spot, Colonel Berndt saw a sight, he later said, "I will never forget." Dripping wet, waving a pistol, Captain O'Grady was running from the tree line straight at his chopper. As the craft settled back down, Berndt helped haul O'Grady through a side-gunner's hatch.

The marines rolled O'Grady over on his back. O'Grady looked into Berndt's eyes and mouthed the words, "Thank you." The shivering pilot was wrapped in a blanket and handed an MRE, a grant's "Meal Ready to Eat." MREs taste like cardboard; O'Grady devoured his. How did you survive? a marine asked. "I played like a rabbit," he answered.

He wasn't safe yet. Racing just above the fog, the helos suddenly burst into clear air, with the sun backlighting the lumbering craft like a slide show. The first Serb SAM cork-screwed past on the left. The chopper pilots dove to the "deck," skimming along under 100 feet. Bullets from small-arms fire began winking off the helicopter rotors. One round cut into the fuselage and lodged in the canteen of a startled marine. "Relax," ordered Colonel Berndt to his men.

An EA-6B Prowler asked permission to take out a Serbian radar site that was "painting" the U.S. warplanes. Permission denied; the risk of escalation--more hostages, more shoot-downs--was too great. The choppers would have to make it on their own.

By 0730, the Sea Stallions were settling down on the flight deck of the Kearsarge. O'Grady, smiling though his heavy stubble, was hustled into sick bay, where he was fed fluids and treated for his burns. A chaplain appeared, and O'Grady allowed himself to weep as he thanked God,

In Seattle, an air force commander told O'Grady's mother, "We have Scott." She fell to the floor. "Everything just fell apart inside of me," she said. Driving home from the White House at 2:30 a.m., nation-al-security adviser Lake remembered that he had missed dinner. He stopped at a 7-Eleven to buy some cupcakes. As he passed a cop pouring himself a cup of coffee, he couldn't resist. "Can I tell you something that no one else in the world knows?" The cop looked up at him suspiciously. "You know that pilot who was shot down over Bosnia?" "Yeah?" said the cop. "We just got him home," said Lake. "Who are you?" the cop called out. "I just work for the government," said Lake.

The euphoria should start wearing off after the patriotic speeches at the Rose Garden ceremony this week. Already, the Pentagon is investigating why O'Grady got shot down, and Congress will be asking the same questions publicly. Last week Gen. John Shalikashvili, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional committee that O'Grady had been caught in a trap by the Serbs. Military intelligence had never reported any anti-aircraft missiles in the Bosanski Petrovac area where O'Grady was downed. The Serbs apparently rolled a SAM-6 into the region to take a shot at NATO planes enforcing a no-fly zone against Serbian aircraft.

Nonetheless, some Pentagon officials suspect that the air force got a little careless. The Serbs have been cunning and sophisticated about "locking on" NATO warplanes with radar from their SAM batteries. Normally, F-16s are accompanied by EA-6B Prowlers to detect and jam enemy radar. O'Grady's two-plane patrol had no such protection. The F-16 is supposed to carry its own radar jammer, but the F-16's is notorious for jamming itself, and it's not clear that O'Grady even turned his jammer on. Good pilots can evade a SAM--if they see it. The missile that struck O'Grady popped right out of the clouds and cut his plane in half.

Meanwhile, the Bosnian conflict drags on, without any apparent solution. NATO will patrol the no-fly zone, and the Serbs will no doubt try to shoot down more planes. The administration is considering a bombing raid against the Serbian radar sites, but it's not clear that those countries whose troops are at risk on the ground will acquiesce. Before too long, O'Grady himself may be back in the fight. After seeing his family in the States and being pleasantly embarrassed by "all the fuss," Captain O'Grady says he plans to return to flying F-16s. "I love what I do," he explained.

3 p.m. Friday, June 2: Flying in tandem 20,000 feet over Banja Luka, Bosnia, O'Grady's F-16 fighter jet is hit in the belly and sliced in two.

3:10 p.m. Friday: Because of the thick clouds, flight leader Capt Rob Wright cannot see if O'Grady safely parachuted from the plane. But O'Grady lands about 20 miles behind the Serbian lines, burned on the neck but otherwise unharmed.

Saturday, June 3, to Thursday, June 8: O'Grady hides in the densely wooded mountains of northwest Bosnia. He subsists largely on insects, grass and rainwater while staying within two miles of the crash site.

3 a.m. Thursday, June 8: O'Grady makes voice contact with U.S. aircraft. Forty aircraft and helicopters from air bases in Italy, the assault ship Kearsarge and the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt prepare for the rescue. They launch at 5:30 a.m.

6:35 a.m. Thursday: Two gunships from the Kearsage spot yellow smoke from O'Grady's signal flares. Minutes later, two Super Stallion helicopters with 41 marines land near the crash site. O'Grady runs out, pistol in hand, and is pulled onto a helicopter.

6:45 a.m. Thursday: The helicopters take off. As they gain altitude, three surface-to-air missiles an some small guns are fired at the choppers.

7:30 a.m. Thursday: The choppers land aboard the Kearsarge--safe, but with bullet holes in their rotor blades.

Harness, with parachute (attached to the pilot's seat and seat kit, which are ejected with the pilot)

Survival vest kit PRC radio Global Positioning System Receiver Distress signals, with kit Signal mirror First aid kit Compass Camouflage face paint Tourniquet Pistol Seat survival kit PRC radio, with extra battery Distress signals, with kit Signal mirror First-aid kit Compass Whistle Strobe light One-man raft, with repair plugs Container and matches Knife Water Blanket Sea dye marker Survival pamphlet Drinking storage bag Beacon Helmet Steel-toed boots SOURCE: U.S. AIR-FORCE