By Connie Davis Bushey
News Editor, Baptist and Reflector
HUNTINGDON — “We had probably what everybody thought was an impossible rescue,” said Retired United States Air Force Col. Jim Harding of one of his experiences during the Vietnam War.
Harding, a member of First Baptist Church, Huntingdon, and one of the top 25 most decorated veterans in U.S. history, used the event as an illustration of the importance of saving one life in a session of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board staff recently.
Harding said he has learned five traits in his life — integrity, accountability, humility, tenacity, and love. All of them were used to rescue Marine pilot Clyde Smith, who was shot down in North Vietnam. The effort resulted in the largest rescue effort of the Vietnam War. “We had to be sure that we didn’t make a mistake that would cost either the life of the survivor or one of our aircraft and the lives of the crewmen on those aircraft,” said Harding on TV’s History Channel which featured the rescue.
The rescue was problematic because Smith landed near the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The trail and nearby roads were protected by anti-aircraft artillery and a surface to air missile site which could shoot down any airplane in the area, Harding added.
Smith said on the History Channel show that his training taught him what to do, including not to panic and run. His training also taught him how to handle communication by radio. Eerily his first communication was with the enemy though they spoke very good English and said some correct things but then revealed themselves.
Smith faced more danger the next day after a close call with some North Vietnamese soldiers. Thankfully, he found a hiding place in a hole left by the roots of a downed tree in a ravine.
Smith, who now lives in Austin, Texas, recalled, “What kept me going was that I knew that these guys weren’t going to quit and I could sense then that they had made a commitment. And as for this man, Jim Harding, I knew he wasn’t going to give up, I could just tell. And so I thought, if I can just keep it together, I’m going to be all right.”
The next day the rescue was haulted by major fighting and a major offensive by the Air Force. Harding asked the Navy for assistance.
On the fourth day, some 70 carrier-based aircraft neutralized anti-aircraft batteries and took out missiles. Finally Smith, though exhausted and dehydrated, was rescued. Not a single aircraft or airman, all volunteers for the mission, was lost in the entire mission.
“The real joy is when you actually see the guy that you’ve rescued and he sees you and it’s just a feeling of tremendous accomplishment and joy that you’ve finally gotten this guy away from them and he’s not going to end up in the Hanoi Hilton; he’s going to be back home again,” said Harding on the show.
Smith’s co-pilot was determined to be killed in action.
Just one month later Harding himself was shot down. Harding killed three North Vietnamese soldiers before being rescued. After experiencing both ends of a rescue mission, Harding said on the TV show that it was a far better feeling to save someone else.
Harding told the TBMB staff that Smith felt bad that so much effort was made to rescue him but Harding was able to assure him that he did his part because he eluded the many North Vietnamese looking for him.
He also knows another reason the effort was worth it. “It’s real simple. Life is precious. It’s truly a gift from God.”
Harding received a standing ovation from the TBMB staff.
Randy C. Davis, executive director, TBMB, stated, “It was an honor for our TBMB ministry team to spend time with Col. Harding at a recent focus week. He is an American hero and a great Christian brother. May we be as aggressive in reaching spiritually lost people with the gospel as he was in rescuing Clyde Smith from behind enemy lines in Vietnam.”