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Snatched to safety by Marines, downed U.S. pilot is OK

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- At 2:08 a.m. yesterday, an Air Force F-16 pilot flying over northwest Bosnia heard the familiar voice of a comrade crackle over the radio:

"Hey, it's Basher 52," said Capt. Scott F. O'Grady, using his code name. They were the first words from him since his plane was shot down six days earlier.

At 6:44, a sweaty Captain O'Grady, wearing a helmet and flight jacket and waving a pistol, ran out of the mountainous woods into the arms of Col. Martin Berndt. The strapping Marine hauled him aboard a giant CH53 helicopter.

The flier collapsed, smiling, as the rescue force lifted off and headed for the Adriatic Sea.

"I'm ready to get the hell out of here," he said.

In Washington, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake called President Clinton in the White House family quarters. The message from Mr. Lake was short: "We got him!"

"That's great!" the president replied.

Their exchange reflected the euphoria that swept from Captain O'Grady's hometown of Spokane, Wash., to his squadron's base at Aviano, Italy, as word of the dramatic rescue ended one of most bitter episodes in the United States' creeping involvement in the Balkan war.

The search for Captain O'Grady had begun soon after his F-16 plane was struck in the belly and broken up by a Russian-made SA6 ground-to-air missile at 3 p.m. June 2. It was a race against time, the elements and the Serbs. No one, it seemed, knew that he had survived.

After ejecting from his tumbling cockpit and parachuting into mountainous terrain in Serbian-controlled territory near Bihac, Captain O'Grady was alone except for the survival packet strapped to his ejection seat.

It contained a gun, water, dried food, flares, a beacon-radio signal transmitter and a survival manual.

The 29-year-old flier had taken a 17-day course of survival training in Spokane and, as became clear, he had paid careful attention.

"They're taught to move from a basic survival situation into a potential evasion situation, and how to take care of themselves and avoid capture," Air Force Col. John Chapman explained at the Pentagon yesterday.

Captain O'Grady would have been a prize captive of the Bosnian Serbs, who at that point were still holding more than 370 United Nations peacekeepers -- but no Americans -- as hostages, using some as human shields to deter the United States and its allies from launching airstrikes.

Stacey O'Grady, the pilot's sister, said her father had learned from American military officers that the Serbs had found Captain O'Grady's parachute and other belongings, indicating he was alive and on the ground in their territory.

"They said, 'Your boy is out there somewhere,' " she said.

For a time, in fact, the Serbs wanted the world to believe they had captured the American. U.S. officials learned of a call between Serbian military leader Ratko Miladic and a U.N. official in which the Serb announced, "We've got him."

There were reports Saturday that the Serbs planned to show the pilot on television.

But Captain O'Grady had managed to elude them. According to military officials, he had in fact managed to avoid all human contact.

After his food ran out, he survived on bugs -- probably ants and crickets -- and rainwater, said a doctor who examined him yesterday. Nights were so cold that Captain O'Grady began suffering from hypothermia.

Meanwhile, he apparently made intermittent attempts to reach allied military forces using his radio beacon, all the while trying to conserve the limited life of the battery.

The Pentagon reported Monday having picked up beacon signals. Pilots and analysts tried over the next few days to pin down the source.

Yesterday, officials were quoted as saying they believed Captain O'Grady had been trying to tap out his identity in Morse code. At greatrisk, U.S. pilots flew over the area in bad weather to try to make voice contact with him.

Finally, early yesterday, a member of Captain O'Grady's own 12-plane squadron picked up his voice. After confirming his identity, the pilot notified headquarters in Italy.

Then Adm. Leighton Smith, commander of Allied Forces South, which controls the NATO operation over Bosnia, faced a choice: Should his forces try to rescue the pilot immediately, under cover of darkness, or wait until morning, when they could marshal a large force from bases in Italy to provide air cover?

The admiral, after consulting with other officers, decided to wait. As 41 Marines on the USS Kearsarge, which had steamed near the Bosnian coast, applied black camouflage paint to their faces, the rescue "package" was put together.

Besides the two CH53 Marine helicopters, the package included two Cobra helicopter gunships, a sophisticated AWACS communications plane and an array of other fighter and attack aircraft.

At 5:50 a.m. (10:50 p.m. EST), the Marines lifted off the Kearsarge. Flying just above the treetops at 170 mph, the helicopters took less than an hour to cover the 85 miles to Captain O'Grady's location, which had been pinpointed by AWACs.

Midway, they again made radio contact with the flier.

Setting down in a grassy clearing on the hillside where they knew Captain O'Grady was hiding, the 20 Marines aboard one helicopter leaped out and established a defensive perimeter about half the size of a football field.

As the second chopper landed, a rock or debris prevented the lowering of the ramp. As the chopper was being repositioned, Marine Colonel Berndt spied Captain O'Grady running toward them. The Marines never got out of the second helicopter.

Instead, the Marines from the lead helicopter reboarded and both choppers lifted off. They had spent only about two minutes on the ground in Bosnia.

Flying back, there was gunfire: Both helicopters were hit, the firing apparently coming from Bosnian Serbs.

One shell pierced the fuselage of the lead helicopter and rattled around inside. No one was hurt. A Marine door gunner returned fire with a .50-caliber machine gun.

Twenty miles from the coastline, the choppers were targeted by two shoulder-fired SA-7 missiles, but evaded them.

Captain O'Grady was drinking water and, a few minutes later, plunged into an MRE, the U.S. military's "Meal-Ready-to-Eat," the modern C-ration.

Once the chopper landed on the Kearsarge, he emerged unshaven, wearing an orange flight vest and walking briskly. But later, cameras showed him in bed in the ship's sick bay, appearing glassy-eyed and exhausted.

At the White House, meanwhile, Mr. Lake was on the phone in his West Wing office, giving the president the news.

"Mr. President, with your permission -- or without your permission -- I'm going to have a cigar," said Mr. Lake, a joking reference to the smoking ban imposed on the White House by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The president laughed. "Come over here and I'll have one with you."

Mr. Lake walked to the residence and up to the second floor. The president took his aide out to the Truman Balcony, overlooking the South Lawn and the Ellipse, for a victory cigar.

Puffing away, they fashioned a message of thanks and congratulations to the rescuers and to Army Gen. George Joulwan, the NATO supreme commander.

Hours later, presidential spokesman Mike McCurry greeted reporters by saying: "Four words I thought I would never use in one sentence: 'Good news from Bosnia!' "

Mr. Clinton called Captain O'Grady's parents twice, but avoided calling the flier himself until he had time for a good rest.

At 2:37 p.m., the president got through. Mr. Clinton told the young pilot how thrilled the nation was at his rescue. He also told the captain how proud his parents were of him.

"The rescuers were the real heroes," said Captain O'Grady. "And the United States is the greatest nation in the world. God bless America."

Replied the president: "Amen."

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