'Jolly Green Giant' pilot in Vietnam War's 1,500th airman rescue dies at 90

By ANDREW MCGINN | Dayton (Ohio) Daily News | Published: September 10, 2013

Lt. Col. John H.I. Morse Sr., a longtime Springfield, Ohio, resident who commanded a helicopter rescue squadron during the Vietnam War and co-piloted the Jolly Green Giant credited with the 1,500th save of a downed airman in that war has died.

Morse died Friday at age 90 in a Columbus hospital.

Morse had been on the mend after a recent stroke when he caught an infection, according to his son, Charlie Morse.

John Morse, a Connecticut native who came to live in Springfield in 1969, served 32 years in the Air Force and was also a veteran of World War II. He retired in 1974 while at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

“He was so very proud of his military service,” Charlie Morse said Monday.

As the pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress during World War II, John Morse flew 25 combat missions over Europe, Charlie Morse said.

But, he remained most proud of his two tours of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

Arriving at Nakhon Phanom Air Base in northeast Thailand in June 1968, as commander of the Air Force’s 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, it was Morse’s job to hoist downed American pilots to safety using the Sikorsky HH-3E — the helicopter lovingly called the Jolly Green Giant.

On his second combat tour, which lasted from May 1971 to 1972, he flew the HH-53, the Super Jolly Green Giant.

“That was the high point of his career,” Charlie Morse said. “He absolutely loved that job. You’re saving people instead of killing people.”

On Dec. 21, 1968, Morse’s Jolly Green set out to retrieve an F-100 pilot in Laos they knew only as Litter 81, his call sign.

The fighter pilot turned out to be Maj. Forrest Fenn, who retired from the Air Force in 1970 and later became a celebrity art and antiques dealer in Santa Fe, N.M., whose gallery was frequented by the likes of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Robert Redford, Steven Spielberg and former President Gerald Ford.

In 1986, when People magazine profiled Fenn, his gallery was making $6 million a year.

Now retired — but back in the national news this year after revealing that he’s hid part of his fortune in the mountains north of Santa Fe for anyone to find — Fenn credits John Morse with his life.

“He is many times a hero to me,” Fenn, now 83, said Sunday in an email. “It made no difference on the 21st of December, 1968, that he didn’t know me. He risked his life to pull me out of an angry situation in Laos.”

Fenn’s rescue was the 1,500th save by combat search and rescue in Southeast Asia.

“In the years since,” Fenn said, “I have tried to find John so I could buy him a beer and tell him again how much I appreciate what he did for me. I have a special place in my heart for John Morse.”

Even as he neared his 91st birthday, Morse never took credit for what he did, Charlie Morse said.

“He was always a participant,” Charlie Morse said. “He was always just part of a group of guys.”

John Morse is survived by his second wife, Phyllis, seven children and many grandchildren.

A funeral service will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Christ Episcopal Church, 409 E. High St., the church where John Morse was actively involved, with a visitation there at 5 p.m. that day.