Kennedy, Leland Thornton, Col

 Service Photo   Service Details
74 kb
View Time Line
Last Rank
Last Primary AFSC/MOS
Last AFSC Group
Primary Unit
1981-1985, 31, Tactical Air Command (TAC)
Service Years
1955 - 1985

 Last Photo   Personal Details 

Home State
Year of Birth
This Military Service Page was created/owned by Army MAJ Mark E Cooper to remember Kennedy, Leland Thornton, Col.

If you knew or served with this Airman and have additional information or photos to support this Page, please leave a message for the Page Administrator(s) HERE.
Contact Info
Home Town
Louisville, Kentucky
Last Address
Yorktown, VA

Date of Passing
Dec 28, 2003
Location of Interment
Arlington National Cemetery - Arlington, Virginia
Wall/Plot Coordinates
Section 54, Site 4664

 Official Badges 

 Unofficial Badges 

 Additional Information
Last Known Activity
COL Leland T. Kennedy

Leland Thornton "Lee" Kennedy (January 1, 1934 to December 28, 2003) was a career military officer in the United States Air Force, and a highly decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. Kennedy flew the EC-121 Warning Star during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and later served two tours of duty in Vietnam.

In his second combat tour, he distinguished himself as a combat search and rescue helicopter pilot, twice awarded the Air Force Cross, for a pair of actions occurring within a 15-day period. Kennedy is one of only four airmen to receive multiple awards of the Air Force Cross.

Kennedy also received the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with five Oak Leaf Clusters, and numerous other medals and campaign ribbons during his career. After 30 years of service, Kennedy retired at Langley AFB, Hampton, Virginia, in 1985.

Education and family

From Kennedy's obituary:

Leland (Lee) Thornton Kennedy, age 69, of Yorktown, Virginia, died peacefully Sunday, December 28, 2003, with his family at his side. Kennedy was born January 1, 1934, in Louisville, Kentucky, to Edith and William Kennedy. He graduated from the University of Kentucky, Lexington, in 1955, and during college was a member of ROTC and Kappa Sigma fraternity.

After retirement, Kennedy served his community as a member of the York/Poquoson Social Service Board, and served as Chairman of that organization for three years. In addition, he incorporated his interest in woodworking and miniature ship building into his own business, "Why Knot", for many years. In recent years, Kennedy joined his love of family and his interest in history by researching the genealogical history of his family. He leaves to cherish his memory his loving bride of almost 50 years, Harriet June, as well as three children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Arlington National Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

Air Force career

After receiving his commission in the Air Force and completing pilot training, Kennedy was assigned to the 552nd Airborne Early Warning and Control Wing at McClellan Air Force Base, California, flying EC-121 Warning Stars. In 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was assigned to its 966th AEWC Squadron based at McCoy Air Force Base, Florida, flying specially-modified EC-121Qs on Gold Digger missions (tracking Lockheed U-2 surveillance flights) and monitoring Cuban airspace.

In April 1965, still part of the Airborne Early warning force, Kennedy, now a captain and aircraft commander, was one of several crews of the 552nd AEWCW to be sent to Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon, South Vietnam, as part of the Big Eye Task Force.

Upon completion of his temporary duty in Vietnam, Kennedy entered transition training to rotary wing aircraft at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, and became an HH-3E pilot with the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service (ARRS).

October 5, 1966

Capt. Kennedy was based at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, with Detachment 5 of the 38th ARR Squadron. On his eighth mission, on October 5, 1966, he was aircraft commander ("RCC") of HH-3E Jolly Green 04 on a Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) for the crew of Tempest 03, an F-4C Phantom of the 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron. His crew consisted of copilot ("RCCP") 1st Lt. Donald R. Harris, flight engineer ("HM") SSgt. Donald J. Hall, and pararescueman ("PJ") A2C Robert B. Williamson.

The rescue location was 300 miles distant inside North Vietnam, in a box canyon 20 miles northeast of Na San. The F-4 had been an escort fighter for a pair of EB-66 electronic countermeasures (ECM) aircraft, and had been shot down by a MiG-21. Jolly Green 04's mission was as "high bird", orbiting backup to the primary rescue helicopter, in this instance Jolly Green 36, piloted by Capt. Oliver E. O'Mara, Jr..

In the rescue area, two A-1H Sandys tasked as rescue escort (RESCORT, or later, RESCAP), after several strafing runs to drive off approaching troops, drew no fire on a final low pass over the area. O'Mara crested a ridgeline into the canyon and lowered his hoist to pick up the F-4's aircraft commander, with whom he was in radio communication. His helicopter was immediately hit from above by small arms fire, forcing O'Mara to pull out. The downed pilot on his last transmission radioed that he had been hit in the chest. O'Mara made two further rescue attempts in the badly damaged HH-3E before his hoist was knocked out, and he had to return to base. O'Mara was awarded the Air Force Cross in 1969 for his efforts.

Common procedure was that the secondary helicopter escorted a heavily damaged primary helicopter back to base, but Kennedy was asked to return to continue the pickup attempts, his first actual attempt at combat rescue. On the first try, his aircraft was hit and both enlisted men slightly wounded. The HH-3E was driven off by fire four times, taking more battle damage on each pass. Despite deteriorating weather conditions, a rupture in their forward fuel tank, and smoke in the aircraft, Kennedy's three crewmen joined him in wanting to try again. In the poor weather, Williamson noted that better reference points were on the left side of the aircraft and urged that Lt. Harris conduct the hover.

On the fifth attempt, hearing gunfire but not struck, the crew dropped the hoist and reeled in the pilot, 1st Lt. Edward W. Garland, whose parachute filled with rotor wash and nearly entangled the rotors. Kennedy exfiltrated the area at low level, with the ridgetops above them concealed by lowering clouds. Below minimum fuel levels needed to return to Udorn, he flew Jolly Green 04 to Lima Site 36, a forward operating location at Na Khang, Laos. Kennedy was recommended for the Air Force Cross and his crew members each received the Silver Star for the rescue .

October 20, 1966

Fifteen days later, on the morning of October 20, Kennedy was launched again as the secondary helicopter on a CSAR to recover another 433rd TFS F-4C crew, that of Avenger 03, , shot down in Laos southwest of Dong Hoi, North Vietnam. His crew this mission, aboard Jolly Green 36, consisted of RCCP 1st Lt. Elmer C. Lavender, HM SSgt. Raymond Godsey, and PJ A1C Robert J. Ward.

Both F-4 crewmen had landed in trees. Their wingmen had remained in the area, making repeated low level passes without a gun or ordnance to try to slow down the hostile forces trying to kill or capture the airmen. The primary rescue helicopter, Jolly Green 02, flown by Maj. Adrian D. Youngblood, lowered its hoist to the Phantom's rear seat pilot, 1st Lt. Joseph C. Merrick, who had lashed himself to a tree. During the eight minutes of hover needed to bring Merrick up, Jolly Green 02 was hit numerous times, forcing Youngblood to rotate its tail towards the gunfire to limit damage. As soon as Youngblood applied power to climb, the helicopter's transmission oil pressure failed, warning of imminent seizure of both engines. Youngblood broadcast a "Mayday" and searched for a field to make an emergency landing, flying six miles before spotting one.

Orbitting overhead, Kennedy had been unable to see the action because of thickening clouds. He descended, observed a village next to the clearing Youngblood was flying toward, and diverted Jolly Green 02 to a field a half mile away. Aboard Jolly Green 36, Lt. Lavender jettisoned its external fuel tanks and dumped fuel to compensate for the added weight of Youngblood's crew and the F-4 pilot. On the ground about 25 yards from the other helicopter, Kennedy continued dumping fuel with his engines running and rotor turning, despite the risk of explosive vapors.

The downed crew, one of them wounded by small arms fire, boarded Kennedy's aircraft. Carrying nine men, he conducted a "maximum performance" liftoff. The A-1s covering the rescue then strafed the abandoned helicopter, during which Sandy 08 was shot down on its second pass and its pilot, Capt. David R. Wagener, killed. As Kennedy's HH-3E reached an altitude of 2,000 feet Above Ground Level, he requested the location of the second crewman, which the Sandys provided. A forward air controller in an O-1E Bird Dog spotted the F'4's pilot, Major Lacy W. Breckenridge, still in a tree and used his wingtip to point to the location. Kennedy made a high speed descent to hover, but Communist soldiers emerged from the trees, firing at the helicopter with small arms. Airman Ward returned fire with an M-16. The rescue was effected although under attack the entire time. On the return flight Sandy 05, another escort, reported that it was losing power, and Kennedy escorted it to Nakhon Phanom RTAFB, where both landed safely.

[edit] Subsequent career

"Kennedy flew 99 missions in Southeast Asia, totalling 354 hours of combat flight time. Kennedy spent much of his subsequent career in Alaska before promotion to colonel. At his retirement in 1985 he was director of Operations Plans at Tactical Air Command Headquarters at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. Kennedy was referred to by Secretary of the Air Force Harold Brown as a major figure in 'one of the most outstanding human dramas in the history of the Air Force.

Other Comments:
His 2nd Air Force Cross Citation reads:

Captain Leland T. Kennedy distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an opposing armed force as an HH-3E Helicopter Pilot in Southeast Asia on 20 October 1966. On that date, Captain Kennedy successfully recovered six downed American airmen. Despite the intense, accurately directed, hostile fire which damaged his own unarmed rescue helicopter, Captain Kennedy, with indomitable courage and professional skill, chose to land next to a disabled companion helicopter and retrieve the crew, plus a previously rescued wounded F-4C pilot. With undaunted determination, Captain Kennedy then, amid hostile fire, sought and successfully recovered the second downed F-4C pilot. Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness, Captain Kennedy reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.
 Photo Album   (More...

 Ribbon Bar

Aviator (Command)

 Unit Assignments
552nd Airborne Early Warning and Control Wing966th Aircraft Early Warning and Control Squadron38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery SquadronTactical Air Command (TAC)
  1956-1962, 552nd Airborne Early Warning and Control Wing
  1962-1965, 966th Aircraft Early Warning and Control Squadron
  1965-1965, 552nd Airborne Early Warning and Control Wing
  1965-1965, 552nd Airborne Early Warning and Control Wing
  1966-1967, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron
  1981-1985, 31, Tactical Air Command (TAC)
 Combat and Non-Combat Operations
  1965-1967 Vietnam War
 Colleges Attended 
University of Kentucky
  1951-1955, University of Kentucky
 My Aircraft/Missiles
EC-121 Warning Star  HH-3/CH-3E  Jolly Green Giant  
  1956-1965, EC-121 Warning Star
  1965-1975, HH-3/CH-3E Jolly Green Giant
Copyright Inc 2003-2011