An Army helicopter dropped Carlan Kraft into a clearing in the Vietnamese jungle with $100,000 in his backpack in June 1970. He told the pilot to come back in 30 minutes.

Kraft and one other officer waited for a local woman who had said she could deliver American, Thai and Vietnamese prisoners of war. He had met with the woman several times and signed for the money himself. He thought she was a valid source.

But no one showed.

"We were desperate to recover some Americans because no one had been able to do it," he said. "And we took a risk. It could have turned out badly. Fortunately, it didn't. It's just part of the process."

It was Kraft's riskiest mission as a captain during the Vietnam War. 

A ranger-qualified graduate of West Point, Kraft was a member of a highly classified unit responsible for locating and retrieving prisoners of war and downed pilots in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. At the time, he told his family he was doing special operations. Details of the covert missions were only declassified in the mid-1990s. 

He traveled around the region in a jeep and met with people who claimed to have information about where prisoners were held. He took sources on flyovers to examine the alleged holding areas. 

The intelligence was often stale by the time it got to Kraft, because the Vietnamese moved prisoners frequently. Some sources did not want anything in return for the information, while others were looking for money or safety.

None of the missions he was involved in were successful, though there were some close calls, he said. 

"My mission was such that I didn't question it," said Kraft. "I did it to the best of my ability."

The reconnaissance efforts were highly secretive, but Kraft was also charged with a more public mission of reassuring pilots that the Army would rescue them if they went down in enemy territory.

One time he flew to an aircraft carrier in the Philippines to demonstrate the Fulton Skyhook, a mechanism for picking up downed pilots.

In order to pull off a Fulton Skyhook, pilots carried big suits with long nylon cords attached to helium balloons. If a pilot was shot down, he was supposed to alert the military of his location. As the rescue plane flew over, the pilot would release the helium balloon and instantly shoot 300 feet into the air. The cord would snag on the plane, and the pilot would be pulled to safety.

Though Kraft was "not a big fan of circus rides," he was intrigued to try the mechanism. He describes it as like "reverse bungee jumping" or being on a slingshot. 

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Though no pilot was ever rescued this way, Kraft said the training made the pilots feel "some degree of comfort." The officers were either grateful or wowed enough to buy his drinks that night.

Kraft got to Vietnam by way of West Point. The child of a hairdresser and a gas station attendant in Rugby, "I looked for the most prestigious school I could afford," he said. 

He studied hard and wrote to his congressmen, who appointed him to the military academy in 1963. The Vietnam War had already begun, and Kraft knew he would likely serve. 

"That's what I signed up for going to West Point," he said.

Near the end of his service, Kraft took the LSAT in Saigon. The U.S. Army offered to put him through law school if he stayed in, but he decided to go his own way.

"It was one of those points in the road where you decide to go one direction and could have gone another," said Kraft, adding that the intelligence training he received in the military was a benefit to his career as an attorney.

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Reach Caroline Grueskin at 701-250-8225 or at caroline.grueskin@bismarcktribune.com