This happened many years ago, in a faraway country. It is not a parable. It is a true story. Although it’s always worth remembering, a recent event IMO makes remembering it now vice on its anniversary apropos.
A Tall Man
It had been a long day already. The tall man was tired.
He’d been flying for hours already, providing support for his fellow soldiers. They were catching hell from the enemy.
The tall man was no longer a youngster. In less than a week, he’d turn 38.
This wasn’t the first time he’d been to war. In fact, this was the tall man’s third war.
As a youngster, he’d quit school at 17 to serve in World War II. He served in the Navy, on a fleet oiler – supporting strikes against Luzon and Formosa, and operations at Iwo Jima, and at Okinawa. He’d survived. He’d seen Tokyo Bay after the surrender.
Then he came home and was discharged. He finished high school. He married his girl.
But as a boy, he’d always wanted to be a soldier. So he joined the Army after he finished high school.
The tall man had something special. By late in the Korean War, he’d become a First Sergeant. He saw more action, this time at Pork Chop Hill. He survived again, receiving a battlefield commission afterwards.
The commission opened another door for the tall man – or so he thought. Another of his boyhood ambitions was to be a pilot. As an officer he could apply to go to flight school. He applied.
The Army closed that door quickly, though; they turned him down. He truly was a tall man. At 6-foot-4, they said he was “too tall” for pilot duty.
But a couple of years later, the door opened again. Regulations had changed, and the tall man was no longer “too tall”. (The nickname had already stuck, however, and would follow him for the rest of his career.) He reapplied for flight school. This time he was accepted. He passed and became a pilot.
The tall man served in various dangerous assignments. He flew mapping support missions over remote locations worldwide. He made friends – one, in particular. They eventually parted ways, but would meet again.
Eventually he ended up in Vietnam. He also ended up working for an old snake – one he knew well.
The Old Snake
The old snake had also been flying that day. He’d been doing the same thing as the tall man. Although he was called old snake (well, that was most of it – I’ll spare you the scatological bit that was sometimes added), at 32 he was actually close to six years younger than the tall man.
He’d not seen much action before. He’d been too young to serve in World War II, and had attended college during Korea. However, in 1953 he was drafted. He received a commission and went to flight school. Though he’d deployed to the Dominican Republic, Vietnam was his first major war. This was his first tour in Vietnam.
Like the tall man, the old snake also had been assigned to fly mapping duty over remote locations worldwide. That’s how they first met.
And like the tall man, there was also something special about the old snake. The Army had noticed. Today, the old snake commanded the tall man’s unit.
Just how special the tall man and the old snake truly were was about to become evident.
Flight Leader and Wingman
The old snake had just returned to base. He’d been flying for hours already. He commanded the aviation unit performing the insertion of two battalions of soldiers and supporting them afterwards. He led from the front.
Those troops were now in serious trouble. The enemy had found the US battalions and had attacked, fixing them in place. The enemy was strong – vastly stronger than anticipated. The soldiers were hugely outnumbered. They particularly needed water and ammunition. Otherwise, they’d be overrun and annihilated.
There were also wounded. Lots of wounded. And all Landing Zones (LZs) in their area were red (“hot”).
The old snake had flown eight sorties that day before he started bringing back wounded. MEDEVAC wasn’t his mission, but he wasn’t going to leave wounded behind if he could carry them. So he started bringing back wounded on his return trips.
The old snake returned to base with wounded twice. After the second return, MEDEVAC wouldn’t fly any more missions with him. Policy at the time required a 5-min green period at an LZ before a MEDEVAC bird could land. All LZs in the area were currently red – “too hot” for MEDEVAC operations.
The old snake’s exact words at that point may never be reliably known, given excitement and stress. Reputedly they were something along the lines of, “I’m going back. Who’s coming with me?” Perhaps there were an additional word or three added for emphasis.
The tall man heard. The tall man went with the old snake, flying as his wingman.
Their aircraft were loaded with all the water and ammunition they could carry. They went back.
They landed, unloaded their cargo of water and ammunition. They took on a different, precious cargo for their return – wounded soldiers. Then they returned to base and offloaded the wounded.
Then they repeated the process. And repeated it again. And again.
They did this a total of twelve times before losing daylight. Twelve missions bringing in critical water and ammunition, and bringing out wounded – all after MEDEVAC had stopped flying. Between them they evacuated over 70 wounded soldiers. They brought in enough water and ammunition to allow the two besieged battalions to survive the night.
They did all of this in unmarked, unarmed helicopters. And since they were not MEDEVAC flights and were bringing in supplies and ammunition, they did this as legitimate wartime targets – not that the enemy seemed to much care about that one way or the other.
After his last mission, the MEDEVAC unit commander accosted the old snake. He castigated him for having MEDEVAC pilots accompany him to a “hot” LZ to evacuate wounded earlier in the day. He reportedly told the old snake to never do that again.
Thankfully some of the old snake’s men were nearby to restrain him physically. Beating the hell out of a senior officer (or worse) is generally not very well-received in the Army, even if and when richly deserved.
The old snake and the tall man were rewarded for their acts – initially with the Distinguished Flying Cross. The old snake’s award was later upgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross. The tall man’s wasn’t.
Reputedly, the tall man’s commander tried to submit him for the Medal of Honor, but didn’t make the then-current 2-year deadline. I don’t personally know whether the old snake’s threatening the MEDEVAC unit commander had anything to do with the delay, or with the absence of any such recommendation for the old snake. But it wouldn’t surprise me if that were true.
Both continued their service with the Army. Both eventually retired from the Army as decorated heroes.
And that would probably have been the end of the story. Except years later, a couple of people wrote a book.
About 27 years later, a book was published relating the events of that day. The book was a huge success. The old snake’s and tall man’s heroism became well known outside the Army.
Federal law was also changed to allow later submission of Medal of Honor recommendations under certain conditions. After the book was released, both the old snake and the tall man were submitted for the Medal of Honor. Their recommendations were being considered.
Reputedly the old snake asked that his recommendation be withdrawn in order to to enhance his wingman’s chances. If that actually is true – it worked. An old injustice was corrected. The tall man’s Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism that day was upgraded to the Medal of Honor about nine years after the book was published.
Soon after that, a movie based on the book was released. And fate – or good karma, or justice, or whatever you want to call it – then intervened on behalf of the old snake.
The old snake’s Medal of Honor recommendation was resurrected. And six years after his wingman, a second injustice was corrected. The old snake’s Distinguished Service Cross was revoked – when it was replaced by the Medal of Honor.
The heroism of the old snake and the tall man occurred almost 47 years ago – on 14 November 1965. It occurred at LZ X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley, South Vietnam.
The old snake was MAJ Bruce P. Crandall, call sign “Ancient Serpent Six”. The tall man was CPT Ed W. “Too Tall” Freeman.
Their unit was A Company, 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion. The units they supported that day were 1st and 2nd Battalions, 7th Cavalry.
The book and movie? “We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young”.
I do not know – nor do I want to know – what MEDEVAC unit was involved that day, or the name of the unit’s commander. Yes, they were just “following standard procedures”. But good leaders and good units also know when to deviate from standard procedures when common-sense or battlefield reality dictates. They didn’t. Thankfully, MEDEVAC policy was later changed.
Ed Freeman retired from the Army as a Major in 1967. He received his belated Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony on July 16, 2001. Regrettably, MAJ Freeman passed away on August 20, 2008 , aged 80. He was probably in the welcoming party for CSM Plumley at the Pearly Gates a couple of days ago.
Bruce Crandall retired from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1977. He received his belated Medal of Honor from the POTUS on February 26, 2007. On April 15, 2010, he also received an honorary promotion to Colonel, US Army (Retired). As of this writing he is still alive.
The why? Simple. Their brothers-in-arms needed their help. “I will never leave a fallen comrade.”
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Thank God that such men lived.
Category: Real Soldiers