A Tall Man, and an Old Snake

| October 12, 2012 | 28 Comments

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 it’s 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.

Aftermath

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.

Fast Forward

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.

When/Where/Who/Why

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.

— — —

Thank God that such men lived.

Category: Real Soldiers

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  1. AW1 Tim says:

    It’s always good to be reminded of what “Duty, Honor, Country” really mean.

    Real world examples. Thanks, Hondo.

  2. Chip@NASA says:

    (*Stands*) Polite Golf Clap …..because words fail me.
    Hooah…

  3. Lucky says:

    The Army needs to instill more of this starting at BCT.

  4. USAFcop says:

    Awesome story Hondo!

  5. 2-17 AirCav says:

    Well done, Hondo. Good writing is always hard work but when a writer’s pen is directed by his heart, well, it shows.

  6. Ex-PH2 says:

    Nice reporting, Hondo. I thought I knew that story, but you had me fooled right up to the end. Good job.

    There are still plenty of people around who will do that kind of thing, but they are too often overshadowed by those who won’t.

  7. Joe Williams says:

    That is our job, support the grunts. You call we come does not matter what Service the helo is. We are going to deliver or pickup as needed.Like all aviation flying is voluntary. No same is cast on a flight crewman that cannot handle it anymore. The NVA/VC knew we were coming and waiting for us to come into the LZ.I have been the grunts hated us for where we took them.Loved us for taking them out of a LZ ,med evac or hot zone resupply. I did not want their job and they did not want mine. I lived in interesting times as the old saying goes. Joe

  8. nucsnipe says:

    I have had the great fortune to meet Col Crandall, he lives here in Port Orchard and our VFW post held a dinner in his honor after he received his MOH.

  9. Detn8r says:

    The story of these two heros should be told, day 1, of BCT and OCS! Better yet, Required to be memorized and recited before graduation!

    Great job Hondo!

  10. 1stCavRVN11B says:

    Well done Hondo. Thank God for those brave pilots. The NVA units that the 1st Cav (7th & 5th Cav battalions) fought in 1965 were again engaged in 1972 by elements of the 1st Cav and a TDY group from the 82nd Abn (patches torn off)in 1972 in the Central Highlands. That operation was known as Task Force Salvo (jeep mounted TOW Missiles) which involved not only Americans but elements of the 22nd and 23rd ARVN Divisions. Documentation of this later operation can be found in Tom Mckenna’s (LTC Ret) book titled: Kontum – The Battle To Save South Vietnam.

  11. Lucky says:

    Having spent time on the Iranian border, at the time, being 400 miles and half a day from the closest CAS, I quite literally cannot put into words how downright marvelous the should a helo or an AC130 makes when they arrive on station overhead. Back then I was a scared kid, fresh from AIT, and hearing that AC130 and the kiowas start their gun runs, I can’t thank the pilots enough whenever I meet them. There is a member of my VFW who flew with these two at the Ia Drang, he was the one whose wife related the laundromat story in the movie, and his stories if those two are amazing. But I digress…

  12. NHSparky says:

    Having a real hard time focusing on this to read it.

  13. Loach says:

    Not ashamed to admit it brought a tear to my eye.

  14. Bill C. says:

    My allergies must have been affecting my eyes as I read this.

  15. Biermann says:

    Thanks Hondo!

    “Thank God that such men lived.” Everyday of my life.

  16. OldSoldier54 says:

    Yep. Those guys have great big bronze ones.

    As the Lord lives, may the Republic never lack for such as these, because as the MEDEVAC six didn’t understand and Snake did, “You got to know when to fold ‘em, know when to hold ‘em …”

  17. Country Singer says:

    “He was probably in the welcoming party for CSM Plumley at the Pearly Gates a couple of days ago.”

    I think it’s a fair guess that CSM Plumley rode comfortably to the Pearly Gates in a waiting Huey piloted by Ed Freeman.

  18. Veritas Omnia Vincit says:

    Hondo, as always really good stuff. I really enjoyed that book, and your write-up was spot on.

    I never cease to be amazed at the depth of intestinal fortitude carried by some men and women. Those who never serve can never understand what it means to call someone who was recently a stranger, brother and mean it as though you were connected by blood since birth.

    I am glad both men received the appropriate upgrade and I envy those of you who get to meet these men who are still living these days and share a meal. It reminds me often of my uncle who served in WW2 with Patton’s army and what a good man he was on every level. America is truly blessed that such men live here and are willing to give all for us.

  19. B Woodman says:

    Eyes. . . must be allergies. . . .

  20. OWB says:

    Well done, Hondo. Thanks.

  21. Paul says:

    That allergy thing must be going around. Re-reading again now that I can see clearly.

  22. Hondo says:

    I thought about that, Country Singer. And I almost added that.

    Then I thought about it some more, and decided God had Ed Freeman busy with something a bit more important than a routine passenger transport mission – even for a deserving hero like CSM Plumley.

    After all: who better to teach aspiring Guardian Angels how to fly than Ed Freeman and Michael Novosel?

  23. 2-17 AirCav says:

    Saint Michael has the best damn men in his outfit.

  24. streetsweeper says:

    Very well done, troop. garryowen!

  25. Read with Awe says:

    Wow – I must have allergies too. The word “hero” is inadequate.

  26. Yat Yas 1833 says:

    Thanks for the piece, Hondo. Now I have to go call a plumber, my eyes seem to have sprung leaks.

  27. idaho2run says:

    LTC Freeman was a member of my VFW Post 63 in Boise, ID. He was a quiet, humble man, who was embarrassed if anyone recognized him in front of others, as an honored Medal Of Honor Recipient. I had the privilege of meeting him.
    When he passed away, my full time Army Guard section was given the assignment (and privilege) of providing Casualty Assistance Officer (CAO) services to his family, as well as arranging his memorial and assisting with funeral arrangements.
    His services were well attended and well conducted. I was able to correspond with Joe Galloway, who wrote the book that the movie was based on. A most impressive man as well.
    I was able to meet COL Crandall, another outstanding individual. He wore his Dress Uniform, along with his Cav Stetson, still looking impressive, to the services, and gave a great eulogy.
    This is one of the greatest highlights of my career that I will never forget, and have told many times to my family, and made them watch the movie repeatedly.
    Men like LTC Freeman and COL Crandall come rarely, and we should be grateful that they are on our side.
    Since that time, I have made friends with helo pilots from Viet Nam who served with, or knew of LTC Freeman and COL Crandall.
    Google the AAR that COL Hal Moore wrote about that day at LZ X Ray. It has been declassified, and is a read like no other AAR I have ever seen.

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