26 June 2015

The Daring Rescue of a Downed Pilot at the Battle of A Shau Valley

Major Bernard Fisher, first USAF Medal of Honor recipient of the Vietnam War
In 1961 the CIA, in cooperation with the US Army Special Forces teams, began to set up a network of surveillance camps along the borders of South Vietnam to monitor North Vietnamese infiltration of South Vietnam. Located primarily in the remote highlands of South Vietnam, the special forces camps were manned by a mixture of US Army special forces personnel, South Vietnamese special forces personnel, and paramilitary units recruited from the indigenous populations of the area like the Montagnards. By 1962 the US Army assumed full responsibility for the special forces camps. In 1966, one of these special forces camps was the scene of one of the most daring rescues of downed American pilot in the Vietnam War. High up in a remote area of the northwest corner of South Vietnam just two miles from the Laotian border was the special forces camp in the A Shau Valley. If there was a more remote camp that was nearly inaccessible elsewhere in South Vietnam, the A Shau Valley would have given them a run for the money. With steep jungle covered mountains ascending to over 7,000 feet and constant storms during monsoon season, the aerial resupply of the A Shau Valley camp was challenging even under the best of conditions. It had an approximately half-mile long dirt airstrip that sat astride the triangular-shaped fort that served as the special forces base camp. But the camp lay astride three major infiltration routes off the Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam- one route ran westward from the valley towards the main axis of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and two routes ran eastward towards the city of Hue and the heavily populated areas of the South Vietnamese coast. In early March of that year, two regiments of the North Vietnamese Army set up positions in the mountains above the camp in preparation of an assault. A flak trap was set up in the heights over the camp with 37mm anti-aircraft cannons. On 9 March at 0400, the assault began with a mortar bombardment on the camp with NVA sappers punching holes in the camp's defensive perimeter. An estimated 2,000 NVA soldiers squared off against 360 South Vietnamese and Montagnard soldiers led by 17 US Army Special Forces troops.

Due to poor weather with only 400-foot ceilings (in a valley surrounded by 7,000 foot mountains), the first air support didn't arrive until mid-morning when a USAF AC-47 Spooky gunship arrived over the area in poor weather conditions. On its third pass at low altitude, the NVA flak trap caught the gunship and it crashed into a mountainside. The crew of six survived, but three were rescued thanks to the heroic actions of two of the crew to defend the crash site until they could be rescued. Captain Willard Collins and 1st Lt. Delbert Peterson posthumously earned the Air Force Cross for defending the survivors before they were killed by NVA troops. Two Cessna O-1 Bird Dogs attempted to land on the dirt strip to fly out some casualties, but the heavy enemy fire only allowed them to fly out one wounded special forces soldier. Later that afternoon, the Marines sent two Sikorsky UH-34Ds into the area to evacuate the wounded. One helicopter was shot down but managed to crash land inside the camp perimeter. Its crew was picked up by the other helicopter before it had to withdraw under the thick overcast. That night under cover of darkness a USAF Sikorsky CH-3E managed to land in the camp and fly out 26 causalities. The following morning the NVA pressed their attack against the camp again, managing the penetrate the defensive perimeter. In the pre-dawn darkness, a Marine A-4 Skyhawk two-ship responded and one of the pilots managed to make a low level bombing pass before coming around to strafe the area with the Skyhawk's 20mm cannon. Lt. Augusto Xavier failed to pull out of his strafing run in the limited visibility conditions and crashed into one of the mountains around the camp. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star. Nearly 200 close air support sorties were mounted that day despite poor weather to keep the camp from falling into NVA hands.

With the arrival of daylight, USAF Major Bernard Fisher (call sign "HOBO 51") from the 1st Air Commando Squadron led a flight of A-1E Skyraiders in 800-foot overcast ceilings to try and assist the defenders of the A Shau Valley camp. Fisher's wingman took 37mm cannon hits to his engine and had to return to base. A second pair of USAF A-1E Skyraiders arrived on scene, led by Major D.W. "Jump" Myers (call sign "SURF 41") from the 602nd Air Commando Squadron. The Skyraiders pressed their attacks as close to the camp as possible to keep the perimeter from falling. Making strafing passes on the NVA troops pushing on the camp perimeter, Myers was hit on his third pass and his Skyraider caught fire. He elected to crash land on the camp's dirt runway and Major Fisher flew along side to give him steering directions as Myers' windscreen got covered in oil when the engine got hit. Myers successfully crash landed his Skyraider on the dirt strip and immediately got out before his Skyraider exploded and took cover in a ditch next to the runway. A team from the camp tried to get to Myers to bring him inside the camp perimeter, but the NVA fire in the area was too heavy to effect a ground rescue. Orbiting above and dodging enemy fire, Fisher directed the other Skyraider pilots' fire to protect Myers and buy time for the inbound rescue helicopter. When he found out a rescue helicopter would take about 20 minutes to reach the area due to the weather conditions, Major Fisher elected to try and land on the strip to rescue Myers himself. 

With debris from the battle as well as Myers' destroyed Skyraider littering the runway, Fisher had to abort his first landing attempt and swung around to land the other direction on the runway. One of the pilots in the area described the scene as like "Flying into Yankee Stadium with everyone in the bleachers firing at you with machine guns!" Fisher managed to land on the runway and in the midst of the heavy fire, taxied back up the runway searching for Myers. Since his Skyraider was the side-by-side two seat version of the A-1, Fisher spotted Myers who sprinted for the aircraft from his hiding place. Fisher had already unharnessed himself thinking that Myers was wounded and needed help when he found the pilot already scrambling up his wing to the cockpit. Fisher grabbed Myers and quite literally threw him into the cockpit headfirst with Myers yelling "You dumb son-of-a-bitch, now neither of us will get out of here!" With Myers scrambling to get himself seated and harnessed into the cockpit, Fisher wheeled the A-1 around and kept the Skyraider in ground effect until he had the speed climb up through the overcast and over the mountains to safety at their base at Pleiku.

Fisher on the left and Myers on the right after the rescue flight
Remember that group of special forces that got pinned down trying to rescue Major Myers? They were able to escape and get back inside the camp perimeter as all the NVA guns that had them pinned down were focused on trying to shoot down Major Fisher's Skyraider.; When his aircraft landed back at its base, the aircraft had 19 holes from ground fire sustained during the rescue flight. Fisher was unlikely Skyraider pilot- he served in World War II as a sailor and on return to the United States, joined the ROTC while in college. He only finished three years at the University of Utah before he was commissioned to fly for the USAF. He had earned his wings flying Convair F-102 Delta Daggers in Europe and Lockheed F-104 Starfighters for the Air Defense Command stateside. He volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam, getting assigned to fly Skyraiders with the 1st Air Commando Squadron at Pleiku. At the time of his epic rescue flight, he had been flying combat missions in the A-1 for eight months. The day prior to his rescue of Major Myers, he earned a Silver Star flying combat missions over the same special forces camp in the A Shau Valley! 

On 19 January 1967, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his rescue of Major Myers. This is the citation: 
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. On that date, the special forces camp at A Shau was under attack by 2,000 North Vietnamese Army regulars. Hostile troops had positioned themselves between the airstrip and the camp. Other hostile troops had surrounded the camp and were continuously raking it with automatic weapons fire from the surrounding hills. The tops of the 1,500-foot hills were obscured by an 800 foot ceiling, limiting aircraft maneuverability and forcing pilots to operate within range of hostile gun positions, which often were able to fire down on the attacking aircraft. During the battle, Maj. Fisher observed a fellow airman crash land on the battle-torn airstrip. In the belief that the downed pilot was seriously injured and in imminent danger of capture, Maj. Fisher announced his intention to land on the airstrip to effect a rescue. Although aware of the extreme danger and likely failure of such an attempt, he elected to continue. Directing his own air cover, he landed his aircraft and taxied almost the full length of the runway, which was littered with battle debris and parts of an exploded aircraft. While effecting a successful rescue of the downed pilot, heavy ground fire was observed, with 19 bullets striking his aircraft. In the face of the withering ground fire, he applied power and gained enough speed to lift-off at the overrun of the airstrip. Maj. Fisher's profound concern for his fellow airman, and at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in the highest traditions of the U.S. Air Force and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country.
Fisher was the first USAF Medal of Honor recipient of the Vietnam War. He finished his tour in Vietnam on the Skyraider with 200 combat missions. His unit, the 1st Air Commando Squadron, had a 40% casualty rate amongst its pilots as they did a lot of low level close air support flying in support of the special forces camps in some of the most inhospitable parts of South Vietnam. He returned to the Air Defense Command until his retirement as a colonel in 1974, having flown the McDonnell F-101B Voodoo. He took up corn and alfalfa farming with his wife in rural Idaho. Every year since his rescue, each March 10th, D.W. Myers called Bernard Fisher to wish him well until Myers died in 1992. Myers' daughter kept up the ritual for another 22 years, calling Fisher on March 10th herself to wish him well. In 2008, the University of Utah awarded a diploma to Bernard Fisher 57 years after he was last a student there in recognition for his achievements and decorated military career. In 2010, the Boise Rescue Mission was established as a homeless veterans' transitional program with Fisher's help and its motto is Fisher's quote after he rescued Myers: "When a man is down, you don't leave him there." Colonel Bernard Francis Fisher flew west on 16 August 2014.

Fisher's A-1E Skyraider at the USAF Museum
You can see Bernard Fisher's A-1E Skyraider today as it has been restored and wears the colors and markings as it looked on the day of his Medal of Honor Mission at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

As for the fate of the special forces camp in the A Shau Valley after Fisher's rescue flight? By late afternoon on 10 March 1966, the decision was made to evacuate and abandon the A Shau Valley camp. Sixteen UH-34D helicopters along with six UH-1Es, all from the Marine units HMM-163 and VMO-2 respectively, flew into the valley with 200-foot overcast for the evacuation. Two helicopters were shot down but their crews managed to lead groups of camp soldiers out of the area on foot, evading the NVA units that were closing in on the camp. The NVA flak trap was so intense that three Marine F-4B Phantoms, two A-4 Skyhawks, two UH-1s and three more UH-34D sustained damage. The following morning a second evacuation flight managed to get the rest of the personnel out of the camp. The Marine helicopter squadron HMM-163 needed to have 21 of its 24 UH-34Ds replaced. Interestingly, one of the UH-1s involved in the evacuation of the rest of the personnel from the special forces camp was flown by Brigadier General Marion Carl of the US Marine Corps. Carl was the Marines' first ace of the Second World War and before Vietnam he was a decorated test pilot. Despite his rank as the commander of the 1st Marine Brigade in Vietnam, he often flew combat missions in both helicopters and jet fighters much to the chagrin of his superiors!

Sources: Above and Beyond: The Aviation Medals of Honor by Barrett Tillman. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002, pp 218-221. Assault from the Sky: US Marine Corps Helicopter Operations in Vietnam by Dick Camp. Casemate Publishers, 2013, pp 64-79. Photos: USAF Museum

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