Extraordinary People – Veterans Tribute

Originally published in the Oklahoma County Bar Association’s October 2014 Briefcase

Sometimes ordinary people do extraordinary things and become . . .well . .extraordinary. Such a thing happened March 10th, 1966 at a small Special Forces camp in the A Shau (pronounced “Ah Shah”) valley. The camp was manned by 10 American green berets and about 400 South Vietnamese irregulars. The camp was in a 25 mile long valley in the far northern part of South Vietnam, right up against the demilitarized zone which marked the border between North and South Vietnam and just beside the Laotian border.

The valley was part of the Ho Chi Minh trail, along which troops and supplies moved from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. That was why the Special Forces camp was there. They were to send patrols out into the valley to disrupt North Vietnam’s supply line on the Ho Chi Minh trail. March was part of the wet season in that part of Viet Nam. In early March, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) surrounded the camp with about 2,500 troops. The camp was out of range of American artillery so U.S. Air Force aircraft had to supply fire support for the outpost.

The air support was mostly provided by an anachronistic airplane, the A1E, officially the “Skyraider” but commonly called a “Spad” after Snoopy’s airplane in Peanuts. The A-1 had started out in World War II as a navy attack and torpedo plane but came into that war too late to be used. It was used by the navy in the Korean War but found its best use in Viet Nam.

These were big airplanes, for fighters. They had a large, rotary engine driving a huge propellor. This gave the airplane the ability to carry a large load of fuel and ammunition and remain in the air with that large load up to 10 hours.

The Spads were attacking the NVA, who were dug in on the east side of the small airstrip built to resupply the camp, which lay to the east of the strip. The weather made the task more difficult and is probably why the North Vietnamese chose that time for the attack. The clouds were down over the mountains surrounding the valley which stood at about 1,500 feet. The cloud ceiling was 800 feet.

This meant each time the Spads came in for a bombing or strafing run, they had to descend through the clouds between the peaks, make their run up (or down) the valley (the only way they could go) where the NVA gunners on the ground knew exactly where to shoot at them. One of the Spads was hit by ground fire and caught fire. The pilot, Major “Jump” Myers, bellied the Spad in on the little (2500 foot) runway and departed the downed aircraft for the west side of the runway.

Major Bernard (pronounced “Bernerd”) “Bernie” Fisher saw him go in. The closest rescue helicopter was 30 minutes away. The closest NVA soldiers were 200 yards from Myers.

It was commonly known at the time that most people who went down in that part of the world were not taken prisoner but rather were killed. (It was only further north into North Vietnam that the Vietnamese had the time or the patience to deal with prisoners.) Besides, the worst place to crash is the immediate area you’ve just been attacking. (Crashed Douglas A-1, Public Domain, U.S. Air Force photo - http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/shared/media/photodb/photos/051123-F-1234P-001.jpg)

Bernie Fisher announced that he was going to land and try to pick up Myers. He first set up the rescue, using the 6 Spads which were by then in the area, carrying a wide variation in ordnance. Among them, however, were some carrying napalm and all had 20 millimeter cannon.

Bernie had two Spads come down the runway just ahead of him strafing with the 20 MM and dropping napalm on the east side of the runway, where the ground fire was coming from. He came right behind these two aircraft and landed on the shell-hole pocked field, from north to south. His aircraft was hit 19 times during his landing roll and while he taxied back to the north end of the runway to pick up Myers.

He got Myers in the aircraft. His was a one-seat airplane, so he had to position Myers on his lap. He then started a takeoff roll. He had to steer the airplane around the shell holes and bomb craters, which would have wrecked his airplane if he had hit them.

His task in steering around the holes in the runway was made infinitely harder by the fact that the Spad is a “tail-dragger.” That is, on the ground, it sits on the main gear (the two wheels under the wings) and a tail wheel. This makes the nose point up into the air and prevents the pilot from seeing directly ahead of the airplane. Fisher would normally make “S” turns when taxiing, so he could see out the side of the aircraft to avoid hazards like the shell holes and craters. He can’t very well do that while making a takeoff roll, trying to get up enough speed to get the Spad off the short runway. But he did it.

Finally, the Spad cleared the ground on the overrun at the end of the runway and he began the climb to get out of the valley. He returned to his base in South Vietnam, with a very grateful passenger. When asked why he did what he did he responded “When a man is down, you don’t leave him there.”

There’s a bit of a back story. There had been a similar rescue during World War II, in 1944. Capt. Dick Wilsie’s P-38 (also a single-seat fighter) had been shot down near Ploesti, Romania, far behind German lines. Flight Officer Dick Andrews landed his P-38 nearby, squeezed the downed pilot into the cockpit, took off and got him out. For that, Andrews got the Silver Star. Both Wilsie and Andrews were involved in Bernie Fisher’s rescue of Myers. Wilsie was Myers’ commanding officer and Andrews flew top cover during the rescue.

Fisher received the Medal of Honor for his rescue. What brings this all to mind just now is that Major (now Colonel) Bernard Fisher died August 16, 2014 at the age of 87.

While this was all going on around the airstrip, a desperate fight was being waged in the Special Forces camp just to the east. At the beginning of the NVA attack, on March 9, there were 10 American Special Forces troops (Green Berets) and about 400 South Vietnamese troops. While the base was under attack, 5 more Green Berets were helicoptered into the fight. Five of the 15 Americans in the camp did not make it out. The little camp fell to the NVA late the night and early morning of the day of Fisher’s rescue, March 10.

In the camp was Sergeant First Class Bennie Adkins of Waurika, Oklahoma. When the attack began, He set up a mortar in the center of the camp and dropped 81 MM mortar shells on the attacking NVA. Earlier on March 9th, before Fisher’s rescue, he turned the mortar over to others and took wounded to the air strip where they were evacuated. He also left the perimeter of the camp to retrieve ammunition and water which had been air dropped but had fallen into a mine field. He received multiple wounds in doing all this.

When finally the NVA had taken the air strip and was attacking the camp directly, he directed the defenses from inside the camp until the camp was about to be overrun. Some of the South Vietnamese troops went over to the NVA and turned their weapons on the camp.

Sgt. Adkins and the survivors were then in a bunker at the east edge of the camp. He destroyed the radios, so the NVA couldn’t use them to call in rescue forces and shoot them down and destroyed all the classified information in the bunker. Then he and the others, almost all wounded, dug out of the back of the bunker and fled into the jungle, while the NVA continued to pour fire into the bunker, thinking the Americans and South Vietnamese were still there. He is thought to have killed as many as 175 NVA during the battle.

He then evaded capture by the NVA while helping the other wounded through the jungle. Late on the night and early morning of the 20th, the little group found itself surrounded by NVA. They realized they could see big eyes looking at them from the jungle, between them and the attacking NVA. A tiger, smelling the blood from their wounds was very interested in them.

Fortunately, the NVA were as frightened of the tiger as the Americans were and pulled back. The little group was able to slip away into the jungle, where they were rescued by American helicopters a couple of days later. Sgt Adkins, now retired as a Command Sergeant Major, the highest enlisted rank in the Army, and living in Opelika, Alabama, belatedly received the Medal of Honor from President Obama on September 15, 2015.

On the same day that Command Sgt. Major Adkins got his Medal of Honor, President Obama awarded a posthumous MOH to a young army soldier, Specialist Donald Sloat, of Coweta, Oklahoma. He was a 20 year-old machine gunner in a light infantry Brigade and was out on patrol. His squad was moving through thick jungle up a sandy hill near Da Nang.

The lead man, who was uphill, stumbled over the trip-wire of a homemade mine. The wire turned over a tin can into which the Viet Cong had stuffed a hand grenade with the pin pulled but with the fuse not yet lit because the handle on the grenade had not popped out because it was held by the sides of the can. When the can overturned, the grenade came out and rolled down the hill through the squad, with the fuse smoking.

Sloat had couple of choices to make: If the grenade went off in the middle of his squad, the blast and fragments from the grenade would likely kill them all. He could hit the dirt and hope he escaped the fragments from the grenade explosion or he could pick up the grenade and throw it away from the squad. He picked up the grenade but when he started to throw it, he realized American soldiers from another unit were in the area where he was going to throw the grenade. He instead pulled the grenade to his belly and bent over, absorbing most of the blast from the grenade with his body. His fellow squad members were wounded but he was the only one killed.

What is most remarkable about all this is that, when the need arises, such extraordinary men as these seem always to be there. And they do extraordinary things.

It has been said that a veteran is someone who, at some point, wrote a blank check payable to the United States, for any amount up to and including life itself. On this Veterans Day (and maybe on some days when it’s not Veterans Day) tell a veteran you know “Thanks for your service.” It will make you both feel good.

Oklahoma attorneys reading this should also consider participating in the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Lawyers for America’s Heroes program. This program provides needed legal services to veterans who are down on their luck and can’t otherwise afford adequate legal services. Call Gisele Perryman at OBA at 416-7086 or go to heroes@OKBAR.org. Somehow that doesn’t seem like such a sacrifice.