This Army pilot shielded troops with his helicopter . . . twice
Col. Robert A. Hefford was a decorated pilot in Vietnam who received Silver Stars for shielding troops with his helicopter on two occasions and a Distinguished Flying Cross for flying into heavy resistance in another firefight.
Col. Robert Hefford. Photo: US Army
On Jan. 21, 1968, then-Maj. Hefford was a mission commander flying against enemy forces during the Tet Offensive. He was performing low-level recon ahead of a friendly advance. When he found the enemy, he engaged with rockets and mini-guns. Hefford received seven hits from enemy ground fire to his aircraft and was wounded in his face, hand, leg, and an eye.
Another helicopter was then hit, wounding the pilot and killing the scout observer aboard. Hefford, despite his own wounds and damage to his aircraft, maneuvered between the enemy and the stricken bird, acting as a shield for his men. He then evacuated the downed crew and took them to a hospital. He received the Silver Star for his actions.
Photo: US Army Sgt. 1st Class James K. F. Dung
A few months later, on April 18, 1968, Hefford was flying a UH-1H helicopter on a combat mission when an OH-6A scout was shot down. He flew in to the battle area to provide command and control and immediately started mixing it up with the enemies on the ground. The ground forces got in trouble and started calling for airstrikes, but the Air Force jets started dropping it too close to friendly forces.
Troops on the ground called off the strikes, but the Air Force pilot didn't get the message right away. Hefford flew his helicopter into the jet's flight path, forcing the jet to abandon its approach right before it released its napalm. He was again awarded the Silver Star.
Perhaps Hefford's greatest act of gallantry came years before. On July 7, 1965, then-Cpt. Hefford provided security for medical evacuations. Intense enemy fire on the birds required Hefford to provide heavy suppressive fire in response. His first mission in was successful with little incident. When he returned with another evacuation bird, he drew enemy fire while the Medevac picked up its patients.
A burst of machine-gun fire struck inside the cockpit just over Hefford's head. Hefford continued his assault on the enemy positions, allowing the medical helicopter to complete the evacuation. Hefford was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Hefford retired from the Army as a colonel in 1984.