In the United States military, the Purple Heart is a revered, if unwanted, military accolade bestowed upon those individuals who have been wounded in action with the enemy. The Military Order of the Purple Heart describes it as “awarded to members of the armed forces of the U.S. who are wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy and posthumously to the next of kin in the name of those killed in action or die of wounds received in action. It is specifically a combat decoration.”
The Purple Heart traces its lineage all the way back to the Revolutionary War when it was called the Badge of Military Merit. After World War I, renewed interest in reviving the Badge of Military Merit led to the establishment of the modern Purple Heart. When the new Purple Heart was authorized in 1932, it superseded the short-lived Army Wound Ribbon and the wear of Wound Chevrons – devices on the sleeve that denoted the number of times someone had been wounded in combat.
Two million Purple Hearts have been awarded since it was created. The men below earned more of them per individual than any others.
1. Staff Sgt. Albert L. Ireland – Marine Corps
Staff Sergeant Albert Ireland has the distinction of being awarded the most Purple Hearts of any individual across all branches of service. During his 12 years of service – spanning two wars from 1941 to 1953 – Ireland was wounded a total of nine times. Albert fought his way across the Pacific with the Marines during World War II, during which time he was wounded five times. During the Korean War, he was wounded four more times, and the last one was severe enough that he was medically discharged.
2. Lt. Col. Richard J. Buck – Army
Richard Buck graduated from West Point in 1951 before being shipped to the Korean peninsula. During his service in the Korean War, Buck was wounded a total of four times. After the Korean War, Buck stayed in the Army and eventually joined Special Forces before being deployed to Vietnam. There, Buck was again wounded four times, bringing his Purple Heart total to eight for his career. He retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1970.
3. Maj. Gen. Robert T. Frederick – Army
Major General Frederick began World War II as a Lieutenant Colonel tasked with raising the 1st Special Service Force. With this force he would fight in the Aleutian Islands, North Africa, and Italy before being promoted to Brigadier General and taking charge of the 1st Allied Airborne Task Force. During his time with 1st Special Service Force, he was wounded numerous times. At Anzio he was wounded twice in the same day. Frederick was once again promoted and took command of the 45th Infantry Division until the end of the war. Major General Frederick ended WWII with eight Purple Hearts, two Distinguished Service Crosses, and a Silver Star. He retired in 1952.
4. Col. David H. Hackworth – Army
Colonel Hackworth was awarded eight purple hearts over the course of the Korean and Vietnam wars. During the Korean War, Hackworth served with several elite units – 8th Ranger Company, 25th Recon Company, and the 27th Wolfhound Raiders – before earning a battlefield commission and volunteering to serve another tour, which he completed with the 40th Infantry Division. During his time in Korea he was awarded three Purple Hearts. During the Vietnam War, Hackworth served multiple tours in Vietnam in multiple capacities but was well known for creating the Tiger Force with the 101st Airborne and revitalizing the demoralized 4/39th into the ‘Hardcore Recondo’ Battalion. There he received another five Purple Hearts. Col. Hackworth also holds the record for the most Silver Stars with ten awards.
5. Capt. Joe Hooper – Army
Joe Hooper enlisted in the U.S. Army as an Airborne Infantryman in 1960. He was stationed at a number of locations before being assigned to D Co., 2nd Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment just prior to that unit’s deployment to Vietnam. On February 21, 1968, Hooper’s actions outside of Hue earned him the Medal of Honor as well as one of his Purple Hearts. Hooper would serve a second tour in Vietnam from 1970-71, during which time he received a direct commission to 2nd Lieutenant. During his tours, Lt. Cooper received eight Purple Hearts, the Medal of Honor, and two Silver Stars as well as numerous other awards.
6. Col. Robert L. Howard – Army
Robert Howard enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1956 and by 1967 found himself assigned to Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG) in Vietnam. Howard served a total of 54 months in Vietnam. During one thirteen month tour, he was recommended for the Medal of Honor on three separate occasions, but due to the covert nature of the operations, two were reduced – to the Silver Star and Distinguished Service Cross. He was awarded the Medal of Honor and a Purple Heart for actions in December 1968. In the remainder of his time in Vietnam, Howard was given a commission to 2nd Lieutenant and wounded a further seven times giving him a total of eight Purple Hearts for his career. He retired as a Colonel in 1992.
7. Col. William L. Russell – Army
William Russell first enlisted in the 153rd Infantry Regiment of the Arkansas National Guard during World War II, seeing action in the Aleutian Islands before being given a direct commission. After Advanced Infantry Officer Training, he was assigned to I Co., 330th Infantry Regiment, 83rd Infantry Division. During his time with the 83rd Infantry Division, he earned a Silver Star, was nominated for the Medal of Honor, and was wounded seven times, earning him the nickname ‘The King of the Purple Hearts.” After WWII, Russell returned to Arkansas before being called up to participate in the Korean War where he led the 937th Field Artillery Battalion into combat. Russell retired from the military in 1965 with the rank of Colonel, having been awarded eightPurple Hearts.
8. Sgt. Maj. William Waugh – Army
William Waugh enlisted in the Army in 1948 and was briefly assigned to the 187th Parachute Regimental Combat Team in Korea before earning his Green Beret in 1954. Waugh deployed to Vietnam with Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha team in 1961. During numerous tours in Vietnam, Waugh was involved in many different operations including multiple combat High Altitude Low Opening insertions. During the Battle of Bong Son, Waugh was grievously wounded and was later awarded the Silver Star and his sixth Purple Heart. By the time Sgt. Maj. Waugh retired in 1972, he had been wounded two more times for a total of eight Purple Hearts. After his illustrious Special Forces career, Waugh continued on working for the CIA during which time, at the age of 71, he participated in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
Amongst the backdrop of our relatively male-dominated world, women have often taken supporting roles. This is especially true in male-dominated fields like the military. Despite the perception that women weren’t suited to physically demanding jobs, many women have gone on to take leading roles in several branches of the U.S. military. Today, we’re turning the spotlight to shine on some of the most badass women warriors around.
1. Captain Linda Bray
Captain Linda Bray was the leader of the 988th Military Police Company in 1989. Out of the 700 women who took part in Operation Just Cause in Panama, Bray was the first woman to command American soldiers on the battlefield. In several interviews, Bray said that she joined the Army to be challenged on a personal level, as well as to represent her country.
And boy, she did not disappoint. Bray’s leadership shined a light on the marginalization of female soldiers in the U.S military and ultimately caused leaders to reconsider the prohibition of women in the military. The ban officially ended in 2013. To this day, Linda Bray serves as a role model to many female soldiers who still often find themselves challenged within the military system.
2. General Ann E. Dunwoody
In 2008, Ann E. Dunwoody became the first female officer to reach four-star rank in United States military history. Before retiring in 2012, Dunwoody led Army Materiel Command. During the First Gulf War in 1992, she was also the first female commanding a battalion in the 82nd Airborne Division. Regardless of her achievements, Dunwoody retains a humble vision of her military career, stating that she “sees herself as simply a soldier.”
Perhaps this viewpoint can be attributed to Dunwoody being a fourth-generation Army officer. In her family, serving your country isn’t an extraordinary achievement; it’s just what you do. She stresses the importance of recognizing the journeys of other women in the military, as the women serving today are paving the way for those to come. In 2015, Dunwoody compiled all her knowledge from past military campaigns and experience in leadership, releasing a book called “A Higher Standard: Leadership Strategies from America’s First Female Four-Star General.”
3 & 4. Kristen Griest and Shaye Haver
In 2015, Captain Griest and 1st Lieutenant Haver became the first female soldiers to successfully finish Army Ranger School and subsequently earned their ranger tabs. The Ranger School, established in 1950, has had over 77,000 tabbed soldiers, but Griest and Haver were the first women to qualify. Both graduates of the U.S Military Academy at West Point, Haver served as an AH-64 Apache pilot, and Griest was a military police platoon leader. Both women viewed Ranger School as an excellent way to prepare themselves for leadership positions.
Haver has stated before that she wanted to attend for much of the same reasons men do: to gain experience and be exposed to potential opportunities. In addition, she’s also said that normalizing female representation in the military will not only make the military atmosphere more diverse and accepting, but also a better institution all around. Griest and Haver’s trailblazing mission has proved even more successful; over 30 women, including National Guardsmen and enlisted soldiers, have since earned their Ranger tabs.
5. Eileen Collins
Eileen Collins, perhaps better known for her role as the first female space shuttle commander, also had a highly accomplished military background in the Air Force. Collins was one of the first women to be recruited for Air Force training right after graduating from Syracuse University and completed her training in 1979. After graduating, she also became the first female flight instructor for the Air Force, teaching pilots how to fly complex military aircraft.
By 1989, Collins had not only received several more advanced degrees but had also logged over a thousand hours in flight time. Combined, her degrees and flight time were more than enough to be accepted into the competitive Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. From there, Collins proceeded to be the first female pilot for NASA, spending 419 hours in space. She was assigned to the historic Columbia space shuttle in 1999. Now retired from both the Air Force and NASA, she has received a great deal of recognition for her accomplishments, including indictment into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
6. Mary A. Hallaren
According to Colonel Mary Hallaren, there was never a question about whether women should serve in the military. With the onset of Wolrd War II and the shockingly gruesome events at Pearl Harbor, Hallaren enlisted in the first training class of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, commonly known as WAC, in 1942. Hallaren’s pension for leadership proved beneficial; she was quickly promoted to commanding the most expansive female unit overseas.
By 1948, she was the director of WAC and earned the first commissioned officer position in the Regular Army. Unlike most military positions offered to women at the time, it was a non-medical role. Throughout the rest of her career, Hallaren’s passion and dedication made her instrumental in the fight for inclusion. Her work eventually earned her a spot in the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Dragonman’s Military Museum in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is not your average military museum. You quickly figure that out when you first arrive. The entryway leads you through cars full of bullet holes that have bloody human dummies inside. The signs that accompany the cars say things like, “STAY ON THE ROAD. This family just hit a LANDMINE.” That makes it super clear: This museum experience is going to go the distance.
Nothing says authentic like working military weapons in a museum
The owner of Dragonman’s Military Museum is a Vietnam Vet known as “Dragon Man.” That’s a way cooler name than his real name, Mel Bernstein. His museum does not mess around. It has 1,200 mannequins in authentic military uniforms. In addition, there are also more than 5,000 helmets and over 2,500 weapons on display. Many of the mannequins are holding weapons. The sheer quantity of military memorabilia at this place is simply awe-inspiring.
As a matter of fact, all of the restorable items, including the guns and vehicles, have been restored to working condition. While the US government does not allow real bullets in their museums, that certainly is not the case for Dragonman’s Military Museum.
Military history is not all uniforms and army tanks
Equally important are some of the specific and strange items Dragonman’s Military Museum houses. He showcases every model of Army Jeep, land mine, and German belt buckle from both World War I and World War II. In face, he’s even made a pyramid constructed of 500-pound Vietnam War bombs and even has gas masks for babies.
Then again, some of the most disturbing items in the museum come straight from the Nazis. In fact, there’s an entire room dedicated to Nazis. Of course, the Swastika flags are off-putting, and Hitler’s original mustard yellow uniform is unsettling as well. However, those are nothing compared to the corpse tongs from Dachau. Or the soap made from human fat. The Dragon Man even has an empty gas chamber complete with Zyklon B cans, the trademarked gas used by the Nazis in their extermination camps. Not a lot of military museums in the world dare to show history with this level of honesty, including the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Dragon Man is doing his part to ensure the world never forgets.
Ambiance is everything
On top of the actual historical pieces in the museum is its atmosphere. Gunfire and explosions sound from the walls, coming straight from the adjacent firing range, also owned by the Dragon Man. Plus, he’s done things to show the history with more than just artifacts.
For instance, he’s recreated a whole Gulf War field hospital, and he’s got a photo of a suicide bomber who was beheaded by a US sniper bullet from the Iraq War, plus pictures of Saddam Hussein himself captured by soldiers. Dragonman’s Military Museum is a gutsy and genuine display of military history, to say the least—there’s no question about that.
There’s a cast of characters that pop up in any military unit: you have the “grandpa,” the “fighter,” and the “smiley-jokester” that everyone loves immediately.
For SEAL Team five, Rob Guzzo was the “smiley jokester” — everyone who encountered him loved him right away.
“As soon as Rob checked in and he was going to be a comms guy, I mean we just hit it off right off the bat,” one Navy SEAL states. “We were just laughing all the time.”
Rob’s teammates commonly remember him as being a “walking holiday.” Sadly, Rob passed away in 2012, but this popular and fun-natured SEAL will live on through the memories in which he made with family and the SEAL community.
“Rob was a total jokester, which is awesome but at the same time was serious,” another SEAL admits. “His parents were both military, and he had that sense of pride.”
For Megan Dursky, a registered nurse working in pediatrics in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, keeping perspective during COVID-19 has helped her perform to the best of her capabilities.
“When I do get scared – I think about how I would hope my child/nephew/niece would be taken care of when they are ill,” Dursky said. “What sort of treatment would I want for them? I then try to provide that for my patients.”
Megan and her husband, Trevor. Photo courtesy of Megan Dursky.
Dursky, whose husband Trevor serves in the Iowa National Guard, shares that when she first heard about the novel coronavirus, it seemed far away.
“Like many Americans, I did not think it would affect me personally, especially since I live in a rural area of the United States. I brushed it off for the most part and went about my normal routines of life. As I started to hear about how it was affecting Italy and began reading and seeing pictures of healthcare providers there — I started feeling uneasy — fearful of the unknown or what was to come.”
Almost immediately, Dursky began noticing changes in her day-to-day protocols at work.
“Things began to change in my workplace on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis,” she shared. “Some of us wore paper masks while conducting patient care — others thought this was maybe a little over the top. We began to have daily, sometimes twice daily huddles to discuss new guidelines/procedures to implement. My work inbox began to fill with COVID-19 updates and our patients’ families began calling with questions regarding the outbreak. Things really sunk in when positive COVID-19 cases began to pop up locally in our communities and further PPE and protocols were put into place. By this point, our office was in the process of establishing a specialized clinic to receive patients with possible COVID-19 symptoms.”
Dursky, left, in PPE. Photo courtesy of Megan Dursky.
While the threat of insufficient PPE looms and seeing stress on her co-worker’s faces happens more regularly, Dursky admits that working with families has sustained her in such an emotional and uncertain time.
“My favorite part of being a nurse is connecting with my patients and their families,” she said. “A high point for me is being able to educate them on ways to protect their families, keeping them as healthy as they can be during this difficult time. Providing reassurance that we will be available in the clinic to take their calls and questions; even as other services of the community are shutting down.”
While the nature of her job is to reassure the community, the thought of work coming home with her is never far from Dursky’s mind.
Megan and Trevor Dursky with their family. Photo courtesy of Megan Dursky.
“I’m fearful of contracting the virus myself and bringing it home to my family,” she shared. “Trying to serve patients while protecting those closest to me in my home. Every time you grab a door handle and then rub your forehead without thinking only moments later, have you just made a potentially life-changing mistake?”
Through it all, she says that nurses are truly there for patients.
“Without you — we would not be essential,” she said. “A smile from my patient can clear the day’s troubles from my mind and make everything we do worthwhile.”
We Are The Mighty will be featuring different heroes on the front lines of the battle with COVID-19. From health care workers to teachers, kind neighbors, grocery store employees and other mission essential personnel, if you know someone going above and beyond, please email us to feature them: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mighty Stories is a weekly WATM feature highlighting the stories of veterans, active duty and military families. This week’s feature is Art Jetter, Vietnam Veteran.
“I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. I was the oldest of six boys, no girls, in middle class America. My dad was a great man and my mom was a wonderful mother.
My dad was a B-17 pilot in World War II. He flew 35 missions out of England. He volunteered to fly in the Pacific, but thankfully the war ended as he finished his training. My mom’s two brothers were also pilots. My grandfather joined the Signal Corp in the Army and was also in pilot training during World War I. My dad didn’t really talk about the war.
He was the youngest of 9 kids. I read some letters he sent back to his family during World War II. Whatever the Army paid him, he sent home. Here’s a guy who did all his country ever asked him, and I don’t think he had time to be scared.
The 8th Army Air Corps had a reunion in Omaha about 25 years ago. His crew all came. They fought together, they came home together, and they stayed connected. They all came over to dinner at my parents that night and invited us kids to join them. My dad was pretty hard of hearing, so imagine a long dinner table with my dad at one end. One of the guys, Marty, was at the other end. And Marty said, ‘Now boys, I just want you all to know that the reason that we all are able to have dinner here tonight – the reason that we all came home alive – was because of your dad. I asked, ‘What did my father do,’ I mean these B17s flew in formation, ‘What did he do to provide protection?’ And Marty explained that my dad always flew toward the flack.
There was some room between the bombers, and the Germans would aim their anti-aircraft at a particular aircraft and when my dad would see the flack, he would turn toward it. The Germans would adjust, trying to guess where they should have shot, and they’d always guess wrong. My dad turned to me and said, ‘What did Marty just say?’ I said, ‘He said that in order to avoid getting shot you would fly toward the flack.’ And my dad said, ‘You know I used to do that.’ We all had a pretty good chuckle about it. He expected me to do the right thing. He was a very honorable, truthful, loyal guy.
I remember in 1965, our student body was all sitting in the auditorium for some kind of program. One of my favorite friends, Charlie Lee, was sitting next to me. His dad was a major in the Army. He turned to me and said, ‘My dad says we should join the Reserves.’ And I said, ‘Why would we do that?’ And he said that as soon as we turned 18 then we could join the Reserves, and we could pick our jobs instead of just getting sent to Vietnam as an infantry guy. I didn’t really even know what Vietnam was. Charlie joined the 173rd Transportation Company in the Reserves and as soon as he joined his whole unit was called up and sent over. He’d been trained as a lifeguard at a swimming pool at the Officers Club and got to Vietnam as a convoy commander. He remains to this day one of the most organized guys I’ve ever met in my life. Charlie stayed in the Reserves and was called to most of the battles after Vietnam. He achieved the rank of Command Sergeant Major before he retired.
I didn’t follow his instructions and I got drafted. I wanted to be an architect. I got accepted to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, but my grandpa was on the Board of Trustees at a small college in Iowa and he wanted me to go there. So, I went, but I shouldn’t have gone. I left and couldn’t get back into UNL. I was selling men’s and boy’s clothes at a retail store for id=”listicle-2645885448″ an hour. I went to Wentworth Military Academy for 12 months and soon after, I got a letter welcoming me to the United States Army.
Photo courtesy of Art Jetter
I went to Fort Lewis for basic training. They put us all in a line and asked anyone who had been through ROTC to take a step forward. I did, and then they asked if anyone had gone to a military academy. Since I had, I took another step forward. And so, they made me the acting drill sergeant for one of the platoons. I thought, ‘holy crap.’ I was a little guy when I graduated from high school. I was almost 5’2 and 120 pounds. I think I could do about three pushups.
I worked hard and pretty soon I was maxing the PT test. At the end of basic, they put an article in the Omaha World Herald that I was the top in my class and they promoted me to E3. I went to my senior drill sergeant and told him I was the best guy he had. He replied that I shouldn’t be bragging. I said, ‘Make no mistake, I’m not bragging. I’m saying if I’m the best you have you’re in big trouble.’ He said, ‘You don’t think the training was adequate.’ I said, ‘I’ll be lucky to make it down the stairs of the airplane in Vietnam without getting shot.’ We talked about needing better training and a week later I found myself as a candidate in the Infantry Officer Candidate School (OCS).
After I applied for Ranger and Airborne school (which I didn’t get), they told me I had the aptitude to be a pilot. I thought it was pretty nifty with so many pilots in my family. I did my troop duty and then went to flight school in Texas. Then I spent four months at Fort Rucker learning to fly Hueys. I graduated from flight school as one of the top guys. I tell you that not to brag, but it was because I was more afraid of what could happen to me than anybody else, so I studied harder. It was more about being able to live than grades. I was picked to fly the Cobra, which was like going from a family minivan to a full-tilt Ferrari.
I knew I was going to Vietnam. I had a month off, so I went home. Every girl I knew took me to the airport on my way to Vietnam. The whole time I was in helicopter school I knew they weren’t training me to stay home. It’s an interesting thing about getting ready to go. You know in one regard, I was scared. Another, was, with all this training, I really wanted it to be put to use.
I’m not a fan of war. But I’d put everything into training that I could – for my own survival and for the survival of everyone I’d be associated with. I requested to be in the 1st Air Calvary Division. When I got to Vietnam I went to the 1st Air Calvary reception station. The smart thing would have been to ask which is the unit where nobody got shot at, but I had heard people talking about the legendary Blue Max Aerial Rocket Artillery Unit, and I requested that. I wasn’t disappointed. Maybe a little overworked, but I was in a unit with exceptional human beings.
That experience and those guys stuck with me. Many of them are dear friends of mine. We only had 32 pilots in our unit. Just after I left, eight of them got killed. It was a weird way of thinking about those guys. And I think I had survivor’s guilt. Like I left too soon. By the time I was there about nine months, I had been the flight lead in most organized attacks. I told my commander, Major Larry McKay, I’m going to extend for six months. I felt like I belonged to this unit. Larry said great, company clerk said great, and the day after I was originally supposed to leave Vietnam – the day my year was up – the Department of the Army called up my commander and said, ‘Where is he? My commander said I was on a mission, that I’d extended for 6 months, and the Army said no. So, my commander sent out another Cobra to relieve me. He and I went to the 1st Calvary Division Headquarters and I was told I had to report to Fort Riley, Kansas. I left Vietnam and tried like crazy to go back. Those guys were that important to me.
Our mission was this: They parked us within 5 minutes’ flight time of our guys in the field. We sat with a radio operator who would have contact with the guys on the ground. If the radio operator yelled, ‘Fire Mission,’ we’d run to the aircraft and have to be off the ground in less than two minutes. As soon as we took off, the guy would give us a heading to follow and then he’d read the mission. If there was a Medevac, part of our mission was security. We’d provide security for the medevac helicopter to come in.
I flew 1,032 combat missions but there are a bunch that stand out, all for different reasons. When I first got there, I was a co-pilot. You strive to become an aircraft commander but when you start out you’re a co-pilot. It was an incursion in Cambodia. A command and control helicopter got shot down and landed on a road. Just an ocean of people came out of the treeline; enemy soldiers, running toward the Huey.
Getting that would have been a prized treasure. Parts of war are treacherous, and parts are bizarre and humorous in a dark humor kind of way. We were shooting so many people. We weren’t very high off the ground and we were looking at them shooting at us. The devastation was just insane. And I just kept thinking, ‘What is wrong with these soldiers – they just keep coming. We’re taught to disperse.’
While all this shooting is going on, a two-and-a-half-ton truck is coming down the road. The truck stops and picks these guys up and they just keep going down the road to Vietnam. I think just the memory of all those enemy soldiers in the open … that will never go away.
I had a co-pilot, Ernest Rickenbacker, who had a famous last name because of his great uncle, Eddie, the World War I flying ace and Medal of Honor recipient. I went to my commander and told him that Ernest needed his own aircraft – he was unbelievable. And my commander did it. We called Ernest “Fast Eddie” because he became an aircraft commander so quickly. He won a Silver Star for rescuing his co-pilot. But let me tell you about that mission, first.
There was a Fire Support Base called Pace, right next to the Cambodian border where the Ho Chi Minh Trail came into Vietnam. For political reasons, the Army was supposed to evacuate this Fire Support Base. Left to its own devices, the Army never would have sacrificed it because of the strategic advantage. But, some guy wouldn’t go on patrol and he wrote his senator, so they shut it down for being “too dangerous.” Not the way you should fight a war, but anyway. We were supposed to take 12 helicopters to the Tay Ninh airport for a briefing and we’re being told about all this anti-aircraft all over the place and that nobody could get into Pace – it was too deadly.
We were working out how to get these guys evacuated. The plan was that the next day, a Huey with a smoke generator would fly around and mask trucks coming up to pick up the guys and get them out of there. I don’t tell this story very often, so I might miss parts of it. But the bunch of us that were walking back were supposed to brief the other pilots. But then the airport came under a rocket attack.
First thing we had to do was get our helicopters out. So, we did, and then we’re all supposed to land. As we’re coming in for final, the guys at Pace start yelling that they’re taking incoming. I said to my wingship, ‘Let’s take care of this.’ So, we went low-level up to the treetops until we got next to Pace. We popped up to about 1500 feet and we see 6 guys and a mortar tube on the other side of the border. The border right there was marked by a creek. Everything on the west side was Cambodia and the east was Vietnam.
We always had to call to get clearance to fire, so I called. I think the guy I had to call was an Air Force guy, and I requested flying over the border to Cambodia in order to save the men at Pace who were taking mortars. He denied my request. I said, ‘We’re in hot pursuit,’ and he said, ‘Nobody’s crossing. Out.’ Just like that, and that was the last I heard from him.
I pulled the nose of my helicopter up and launched about 6 rockets in the direction of the mortar tube. I shot across the border instead of crossing it. As luck would have it, the rockets fell right by the guys. I killed three and three hobbled off. We both dove at those three guys. My wingship, who was ahead of me, shot the other three guys. We took a hard left and and I called the guy back at Pace and told him something stupid like, ‘Send the Congressional Medal of Honor to Blue Max 1-2.’ And just as I’m saying this, I’m probably at 800 feet and there’s a loud kablamo and a big flame shoots out the left side of the nose of my helicopter. And my helicopter whips about 30 degrees to the left and then snaps back. I said to my wingship, Blue Max, 1-8, 1-2, we just got hit. And my wingship says Roger that 1-2, we just got hit.
My co-pilot in the front seat is pointing down and just yelling really loud. He’s not on the intercom; he’s just pointing and yelling. And I look down and I see this big orange garbage can coming toward me and I thought, ‘The hell is that.’ It looked like a Star Wars kind of thing. It took a lot slower than you’d think a bullet would go and it went right past us. I’m thinking, ‘That’s a 23-millimeter antiaircraft cannon round tracer.’
So, I was an infantry guy – What do you do in a near ambush? You assault. I flipped the cobra over and dove on the gun. None of my weapons would work.
I pushed the rocket launch button, nothing.
I pulled the trigger for the mini-gun, nothing.
I pushed the button for the 40-millimeter grenade launcher, nothing.
I called my wingship and said, ‘See where I’m going to hit the ground? Blow that up!’ I pulled up my nose and he hit where I was trying to and there was a huge secondary explosion from where we took out munitions. But then my cockpit filled with smoke.
I thought this was really bad because the helicopter is made of magnesium and would just burn up. So, I was flying really low – a few feet off the ground – because I thought that when the thing goes up like a match, I’ll set it down and skid down the road and open the canopy and we’ll just jump out. But as we’re coming on final, the smoke cleared out and I landed. It was the weirdest thing. The 23 millimeter came up through the nose of the helicopter. It went through the heavy steel cartridge ejection shoot for the mini gun and just shredded that, and then it went through this wire loom that controlled all the weapons systems, and it was a big heavy bundle of wires. Because it was a tracer, it started the insulation on fire and that somehow got sucked into the cockpit. And that’s all that happened.
But for my wingship commander, the 23 millimeter went through his engine compartment and took out the Environmental Control Unit and turned it into shrapnel and clipped a hydraulics line. You can fly a helicopter if you can’t shoot, but you can’t fly the Cobra without hydraulics.
All this is a lead up to what happened the next day to fast Eddie Rickenbacker.
The next morning, they told me they got my rockets fixed but they haven’t fixed my mini-gun or my 40-millimeter grenade launcher. My wingship can’t go. I shouldn’t go because I don’t have all my weapons.
Somebody needs to be back up so that’s me.
Rickenbacker’s job was to provide security for the smoke generating Huey to mask the extraction. Rickenbacker is flying about 400′. In Vietnam they would always tell us to fly below 50′ or above 1500′ because between 50′ and 1500′ a guy can shoot you down with a rifle. Rickenbacker’s helicopter gets hit about 15 times by a 51-caliber machine gun. His engine quits, his helicopter starts on fire and he crashes into the woods directly east of Fire Support Base Pace, across the road.
He crashes, and the helicopter is leaning a bit to the right, sitting there on fire. Rickenbacker gets out and runs away from the helicopter. He turns around and he looks back and Mac, his co-pilot is still in there and he’s on fire, thrashing about. He’s not getting out. Understand that you don’t want to be standing in front of one of these things when it’s on fire because it’s got all these rockets on it ready to launch.
Photo courtesy of Art Jetter
Rickenbacker runs back over there, reaches into the fire, unbuckles Mac, picks him up bodily and yanks him out of the helicopter and puts him behind a dirt mound as the ammo starts to explode. So, all this is going on and the other 11 cobras that are there can only fly for about an hour and a half and then they’re out of fuel. I get the call that they’re out of fuel and that they’re heading back, and I have to go find Rickenbacker. I said, ‘What do you mean, find him?’
Well, there was a patrol that left the support base to rescue the crew, but what they found was Mac laying there with a compound fracture of his femur and he’d broken his pelvis and he was badly burned. He had Rickenbacker’s pistol – Eddie had this really fancy revolver with a pearl handle, like a cowboy that he had brought with him. Rickenbacker had given it to Jim and told him he would go to the base to get help and have them come back for him.
The patrol walks over and finds Mac and ask him where his pilot is. He points east. East is 80 miles to the ocean through jungle, which would be the absolute wrong thing to do. I’m flying in little circles and only my rockets work. The guy in the front seat and I are trying to see where the hell Rick is.
The guy on the radio says, ‘We think our ground surveillance radar found your guy in some elephant grass across the road.’ So, my plan was to land in the Fire Support Base and my co-pilot would get out and I’d hover over there to where the elephant grass was and hopefully I’d find Rickenbacker. I’m on final to the Fire Support Base and one of the guys who flies the air ambulance, the Medevac, who’s a dear friend of ours, calls and says, ‘I’ve been listening to all this on the radio, and I’m coming up to get Rick. You just provide me with security.’ And so that’s what happened.
We get Rick out and God Bless Him. He had yanked Mac right out of there. Fast Eddie Rickenbacker had a stellar military career after that.
Photo courtesy of Art Jetter
Eddie was a Harley guy. He drove his motorcycle to Omaha and stayed a couple days with my wife and me. This was eight years ago maybe. He drove clear across the country and back and when he got home, he checked into the hospital for problems with cancer from Agent Orange. He probably shouldn’t have made the trip and he didn’t even say anything to me about his health problems. We had a good visit.
He was dead shortly after that.
We went to his ceremony at Arlington and my wife said, ‘I don’t care if you knew who was getting buried here or not, you’d be crying just standing here.’
It was very touching. Mac showed up and that was really touching to watch him say goodbye. I’m still in touch with him. He’s a great guy. You know he says that Rick gave him the rest of his life, which he did.
That day sticks out in my memory because I’ve been reminded of it so many times over the years, having seen Mac and Fast Eddie. Even in the Arlington National Cemetery website eulogy for Ernest Rickenbacker said that I had given him the name Fast Eddie. So, if I’m proud of one thing, it’s that his son, Scott, who was also a helicopter pilot, had told the writer that.
I don’t think you ever become immune to the missions. You don’t become jaded, you become more professional with how to handle missions. And you learn when to break the rules, because sometimes it’s the right thing to do.
Going from selling clothes for id=”listicle-2645885448″ an hour to flying around Vietnam in a million-and-a-half-dollar helicopter with all this elaborate training and going through all this craziness, I think I’m much better for it. I don’t know how I would have turned out otherwise, but it really helped me set my course and make good decisions. Between the training and the camaraderie with the guys in my unit and with my high school buddy Charlie Lee, it really prepared me for life. Not that life should be about killing, but the education experience, the leadership, well, it made me a better person.
Being around those guys was strengthening. A year ago, I was in Salado, Texas. I met up with my commander, Jerry, who was commander the first part of my tour, and my co-pilot and another aircraft commander. Jerry told us that we’d all been hand selected by our commanders. You know we had to wait 47 years to hear that but that was wonderful to hear. I don’t think he was making it up.
Photo courtesy of Art Jetter
It was a very special unit. Wings, the History of Aviation even did a little 10-minute thing on my unit. I don’t see the guys too often. I’m 70 now. Some of them have died.
In 1993, the Army had a new Apache helicopter company. And the new commander’s name was Timothy Solms. And I know this because he called me and said, ‘The Army gave me a new Apache unit and because I’m the charter commander, I get to name it. I looked through Army history and of all the stood down helicopter units so that I could give the members of my unit a legacy. I picked your unit. We’re calling our guys ‘Blue Max’ in your honor and we’re going to have a black-tie dinner in Fayetteville, North Carolina and we’d like you to come out for it.’
He found about 15 of us, and we went out for this dinner. The guest speaker that night was General Bill Miller, and Larry McKay who was the commander the second half I was out there. McKay was just a wonderful guy. He had decided it had been too long since we had seen each other after that night, so he started hosting a dinner the night before Veterans Day every year in Washington DC. Then on Veterans Day, we’d have a sunrise service at the wall, and then go have breakfast with the 1st Calvary Division.
Larry died in 2014. I don’t see the guys as a group like when Larry was doing those dinners, but we stay in touch and my crew chief even flew in from Alaska to see us. In 1995, I took my wife and daughter to a Vietnam helicopter pilots’ reunion and she saw that about 8 of these guys had Blue Max t-shirts on. And so, my wife went up to one of them, a guy named Jet Jackson. She asked if he knew me, and he replied, ‘No ma’am, he was just a legend when I got there.’ I pulled him aside and said, ‘Where did that come from? What do I owe you for that?’ And he said, ‘Just remember what to say to my wife when you meet her.’
Blue Max was truly a special group of guys. I think about them often. I guess I always will.”