This RED post, like all of them, is offered in the hope that America’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, National Guard, and Coast Guardsmen will know that we respect them and are grateful for their high ideals, outstanding fighting ability, and enduring courage. As a Louis L’Amour character said of one such individual, “There’s no back-up in him.”
This is the story of two members of America’s military forces whose toughness and coolness under fire saved America lives and cost the enemy lives. They left a high-water mark of courage, devotion to their comrades in arms, and patriotism. To paraphrase the Bible, “These are they who went into great tribulation.” May God grant them honor, peace and rest beyond this world, and in it too, if possible.
Capt. Hilliard A. Wilbanks, Forward Air Controller, USAF, 488 combat missions in Vietnam, posthumous Medal of Honor, Distinguished Flying Cross, 17 Air Medals, KIA Vietnam 02-24-1967
Jeff sent me a brief Yarnhub video of this incident:
An O1-E Bird Dog is not the plane you’d want to be flying close air support with. It had no weapons and no armor. Only four white phosphorus rockets, nothing more than smoke bombs to mark targets for helicopter gunships and fighter aircraft. Even a pistol bullet can penetrate the body O1-E. It’s strictly a “Forward Air Control” craft, to guide the heavy hitters to targets.
That’s what Captain Wilbanks flew in Vietnam. On February 24th, 1967, he was flying recon for two companies of South Vietnamese “ARVN” Rangers who were searching for another company of South Vietnamese Rangers who had disappeared without a trace that morning. The missing company had walked into a major, well-planned ambush by a North Vietnamese / Viet Cong force and been wiped out. The radioman had thrown the radio down a well to prevent its capture, so there was no warning.
There were several jets loitering near the searching Rangers, but they had to return to base for fuel. They expended their ordnance on a “hopeful” target and left. Then Captain Wilbanks saw the ambush as the ARVN Rangers had just walked into it. The enemy, knowing that the O1-E’s presence meant they’d been spotted, were forced to spring the ambush a little sooner than they’d planned, but the forward Ranger elements still began taking heavy casualties immediately.
Wilbanks called for three helicopter gunships nearby, but seeing the Rangers pinned down and taking fire from heavy machine guns and 60mm mortars, he attacked the enemy positions with his four phosphorus rockets!
With two of the helicopters escorting the damaged third chopper back to base and no air support immediately available, Wilbanks went berserker on the VC. He kept an M-16 in his plane in case he was shot down. He began flying as low as 100 feet off the ground while firing his M-16 out the window one-handed at the enemy. He made multiple passes shooting and changing magazines as enemy bullets ripped into his plane on every pass. As crazy as it sounds, he confused and diverted the enemy long enough for the ARVN Rangers to withdraw to a better position. Captain Wilbanks was fatally wounded and crashed between the ARVN Rangers and the enemy. He was retrieved while still alive by the crew of an arriving Bell Huey helicopter which took fire in the process, but he died en route to medical care. But he had fought long enough that a flight of F4 Phantom jets arrived in time to save the two Ranger companies. The F4s pounded the enemy so severely that they left their positions and ran for their lives.
On January 24th, 1968, the Secretary of the Air Force, Harold Brown, presented the Medal of Honor to his widow. The full citation may be seen here.
God grant that you rest in peace, Captain. You are one crazy, wild warrior. I think there were some enemy soldiers that day who were glad you weren’t on the ground with a good firing position and an M-60.
In the thirty years of the existence of Special Forces, ten Medals of Honor have been awarded to Special Forces soldiers. I suspect that operational security and the safety of individual soldiers has something to do with the very low percentage of Medals of Honor awarded to Special Forces. They are certainly “on the tip of the spear”, and in the War on Terror, they have been given a very active role. Here is the story of one:
Army Staff Sgt. Ronald Shurer II, 3rd Special Forces Group, 04-08-2008, Shok Valley, Afghanistan; deceased 27 Oct 2020, from cancer: Shurer was the only medic in a force of fifteen Special Forces soldiers and a hundred Afghan commandos assigned a mission in the Shok Valley of northeastern Afghanistan. “Their goal: to capture or kill high-value targets operating out of an isolated village on a mountaintop.”
So of course they were inserted at the bottom of a nearby valley by Chinook helicopter. The inevitable quickly happened and they came under heavy fire from machine guns, snipers, and rocket-propelled grenades. The phrase “like shooting fish in a barrel” leaps to mind. There was unspecified close air support, which probably kept them from being totally annihilated.
Shurer was at the base of the mountain when the shooting began, and treated casualties from the beginning of his ascent. A little way up, he was stalled with a few others for about an hour until they could kill enough of the enemy to proceed. At the top, there were more casualties to treat. While treating one, a bullet ricocheted off Shurer’s helmet and wounded yet another soldier. ” ‘It felt like I’d been hit in the head with a baseball bat,’ Shurer said in a later interview.”
Wounded Americans and ten wounded commandos needed evacuation, and an escape route down a vertical 60-foot cliff was their only option. Shurer rappelled down with the casualties, and “… used his own body to shield them from enemy fire and falling debris.”
Shurer set up a casualty collection point, and after a successful helicopter medevac, “… he went back to the mountain and rejoined the fight until another helicopter came to evacuate the rest of them.”
His wife’s words at his funeral are the best epitaph a man could ask for. And the story of his battle against cancer is well worth reading, and totally in character.
The other soldier who was awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions on that day was Master Sergeant Matthew O. Williams. I’m out of space, so I’ll post his story next week. MSgt. Williams was a ball of fire on that day, and fully deserves recognition.
God bless our troops and veterans.