Pilot Receives Medal of Honor for Heroism in Vietnam
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 26, 2007 President Bush presented the Medal of Honor today to retired Army Lt. Col. Bruce Crandall, 41 years after heroic actions in Vietnam the president said demonstrate the best of America and its military members.
Bush praised Crandall’s heroism during the Battle of Ia Drang Valley in November 1965, when he repeatedly flew into intensive enemy fire to rescue and resupply besieged 1st Cavalry Division ground troops.
Crandall proved himself “a daring pilot, a devoted soldier and a self-less leader” during the first major ground battle of the war at Landing Zone X-Ray near the Ia Drang River, he said.
The story of the mission is captured in the bestselling book and movie, “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young.”
Early on Nov. 14, 1965, Crandall, then a major commanding A Company, 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), was transporting a battalion of soldiers into Landing Zone X-ray, Bush recounted. After several routine lifts into the area, the ground troops came under a massive attack from the North Vietnamese Army.
During Crandall’s next flight – a flight that left three soldiers on his helicopter killed and three more wounded – he remained at the landing zone in direct line of enemy fire so four wounded troops could be loaded aboard, the president said.
After returning the wounded troops to base for treatment, Crandall knew his mission was finished, Bush said, but couldn’t bring himself to abandon the ground troops who were outnumbered and low on ammunition. Crandall asked for volunteers to fly back to LZ X-ray, and Capt. Ed Freeman stepped forward.
“In their unarmed choppers, they flew through a cloud of smoke and a wave of bullets to deliver desperately needed supplies,” the president said. “They carried out more of the wounded, even though medical evacuation was really not their mission.”
Crandall would have been a hero if he had stopped there, Bush said. “But he didn’t stop,” he said. “He flew back into X-ray again and again--14 times he flew into what they called the ‘Valley of Death.’” He made those flights recognizing the extreme risk to his own life, he said.
Over the course of the day, Crandall flew three different choppers, with two of them damaged so badly they would no longer fly. “But he kept flying until every wounded man had been evacuated and every need of the battalion had been met,” Bush said.
By the day’s end, Crandall and Freeman had spent more than 14 hours in the air, evacuating 70 wounded men and providing a lifeline that allowed the battalion to survive, Bush said.
“To the men of Ia Drang, the image of Major Crandall’s helicopter coming to their rescue is one they will never forget,” Bush said. He noted that one officer who witnessed the actions called them “without question, the most valorous I’ve observed of any helicopter pilot in Vietnam” The battalion commander said that without Crandall, his battalion would have been overrun, Bush said, and another officer said, “I will always be in awe of Major Bruce Crandall.”
Bush noted that while others have praised Crandall, he never thought of himself as a hero. “There was never a consideration we would not go into those landing zones,” Bush said, quoting Crandall. “They were my people down there and they trusted in me to come and get them.”
Crandall’s character and leadership have grown clearer over the years, Bush said. He went on to make more rescue flights, served a second tour in Vietnam, retired from the military and worked in his local government in Washington state.
Perhaps most telling, Bush said, was Crandall’s decision to withdraw his own name from consideration for the Medal of Honor to ensure that Freeman would receive his. Bush presented Freeman the honor in July 2001.
“Today, the story comes to its rightful conclusion” as Crandall finally receives his Medal of Honor, Bush said.
“In men like Bruce Crandall, we really see the best of America,” he said. “He and his fellow soldiers were brave, brave folks. They were as noble and selfless as any who have ever worn our nation’s uniform.”
Bush remembered the comrades who gave their lives and those still missing and said the sadness their families ensured hasn’t diminished with time.
The suffering and grief could have been far worse, he said, had it not been for men like Crandall. “For the soldiers rescued, for the men who came home, for the children they had and the lives they made, America is in debt to Bruce Crandall,” he said. “It is a debt our nation can never really fully repay, but today we recognize it as the best as we’re able, and we bestow upon this good and gallant man the Medal of Honor.”
Several books about the battle recognize Crandall and Freeman’s contributions. Among the most well-known is the bestselling “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young,” cowritten by Lt. Gen. Harold Moore, commanding officer of infantry units in X-ray, and Joseph Galloway, a combat reporter who was in the landing zone during the battle.
A major motion picture based on the book featured actor Greg Kinnear as Crandall.
After receiving the Medal of Honor, Crandall joins 111 other living recipients of the award, 60 of them awarded for actions in Vietnam, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
The Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. military decoration, is awarded "for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty, in actual combat against an armed enemy force." Since it was first awarded during the Civil War, the medal has been awarded 3,461 times.
The Medal of Honor was last presented to the family of 22-year-old Marine Cpl. Jason L. Dunham, who died using his body to shield fellow Marines in Iraq from a hand grenade April 15, 2004. President Bush awarded Dunham’s Medal of Honor posthumously during a Jan. 11 ceremony at the White House.