Veteran Recalls Battle Leading to Medal of Honor
By Air Force Senior Master Sgt. David Byron
Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs
WASHINGTON, Sept. 22, 2010 In 1968, a battle raged where heroes arose only to be unacknowledged for 18 years. Proper recognition occurred during a White House ceremony Sept. 21 when Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor after saving three of his men in a battle that failed to make headlines at the time due to its then-highly classified nature.
Retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. John Daniel reflects on the 1968 battle at Lima Site 85 in Laos that resulted in the posthumous award of the Medal of Honor to Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger. Daniel was one of the airmen saved by Etchberger during the battle. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Master Sgt. David Byron
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. John Daniel was one of the airmen Etchberger saved during the battle at the Lima 85 radar site.
The mission, named Heavy Green, was to provide radar information and assistance to U.S. aircraft bombing military targets in Hanoi, Vietnam, its surrounding areas and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The radar site, located on a hilltop in Laos, was not officially acknowledged until 1986 because Laos was considered a neutral country during the Vietnam War, despite U.S. and North Vietnamese forces often operating there.
Daniel said that although the mission was to guide bombers on long-range strikes, as time went on the radar crews were forced to direct an increasing number of bombing runs closer to their own location.
The North Vietnamese army had discovered the site’s location and made a concerted push, including building roads to bring in heavy artillery, to launch attacks against the site.
On the evening of March 10, 1968, the radar crew experienced a lull in guiding bomber missions and decided to take a dinner break. Daniel had the additional duty as cook for his shift.
"I asked them what they wanted for dinner, and they all said steaks, so we went down to the barbecue pit and fired up the grill," he said. "We hadn't started cooking yet, and [Air Force Lt. Col.] Bill Blanton came up and said, ‘Fellows, we need to have a little get-together up in the equipment.'"
Blanton told the team that the North Vietnamese army had surrounded them and the situation looked dire, Daniel said. While calling in evacuation helicopters was a possibility, that option was rapidly disappearing as darkness approached. A flight out the following morning would be more likely.
"We took a straw poll of everybody that was there," Daniel said. "We decided to just go ahead and drop bombs all night, and in the morning, detonate all the equipment and get out on choppers at first light."
As it turned out, they didn't have as much time as they’d thought. During the meeting, the North Vietnamese army began its attack. The first artillery round hit the barbecue shack.
"It was a good thing we were at that meeting and not having dinner," Daniel said.
The radar team split into two crews. One team would pull the first shift manning the equipment, the other would return to the sleeping quarters, rest and prepare to relieve the first team. The sleeping quarters and bunker were located next to the barbecue shack.
"I said I wasn't going to stay in quarters or the bunker,” Daniel said. “They already hit there and had the range down on that. I said we should go down over the side of the hill, where we went to write letters. Nobody would find us down there."
On one side of the hill was a ledge where the airmen often sat to compose letters or tapes to send home. It was 10 to 15 feet below the top of the hill, with a nearly 3,000-foot straight drop below. The five-man crew decided to take cover there.
The five airmen started hearing small-arms fire and grenades going off on the hilltop, Daniel said. "Shortly thereafter,” he added, “someone caught a glimpse of us and started emptying their rifles at us."
In the first volley of gunfire, two members of the team were hit, one fatally. The crew returned fire with their M-16s. After the next exchange, two were dead and two others had been wounded. Etchberger was the only one not wounded.
During lulls in the gun battle, the enemy began tossing grenades down on the ledge.
"If I could reach them, I'd pick them up and throw them back on top of the hill," Daniel said. "If I couldn't reach them, I'd take the butt of my rifle and kick them off over the edge of the mountain."
When one grenade landed outside both his own reach and the reach of his rifle, Daniel said, he rolled the dead body of a comrade over on top of it.
Roughly 15 yards separated Daniel and Etchberger. Daniel had a radio near him, and as the attack continued, the chief directed him to call in an air strike on the top of the hill. Throughout the night, a succession of aircraft unloaded their ordnance, both bombs and bullets, on the hill.
At daylight, three members of the team still survived on the ledge. An Air America helicopter spotted them and hovered, lowering a sling. Etchberger broke cover, exposing himself to the enemy, and closed the gap between himself and his wounded colleagues.
"[Etchberger] scooted me on over and got me on that sling," Daniel said. "After I was up, he got [Capt. Stan Sliz] up on the sling."
After the two survivors were aboard the helicopter, the chief began to secure himself to the sling. Before he could go up, Staff Sgt. Bill Husband, who had been playing dead atop the hill, dashed to the ledge. The chief locked arms with him, and they rode the sling together and boarded the helicopter.
As the helicopter began to climb, a North Vietnamese soldier emptied his weapon into the underside of the aircraft. Etchberger was mortally wounded and died during the evacuation flight.
"[Etchberger] was one hell of an NCO,” Daniel said. “He knew the equipment. … He knew how to handle people. … He knew what to do and how to do it. You were eager to follow the man, to do what he wanted you to do."
The Heavy Green mission began with volunteers, briefings and sworn statements of secrecy at the Pentagon in 1967. For those involved, the White House Medal of Honor presentation and the Pentagon Hall of Heroes induction ceremony today will provide closure to the mission.
"It's only fitting," Daniel said, "that we're back in the Pentagon to finish it up and put an end to it, right where it started, 43 years ago."