On Thursday, October 19, one of the more well-known Medal of Honor recipients in American history visited Oshkosh to appear as part of the EAA Aviation Adventure Speaker Series.
Retired U.S. Army Col. Bruce Crandall, portrayed by Greg Kinnear in the 2002 American war film We Were Soldiers, told his story before a packed house in the Founders’ Wing of the EAA Aviation Museum.
As a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, Bruce was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross — which was eventually upgraded to the Medal of Honor many years later — for his actions during the Battle of Ia Drang on November 14, 1965.
Along with wingman Maj. Ed Freeman, Bruce evacuated roughly 70 wounded soldiers, using three different helicopters, during a day that started at 6 a.m. and ended at 10:30 p.m. Many of these flights came after the medical evacuation unit refused to land in the hot landing zone, which was under fire from enemy troops.
“That day started at 6 in the morning,” Bruce recalled. “I had six people shot off my aircraft, three killed and three wounded. We were flying in from five miles away from the artillery base to (landing zone) X-Ray. My wingman and I flew 14-and-a-half hours flying out wounded and taking in ammo, medical supplies, and water.”
Bruce pointed out that, while his aircraft was unarmed, it probably wouldn’t have mattered even if it had armament, as they would have been firing into an area that had American infantry and could have killed their own forces.
“After the first lift in, you can’t do anything,” Bruce said. “They make a big deal about an unarmed aircraft, but it doesn’t matter. I didn’t have M60 machine guns yet because the Army in all its wisdom didn’t get us the armament. … Once you have infantry on the ground, you can’t shoot because you’ll be shooting up their backside. You don’t know where they are.”
The conditions in the landing zone were horrific, as Bruce’s Huey was constantly peppered with bullets and a few of his crew members were killed. Even so, he knew he had to keep flying in and out as long as there were American troops that needed to be evacuated.
“We had people shooting at us from just outside the rotor blade,” he said. “There was one guy in a tree, there was a bunch of guys that were just a short distance away, shooting everybody in the head. My crew chief got one in the throat, my radio operator got killed. Then I had to stay on the ground for a couple extra minutes because the infantry commander needed that radio and they needed to get it off of him. … We had people getting killed loading wounded onto the helicopter. It was hot, but you couldn’t not go. You couldn’t leave the wounded on the ground. If you couldn’t get medevac to go, you go.”
Following the Battle of Ia Drang, Bruce also had a heroic role in “Operation Masher” on January 31, 1966. As he returned to base to refuel and shut down for the night, Bruce learned of 12 wounded soldiers that were pinned down in a tight perimeter, needing evacuation. Like in the Battle of Ia Drang, medevac refused to land — this time because of a tight landing zone surrounded by trees. To avoid giving enemy soldiers an illuminated target, the troops on the ground used a flashlight to guide Bruce to a landing instead of search or landing lights. Bruce was successfully able to maneuver into the landing zone and evacuate the wounded despite the difficult circumstances.
“I’m listening (on the radio) and (Capt.) Tony (Nadal) tells me that he needs somebody,” Bruce said. “I’m short of fuel, so I said I’d come back. I went and refueled and took the weapons off and the door gunner got off. I stripped it down.
“I go back and by then, it’s pitch black. I can’t find him. I find him finally because of the amount of tracer fire that’s in the landing zone because they’re still at it. I talk to Tony again and he’s got 12 people in this hole in the trees and they’re surrounded. I can’t use my landing lights because I’ll backlight the infantry and all those wounded. So I said I’ll come in to a flashlight.”
Bruce continued to serve in the U.S. Army for the rest of the Vietnam War and was badly wounded in January of 1968 when his helicopter was downed during another rescue attempt. After a five-month stay in the hospital, Bruce resumed his career as a student, attending the University of Nebraska and earning a bootstrap degree. He served in a number of different roles in the Army until retiring in 1977 as a lieutenant colonel.
In 2007, Bruce was formally awarded the Medal of Honor by President George W. Bush for his actions in the Battle of Ia Drang, more than 40 years after it occurred. Three years later, he was promoted to colonel (retired).
“With this (medal), (you know) you did your job,” Bruce said. “Anybody that was in my position would have done it. … We wear it for everybody. You have to wear it for the rest of your life. Your conduct changes. It’s a great honor, but it changes you. It means that you better live with it.”