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Thursday, May 5, 2016

What does a hero look like?

Monday, September 28, 2009

One of the most inspiring things about this country, to me, have been stories about military veterans who have served our nation from its earliest moments to the present. Like Fourth of July sparklers, there have been countless patriots over the past 234 years - since the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia - who have provided that spark of courage and light that continues to motivate their countrymen and women. The first story occurred in our Revolutionary era, the second during the Korean War, and the third I witnessed in South Vietnam in 1970. This latter mission involved 14 young men few have ever heard of... but should. All three incidents represent a classic definition of American "hero." They're timeless testaments of faith, courage, and devotion to duty.

Robert Shirtliffe was a common American soldier who enlisted in the Continental Army in 1778 and fought the British. Robert was wounded three times in three years. It wasn't until this third wound was treated in an army hospital (which says a great deal about medical practices of that day) that "his" true identity was revealed. In reality, Robert Shirtliffe was Deborah Samson, a Massachusetts housewife.

Corporal Hiroshi Miyamura, from Gallup, New Mexico, was in South Korea on the night of April 24, 1951 when his army squad was attacked about midnight by an overwhelming Chinese force. When one of their machine guns jammed, Miyamura ordered his men to fall back to the command post in the rear.

The corporal then took over another machine gun and emptied it, plus an M-1 rifle, a carbine, a pistol, in addition to two cases of hand grenades. Alone on an exposed mountaintop, he killed more than 50 enemy troops that night before his ammunition ran out. Though seriously wounded, he killed ten more enemy soldiers in hand-to-hand combat before collapsing and being captured. Miyamura was repatriated in August of 1953 after two years and four months of captivity on starvation rations and minimal medical assistance for his wounds. When President Eisenhower draped the medal around his neck on October 27, 1953, Miyamura became the only living Japanese-American Medal of Honor recipient.

Over 29 years had elapsed when a letter arrived from Charles Harris, one of my former flight medics who had won two Silver Stars - America's third highest award for heroism - in less than 1 months during the Vietnam War. He provided new information and insight concerning a bizarre helicopter medical evacuation mission that could have claimed the lives of my four crewmembers and those of 10 others at dawn on May 2, 1970 in Hiep Duc (a notoriously dangerous Vietnamese village located approximately 36 miles southwest of our unit in Da Nang).

On May 1st, I was unit commander of the 236th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance). At 2100 hours, I was in Dust Off flight operations when the emergency call came over our FM radio. ("Dust Off" was the radio call sign used by U.S. Army Medical Service Corps evacuation crews who flew unarmed helicopters to evacuate wounded and dead civilians and soldiers on both sides of the action.)

"Da Nang Dust Off, this is Charger Dust Off. Dust Off 6-0-8 was just shot down at Hiep Duc with ten U.S. wounded aboard. Request another crew be sent to cover their AO (area of operation) until they can be evacuated. Also, be advised there are at least two reported enemy .51 caliber machine guns working out in that vicinity. Gunships are on station."

The longest night of my 27 years on earth had just begun.

Read more of this story in the September 26th Pilot Tribune.