An unarmed helicopter pilot who flew through a hail of bullets to rescue 70 wounded Americans in one of the fiercest battles of the Vietnam War was awarded the Medal of Honor on Monday, 41 years later.
Retired Lt. Col. Bruce Crandall, 74, received the nation's highest military honor from President Bush in the White House East Room. The medal recognizes Crandall for his valor in repeatedly flying into enemy fire to bring in ammunition and supplies and evacuate the wounded.
Crandall completed 22 flights in a 14-hour period on Nov. 14, 1965, most under intense enemy fire. His actions in the Battle at Ia Drang Valley were depicted in the 2002 movie "We Were Soldiers," adapted from the book "We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young."
Bush, in his remarks, said Crandall had to fly three different helicopters over the course of the mission. Two were damaged so badly they could not stay in the air.
Yet Crandall and another pilot, Capt. Edward Freeman, "flew through a cloud of smoke and a wave of bullets," Bush said. They "kept flying until every wounded man had been evacuated and every need of the battalion had been met." Freeman was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2001.
"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, adding that Crandall's battalion commander said that without Crandall, the unit almost surely would have been overrun.
‘They were my people down there’
Crandall, of Manchester, Wash., did not speak during the 15-minute ceremony, attended by more than 250 people. But Bush quoted from an interview in which Crandall offered his view of the mission:
"There was never a consideration that we would not go into those landing zones. They were my people down there, and they trusted in me to come and get them."
Crandall told The Associated Press that his unit had "minimum resources" and few administrators to handle the paperwork needed for the highest medals. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross, as well as a Distinguished Service Cross, before being nominated for a Medal of Honor.
An accomplished high school baseball player, Crandall dreamed of playing for the New York Yankees but instead was drafted into the military during the Korean War. Two months after his heroics at Ia Drang, he rescued a dozen wounded men without using search or landing lights during a nighttime battle.
‘The best of America’
His second tour in Vietnam ended in 1968. He later worked as a city manager in Dunsmuir, Calif., and as public works manager in Mesa, Ariz., and was a consultant in the film version of "We Were Soldiers," in which he was portrayed by actor Greg Kinnear.
"In men like Bruce Crandall, we really see the best of America," Bush said. "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."
Crandall had a less lofty view.
"I'm so proud that I didn't screw it up," he said.