“Because when you get into a situation like this it isn’t motherhood and the flag and old glory, it’s you and your buddy. You try to keep him alive and he tries to keep you alive…”
The Vietnam War, as far as conflicts go, was a period of experimentation, and some of these experiments failed miserably. Whether it was the way replacement operations were handled or the manner in which combat forces would be fighting one day and heading home the next, there is an absolute and direct correlation to many of the issues these warriors faced upon returning home and continue to deal with to this day.
The war also saw, however, the birth of several innovations which would completely change the landscape of the battlefield. The most prolific of these would have to be the large-scale implementation of the helicopter.
Air Assault operations (or Airmobile, as they were called during that time) allowed for our military to move troops and supplies more quickly than ever before. With this new ability we completely changed the context of how we fought. However, like all innovations, this one came with its own set of liabilities. For example, Air Mobile forces could bypass the conventional front lines and insert troops, or even artillery, behind enemy lines and then pull them back to their bases. However, because this asset negated the idea of front lines, that meant that when the unit went in, they essentially went in surrounded. This, added to the fact that the helicopters had to spend a fair amount of time on the ground, offloading personnel and equipment and uploading wounded and returning elements, made them very prominent targets. This was a fact that was certainly not lost upon the pilots.
With this in mind, I would like to introduce our protagonist, Major (then Captain) Ed “Too Tall” Freeman. Too Tall’s story begins much earlier than the Vietnam conflict. Too Tall had always wanted to be a pilot, but at six foot four inches he was too tall (see the connection) for the military physical. Instead of flying, he dropped out of school, enlisted in the navy, and served at the end of World War II. After returning home, he finished high school and enlisted in the Army. He spent several years stationed in Germany until the start of the Korean War when he immediately volunteered to serve. At the Battle of Pork Chop Hill he was given a battlefield commission to second lieutenant. Then in 1955, due to a shortage of pilots, the Army raised its height requirement and Freeman was finally able to attend flight school.
He was eventually assigned to the 1st Calvary Air Mobile Division, and entered Vietnam with the unit in 1965. Many will recognize the names Landing Zone (LZ) X-Ray and the battle at Ia Drang Valley from the book, We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, or the movie, We Were Soldiers. This is where Too Tall was fated to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor.
On the morning of November 14, 1965, Captain Freeman was the second in command of a sixteen-helicopter unit tasked with supporting Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore’s battalion inserted into the Ia Drang Valley. The first four lifts came into the LZ without any engagement from the enemy. On the fifth flight into the valley, the entire mountain side erupted into fire targeted at the choppers. Too Tall’s helicopter took over fifty rounds during this fifth iteration and he was wounded for the first time during the engagement.
Upon returning to their base, they received the call to suspend helicopter operations due to the LZ being essentially overrun. At this point LTC Moore was in danger of losing his entire force. Not only was he facing an enemy force with far superior numbers, but without an active LZ he was completely cut off from replacement troops, supplies, and ways to evacuate his wounded. The battalion cut out a make shift landing zone within their perimeter but it was still completely exposed to the enemy. The call went back to the pilots and the airlift commander, Bruce “Snake” Crandall, who asked his pilots who was willing to volunteer with him. Too Tall was the only one.
Over the course of the day, these two men flew almost 15 hours, making the 15-minute flight from the base to the LZ fourteen additional times until approximately 10:30pm when LTC Moore felt he had endured the worst of the enemy contact and finally had the ability to hold out.
When pondering their actions it is important to realize also that twilight was at 8:17pm and that it was a waxing crescent moon (about 1/3 shining) on that night. And unlike today’s modern airframes, there was no night vision equipment installed. All they had to guide them in after dark was a soldier with a flashlight on the LZ. Each time they flew into the firefight they not only needed to wait until everything was off loaded, but then had to wait for all the casualties to get put onto the aircraft. This continued the duration of their exposure to enemy fire. In all, Too Tall was credited with directly saving the lives of 30 individual soldiers who had been wounded and required urgent medical treatment. What is incalculable however are the number of lives saved because of the water and ammunition he provided throughout the day.
All of the recipients of the Medal of Honor performed a heroic action that put them directly into the line of fire from the enemy. When reading their citations, it essentially boils down to the fact that these individuals put themselves into a no-win contest with the enemy. While some, including Too Tall, had the fates smile upon them, many did not.
However, there is something that sticks out when it comes to the actions of Captain Freeman that day. It is not the fact that he willingly put himself into harm’s way to save his fellow soldiers, but it is the fact that he did so multiple times. Most awardees made a decision in the heat of battle without time to contemplate the full repercussions of their actions, but this was not the case here. Each time he returned to base to pick up supplies, Captain Freeman was fully cognitive of the situation around him. He had time to contemplate not only his survival, but his mortality and the odds of enduring another flight. Yet each time he did so without concern for his own well-being. He knew that he was going where no other pilot was willing. The medivac pilots had long since abandoned their mission out of fear of being shot down.
This is where I would normally close out the article with some statement about what made him such a remarkable person. However, in this case I will use his own words.
“I don’t really feel I should have gotten the medal. I was doing what I supposed to do. I don’t think it was ever an option, I put them in there, and it’s a soldiers trust. The army had assigned me a helicopter that was a wonderful tool and I could make it talk. It was capable of doing what I was doing with it…and it would have been like refusing to fire an artillery piece if you were an artillery man. The only thing I could have done was join them, that would have been the very least I could do. Because when you get into a situation like this it isn’t motherhood and the flag and old glory, it’s you and your buddy. You try to keep him alive and he tries to keep you alive. You don’t really have time to think about, ‘jeez, I’m doing something for my country.’ You really are, but you’re really right there and then, you’re trying to live; and the bond becomes very tight…you wouldn’t hesitate to lay your life on the line for them because they would do the same thing for you.”
Major Freeman died at the age of 80 on August 20, 2008 due to complications from Parkinson’s Disease. What will never die, however, is the legacy that he left which endures to this day in military aviation units. It is the understanding that you, the aviator, is that soldier’s lifeline. Be it for supplies or medical evacuation, your ability to show courage in the face of your own peril allows them to continue their fight. Major Freeman set a high bar, and there are thousands of veterans alive today because future generations of warriors have held up to his standard.
Matthew Wadler is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and U.S. Army veteran. Matt served in the Army for 20 years as both enlisted and officer before retiring. His service includes time as Military Police, Field Artillery, Adjutant General, and Recruiting. His deployments include Somalia and two tours to Afghanistan. His formal education includes a master’s degree in HR Management. He is a strong supporter of the constitution and advocate for the military and veteran communities. Follow Matthew on Twitter @MatthewWadler.
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