Air support and probably air evacuation were needed desperately--a difficult operation under ideal conditions of terrain and weather. But conditions were far from ideal.
The camp was in a mile-wide valley surrounded by mountains. There was a 400-foot ceiling and a steady rain of mortar, rocket, and automatic weapons fire that tore up the landing strip and pinned the defenders in their bunker. They were in imminent danger of being overrun.
At 11:20 on the morning of March 9, Capt. Willard Collins and his AC-47 gunship crew, who had flown a mission the previous night, were rousted from their beds and dispatched from Da Nang to support the A Shau garrison. In the right seat of Spooky 70 was 1st Lt. Delbert Peterson. Other members of the crew were 1st Lt. J. L. Meek, navigator; SSgt. J. G. Brown, flight engineer; and SSgts. J. Turner and R. E. Foster, who manned the 7.62-mm rapid-fire miniguns.
Collins and Peterson made two unsuccessful attempts to get under the clouds. Finally, flying at treetop height, they found their way into the valley, located the outpost, and made a firing pass at the besiegers. The vulnerable old AC-47, designed in the 1930s as a commercial airliner, took hits from ground fire as it lumbered through the narrow valley, flying close to the ground rather than at the normal gunship altitude of 3,000 feet.
Any element of surprise that may have existed was gone when Collins maneuvered Spooky 70 into position for a second pass through the gauntlet of fire. As they approached the bunker, the right engine was hit hard and torn from its mounts. Collins had no more than regained control when the left engine was knocked out.
With superb airmanship, he and Peterson brought down the bullet-riddled gunship for a crash landing on a mountain slope. All members of the crew survived with minor injuries except Sergeant Foster, whose legs were broken by the impact. Collins and Peterson knew an enemy attack was inevitable. Since Foster could not be moved, they set up a defense at the site, rather than leaving the injured gunner and moving to more favorable terrain.
The crew, confident that a rescue helicopter would answer their call for help, repulsed the first attack, which came 15 minutes after they hit the ground. Minutes later, a second attack was turned back, but Collins and Foster were killed in the firefight. With only four men left to defend a 360-degree perimeter, the chance of holding out until that chopper came in looked pretty bleak.
A third attack began as the distinctive sound of a USAF HH-43 competed with the din of battle. Muzzle flashes from a heavy machine gun that had been moved to within yards of the torn-up gunship were clearly visible to Lieutenant Peterson, now in command of the crew. If the gun were not silenced, the chopper would likely be downed before it could rescue the four airmen.
Del Peterson knew it was up to him.
Spraying bullets from his M-16 rifle, he charged the gun, which went silent as the helicopter dropped down to pick up Meek, Brown, and Turner, leaving Peterson, whose fate was not known, and the two dead men behind.
Peterson was carried on Air Force rolls as missing in action until February 1978, when his status was changed to killed in action. During that period, he was promoted to major. Both he and Collins were awarded the Air Force Cross posthumously.
That mission was one of the few instances in the Vietnam War when both pilots of an aircraft were awarded the nation's second-highest decoration for valor. It was the only one in which the awards were made for extraordinary heroism in both air and ground combat. The self-sacrifice of those two men to save other members of the crew did, indeed, "reflect the highest credit upon [them] and the United States Air Force."
Published January 1988. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.
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Memorial Day is a time to remember all those who died fighting for their country, just like A1C William Pitsenbarger, an Air Force pararescueman who took part in more than 250 rescue missions before he was killed at the age of 21. His selflessness and valor in the Vietnam War earned him an Air Force Cross and, eventually, a Medal of Honor.
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