It was November 11, 2005, and I was in Washington, DC, with my brother attending a special kind of reunion. Not only was it a reunion of veterans, it was a reunion of specific veterans: the survivors of the Vietnam Ia Drang Valley Ambush of November, 1965. It was their fortieth anniversary, Ia Drang was the first najor battle of the Vietnam Warm and was later chronicled in the book and movie, We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, written by (Ret.) Lt. Gen. Hal Moore and Joe Galloway, who was a war correspondentcovering the operation for UPI.
Elements of the 1st Air Cavalry Division, including the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, commanded by Moore (a Lt. Col. at the time), were ordered into the valley to engage a large enemy force. Within twenty-four hours, the enemy had almost surrounded the battalion, and Moore called for reinforcements. By the end of the battle, almost two hundred and fifty Americans had been killed, with a similar number wounded.
Medal of Honor Recipients
Among the survivors attending the reunion were three Congressional Medal of Honor recipients: Joe Marm, Ed “Too Tall” Freman and Bruce Crandall.
I would not have guessed that Joe was a Medal of Honor recipient when my brother introduced me to him. All I noticed was his quick smile, kind manner and pleasant disposition. If someone had predicted that as a 2nd Lieutenant, Marm would draw enemy fire towards himself to save his platoon, charge 30 meters across open ground to hurl grenades, and then keep firing from his rifle while suffering severe wounds, I would have said, “What? Good ole Joe? He’s too nice, too mild-mannered to try such a thing!” He is a very humble, sweet man.
Ed “Too Tall Freeman”
After talking with Joe, another survivor lead me to a guy on the other side of the room who was so tall, he towered over everybody. He was entertaining the group with jokes, talking animatedly, gesturing wildly and laughing loudly after he delivered his punch line, right along with his friends. When I had to look way up to meet Ed “Too Tall” Freeman, my first thought was, “How can such a teddy bear be such a big guy ?” Ed was as gracious as a knight, easy-going and in great demand by the crowd. “Too Tall” had been a captain in Vietnam, piloting an assault helicopter. When the ambush in the Ia Drang Valley started, he flew in under heavily armed fire delivering critically needed ammunition, water and medical supplies. He did this repeatedly, with little rest. When the fighting got too intense for the medical evacuation helicopters to fly in for the wounded, “Too Tall” hopped into his chopper and flew back into the fighting to evacuate the seriously wounded soldiers not once, but fourteen times. Each time within 100 – 200 meters of the defensive perimeter.
Another veteran grabbed my arm and told me there was somebody else I should meet. He walked me into the middle of the room right next to a pleasant dude with a quick grin. I had to wait a few minutes to meet this man, as there was a steady stream of veterans coming up, giving him big handshakes. Who was this quiet, yet cheery man? “That’s Bruce Crandall,” somebody whispered.
I suddenly felt as if somebody had slapped me. I knew all about Bruce Crandall. He didn’t know it, and he didn’t know me — I wasn’t there in the valley – but I was one of the lives he saved in 1965.
Like “Too Tall,” Major Crandall was an assault helicopter pilot, flying in ammunition and medical supplies to the troops. He was between runs when he heard the medical pilots’ rapid and traumatized talk about how the fighting made it impossible for them to go back in and pick up our wounded. To Bruce, there was no such word as “couldn’t.” Fierce assault was only a mere detail to Bruce. He knew he had to go in and get our boys out, or he would die trying.
On the same day Bruce was arguing with the medical pilots, a slightly built, twenty-three year old 2nd Lieutenant from a small town in Iowa, lay upon the ground, near-fatally wounded by mortar shelling, and bleeding to death. Four of Bob’s platoon members rolled him onto his poncho and carried him through enemy fire to Landing Zone X-Ray, where the medical helicopters would pick him up. It was his only chance. Explosions were bursting all around the landing zone. The four dropped Bob at the pickup site and headed back towards their perimeter under constant enemy fire. Soaking in his own blood, prostate on enemy soil, Bob was scared about dying alone in a hostile country, with no family knowing it or being there to comfort him. He did not want to die that way and prayed for help to come before it was too late for him. As dusk came into the valley, his thoughts turned to the brutal enemy and how he would rather die than be found and tortured. With evening darkening the sky, Bob knew his chances were slim. He was losing all hope when suddenly he heard the familiar whomp whomp whomp of a chopper: Bruce was on his way. The young lieutenant reached for the hand of the wounded man on the poncho next to his and croaked, “We’re gonna make it! We’re gonna make it!” And then he burst into tears.
Bruce flew through twenty-two missions throughout that day and well into the evening, all under continuous enemy fire, rescuing our wounded boys. This was Bruce’s 21st mission. That Iowa boy was my big brother.
Bob had been my hero when we were growing up. We had a special bond that connected us that made him more a father to me than a brother. At fifteen, I would not have been equipped to deal with the desolation and depression of Bob’s death in my world. Grief would have overwhelmed me. I know I would have chosen a path of self-destruction rather than live without him. Now in 2005, looking at the man who saved my brother’s life – and in so doing, saved mine — I wondered: how many other sisters, wives, and parents of brothers, husbands, and sons, or future sons, daughters and grandchildren, were saved by Bruce that day, too?
As the evening reception wore on, the laughs got less frequent and the chattering started nose-diving into quiet. Something was changing the mood in the room. Whiffs of “ died on the jungle floor,” “on the river bed with only one machine gun,” flew between “so my kid wouldn’t have to fight,” and “still can’t sleep.” Low voices spoke of names on the Wall. Percentages of disability weaved in and out of the air with, “VA says I gotta get tested for cancer” or “still in country.” The multiple conversations created a tapestry of such pain and suffering that it twisted my stomach and heart into knots.
A hurried movement to my left startled me. Joe Marm was leaving, and quickly. His face had lost all its peace. His shoulders slumped. He looked to be in pain.
Footsteps sounded to my right and I turned to see “Too Tall” walking slowly out of the room, head down and a shuffle to his feet. His group stood where they had gathered, silent. All eyes were to the floor.
I sought out Bruce who was turning in my direction and I caught the look in his eyes when he did. It choked off my air. His eyes were haunted. They glittered with sharp fragments of intense pain. Suffering was spread all across his face. He turned back and the look was hidden.
In meeting these recipients, it was not just in knowing what heroic actions they accomplished that impressed me. It was in discovering not how they were different, but how they were similar to all other combat veterans, including those of Iraq and Afghanistan. Their eyes are all the same. That haunted look is always there.
I am grateful to have met these three men from the Vietnam War who deserved the Congressional Medal of Honor for their heroic actions. I am glad our country has found a way to honor those whose great sacrifices saved lives; often, not their own.
Celebrating the awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor gives us more than just a chance to applaud those who deserve this special recognition. It gives us cause to honor that high level of sacrifice itself, the commitment to duty and the harsh courage, that must be reached by all who serve their country, and who lived it honorably along with these outstanding Medal of Honor winners. It allows those of us who were left behind a chance to say thank you to all those other heroes whose served and met this high standard of behavior; to those who must face each day with a special kind of trust unique to all combat veterans; that trust that for each day they arise with a will to live as honorably as they can, with a heart that is willing to be open and kind in spite of the homecoming parades they did not get or the nightmares they did, they are truly the bravest of the brave.
Thank you to the Congressional Medal of Honors recipients. Thank you, especially, Bruce Crandall.
But thank you, too, to all the other heroes who served honorably and now live quietly among us. I am glad you made it back, too.
Web sites and locations of Medal of Honor Memorials
Indianapolis, Indiana: www.medalofhonormemorial.com/
Riverside, California: www.rncsc.org/
Mount Pleasant, South Carolina: www.patriotspoint.org/exhibits/medal_honor/
Pueblo, Colorado: www.pueblomohfoundation.com/
Legion of Valor History: www.legionofvalor.com/history.php
Preserving the History of the Recipients of the Medal of Honor: www.homeofheroes.com
Height of Valor — Vietnam casualties who earned our country’s highest military honors:
This index is dedicated to those who earned our nation’s highest awards for valor in combat — the Medal of Honor, the appropriate Service Cross, and the Silver Star Medal. The names shown here are links to personal memorial pages on The Virtual Wall in honor of the men who earned the award and lost their lives in the Vietnam War.