Retired Army Lt. Col. Bruce P. Crandall wears a hearing aid and speaks haltingly at times. But when asked about a harrowing 1965 battle in South Vietnam's central highlands, his voice resounds with a resolve that leaves little doubt why, today at the White House, he will receive the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award.
"It was hell on earth -- for a short period of time," Crandall, 74, recalled Friday from his home in Manchester, Wash.
Forty-one years ago, Crandall flew his unarmed Huey helicopter into the deadliest landing zone of the Vietnam War -- not once or twice, but 22 times -- to keep resupplying a besieged Army battalion and evacuating dozens of wounded, even as North Vietnamese soldiers fired AK-47 rifles at him from as close as 30 yards away.
Crandall's bravery created a critical lifeline of ammunition, water and medical support for hundreds of U.S. soldiers at risk of being overrun. Whatever fear he had for his own life, he said, was overwhelmed by the more horrible certainty that if he failed, they would die.
"I kept saying to myself: 'Don't screw it up. You have to get the support in there,' " he said.
On Nov. 14, 1965, Crandall, then a major and the commander of an assault helicopter company, set off at sunrise to fly about 450 U.S. soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment -- the same regiment once led by the ill-fated George Armstrong Custer -- to a 100-yard clearing in the Ia Drang Valley. The landing zone was code-named X-Ray. Unexpectedly, the clearing was virtually in the middle of an encampment of 2,000 North Vietnamese troops, and by the time three lifts of troops had landed, the North Vietnamese attacked from the surrounding hills, forcing the Americans into a fight for survival.
On the fifth and final flight ferrying the battalion in, Crandall was in the lead of eight Hueys and landed "almost on top of enemy soldiers," who unleashed a barrage of rifle, rocket and machine-gun fire upon the helicopter, according to an official account. Two infantrymen aboard Crandall's helicopter were wounded and a radioman was killed before they could get out. Crandall's crew chief was shot in the throat.
"I looked back and he wasn't communicating. His right hand was up on his throat, with his thumb in the hole on one side and his finger on the other, plugging it himself. There was a dead guy in the middle. It was awful," Crandall recalled.
The helicopters managed to pull away, but half were so riddled with bullets that they were later grounded. The cavalry battalion commander, Lt. Col. Harold "Hal" G. Moore, ordered the landing zone closed. Crandall, however, realized that Moore's men were likely to run out of ammunition.
A nearby Special Forces camp had a supply, but, Crandall knew, "the one thing you don't do in combat is to borrow ammo." So he obtained a load of bullets from a logistics base and, together with a volunteer, Capt. Ed "Too Tall" Freeman, mounted a two-helicopter mission to deliver it through smoke, dust and heavy enemy fire to a surprised but grateful Moore. When medevac helicopters were barred from flying, Crandall and Freeman kept going, bringing out some 70 wounded that day.
"He voluntarily flew his unarmed helicopter through a gauntlet of enemy fire on flight after flight, delivering desperately needed ammunition, water, and medical supplies into one of the most hotly contested landing zones of the war, totally ignoring the almost unbelievably extreme risk to his life," according to the official Army narrative accompanying Crandall's medal.
Flying 22 missions over 16 hours -- stopping only to refuel, replace shot-up helicopters and wash the blood out of the back -- Crandall played a vital role in averting what would have been the heaviest U.S. casualties of any battle in the war, the narrative says.
"If there had not been so many Huey flights under heavy fire into the smoking volcano of LZ X-Ray bringing us ammo and water and carrying out our wounded . . . we in that field would have gone down," the narrative quotes Moore as saying.
"If the air bridge failed, the embattled men . . . would certainly die in much the same way George Armstrong Custer's cavalrymen died at the Little Bighorn -- cut off; surrounded by numerically superior forces, over-run and butchered to the last man," Moore wrote in his book describing the battle of Ia Drang, "We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young."
The extraordinary heroism of Crandall and Freeman, as well as infantry soldiers, long went unrecognized because many witnesses were wounded and dispersed and "there was no one who had time to sit down and by lamplight write recommendations for medals," said war correspondent Joseph Galloway, who flew into the Ia Drang Valley on Crandall's last flight of that day.
The 1992 publication of Moore's book, which Galloway co-authored, brought attention to the oversight, and a law signed in 1996 allows any member of Congress to submit medal recommendations for past wars for military award boards to consider. Freeman was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2001, leaving little doubt that Crandall, who led the action, would be similarly honored.
"It's just a long process," Crandall said. "All I am is just proud as hell mine got through."
Asked why he had kept flying when virtually no one else would, Crandall said that otherwise he could not have lived with himself.
"I just didn't want to look in the mirror later and say I didn't handle it. You always go for your brothers -- they are family," he said.
Air assault tactics that he helped design were first attempted at Ia Drang, and Crandall noted that "it was the first time helicopters had had a major impact on a battle. It was the first time we understood how much the helicopter could take."
Fortunately, Crandall said, the enemy did not take advantage of its control over large swaths of the landing zone to set up ambushes for the helicopters, which had to take the same approach each time to avoid U.S. artillery and other threats.
"They hadn't fought air mobile units and didn't realize the importance of stopping the aircraft to take the landing zone," he said.
A stroke ended Crandall's 25-year Army career in 1977. After recovering, he worked as a civil servant in California and Arizona.
Crandall and Freeman "were pioneers. They were creating the tactics and, by their own courage, keeping the ground guys alive," Galloway said, adding that the pilots also "happened to be the two ballsiest guys out there."