Veteran Recalls Battle Leading To Medal of Honor
(September 24, 2010)
Retired Tech. Sgt. John Daniel reflects on the 1968 battle at Lima Site 85 in Laos that resulted in the posthumous award of the Medal of Honor for Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger. Sergeant Daniel was one of the Airmen saved by Chief Etchberger during the battle at the radar site.
| ||WASHINGTON (9/21/2010 - AFNS) -- In 1968, a battle raged where heroes arose only to be unacknowledged for 18 years. Proper recognition occurred during a White House ceremony Sept. 21 when Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor after saving three of his men in a battle that failed to make headlines at the time due to its then-highly classified nature. |
Retired Tech. Sgt. John Daniel was one of the Airmen saved by Chief Etchberger during the battle at the radar site, Lima 85.
The mission, named Heavy Green, was to provide radar information and assistance to U.S. aircraft bombing military targets in Hanoi, Vietnam, its surrounding areas and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The radar site, located on a hilltop in Laos, was not officially acknowledged until 1986 because Laos was considered a neutral country during the Vietnam War, despite U.S. and North Vietnam Army forces often operating there.
Sergeant Daniel said that although the mission was to guide bombers on long-range strikes, as time went on the radar crews were forced to direct an increasing number of bombing runs closer to their own location.
|The NVA had discovered the location of the site and made a concerted push, including building roads to bring in heavy artillery, to launch attacks against the site.|
On the evening of March 10, 1968, the radar crew experienced a lull in guiding bomber missions and decided to take a dinner break.
Sergeant Daniel had the additional duty as cook for his shift.
"I asked them what they wanted for dinner, and they all said 'steaks!' so we went down to the barbecue pit and fired up the grill," he said. "We hadn't started cooking yet and (Lt. Col.) Bill Blanton came up and said "fellows, we need to have a little get together up in the equipment.'"
Colonel Blanton told the team that the NVA had surrounded them and the situation looked dire, Sergeant Daniel said. While there might have been a possibility of calling in evacuation helicopters, it was getting dark out and that option was rapidly disappearing. A flight out the following morning would be more likely.
"We took a straw poll of everybody that was there," Sergeant Daniel said. "We decided to just go ahead and drop bombs all night, and in the morning, detonate all the equipment and get out on choppers at first light."
As it turned out, they didn't have as much time as they thought. During the meeting, the NVA began their attack. The first artillery round hit the barbecue shack.
"It was a good thing we were at that meeting and not having dinner," Sergeant Daniel said. "There wouldn't have been no more going on."
The radar team split into two crews. One team would pull the first shift manning the equipment, the other would return to the sleeping quarters, rest and prepare to relieve the first team. The sleeping quarters and bunker were located next to the barbecue shack.
"I said I wasn't going to stay in quarters or the bunker. They already hit there and had the range down on that," Sergeant Daniel said. "I said we should go down over the side of the hill, where we went to write letters. Nobody would find us down there."
On one side of the hill was a ledge where the Airmen often sat to compose letters or tapes to send home. It was 10 to 15 feet below the top of the hill, with a nearly 3,000 foot straight drop below. The five-man crew decided to take cover there.
Sergeant Daniel said, during the night, the five Airmen started hearing small-arms fire and grenades going off on the hilltop.
"Shortly thereafter, someone caught a glimpse of us and started emptying their rifles at us," he said.
In the first volley of gunfire, two of the team were hit, one fatally. The crew returned fire with their M-16s. After the next exchange, two were dead and two others wounded. Chief Etchberger was the only one not wounded.
During lulls in the small-arms fire, the enemy began tossing grenades down on the ledge.
"If I could reach them, I'd pick them up and throw them back on top of the hill," Sergeant Daniel said. "If I couldn't reach them, I'd take the butt of my rifle and kick them off over the edge of the mountain."
When one grenade landed outside both his reach and the reach of his rifle, Sergeant Daniel rolled the dead body of a comrade over on top of it.
Roughly 15 yards separated Sergeant Daniel and Chief Etchberger. Sergeant Daniel had a radio near him, and as the attack continued, the chief directed him to call in an airstrike on the top of the hill. Throughout the night, a succession of aircraft unloaded their ordnance, both bombs and bullets, on the hill.
At daylight, three of them still survived on the ledge. An Air America helicopter spotted them and hovered, lowering a sling. Chief Etchberger broke cover, exposing himself to the enemy and closed the gap between himself and his wounded colleagues.
"(Chief Etchberger) scooted me on over and got me on that sling," said Sergeant Daniel. "After I was up, he got (Capt. Stan Sliz) up on the sling."
After the two survivors were aboard the helicopter, the chief began to secure himself to the sling. Before he could go up, Staff Sgt. Bill Husband, who had been playing dead atop the hill, dashed to the ledge. The chief locked arms with him, and they rode the sling together and boarded the helicopter.
As the helicopter began to climb, an NVA soldier emptied his weapon into the underside of the aircraft. Chief Etchberger was mortally wounded and died during the evacuation flight.
"(Chief Etchberger) was one hell of an NCO. He knew the equipment...he knew how to handle people...he knew what to do and how to do it," Sergeant Daniel said. "You were eager to follow the man, to do what he wanted you to do."
The Heavy Green mission began with volunteers, briefings and sworn statements of secrecy at the Pentagon in 1967.
For those involved, the White House Medal of Honor presentation and the Pentagon Hall of Heroes induction ceremony, Sept. 22, will provide closure to the mission.
"It's only fitting," Sergeant Daniel said, "that we're back in the Pentagon to finish it up and put an end to it, right where it started, 43 years ago."
Article and photo by USAF SMSgt. David Byron
Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs
Reprinted from Air Force News Service
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