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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"(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
"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
Air Force News
Comment on this article |
Richard L. Etchberger's Medal of