On November 14, 1965, the 1st Bn. 7th Cavalry landed with 457 men in the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam. They would soon be surrounded by over 3000 regulars of the North Vietnamese Army. The resultant, bloody battle would mark the first large-scale American involvement in the war and forever change how the soldiers would arrive in battle.
The battle was the first to use helicopters, the workhorse UH-1 “Huey” to ferry the soldiers into battle, and then bring in ammunition, food, and water and take out the wounded.
During the battle the Commander of the 227th Assault Helicopter Squadron, Major Bruce Crandall and his second in command, Captain Ed “Too Tall” Freeman would distinguish themselves by constantly flying into a maelstrom of enemy fire, ferrying out wounded and hauling in supplies that they were both awarded the Medal of Honor.
Crandall flew 22 missions that day in and out of LZ “X-Ray”, the last 14 missions after the Infantry Bn. Commander, Lt. Colonel Hal Moore had closed the LZ because of intense ground fire and the North Vietnamese had closed with 200 meters of the LZ and could easily take the unarmed helicopters under small arms fire.
Crandall was born in 1933 and was a standout baseball player in high school and hoped to get drafted by the major leagues. He was drafted but not by any professional baseball teams but by the US Army.
Crandall entered the military just as the Korean War was winding down, he was commissioned as an officer and went thru flight training on both fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft.
He flew mapping missions both in the states and in the Middle East in Libya, mapping the desert flying a variety of aircraft. From there, Crandall was transferred to Howard AFB, Panama and once again flew a host of mapping missions in both Central and South America.
Early in 1965, he was assigned to the 11th Air Assault Division and there he helped design the helicopter tactics that the United States would use for the next decade in the war in Vietnam. He got to test these new tactics during the US intervention in the Dominican Republic.
Later that year, he was assigned to Vietnam to command Company A, 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion at An Khe, Vietnam. His unit was part of the 1st Cavalry Division which had transitioned to airmobile. Using the callsign “Ancient Serpent 6, his troops knew him simply as “Old Snake” and he was at the forefront of every mission.
On the 14th of November, he began shuttling Moore’s battalion into the Ia Drang Valley. His 457 troops were quickly engaged by an enemy that was up to 3000 men strong. LZ X-Ray was the approximate size of a football field, so Moore’s battalion had to come in a company at a time in different lifts. The first troopers hit the ground at 10:48 a.m. and the last of them didn’t arrive until nearly 15:00 at which time the battalion was already heavily engaged. With casualties mounting, the Medevac helicopters were driven off by intense ground fire. Moore’s troops were running short of water and ammunition.
Crandall immediately stepped into action. He asked his unit for volunteers to fly in the needed water and ammunition and take out the wounded. His best friend of ten years Freeman stepped forward. The choppers immediately became the lifeline for Moore’s surrounded troops despite Moore having closed the LZ.
Crandall was thinking not of his own safety but the safety of the men in the infantry. “I kept saying to myself: ‘Don’t screw it up. You have to get the support in there,’ ” he said.
Crandall’s helicopter got shot up so badly he was forced to change into different ones three times during the 16-hour marathon of 14 November. Crandall said that it was the longest he ever flew at one time in his military career.
He made 22 trips in and out of LZ X-Ray. On one flight, the enemy was so close, Crandall could see them just beyond his rotor blades on the LZ. Three men were killed inside his chopper, three others wounded including his own crew chief who was shot in the neck. The commander of the medevac company accosted Crandall for endangering his pilots upon his return and got Crandall’s sidearm shoved in his crotch.
“The officer commanding the medevacs looked me up to chew me out for having led his people into a hot LZ, and warned me never to do it again. I couldn’t understand how he had the balls to face me when he was so reluctant to face the enemy.”
Moore, however, knew that “Snake” Crandall and Freeman were all that was keeping his men from disaster.
“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,” Hal Moore in his book, “We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young.”
By the time he flew his last sortie, Crandall’s chopper was so full of blood it had to be hosed out. He climbed out of the chopper and vomited. Crandall had evacuated 75 wounded men from LZ X-Ray. He and Freeman had provided the Cav troopers the type of support they would never forget.
Crandall was initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery on that day. But in 2007, that was changed. President George Bush presented Crandall with the Medal of Honor. Both he and Freeman, who until Freeman’s death just a years ago would playfully argue over who was the 2nd best helicopter pilot in the Army. Freeman was also awarded the Medal of Honor. Bush’s remarks spoke of the enormous odds faced by the pilots.
“For the soldiers rescued, for the men who came home, for the children they had and the lives they made, America is in debt to Bruce Crandall,” President Bush said during the awards ceremony. “It’s a debt our nation can never really fully repay.”
The official transcript of Crandall’s Medal of Honor is here:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty: Major Bruce P. Crandall distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism as a Flight Commander in the Republic of Vietnam, while serving with Company A, 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). On 14 November 1965, his flight of sixteen helicopters was lifting troops for a search and destroy mission from Plei Me, Vietnam, to Landing Zone X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley. On the fourth troop lift, the airlift began to take enemy fire, and by the time the aircraft had refueled and returned for the next troop lift, the enemy had Landing Zone X-Ray targeted. As Major Crandall and the first eight helicopters landed to discharge troops on his fifth troop lift, his unarmed helicopter came under such intense enemy fire that the ground commander ordered the second flight of eight aircraft to abort their mission. As Major Crandall flew back to Plei Me, his base of operations, he determined that the ground commander of the besieged infantry battalion desperately needed more ammunition. Major Crandall then decided to adjust his base of operations to Artillery Firebase Falcon in order to shorten the flight distance to deliver ammunition and evacuate wounded soldiers. While medical evacuation was not his mission, he immediately sought volunteers and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, led the two aircraft to Landing Zone X-Ray. Despite the fact that the landing zone was still under relentless enemy fire, Major Crandall landed and proceeded to supervise the loading of seriously wounded soldiers aboard his aircraft. Major Crandall’s voluntary decision to land under the most extreme fire instilled in the other pilots the will and spirit to continue to land their own aircraft, and in the ground forces the realization that they would be resupplied and that friendly wounded would be promptly evacuated. This greatly enhanced morale and the will to fight at a critical time. After his first medical evacuation, Major Crandall continued to fly into and out of the landing zone throughout the day and into the evening. That day he completed a total of 22 flights, most under intense enemy fire, retiring from the battlefield only after all possible service had been rendered to the Infantry battalion. His actions provided critical resupply of ammunition and evacuation of the wounded. Major Crandall’s daring acts of bravery and courage in the face of an overwhelming and determined enemy are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.
Photos: US Army