Veteran Recalls Battle Leading to Medal of Honor

WASHINGTON, Sept. 22, 2010 — 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 Air Force 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.

1968 battle at Lima Site 85 in Laos
Retired Air Force 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 to Air Force Chief Mas­ter Sgt. Richard Etch­berg­er. Daniel was one of the air­men saved by Etch­berg­er dur­ing the bat­tle.
U.S. Air Force pho­to by Senior Mas­ter Sgt. David Byron
Click to enlarge

Retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. John Daniel was one of the air­men Etch­berg­er saved dur­ing the bat­tle at the Lima 85 radar site.

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 Viet­namese forces often oper­at­ing there.

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 North Viet­namese army had dis­cov­ered the site’s loca­tion 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. 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 [Air Force Lt. Col.] Bill Blan­ton came up and said, ‘Fel­lows, we need to have a lit­tle get-togeth­er up in the equip­ment.’ ”

Blan­ton told the team that the North Viet­namese army had sur­round­ed them and the sit­u­a­tion looked dire, Daniel said. While call­ing in evac­u­a­tion heli­copters was a pos­si­bil­i­ty, that option was rapid­ly dis­ap­pear­ing as dark­ness approached. A flight out the fol­low­ing morn­ing would be more like­ly.

“We took a straw poll of every­body that was there,” 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’d thought. Dur­ing the meet­ing, the North Viet­namese army began its attack. The first artillery round hit the bar­be­cue shack. “It was a good thing we were at that meet­ing and not hav­ing din­ner,” Daniel said.

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,” Daniel said. “They already hit there and had the range down on that. 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.

The five air­men start­ed hear­ing small-arms fire and grenades going off on the hill­top, Daniel said. “Short­ly there­after,” he added, “some­one caught a glimpse of us and start­ed emp­ty­ing their rifles at us.”

In the first vol­ley of gun­fire, two mem­bers 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 had been wound­ed. Etch­berg­er was the only one not wound­ed.

Dur­ing lulls in the gun bat­tle, 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,” 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 own reach and the reach of his rifle, Daniel said, he rolled the dead body of a com­rade over on top of it.

Rough­ly 15 yards sep­a­rat­ed Daniel and Etch­berg­er. Daniel had a radio near him, and as the attack con­tin­ued, the chief direct­ed him to call in an air strike 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 mem­bers of the team still sur­vived on the ledge. An Air Amer­i­ca heli­copter spot­ted them and hov­ered, low­er­ing a sling. Etch­berg­er broke cov­er, expos­ing him­self to the ene­my, and closed the gap between him­self and his wound­ed col­leagues.

“[Etch­berg­er] scoot­ed me on over and got me on that sling,” Daniel said. “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, a North Viet­namese sol­dier emp­tied his weapon into the under­side of the air­craft. Etch­berg­er was mor­tal­ly wound­ed and died dur­ing the evac­u­a­tion flight.

“[Etch­berg­er] was one hell of an NCO,” Daniel said. “He knew the equip­ment. … He knew how to han­dle peo­ple. … He knew what to do and how to do it. 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 today will pro­vide clo­sure to the mis­sion.

“It’s only fit­ting,” 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.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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