American wounded were piling up and the only thing keeping 2,000 determined North Vietnamese soldiers from overrunning and slaughtering the trapped and badly outnumbered cavalrymen was firepower and an air bridge maintained by Crandall and his 16 Huey helicopters of A Company 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion.
The 7th Cavalry commander, then-Lt. Col. Hal Moore, was often on the radio and out in the open directing the flow of helicopters that brought in badly needed ammunition and carried out the wounded.
The man he talked to and depended on was then-Maj. Crandall, whose radio call sign was Ancient Serpent 6, giving rise to the nickname Snake.
When the fighting was at its worst, on the afternoon of Nov. 14, 1965, Moore had to close the football field-size clearing to the helicopters because two of them had been shot up so badly they couldn’t be flown out. Crandall’s own chopper had been riddled, his crew chief shot in the throat and an infantry radio operator killed before he could unbuckle his seat belt.
Old Snake knew his buddies on the ground were in dire danger and asked for a volunteer to join him in hauling more ammunition and water to them. His best friend, then-Capt. Ed Freeman, didn’t hesitate.
Together Crandall and Freeman flew right into the jaws of hell over and over, sitting up behind the thin Plexiglas and looking out on the chaos of close-quarter combat while the troopers flung off crates of M-16 rifle and M-60 machine gun ammo, mortar rounds and hand grenades and just as swiftly loaded the wounded whose only hope of life was that ride to the field hospital at Camp Holloway in Pleiku.
On that Sunday in November, Crandall flew 22 missions during 14 hours, and carried 70 wounded soldiers to safety and a chance at life.
Hal Moore, now a retired three-star general, wrote in his recommendation of Crandall for the Medal of Honor: “If the air bridge failed, the embattled men of the 1st Battalion 7th Cavalry would certainly die in much the same way George Armstrong Custer’s cavalrymen died at Little Big Horn – cut off, surrounded by numerically superior forces, over-run and butchered to the last man.
“I asked Bruce Crandall’s brave aircrews for the last measure of devotion, for service far beyond the limits of duty and mission, and they came through as I knew they would.”
On Crandall’s last flight of the day he carried a passenger sitting on a case of hand grenades in the back of his Huey – a 24-year-old war correspondent for United Press International named Galloway. Several lifetimes later, on Tuesday, Nov. 16, Old Snake flew me out of LZ X-Ray and I’ve loved the guy ever since.
President Bush presented the Medal of Honor to Too Tall Ed Freeman soon after he took office in 2001. Crandall’s paperwork and the selection process delayed his recognition until now.
Crandall and Freeman have been best friends for over half a century, debating endlessly the question of which is “the best damned helicopter pilot in the world.” Each refers to the other as “the second best helicopter pilot in the world.”
Crandall was portrayed by Greg Kinnear in the 2002 movie “We Were Soldiers,” based on the book “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young,” which Hal Moore and I wrote. Kinnear was arguably better looking than the actor who portrayed Ed Freeman.
Ancient Serpent 6 really is now, at 72 years of age. He and his wife, Arlene, live in Manchester, Wash., across the sound from Seattle, when they aren’t on the road wandering around America in their big RV.
There are a couple of hundred homes of 7th Cavalry veterans of LZ X-Ray out there, and Bruce is welcome to park his RV in their driveways and drink and eat free anytime he turns up.
We just figure it’s payback time and sit back and listen to Snake’s extravagant tales of real derring-do involving things like a foiled attempt at theft by helicopter of a 5,000 kilowatt Air Force generator urgently needed to cool down the cavalry’s beer. Or the time on his second Vietnam tour when his Huey was blown out of the air by a U.S. air strike and Bruce lay there with a broken back watching American and Viet Cong soldiers running a foot race from different directions to see which side got to him first.
This we know is true: Bruce Crandall is a true American hero, one of the best helicopter pilots in the world and will wear that sky-blue ribbon on behalf of all Army aviators past, present and future.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joseph L. Galloway is former senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young.” Readers may write to him at: P.O. Box 399, Bayside, Texas 78340; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.