In case you didn't know, earning the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor in combat isn't like exactly getting a gold star for attendance in second grade or unlocking the "Congratulations You Completed the Bullshit Tutorial Mission" achievement on some crappy low-budget first-person tactical shooter game. In fact, on average only one out of every six people who receive the highest honor bestowed by the United States military actually survives to accept the medal in person, so you can pretty much bet that any award in which things like "survival" and "not exploding" are merely optional is probably not something that's handed out to just any moron with an assault rifle and a skull-and-crossbones tattoo. Well Vietnam war hero Bruce Crandall not only won the Medal and lived to tell the tale, but he did it without firing a single bullet – this somewhat-insane, completely-fearless Sonic Boom of Awesomeness demonstrated his badassitude while piloting an unarmored transport vehicle and armed only by with his unbreakable sense of duty, a complete immunity to Fear-related spell-effects, and a well-polished set of giant titanium balls.
Bruce Crandall got his start inauspiciously enough, making a name for himself at an early age as an All-American high school baseball player in Olympia, Washington, where (among other things) he boasted a single-season batting average over .600. This is pretty damned impressive, especially considering that many people don't hit .600 in beer league slow-pitch softball, but instead of being offered a multi-year deal for truckloads of cash and hot babes by some triple-A minor league club and retiring to a life of luxury, Bruce instead ended up being a first-round draft pick for the United States Selective Service System and shipped off to serve in the Army.
Crandall went to flight school and spent the first few years of compulsory military service piloting fixed-wing craft and helicopters, where he was tasked with the incredibly face-breakingly dangerous job of mapping previously uncharted territories. Basically, this guy's mission, much like that of fellow badass Captain James T. Kirk, was to boldly go where no man has gone before, and presumably to bring back some sweet maps with him or something. So, without complaining once, this crazypilot spent several years zooming out over some of the world's most dangerous and pants-soilingly inhospitable environments – bitter regions such as the Arctic Circle, the Sahara Desert, and the Amazon Rainforest – taking reconnaissance pictures and desperately trying not to crash-land into some unsurvivable, uninhabited death-hellhole in the middle of nowhere from which he could never hope to be rescued and could look forward to little more than a lonely death being slowly digested by some kind of weirdo carnivorous plant.
Apparently this sort of shizknuckle wasn't life-threatening enough work for Crandall, however, because before long he went out to serve in a little overseas entanglement known as the Vietnam War. Bruce flew choppers as a company commander in the 1st Air Cavalry – the same unit portrayed blowing the hell out of everything in sight in the badass opening scene of Apocalypse Now - and led a number of missions across the dense canopy jungles of Vietnam. In addition to helping develop the air assault and extraction tactics utilized by the entire Division (and, presumably, enjoying the smell of napalm in the morning), he also flew missions to support eight U.S. infantry battalions fighting on the ground during the An Khe campaign. His awesome callsign – Ancient Serpent Six (which honestly sounds like it would be a totally bitchin' name for a Sci-Fi Channel Original Movie) – also led to his men referring to him by the equally-bitchin' nickname "Old Snake".
Dealing out "death from above" while cranking Wagner from his boom box at maximum volume was cool and all, but it was during the bloody asskicking carnage on 14 November 1965 that Solid Old Snake Plisskin Crandall really made a name for himself as a stone-cold hardass who didn't flinch in the face of ludicrous amounts of danger and giant raging explosions. Crandall's company was in the process of combat-dropping the men of the 7th Cavalry Regiment in the Ia Drang Valley when all of a sudden the entire countryside erupted into a geyser of bullets, rockets, and general suckitude. The infantry came under intense fire, seemingly from all directions at once, and within seconds the entire valley was completely littered with dying and wounded American soldiers. Crandall himself was in an extremely exposed position – at one point a squad of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops occupied a position less than 30 yards from the landing zone, opening up at Crandall's chopper with a burst of gunfire that wounded three men inside the bird – but this ice-water asskicker didn't freak out and haul his shit full-throttle outta there like the MiGs in Top Gun just because a bunch of dudes with assault rifles and RPGs were hurling massive amounts of incredibly lethal substances at him in an angry and threatening manner. No, this guy waited for wounded men to be loaded into his Huey, refusing to take off until he had filled the cargo bay with soldiers in desperate need of medical attention, and only then did he burn rubber back home.
Now this in and of itself is pretty badass. I mean, this guy was flying around in an unarmed, unarmored chopper that didn't even sport a door-mounted machine gun and was basically about one step removed from the Channel 5 Newscopter, yet he was determined to save these men even at the cost of his own life. While this alone makes him a hero, it's just the beginning of this insane story.
As Crandall was heading back to base, he started hearing radio chatter from the infantrymen on the ground. These guys were badly outnumbered, facing thousands of enemy soldiers, were getting pretty fucked up by NVA troops who were flipping out hard. The 7th Cav was taking some of the highest casualties the U.S. had seen since World War II, and even worse, they were running low on critical supplies of water and ammunition. Now, you don't really need to be a brilliant goddamned military commander to realize that hydration and bullets are two things that are relatively important if you want to continue fighting and/or being alive, so as soon as Crandall landed back at base, he unloaded his wounded and ran to tell the medevac chopper pilots to get their asses out there and start evacuating casualties. The douchenozzle medevac commander responded by saying that the landing zone was too dangerous (in his defense, it totally was), and that there was too much ground fire for him to risk his pilots and helicopters on a suicide mission flying full-speed into a crazy goddamned warzone.
Bruce Crandall nodded, turned around, walked back to his men, and said something along the lines of, "Fuck these guys. I'm going back. Who's coming with me?"
One man stepped forward: Big Ed Freeman, an old buddy of Crandall's and his wingman dating back to their days mapping the now-seemingly-not-so-formidable wilderness of the planet's jungles, deserts, and frozen tundras. The two men fired up their rotors, stocked up on as much water and ammo as their birds could carry, and tore ass back to the front.
"There was never a consideration that we would not go into those landing zones.
They were my people down there, and they trusted in me to come and get them."
Big Ed and Old Snake – neither of whom had been formally trained in helicopter medical evacuation – flew back to the landing zone, right in the middle of the shit, bringing water and ammo to keep the men upright and save them a fighting chance to defend themselves and keep being completely moked the eff out. After they'd dropped off the supplies, they loaded their Hueys up with wounded men and bolted back to the hospital. They returned to base, dropped off the wounded, took on more supplies, and then went BACK into the battlefield AGAIN. They did this 22 more times over the course of the next 16 hours. Honestly, I don't think I have the energy to play an Xbox game about flying helicopters for 16 hours straight, but these guys were so pumped up about rescuing wounded men that they didn't even give a shit. Their somewhat-reckless tactic was to go balls-out and fly extremely low to the ground – this helped them avoid detection by the enemy, but put themselves dangerously close to the tops of the trees and made their unarmored transport helicopters dangerously vulnerable to ground fire from anything larger than a slingshot. Their insane actions ferrying troops and supplies back and forth to the war-torn battlefield without any regard for their own safety quickly inspired the rest of the men of Company A to perform similarly daring feats of awesomeness, and before long a massive train of choppers was rolling back and forth to the Ia Drang Valley, supporting the 450 men of the 7th Cavalry as they battled against a relentless onslaught of over 2,000 NVA soldiers. Crandall and Freeman landed in zones less than 200 yards from the front lines, putting their birds well within range of the enemy's AK-47s and RPGs, but neither man flinched in the face of this extreme danger. From 6am to 10pm they continually went back and forth, and Crandall himself had to change helicopters 3 different times because his shit was getting shot up so badly by NVA forces. By the time the day was over, Crandall was so exhausted he couldn't walk from the helipad to the barracks without falling down and barfing all over the place, but he and his men had brought in enough supplies for the infantry to hold off the attack. What's even more admirable is that they'd rescued more than 70 wounded men who would almost certainly have died on the battlefield of Ia Drang.
Over the course of the Vietnam War, Bruce Crandall flew over 900 combat missions in both transport and attack roles – not bad, considering that there are some stories out there claiming that the average lifespan for a helicopter pilot in Nam was about three days. On another mind-bendingly dangerous mission, Crandall twice dropped his chopper down through dense canopy jungle in the middle of the night, using only his spotlight to guide him, and rescued twelve wounded men from a firefight, a brave action that won him a Distinguished Flying Cross. He was eventually shot down by the North Vietnamese in January 1968, breaking his back in the crash, but a little thing like a fractured spine wasn't going to stop this asskicker from doing his thing. He rehabbed and went on to serve as a commander of engineers for the Army, and after the war he trained the next generation of military helicopter pilots in the fine art of aerial badassitude. For his actions during Vietnam, Bruce Crandall was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and the Congressional Medal of Honor, and stands as the perfect example of what it means to be completely balls-out and disregard ridiculous amounts of danger in order to save the lives of your friends.
"Major Crandall's actions were without question the most valorous I've observed of any helicopter pilot in Vietnam.
Without Crandall, this battalion would almost have surely been overrun."
Army.mil Medal of Honor page
USA Today story
Moore, Harold G., and Joseph L. Galloway. We Were Soldiers Once... and Young. Random House, 1992.