CNN Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Lt. Col. Bruce Crandall’s heroics in Vietnam were immortalized in a movie and a critically acclaimed book.
More than 40 years after Crandall repeatedly risked his life to rescue American soldiers fighting one of the toughest battles of the Vietnam War, the U.S. military officially recognized his heroism Monday, when he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for military valor.
“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.”
Although it took more than four decades for the military to honor Crandall, he considers himself fortunate. (Watch Crandall recount the battle of la Drang Valley )
“Most people get [the Medal of Honor] after they are dead, so I’m one of the lucky ones,” said Crandall, 74, who lives in retirement with his wife, Arlene, in Manchester, Washington.
His heroism was almost unrecognized — when his unit deployed to Vietnam, it was shorthanded in administrative positions so that medal citations weren’t handled promptly, Crandall said. As the regulations were then written, citations could not be filed more than two years after the action took place.
Later the regulations were changed so that there was no limit on when citations could be filed.
Crandall’s story goes back to the early days of the Vietnam War.
On November 15, 1965, a battalion of soldiers was ordered to attack North Vietnamese troops in the Ia Drang Valley in the central highlands of South Vietnam. It would be the first major battle between the U.S. and North Vietnamese armies and one of the first uses of helicopters to insert troops into battle quickly.
Crandall flew the lead helicopter into the attack at Landing Zone X-Ray. The 450 American soldiers soon were surrounded by a much larger force of experienced North Vietnamese troops. During one landing, three men on Crandall’s helicopter were killed and three others were wounded.
“As we came in, across the trees, the enemy was there and in the landing zone. I had my crew chief shot through the throat,” Crandall said recently. “I could see the people shooting at me from, just off the left of my rotor blades.”
But he couldn’t shoot back because his helicopter didn’t have the M60 machine guns that later would become standard equipment on the UH-1 “Huey” that Crandall flew.
In spite of the danger, Crandall flew into X-Ray more than 18 times to bring in ammunition and bring out the wounded.
“It was the longest day I ever experienced in any aircraft,” Crandall said.
He had to switch helicopters several times because of damage from enemy fire.
“When an aircraft got hit in those times, we would use duct tape to cover the holes, and the purpose of covering the holes was so you knew what was a new hole and what was an old one that had been inspected,” he said.
Crandall and his wingman, Ed “Too Tall” Freeman, saved 70 wounded soldiers that day.
The battle and the pilots’ deeds were described in the book “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young” by Gen. Harold Moore, commander of the battalion on the ground, and Joseph Galloway, the only war correspondent there for the entire battle.
It later was made into the 2002 movie “We Were Soldiers,” starring Mel Gibson as Moore and Greg Kinnear as Crandall.
Crandall, a major at the time of the battle, was a consultant on the movie set.
The citation read at the White House ceremony said in part that Crandall’s “bravery and daring courage to land under the most extreme hostile fire instilled in the other pilots the will and spirit to continue.”
Crandall said Freeman defines the word “hero.”
“Freeman didn’t have to volunteer,” Crandall said. “I have to go, I am the commander, so Freeman stepped up and went. I really didn’t want him to. We’d been friends for 10 years.”
Monday’s ceremony represented the third Medal of Honor awarded from that battle. Freeman received the Medal of Honor in 2001.
Walter “Joe” Marm, then a second lieutenant in the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), received the Medal of Honor in 1966 for his gallantry during the battle in the Ia Drang Valley. A retired colonel, Marm now lives in North Carolina.