Retired Army major Bruce Crandall received the medal of honor from President Bush at the White House today, closing the circle on a remarkable saga of bravery and friendship that started a half century ago.
I heard part of the story from Crandall as we stood on his front lawn on Puget Sound as the ferries sailed by in the distance taking commuters back and forth between the various San Juan islands and Seattle. It is the 52nd and final home he and his wife Arlene have had over a lifetime moving around for the Army. And every wall in the walkout basement has plaques, ribbon and medal displays and old black and white photos from his days as a helicopter pilot. In Vietnam,Crandall headed up a 16 ship helicopter assault battalion. His radio name was Ancient Serpent Six, but as he told me with a smile the short hand version of that was "ass" so he went by "Snake."
"Snake's" best friend was a guy named Ed Freeman. At six feet three inches, he was too tall by military standards to be a helicopter pilot but he persevered and so did his nickname "Too Tall To Fly". On November 14th, 1965, Snake and Too Tall made history at a place called Landing Zone X ray in the Ia Drang valley of South Vietnam. Two thousand North Vietnamese troops had 450 soldiers from the 1/7th Cavalry (Custer's old battalion) surrounded and the fire fight was intense. Crandall flew 22 missions in 14 hours that day, dropping ammo and ferrying out the wounded. He and has best friend Freeman are credited with saving 70 wounded from certain death. Crandall's chopper was badly shot up and his crew chief and radio operator were both killed. All these years later Crandall says he can still visualize the cabin of his helicopter after the final mission as his crew poured bucket after bucket of water to wash the blood out. Freeman, who flew as Crandall's wing man, told me he didn't think they'd make it out alive. That he almost kissed Crandall out of relief after they got back safely to base in the dark. But it was due to their efforts that the soldiers on the ground were able to keep fighting and keep the North Vietnamese from over-running their position.
Freeman retired to Boise with his wife Barbara. He's a bean pole of a man with a great sense of humor who doesn't mince words. "We won every battle we fought in Vietnam and still lost the war." Of the current war in Iraq, he says plain and simple it is a mistake and that America should never have gone in. He bases that opinion on years he spent in Iran and observing the split between the Shia and Sunni religious cultures.
And his words are worth considering. Because five years ago Ed "Too Tall" Freeman was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Bush for his heroism that day in Vietnam. An award that came in part because of the campaigning by his old pal, and commander, Bruce Crandall.
Today, after paper work delays were finally resolved, it was Crandall's turn. The circle was closed. Now the 74-year-old Crandall and the 77- year-old Freeman both hold the nation's highest military honor.
And they still kid one another about who is the best helicopter pilot the army ever had.