Saturday, August 10, 2013

Bernie Fisher - Choices

They look pretty happy to be there...
When we think about heroism in combat, we usually think about the legends of the genre - from Alvin York to John Basilone to Audie Murphy. These were the men who stood, in the sustained roar and gore of battle, under intense fire, and they held the line.  We honor their courage, their commitment and their willingness to do what it took to do their job.  It is also part of the lore that for Americans, our greatest war heroes were also very deadly, killing dozens or even hundreds of enemy soldiers in a brief few hours of fire and madness.

But we often overlook the courage that some men demonstrate by the choices they make.  In many of these cases, there was no choice at all - sure, Audie Murphy climbed up on a burning tank destroyer, but without the gun on that vehicle he'd have simply been another GI killed in action on the German border that bloody winter of 1945.  And sure, Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon asked, no, demanded permission to insert at the 'Blackhawk Down' crash site in Mogadishu in '93.  But even so, some choices demand more recognition, more respect, more AWE than others.  It is in that sense that I have always held a special honor for Bernie Fisher.

In the spring of 1966, the American troop buildup in South Vietnam was well underway, and the disastrous Tet offensive was still two years in the future.  Major Fisher was assigned to the 1st Air Commando Squadron flying A1 Skyraiders out of Pleiku.  The rugged terrain along the Cambodian/Laotian border was contested territory, and the strategic center of it all was the A Shau Valley.  The valley was defended by a US Army Special Forces (Green Beret) A Team and about 300 indigenous forces.  On the night of March 8th, they were attacked by 4 Battalions (about 2000 troops) of NVA soldiers.

Even in 1966, the A1 was an anachronism.  Perhaps the pinnacle of WWII era piston-engine technology, it was a huge single engine attack plane with a payload greater than the B-17.  It was pressed into service in Vietnam because of it's tremendous bomb load and ridiculous loiter time. The A1 could stay aloft, fully loaded, for over six hours.  It flew slow enough to identify and target specific units on the ground, making it much better in the CAS (Close Air Support) role than the "Fast Movers" from the Navy and Air Force.  The pilots who flew the A1 nicknamed it the 'Spad' because it was just so old compared to the modern jets.  While the Skyraider became famous for it's role as 'Sandy' in CSAR operations throughout the theatre, Air Force veterans who wanted combat hours in the mid to late sixties had to be willing to transition back to piston engines, and few took to that transition better than Bernie Fisher.

On the Morning of March 10th, the camp was falling.  The weather was terrible, preventing reinforcements from getting to the scene, and ammunition was low while casualties mounted.  At dawn the NVA assault force broke through the East wall, and after hours of bloody hand-to-hand combat the defenders pulled back to a defensive perimeter on the North wall.  They called in air strikes on their own camp to keep it from being completely overrun.  These strikes were delivered by a six-ship flight of Spads that included Bernie Fisher and his wingman "Jump" Myers.  Fisher and the Air Commandos had been over the camp the day before, and for his actions on the 9th he would be awarded the Silver Star.  But this was a new day, filled with new possibilities - almost all of them bad.

It was a dismal, misty, rainy day in the A Shau valley, and the ceiling was less than 800 feet.  The Spads were delivering their ordnance in passes so low that the NVA gunners were actually firing down at them.  Almost inevitably, one of them got Myers.  Too low to jump out, and even if he could somehow bail out and survive, he would find himself on the ground surrounded by thousands of North Vietnamese infantryman.  When POW is the BEST possible outcome you can imagine, you switch to Plan B.  That's what Jump Myers did.  He made a desperate, wheels-up belly landing on the airstrip right outside the camp's perimeter.

Remote airstrips like the one at the A Shau Camp were set up quickly using "PSP", perforated steel plates that locked together to form a strong, smooth runway surface.  This one, however, had been in the midst of a major battle for days, and was pockmarked with shell craters and littered with debris, notably from a resupply plane that had been blown up on the strip a few days earlier, but also, now, with pieces and chunks of Jump Myers' crash-landing Skyraider.  The big fighter skidded to a halt, smoking, and Major Myers jumped out and ran toward the camp.  He was immediately targeted by the NVA soldiers, so he took cover behind a berm at the edge of the runway.  Behind him was the camp, fighting desperately to avoid being overrun.  Two hundred yards across the runway was the North Vietnamese Army.

A few hundred feet above, his fellow airman watched this all play out.  Fisher set up his top cover, keeping the remaining A1s circling tightly overhead, making gun runs to keep the NVA at bay.  The pilots were quickly informed that the rescue helos were a half hour out.  The problem with that was that Myers wasn't likely to survive another ten minutes in his situation.  This was the moment when choices had to be made.

The pilots could never be faulted for doing their best to protect their downed compatriot, making gun passes until they ran out of ammunition and then continuing to make low passes to try to buy that precious thirty minutes.  But courage, and love, and loyalty and adrenaline and commitment and who knows what other ingredients creates a witches brew that can produce acts of unbelievable valor.  Fisher told the other Spad Drivers he was going to land on the airstrip and pick up Myers.  The hardest choice imaginable, and he made it almost without thought.

By that time there were fresh warplanes arriving on the scene, and the local air controller kept them coming in a continuous stream, pounding the far side of the airstrip with bombs, guns and even napalm, while Fisher circled over the camp, turned up wind, and lined up for the hardest landing of his flying career.  But the wind was blowing smoke from the buring camp and the napalm across the airstrip, and by the time he had a clear view he was halfway down the runway.  Fisher pushed on power, and S-Turned at the end of the valley, coming back the other way to set up his landing.  At the threshhold he cut his throttle and dropped the big plane onto the battered runway.  Enemy small arms fire started hitting the aircraft immediately, as he delicately worked the brakes to steer around the worst of the holes and pieces of metal.  When he managed to get the Skyraider stopped - well past the end of the runway - he hit the throttle and stood on the left rudder, spinning the plane around and taxied almost the entire length of the airstrip - under heavy fire - to where Myers was crouched.  The Skyraider version the Air Commandos flew was the A1E, which had two seats side by side rather than the A1H "Sandy" single-seat version.  Fisher grabbed Myers by the seat of his flightsuit and dragged him into the cockpit head first.  They continued to take ground fire until they disappeared into the clouds.

Even at that very moment, after three days of fire and blood, the A Shau Camp was falling.  The defenders had pulled back to a single bunker and fought for their lives, but the camp was overrun by 11am and the Green Berets called for evacuation.  The evacuation was hard, ugly and chaotic, with two HH-43 Helos lost and more American airman dead and wounded.  By mid-afternoon, the camp was abandoned and the NVA had won, although, typically of modern warfare, at horrific cost of almost a thousand casualties.

How do you explain what Bernie Fisher did that morning in the Central Highlands?  How do you rationalize a decision to put everything you will ever be on the line, not to kill the enemy, not to 'win', however you define that, but just to rescue one man you care so deeply about there are not words to speak it?  How do you know when the risk is too high, when the effort is pointless, or when the choice is really no choice at all?  Heroism, ultimately, isn't about fighting, or about winning.  It's about making the choice to do something crazy, maybe even stupid, to stand between your friends and their certain death.  THAT'S what Audie Murphy did, that's what Gordon and Shughart did in Mogadishu, and above all, that's what Bernie Fisher did that dark grey day in the A Shau Valley.


  1. Thanks for the history lesson. I went looking for a photo and found this one:

  2. On the one hand you have the Bernie Fishers...and on the other, the Bill Kristols.

    Sadly, the latter still have far more sway than they've earned.

  3. Yes. It's hard to imagine Kristol making the choice Bernie Fisher made that morning over the A Shau valley. Much of what has come to be seen as the 'conservative ideology' is nothing but selfishness, and a selfish conservative doesn't just forget about his own well-being to try to rescue his wingman...