WASHINGTON—Bruce Crandall received the nation's highest award for valor Monday more than four decades after he braved relentless enemy fire and repeatedly flew his helicopter into a hot landing zone in Vietnam to resupply and rescue the wounded of a surrounded U.S. infantry battalion.
In the East Room of the White House, President Bush presented the Medal of Honor to Crandall. As the president placed the medal around his neck, Crandall, 74, broke into a broad smile and kissed Arlene, his wife of 50 years.
"In men like Bruce Crandall, we really see the best of America," Bush said. "He and his fellow soldiers were brave, brave folks. They were as noble and selfless as any who have worn our nation's uniform."
Crandall, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who lives in Manchester, Wash., wore a uniform and a black cavalry Stetson, the trademark of those who served in the 7th Cavalry, in his case the air cavalry.
A generally soft-spoken man, quick with a story, Crandall didn't speak during the 20-minute ceremony. But in an earlier telephone interview, he had said, "It's the greatest honor a soldier can have aside from having a woman agree to marriage."
"I was never too concerned about getting a medal. The only place I don't get respect is at home," he said with a laugh.
On Nov. 14, 1965, Crandall flew his Huey helicopter 22 times into landing zone X-Ray to resupply the 450 members of the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry, who were pinned down and close to being overrun by 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers. The fight in the Ia Drang Valley was the first major battle between U.S. forces and North Vietnamese regulars.
On one of the flights, three soldiers, including his crew chief, were wounded and a radioman was killed as Crandall's helicopter met AK-47 fire from the North Vietnamese 30 yards away.
Crandall, whose radio call sign "Ancient Serpent 6" was shortened to "Old Snake," used three helicopters that day as they kept getting shot up. He and another cavalry pilot, Capt. Ed Freeman, who also won the Medal of Honor, flew in ammunition, water and other supplies and flew out more than 70 wounded soldiers over a 14-hour period. A third cavalry trooper, then-1st Lt. Walter Joseph Marm Jr., won the medal in 1967 for his actions at landing zone X-Ray.
"I don't think about it too much now unless someone asks," Crandall said.
Others who were in the Ia Drang Valley and flew with Crandall call him a true American hero.
"We were surrounded by 2,000 North Vietnamese regulars and it was a cliff-hanger fight for survival," said Joseph L. Galloway, who was a 24-year-old United Press International correspondent at the time and is now a columnist for McClatchy Newspapers. "Bruce Crandall didn't have to do what he did. This is classic Medal of Honor stuff."
Galloway and battalion commander Harold G. Moore, who's now a retired lieutenant general, co-authored the best-selling book about the battle, "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young," which was turned into a 2002 movie staring Mel Gibson.
Like most helicopter pilots in Vietnam, Galloway said, Crandall was full of himself, but he was willing to risk his life while sitting behind a thin piece of Plexiglas in an unarmed Huey as soldiers tossed off crates of rifle and machine gun ammunition, mortar rounds and hand grenades and quickly loaded the wounded.
"He voluntarily flew his unarmed helicopter through a gauntlet of fire on flight after flight ... into one of the most contested landing zones of the war, totally ignoring the almost unbelievably extreme risk to life," the Army citation accompanying the medal said.
Before 1996, the Medal of Honor could be awarded only in the two years after a soldier demonstrated bravery beyond the call of duty. Congress dropped the time limit, and Crandall and Freeman were nominated. Crandall withdrew his application because he didn't think a single battle could provide three Medal of Honor winners, and he wanted Freeman to receive the honor. Bush presented the medal to Freeman in 2001 during a ceremony that Crandall attended.