Medal of Honor
by Jimmie H. Butler, Colonel, USAF, Ret.
Part of the Bird Dog’s heritage includes the award of the Medal of Honor (posthumously) to Captain Hilliard A.Wilbanks. His heroism is discussed in the following excerpts from Air Force Heroes in Vietnam, by Major Donald K. Schneider, Airpower Research Institute, Air War College, Maxwell AFB, AL, 1979.
This discussion of FACs covers the more traditional missions flown by the pilots of the four FAC squadrons stationed in South Vietnam (in contrast to the missions flown over the Ho Chi Minh Trail by pilots of the 23rd TASS stationed at Nakhon Phanom RTAFB, Thailand.) In ten months, Captain Wilbanks had flown 488 missions in South Vietnam compared to 240 missions I logged in about the same period of time while flying out of NKP. FACs flying Bird Dogs in Southeast Asia established a heroic tradition of doing whatever it took to try to save lives at risk on the ground. Many, many American soldiers owe their lives to the bravery of those Bird Dog pilots. Many times, as in the case of Captain Wilbanks, pilots in Bird Dogs sacrificed their lives to save those in danger.
Jimmie H. Butler
NKP Feb 67 Jan 68
Chapter II. The Forward Air Controllers
The forward air controller in Vietnam has been cited many times as the single most effective element in spotting the enemy and winning a battle. FACs are the vital link between Air Force attack aircraft and Army ground forces. In Southeast Asia (SEA) they flew the 0-1 Bird Dog, the 0-2 Super Skymaster, and the OV-10 Bronco in search of the Vietcong. Once the enemy was located, FACs requested approval from proper authorities for tactical air strikes on the target.
The FAC flies low and slow over his target, marks it with smoke grenades or rockets, and calls in strike aircraft or artillery support. He remains near the target, working with the tactical pilots so bombs and other weapons are delivered with maximum precision. Often the opposing forces are separated by only a few meters in the jungle undergrowth, and the utmost accuracy is required to ensure the safety of friendly soldiers. Throughout the air strike the FAC remains in radio contact with the Army troops and the strike pilots. After the attack, the FAC flies in to check battle damage and determine if the target has been successfully destroyed or if more firepower is needed. A FAC continually flies over the sector of operations of an Army unit. He soon becomes intimately familiar with the terrain, villages, roads, and streams, and his trained eye can detect unusual or suspicious movements. Most FACs have also flown fighters. Familiarity with fighter tactics pays off when they request close air support and control fighter airstrikes. The FAC was respected and feared by the Vietcong. The enemy knew that whenever he circled overhead, the jungle could erupt from the devastating firepower at his command.
The elusive enemy, the absence of fixed battle lines, and the difficult terrain and weather in Vietnam made effective air and ground coordination mandatory. The FAC provided both protection and offensive firepower for friendly ground troops, who were usually out numbered when the enemy chose to make contact. At airfields in Vietnam, fighter and attack pilots were on round-the-clock alert, to be scrambled whenever the Army required immediate close air support.
Because of the unique nature of the Vietnam War and the evolution of flexible and responsive air support, it was the first conflict in Air Force history in which a FAC earned the Medal of Honor.The two FACs who won the Medal in Vietnam were killed in action, a fact which underscored the danger inherent in the job. USAF Captain Steve Bennett was awarded the Medal of Honor (posthumously) for his actions as a FAC flying an OV-10 on 29 June 1972.
Because its mission was to search out the enemy, the O-1E observation aircraft was named the Bird Dog. Built by Cessna, it resembled a Piper Cub in both appearance and performance. The Bird Dog was basically a civilian light plane carrying extra communications gear and four smoke rockets. The plane measured only 25 feet from propeller to tail wheel. A 213-horsepower engine powered the ship to a top speed of 105 miles per hour. Though capable of reaching altitudes above 18,000 feet, the O-1E usually was flown at low level over the Vietnamese countryside.
The light craft was often buffeted by gusty winds and turbulence, and the cockpit was noisy, cramped, and uncomfortable. Without the benefit of air conditioning, and surrounded by his survival kit, M-16 rifle, sidearm, knife, and maps, the FAC sweltered in the tropical heat and humidity. The Bird Dog had no offensive firepower, and its thin metal skin offered little protection for the FAC. His skill in maneuvering the tiny craft was the only defense against enemy ground fire. The unsophisticated machine was anything but glamorous, and the FAC would never love the Bird Dog as he did the sleek Super Sabre or the swift Phantom. Though he often looked forward to a return to jet fighter duty, the FAC knew that his job was vital and challenging.
In 1950, Hilliard Wilbanks graduated from high school in Cornelia, Georgia. He immediately enlisted in the Air Force and served as a security guard during the Korean War. He began flying in 1954 as an aviation cadet at Laredo, Texas, winning the gold bars of a second lieutenant and the silver wings of an Air Force pilot. Lieutenant Wilbanks flew first as an instructor pilot and then as a fighter pilot in the F-86 Sabre jet that had become famous in air combat over Korea. He also served in Alaska and Las Vegas, Nevada, as an aircraft maintenance officer.
The fighter pilot became a FAC following training at Hurlburt Field, near Fort Walton Beach, Florida. After assignment to Vietnam in April 1966, the 33-year-old earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with 18 oak leaf clusters. He was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. February 24, 1967
Captain Hilliard A. Wilbanks often flew over the central highlands near Bao Lac and Di Linh. These small cities, located 100 miles northeast of Saigon, were surrounded by a rolling, forested countryside and an occasional plantation. The tribal Montagnards or mountain people” were the chief inhabitants of the region.
On 24 February 1967, the countryside around Di Linh was not tranquil. The 23rd South Vietnamese Ranger Battalion sought the enemy. They were not alone in the search. A small detachment of American advisers accompanied them, and Americans also patrolled the skies. US Army helicopter gunships hovered nearby while overhead a US Air Force FAC, Hilliard Wilbanks, scanned the terrain that lay before the advancing Rangers.
The Vietcong were ready. The night before they had prepared the perfect ambush site. Local tea plantation workers had been persuaded” to help them dig foxholes and bunkers on the hills west of Di Linh. From these camouflaged positions they would wreak havoc on February 24. Early in the day, the VC had decimated one platoon of South Vietnamese troops and hit two other companies hard from the hillside trap. American advisers had been killed, and vital communications gear had been destroyed. Radio contact, that could have warned the advancing 23rd Vietnamese Rangers of the deadly ambush, was no longer possible. As dusk approached, the trap was set again. By 24 February, Hilliard Wilbanks had completed ten months of the one-year tour in South Vietnam. Two months remained before he could be reunited with his wife and children in the States. But once Hilliard eased the Bird Dog into the air and swung away from the dirt airstrip, there was no time for thoughts of home and family. As evening approached, he was aloft on his 488th combat mission, contacting Army Captain R. J. Wooten, the senior American adviser with the 23rd Vietnamese Rangers. Captain Wilbanks was also in radio contact with two helicopter gunships hovering west of Di Linh.
As the Rangers advanced slowly through the plantation, the low tea bushes offered them no protective cover. Above, Captain Wilbanks searched the familiar terrain with efficient, probing eyes trained in combat. Suddenly, he saw the trap. The enemy was hidden in camouflaged foxholes on the hillsides; the Rangers were moving toward the ambush. Captain Wooten’s radio crackled with the FAC’s warning just as the hillsides erupted with enemy fire. The trap was sprung again, Later, Captain Wooten said, “My lead elements, working their way up the slope, were unaware of the VC positions just ahead until Captain Wilbanks told us. Realizing their ambush was discovered, the VC opened up on my forces and the two FAC planes above with mortars, machine guns, automatic rifles, and countless shoulder weapons. Two of my companies were pinned down and the forward elements suffered heavy casualties.”
Overhead the Bird Dog banked and turned as Hilliard fired a white phosphorous rocket toward the center of the enemy fire. The marking smoke rose from the hillside, pinpointing the ambush site, and the two helicopter gunships wheeled toward the enemy, fired rapidly, and pulled away. A third chopper was hit by .50-caliber fire, which damaged its hydraulic system. Wilbanks advised the remaining pair of gunships to escort the crippled craft to friendly territory. A second FAC radioed that two flights of fighters were on the way. Their firepower was desperately needed.
Then Captain Wilbanks saw movement. The Vietcong had abandoned their foxholes. With bayonets and knives ready, they charged down the slope toward the badly outnumbered Rangers. There was scant hope for help from the air since the gunships had departed and the fighters would not arrive in time. The Vietnamese and American soldiers would never forget the next few minutes. The FAC was overhead once more. A smoke rocket exploded amidst the enemy force. The Vietcong turned their attention skyward and sent a hail of bullets toward the fleeing Bird Dog. Again Wilbanks banked his plane toward the enemy. He had their full attention now as another smoke rocket-slammed into the hillside. The Bird Dog had become the hunter! Yet another low pass followed, and again intense groundfire threatened the aircraft. Wilbanks fired another rocket, his last. He knew it. The Rangers knew it. The enemy knew it. The FAC had done it all, risking his life to inflict casualties on the enemy and to protect the Rangers. It was time for him to pull off the target and wait for the fighters. But Hilliard Wilbanks was not finished. He had one threat left in the automatic rifle that he carried as a survival weapon. Now Captain Wilbanks became both a pilot and a rifleman. Pointing the O-1 toward the enemy, he released the controls and fired his rifle from the side window. As the Bird Dog careened above the tree tops, he grabbed the controls to recover the plane and evade the enemy’s fire. Now the Vietcong were off-balance and confused. The FAC reloaded another clip and attacked again.
Each pass he was so close we could hear his plane being hit,” said Captain Wooten.
The second FAC tried to contact Captain Wilbanks, but there was no reply. On the third rifle-firing pass the aerial ballet ended. A Ranger adviser, Captain Gary F. Vote, said, He was no more than 100 feet off the ground and almost over his objective, firing his rifle. Then he began the erratic moves, first up, then down, then banking west right over my position. I thought he was wounded and looking for a friendly spot to land. I jumped up and waved my arms. But as he banked again, I could see that he was unconscious. His aircraft crashed about 100 meters away.” The fallen Bird Dog came to rest in no man’s land between the two forces.
Captain Wilbanks was alive when Captain Vote pulled him from the wreckage. Meanwhile, the two helicopter gunships that doubled as rescue birds returned. They fired their remaining ammunition into the enemy positions and swooped low toward the fallen Bird Dog to pick up the FAC. Four times they tried to set down in no man’s land. Four times the Vietcong guns drove them off’. Under the direction of another FAC, two Phantom fighters raked the enemy with 20-millimeter cannon fire. At last a helicopter, braving the withering groundfire, picked up Hilliard Wilbanks. He died in the chopper en route to the treatment center at Bao Lac.
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Citation to accompany the award of the Medal of Honor
Hilliard A. Wilbanks (Posthumous)
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of’ his life above and beyond the call of duty.
As a forward air controller near Dalat, Republic of Vietnam, on 24 February 1967, Captain Wilbanks was pilot of an unarmed, light aircraft flying visual reconnaissance ahead of a South Vietnam Army Ranger Battalion. His intensive search revealed a well-concealed and numerically superior hostile force poised to ambush the advancing Rangers. The Viet Cong, realizing that Captain Wilbank’s discovery had compromised their position and ability to launch a surprise attack, immediately fired on the small aircraft with all available fire power. The enemy then began advancing against the exposed forward elements of the Ranger force which were pinned down by devastating fire. Captain Wilbanks recognized that close support aircraft could not arrive in time to enable the Rangers to withstand the advancing enemy onslaught. With full knowledge of’ the limitations of his unarmed, unarmored, light reconnaissance aircraft, and the great danger imposed by the enemy’s vast fire power, he unhesitatingly assumed a covering, close support role. Flying through a hail of withering fire at treetop level, Captain Wilbanks passed directly over the advancing enemy and inflicted many casualties by firing his rifle out of the side window of his aircraft. Despite increasingly intense antiaircraft fire, Captain Wilbanks continued to completely disregard his own safety and made repeated low passes over the enemy to divert their fire away from the Rangers. His daring tactics successfully interrupted the enemy advance, allowing the Rangers to withdraw to safety from their perilous position. During his final courageous attack to protect the withdrawing forces, Captain Wilbanks was mortally wounded and his bullet-riddled aircraft crashed between the opposing forces. Captain Wilbanks’ magnificent action saved numerous friendly personnel from certain injury or death. His unparalleled concern for his fellowman and his extraordinary heroism were in the highest traditions of the military service, and have reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.
Information about the Willared Hilllard Foundation and the Medal of Honor Citation can be found by clicking here
Jimmie H. Butler, Colonel, USAF, Retired, recently published A Certain Brotherhood, a novel about American Forward Air Controllers in combat over the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War. The novel has drawn a great deal of praise, especially from combat veterans who served in Southeast Asia.
He flew 240 missions as a Nail FAC in small, unarmed Cessna O-1s and O-2s in the Vietnam War. His combat decorations include the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Air Medal with sixteen oak leaf clusters. While at the Air War College, he wrote a book-length report, Crickets on a Steel Tiger: The Interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail 1966-1968. It earned the Air Force Historical Foundation’s 1980 Award for the best aerospace report of major historical interest.
After retiring from active duty, he published two highly successful technothrillers. His first novel, The Iskra Incident, earned the 1991 Award of Excellence for Aviation Fiction from the Aviation/Space Writers Association. Red LightningBlack Thunder, a thriller involving space warfare, was crafted from his experience as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force Space Division and as a pilot on worldwide missions in C-141 jet transports. A graduate of the United States Air Force Academy Class of 1963, he resides in Colorado Springs.