Medal of Honor recipient inspires film ‘We Were Soldiers’

Todd Beamer and Federal Way high school students got a chance to hear from Col. Bruce Crandall, whose actions on Nov. 14, 1964, won him a Medal of Honor and inspired the movie
Todd Beamer and Federal Way high school students got a chance to hear from Col. Bruce Crandall, whose actions on Nov. 14, 1964, won him a Medal of Honor and inspired the movie 'We Were Soldiers.'
— image credit: Kyra Low/The Mirror

Todd Beamer and Federal Way high school students got a chance to hear from a real American hero on Thursday.

Members of both schools' Air Force JROTC programs gathered to hear from Col. Bruce Crandall, whose actions on Nov. 14, 1964, won him a Medal of Honor and inspired the movie "We Were Soldiers."

Message to students

For the JROTC students, one message came across loud and clear: Get as much education as you can. Crandall encouraged the students to either use the ROTC program in college, or go to one of the service academies.

He also told students to make sure they understand technology — that's what will aid them in the future, especially a future in the armed services.

Crandall's life

Bruce Crandall was born in 1933 and raised in Olympia. He played baseball and was a high school All American. He was attending University of Washington when he got a letter in the mail saying he was drafted.

Crandall flew under the call sign Ancient Serpent 6, although he realized later that if you used the first letters of each word you got...

He and his wife, Arlene, have been married for 53 years.

"In 26 days, it will be 54," he said. He said the greatest day of his life was the day he married his wife. "And that's called sucking up," he added. Several times during his speech, his wife admonished him for his stories and reminded him of events. The romance is still very much alive for the couple — and very evident through his actions.

He flew in hundreds of daring missions, getting shot at and sometimes crashing. Several of these flights won him medals.

In January 1966, during the first combined American and South Vietnamese Army mission called "Operation Masher," Crandall, while under intense enemy fire and with only a spot flashlight beam to guide him, twice dropped his Huey helicopter through the dense jungle canopy to rescue 12 wounded soldiers. For his courage in that incident, Crandall received the Aviation and Space Writers Helicopter Heroism Award for 1966.

He also jokes that he has the record for being the only Army pilot to get shot down by the Air Force. Bombs that were going off too close to where he was flying on a rescue attempt landed him in the hospital for five months with a broken back and other injuries.

However, it was the events of Nov. 14, 1965, that won him a Medal of Honor. He wasn't given the medal until 2007.

That day, his flight of 16 helicopters was lifting troops for a search and destroy mission from Plei Me, Vietnam, to Landing Zone X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley. During these multiple trips, Crandall and the first eight helicopters landed to discharge troops on his fifth troop lift. His unarmed helicopter came under such intense enemy fire that the ground commander ordered the second flight of eight aircraft to abort their mission. As Maj. Crandall flew back to Plei Me, his base of operations, he determined that the ground commander of the besieged infantry batallion desperately needed more ammunition. Crandall then decided to adjust his base of operations to Artillery Firebase Falcon in order to shorten the flight distance to deliver ammunition and evacuate wounded soldiers. Despite the fact that the landing zone was still under relentless enemy fire, Crandall landed and proceeded to supervise the loading of seriously wounded soldiers aboard his aircraft. After his first medical evacuation, Crandall continued to fly into and out of the landing zone throughout the day and into the evening. That day, he completed a total of 22 flights, most under intense enemy fire, retiring from the battlefield only after all possible service had been rendered to the infantry battalion. His actions provided critical resupply of ammunition and evacuation of 70 wounded.

The event is part of the movie "We Were Soldiers." Mel Gibson starred in the movie and Greg Kinnear played Crandall in the movie.

The movie was pretty accurate, Crandall said.

Crandall was also on the set of the movie for five months, helping to ensure the film's accuracy.

Gibson, he said, was an outstanding individual and never complained.

"I know Mel's gone off the deep end now," Crandall said. "That was very shocking to all of us."

At one point during filming Crandall was able to fly one of the helicopters, something he hadn't done since being grounded after a stroke in 1974. After the flight, Gibson asked him how it went. Crandall replied that it was as if he never left.

"So Mel asked if it was like riding a bike," Crandall recalled. "I said more like sex, unless you're really into riding a bike."

When the movie came out in 2002, it was during a time that the services were going back in their records to look for Medal of Honor recipients, mostly to look for minorities that might have been overlooked, including services by Japanese. It was this process that brought Crandall his medal.

He was driving an RV when the call came; his wife told whoever was on the phone that he didn't take phone calls while driving. The man on the other end told her he would want to take this one — he was calling from the White House. Crandall received his Medal of Honor on Feb. 26, 2007. It was more than 40 years after the event, and more than 30 after he had suffered a stroke. It was actually his second stroke. He had his first one in 1964, a year before his mission in Vietnam. However, knowing that the stroke would end his career, he said he hid it from his superiors and snuck off with the records. After his second stroke, the cat was out of the bag. But rather than court martial Crandall, the military took him off flight status.

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