Editor’s note: this is a guest post by a good friend of mine and pilot, call-sign Rebel. He neglected to give me permission to share any job specifics in his bio when sharing Major Fisher’s story, and even suggested that I take the credit for writing this piece if I didn’t want to just say that he was “an Air Force pilot”. But enough said about that, you can read between the lines. We wanted to share Major Fisher’s story in order to provide a remarkable example of bravery that speaks volumes about AFSOC’s predecessors the Air Commandos, and also share some AFSOC history with the readership.
“Without the air support you provided, we wouldn’t have lasted one day. If you hadn’t flown at all, the Special Forces wouldn’t have blamed you. It was suicidal, but you carried out your mission anyway. I wouldn’t have done it.” – Capt Tennis Cater, US Special Forces
At the United States Air Force Academy there are forty cadet squadrons, each with about 100 cadets. The squadron I graduated from was CS-37, the “Skyraiders”. Every day as we returned from class, the gym, or the dining hall, we would walk up a stairwell and past a mural on the wall with a name and an instantly recognizable medal: Major Bernard Fisher, the Congressional Medal of Honor, and the accompanying citation. His story was inspirational to all of us, and I’m honored to be able to share it.
Bernard Fisher was born 11 Jan 1927 in San Bernardino, CA, where he later went on to serve three years in the Idaho Air National Guard before commissioning into active duty in 1951. After flying interceptors for Air Defense Command, he transitioned to the A-1E Skyraider and deployed to Vietnam from July 1965 to June 1966.
During his time in Vietnam, Maj Fisher flew 200 combat missions, mostly as a Sandy or close air support (CAS) asset. The Sandy mission is where a slow attack aircraft provides top cover for rescue operations. Thanks to the increased loiter time a fixed wing prop aircraft provides, as well as the Skyraider’s ability to carry 6,500 lb of ordinance on top of 4x20mm cannons, the Skyraider proved to be an excellent Sandy and CAS platform (the Skyraider was eventually replaced by the A-10 as a Sandy and CAS platform). It was during one of these close air support missions that Major Fisher earned the Congressional Medal of Honor.
On 10 March 1966, the Special Forces camp at A Shau had been under attack for over two days by 2,000 North Vietnamese troops. As the fighting progressed, US aircraft had been flying close air support, but the North Vietnamese had prepared for this engagement and lined the mountains surrounding the camp (which was built in a valley…some things just don’t change) with anti-aircraft artillery and heavy machine gun emplacements. The extreme dangers of flying in this valley had become all too apparent a day prior, when the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had shot down an AC-47D Spooky gunship, resulting in the death of three out of the six crew members. By the time Major Fisher’s flight of Skyraiders belonging to the 1st Air Commando Squadron arrived on station, the camp was short on ammunition and in danger of being overrun.
Saying that flying conditions were less than ideal that day on 10 March 1966 was a gross understatement. In a valley with mountain tops reaching 1,500 ft, only an 800 ft ceiling remained. With such a low cloud ceiling, NVA anti-aircraft gunners now had the ability to see and shoot at American aircraft from a level plane, at times even being situated above US aircraft as they flew low level during countless attack runs.
To even get to the camp and begin their attack runs against the NVA, the Skyraider flight had to fly above the cloud ceiling in the valley, locate a hole in the clouds through which to fly, and avoid hitting the mountains located on either side of the valley. To complicate matters, avionics equipment at that time afforded the pilots no leeway as they accomplished this without any GPS or instrument beacons, a difficult task in and of itself. The presence of countless NVA anti-aircraft artillery pieces and multiple days of nonstop flying and CAS only made the challenge that much more significant.
During the Skyraider’s third strafing run, an A-1E aircraft piloted by Maj Dafford “Jump” Meyers, was fatally struck by NVA fire. As his aircraft burst into flames but was too low to bail out, Maj Meyers elected to crash land his damaged bird on the 2,500ft steel planked runway at the camp, landing in a fiery crash. Despite having just miraculously surviving a crash landing, Jump Meyers was able to escape the burning aircraft, where he immediately sought cover in a nearby ditch.
After witnessing Meyers’ fiery crash landing and performing a quick flyover of the wreckage, Maj Fisher returned to the fight with the knowledge of a helicopter rescue on the way. However, after ten precious minutes had passed with no immediate relief and with the ground situation continuing to deteriorate amidst the NVA assault, Maj Fisher began to worry about his squadron mate on the ground. Something had to be done about the situation, and waiting for a helicopter asset to reach the runway was not the most expedient answer.
Rapidly mounting a rescue operation of his own, Maj Fisher decided to land at A Shau himself, in the midst of the NVA assault, and pick up his stranded wingman. He immediately radioed the command post and asked for the runway length at A Shau, learning that the steel-planked runway was 3,500 ft long (it was actually 2,500ft, 500ft shorter than the published landing distance for an A-1E). The runway length alone does not take into account that steel planking is the slickest surface on which an aircraft operate, even more so than wet grass, and completely ignores the fact that the field was littered with debris from Meyer’s aircraft and craters from enemy mortars. None of this phased Maj Fisher.
After somehow landing just off the runway (skidding really) with his brake temperatures nearing the point of combustion, Maj Fisher performed a 180 degree turn of his aircraft and began to calmly and deliberately taxi back along the runway to look for Meyers. As Meyers moved to the Skyraider, Fisher saw him go down as if he were shot, and immediately began unstrapping himself from the aircraft to go retrieve him. Thankfully however, Meyers was able to make it to the Skyraider and Fisher threw him headfirst into plane.
While Maj Fisher conducted his one-man rescue operation, his Skyraider was under heavy NVA fire the entire time. Meyers made every effort to ensure that this fact was not lost on Fisher, who was subject to Meyers’ friendly reminders the entire take off. “YOU DUMB SON-OF-A-BITCH NOW NEITHER OF US WILL GET OUT OF HERE!”
Thankfully, the aircraft, pilot, and survivor were able to return to their main operating location at Pleiku Airfield, where maintenance found no less than nineteen bullet holes in Fisher’s Skyraider (pictured in feature image). Later that day, the camp at A Shau was abandoned, leaving 8 US KIA, 12 WIA, and 5 MIA in its wake, not to include 47 Nung and Vietnamese KIA with many more MIA after the camp was evacuated, leaving 189 Nung and Vietnamese soldiers behind. Maj Fisher said it best, “I just felt so strong about it, and still do. You just can’t leave a guy there.” He died on 16 August 2014 in Boise, Idaho.
Maj Fisher’s citation to accompany his Medal of Honor for his actions that day are as follows:
Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. On that date, the Special Forces camp at A Shau was under attack by 2,000 North Vietnamese Army regulars. Hostile troops had positioned themselves between the airstrip and the camp. Other hostile troops had surrounded the camp and were continuously raking it with automatic weapons fire from the surrounding hills. The tops of the 1,500-foot hills were obscured by an 800 foot ceiling, limiting aircraft maneuverability and forcing pilots to operate within range of hostile gun positions, which often were able to fire down on the attacking aircraft. During the battle, Maj. Fisher observed a fellow airman crash land on the battle-torn airstrip. In the belief that the downed pilot was seriously injured and in imminent danger of capture, Maj. Fisher announced his intention to land on the airstrip to effect a rescue. Although aware of the extreme danger and likely failure of such an attempt, he elected to continue. Directing his own air cover, he landed his aircraft and taxied almost the full length of the runway, which was littered with battle debris and parts of an exploded aircraft. While effecting a successful rescue of the downed pilot, heavy ground fire was observed, with 19 bullets striking his aircraft. In the face of the withering ground fire, he applied power and gained enough speed to lift-off at the overrun of the airstrip. Maj. Fisher’s profound concern for his fellow airman, and at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in the highest traditions of the U.S. Air Force and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country.
For more info on Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), see SOFREP’s landing page here.
For more info on the history of AFSOC and its origins, visit the AFSOC factsheet here.
Thanks for listening.