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.

Aerial image of A Shau Special Forces Camp, courtesy of history.army.mil.

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.

Fisher and Meyers after the rescue.

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.