In the midst of fiery chaos during the early days of the Vietnam War, an audacious and skilled helicopter pilot fearlessly navigated through raging gunfire. With unwavering determination, he heroically rescued dozens of soldiers, defying the jaws of death and earning the Medal of Honor as a testament to his remarkable bravery.
A Call to Service
In late November of 1927, a large family living on a farm in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, welcomed the sixth of the nine children to the Freeman clan. They named him Edward.
After witnessing thousands of men on maneuvers passing by their family farmhouse, thirteen-year-old Freeman felt inspired to become a soldier. A couple more years later, the young Freeman felt a calling beyond his hometown, so he left high school to join the Navy for two years. Freeman was 17 then. He soon found himself serving as an oiler, providing petroleum to combat ships deployed at the grueling Pacific theater during World War II.
After the war ended, he returned and finished his secondary education, only to enlist back in the military afterward, this time serving in the Army in September 1948.
The 1950s rolled in, and along with it was the conflict that broke out in the Korean Peninsula. Now a first sergeant, Freeman fought among the infantry lines and participated in major battles, including the bloody Battle of Pork Chop Hill, where he was among the 14 survivors out of the more than 200 men deployed men and made it through the opening stages of the campaign.
The campaign’s intensity did not shock him. Instead, he assumed command of B Company after receiving his second lieutenant bars from General James Van Fleet himself. Freeman led his company back up the controversial Pork Chop Hill.
Sidenote: The Battle of Pork Chop Hill was seen by many Americans as a controversial campaign as the number of casualties suffered was viewed as far too high for land with little-to-no strategic value.
His time in Korea made Freeman think back to his childhood dream of becoming a pilot, so shortly after returning from his overseas deployment, he applied for flight school. However, this dream almost didn’t work out for him because he was considered to be too tall to be an effective pilot. But eventually, the service adjusted the height requirements allowing Freeman to become a skilled aviator, with the endearment “too tall” sticking with him throughout his military career. He initially flew fixed-wing Army aircraft before switching to helicopters, and when the Korean War ended, he went on mapping missions to gain more flight hours under his belt.
His Third War
World War II and the Korean War came and went, but Freeman’s military career continued to thrive. By the time Vietnam War broke out, Too Tall was serving the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion as an experienced helicopter pilot. Around this time, too, he was already nearing retirement but still went on active duty to deliver troops to what eventually became the Battle of Ia Drang. It was the first, and one of the fiercest battles fought between the American Forces and North Vietnamese troops.
Now the flight leader and second-in-command of a 16-helicopter lift unit, Freeman, was assigned to drop off ground infantrymen into a remote landing zone beside the Ia Drang Valley at the eastern foot in the central highlands region of Vietnam.
The lift mission on November 14, 1965, began like any other until the fifth wave of aircraft arrived, and the enemy fire started raining heavily against Freeman and his crew. The attack was so intense that they had no choice but to ground its helicopter operations. But men dropped at the landing zone were still there and were struggling, barely maintaining their defenses as ammunition and supplies ran low fast. So officers at the tactical operations center needed to make a decision quickly, resulting in commanding officer Army Major Bruce Crandall calling for a volunteer to go and fly back with him to assist the trapped men.
Only one man raised his hand. And that hand belonged to Freeman.
In an interview, Freeman said that since he put those soldiers in that hot zone, he would also get them out.
For the next 14 hours or so, Crandall and Freeman flew unarmed helicopters back and forth to deliver critical supplies. They also evacuated seriously injured soldiers since medical helicopters refused to go into a hot LZ being constantly peppered with enemy fire. Both pilots repeated this trip fourteen times.
This was Freeman’s third war, yet his experience in the Battle of Ia Drang was the defining moment that eventually led him to earn the highest valor award, the Medal of Honor.
A Revered Helicopter Pilot
Before that, though, Freeman initially received the Distinguished Flying Cross, and it took a couple more years before they upgraded it to the highest military decoration in the American armed forces. Then, finally, Freeman received his Medal of Honor award on July 16, 2001, presented by President George W. Bush.
At the ceremony, Bush shortly recounted Freeman’s courageous and selfless actions, emphasizing how he had flown “through the gunfire not once, not [ten] times, but at least 21 times.”
Bush also noted how a “single helicopter brought the water, ammunition, and supplies that saved many lives on the ground. And the same pilot flew more than 70 wounded soldiers to safety.”
Below is the excerpt from Freeman’s Medal of Honor citation awarded by President Bush on July 16, 2001.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty: Captain Ed W. Freeman, United States Army, distinguished himself by numerous acts of conspicuous gallantry and extraordinary intrepidity on November 14, 1965, while serving with Company A, 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) […] Freeman’s extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.
Crandall, who risked his life alongside Freeman, also received his Medal of Honor award six years later.
Freeman retired from his military career as a major in 1967 and moved to Idaho with his family. He continued flying helicopters for the Interior Department for another 20 years before retiring in 1991, with cumulative flight hours of around 22,000. He passed in 2008 due to complications from Parkinson’s disease and was laid to rest at the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery.
The fierce Battle of Ia Drang inspired what eventually became the critically acclaimed book “We Were Soldiers Once … And Young,” which later found its way onto the silver screen in the film adaptation bearing a similar title released in 2002.