Eugene Ferrell is certain what he sees today in writing is not what he saw in person nearly 47 years ago.
At his home outside Zebulon, Ferrell keeps a pile of documents detailing the events that took place Oct. 24, 1968 in a mountainous area near the city of Hue, Vietnam.
It was for his actions that day that Ferrell, serving on a reconnaissance mission with the Army’s Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 501st infantry and 101st Airborne Division in the Vietnam War, was later awarded the Silver Star.
But as Ferrell’s account of that day goes, his deeds were nothing compared to the sacrifice of six men who have never received the recognition he claims they deserve – the Purple Heart.
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“I was trying to keep myself from being shot,” Ferrell recalled of the Thursday evening, decades ago. “We were on a ridge. The jets, when they came in, they dropped bombs on both sides of us. We were taking mortars, satchel charges, (rocket-propelled grenades), and small-arms fire.”
Running low on ammunition, soldiers put out a call for any available helicopter to deliver additional rounds and meanwhile backed off the attack.
Gunfire was minimal by the time the supplies arrived. With no place to land, Ferrell said, the helicopter that voluntarily responded hovered near the drop site. The next thing he remembers is an explosion.
“I thought it was an RPG and Lt. (Ronald) Phillips said it was a mortar but, whatever it was, it hit the helicopter and it crashed,” Ferrell said.
The National Archives list the helicopter’s crew members Richard Steven Riley Jr. and David Leo Sparks and passenger Robert Terrence Dunn as being killed in the incident. Databases show three others – crew members Kenneth Tuel and Ted Smith and passenger Pax Wingor – were also involved. Ferrell said their injuries varied from severe burns to loss of limbs.
Several accounts of the helicopter incident, Ferrell’s Silver Star certificate included, conflict with the memory he can’t let go.
The Silver Star award says the helicopter “crashed in flames near the night defensive perimeter.” An incident report says the Huey-style aircraft approached too fast and passed its intended landing zone, and that when the pilot attempted to maneuver backward and to the left, “the tail rotor struck a tree causing the aircraft to turn right” and ultimately crash.
Another account lists the cause of the incident as a mechanical failure.
Ferrell insists he knows what he saw. He pointed out even his award mentions that he found two of the injured men “not more than a hundred meters from the site of the first confrontation.”
“One-hundred meters from where we made contact with the enemy – that’s 330 feet,” Ferrell said. “That’s nothing to shoot down a helicopter.”
Smith, the co-pilot, says the aerial crew didn’t come in too fast.
“We had come to a complete stop and they had already begun throwing out ammunition, so how does that line about us backing up and crashing work?” he said.
After what he described as a “very, very loud bang up and back of me,” Smith said the helicopter immediately lost power.
“You don’t lose power like that on a tail rotor stroke,” Smith said. “There’s no motor back there, it’s just a fan on the end of a stick.
“It’s not like (the opposing forces) had a lucky shot. We kind of put ourselves in a bullseye they were already hitting.”
Ferrell was heroic in the incident. In addition to thinking fast and acting fast, the Silver Star award praised his willingness to help evacuate the wounded during the battle.
Then, despite “an intense enemy mortar barrage of the area,” the award letter states, Ferrell went after the six men involved in the helicopter incident.
Smith lost a leg in the incident. Ferrell recalls propping his rifle on a tree and hoisting Smith on his shoulders, toting him to the top of the hill into the care of medics.
‘We leave nobody behind’
The feeling Ferrell gets when looking at all the related documents he’s collected is one of depression.
The Purple Heart is awarded only to military personnel wounded or killed in action, criteria which exclude accidents, the way the helicopter incident is documented. Conflict is a key word in determining who qualifies for the medal.
“We leave nobody behind and I feel like Ted and them have been left behind,” Ferrell said. “I got recognized for nothing – they actually lost a leg, got burned badly and some were killed, and they volunteered to come support us when we were running low on ammunition.”
He’s reached out to several individuals, organizations and government divisions in hopes of setting the story straight, and still awaits responses.
He’s also made contact with Smith, who now resides in Paradise, California. Organizers of the Veteran History Project for the Library of Congress helped connect the two soldiers, who still haven’t seen each other since their encounter in the hairiest of conditions in Vietnam.
“I’ve never seen that man more than 10 minutes of my life – I wouldn’t know him if he walked up to me,” Ferrell said Thursday after speaking to Smith by phone. “I’m going to go see him as soon as I get some money together.”
Smith, who like Ferrell is now 67, would enjoy a reunion after all these years.
“It’d be one old man looking at another old man,” Smith said.
Ferrell says he will pursue the recognition for the six men for as long as he lives.
“I’ll go to the Pentagon and if the Pentagon doesn’t do any good, I’ll take a sign to the White House,” he said. “A rifle doesn’t work well without any bullets. They didn’t have to come out there. They volunteered to bring us that ammunition.
“Whatever it takes to get them recognized for what they did for us. Before I die, I want to see them get the recognition they deserve.”