[Note: We’re marking Veterans Day with an abbreviated version of an article that Stewart wrote more than 48 years ago when he was a war correspondent for United Press International in Vietnam.]
Colorado flyer recalls escape
By STEWART KELLERMAN
QUANG TRI, South Vietnam, Aug. 22, 1971 (UPl) — Joe Lester won the lifelong gratitude of three GIs the other day. He saved their lives.
The episode began Friday morning when .51-caliber antiaircraft rounds thumped into the engine of a tiny observation helicopter whirring at treetop level below the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam.
“I just didn’t want to believe it,” said the pilot, Warrant Officer Bill Halevy, 21, of Tuckerton, N.J. “I didn’t want to believe we were hit. I didn’t want to have to go down there, right in the middle of all those Communists.”
But down went the OH6 helicopter, hitting the rocky ground and crumbling into a ball of plastic, metal and wire. Halevy and his crew members—Specialist Fourth Class William Hillegas, 26, of Allentown, Pa., and Spec. 4 Joel Gibson, 19, of Cypress, Calif.—lived through three of the most hair-raising hours of their lives.
It all might have ended in tragedy for them if not for the quick action of their platoon leader, Capt. Joseph M. Lester, 26, of Aurora, Colo.
All the American troops involved, however, considered this just another day’s work for U.S. helicopter crews scouting the ridges and valleys below the DMZ in support of South Vietnamese troops fighting Communists in the area.
Halevy and his men were flying over a ridgeline about four miles north of Artillery Base Fuller, searching for a North Vietnamese battalion believed in the area. Their helicopter went down near a stream at the bottom of the ridge.
“As soon as we were hit I decided I wouldn’t be captured,” Halevy said. “I’d have shot myself instead. I’d save the last bullet for myself. I don’t want to be a prisoner of war. Your family worries and nobody knows what’s going on.”
After they pulled themselves from the wreckage of the helicopter, the downed crewmen could hear Communist soldiers messaging each other by whistling. As the whistling got louder the three Americans began moving up the ridge in hopes of signaling rescue helicopters.
“I never crashed before and I expected the worst,” Hillegas said. “Crashing was the hardest part for me. After that, when I realized I was still alive, I just wanted to get up that hill and away from the Communists as soon as I could.”
It took them about one hour to climb through the thick underbrush on the ridgeline and reach the top. All the time they kept low, trying to avoid the troops searching for them. The incessant whistling got louder and louder, never letting them forget the danger that was there.
At the top, they found a clearing. For two hours they waited and waved their fatigue jackets to get the attention of U.S. helicopters trying to find them.
Lester was in another OH6, one of a half dozen helicopters looking for the downed crew. As soon as he spotted them, he flew to nearby Camp Carroll, dropped off his other two crew members and returned empty to pick up the three downed men.
Lester received a Silver Star for going down and getting the three airmen. The three downed men were recommended for Bronze Stars.