In my last post I made passing reference to my USAF pilot training and classmates, one of whom was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. His name was Steve Bennett and his memory deserves much more than a passing reference.
The Medal of Honor is neither bestowed lightly nor frequently. There were only fourteen Medal of Honor recipients coming out of Air Force ranks during the Vietnam war years. You can look up and read for yourself the official statement that went with Steve’s citation and ceremony but I will tell some of what I know from my personal experience.
Our pilot training class had a reunion at Wright-Patterson AFB, during which time we honored Steve and his sacrifice. He flew an OV-10 Bronco that was a twin turbo-prop light attack and observation aircraft that was most often used by the Air Force in forward air control (FAC).
On 29 June 1972 Steve flew out of Da Nang, South Vietnam with a Marine observer in the back seat. That very same Marine performed admirable duty when he addressed us at Wright-Pat as a significant part of our memorial. He told a moving story of how Steve gave his life to save his. It goes without saying that it was a difficult privilege for this Marine to tell his story to us.
On this reconnaissance flight, Steve saw a large number of NVA as they formed up and advanced on our troops. Due to a combination of circumstances, neither air nor ground support was immediately available so Steve made a strafing pass to buy time, then another and then another. And then another. And then a fifth and final pass, during which his left engine and landing gear were destroyed by a surface-to-air missile (SAM) fired by the NVA.
Steve had no choice but to disengage and break off any further attack action. He flew toward the coast and the Gulf of Tonkin in order to more safely eject nearer friendly forces. He planned to give the ejection order until his observer (our Marine speaker at Wright-Pat) stated that his canopy had been damaged and his parachute shredded. In other words, Steve was then informed that his observer would be unable to comply with an ejection order.
An emergency landing is named a crash landing unless it is over water, in which case it is called a ditching. Printed materials carried the warning that it was impossible for an OV-10 to ditch successfully: It had never been done and it was almost certain that the forward-seated pilot would be killed in any attempt to do so. Nevertheless, Steve elected to try as opposed to condemning his observer to certain death in the alternative.
As predicted, the aircraft cartwheeled and sank, jamming the pilot’s canopy shut in the process. Steve drowned but his observer was able to escape and be rescued. The price Steve paid was the ultimate price; it was exorbitant. The cost to his wife and infant daughter were heavy and hard to bear. A dispassionate, academic discussion might likely have concluded that the cost of not ditching would have been Steve’s soul and a guilty conscience for the rest of his life but, in the moment, what would you have done? What might I have done? Would we have made that ultimate sacrifice? In that moment, Steve did and he died a hero.
So I learned a great secret. Heroes are in our midst and nobody knows ahead of time who they are. Steve didn’t look like a hero, any more than any of the rest of us did. Which means that there may well be an as-yet-unknown hero in our midst right now—at this very moment.
God lifted me up from humble beginnings and helped me fly with eagles, with heroes. I am grateful! And regardless of whether He gives us an easy road or a hard road like He gave Steve, His grace is sufficient! Therefore, do not fear the future or what it might hold but trust God, live for Him and do the right thing.