This post will be the fifth in a series of posts containing information about USAF Medal of Honor Recipients. There are 18 actual United States Air Force MOH recipients and 60 total from the USAF and its predecessor organizations. A few months ago I had the opportunity to visit Lackland AFB and walk the parade field, the edge of which has a representation of many USAF airplanes. It also has a monument listing all Air Force Recipients.
As I studied the list, I realized that, while I knew the stories of several and recognized the names of a few more, there were many of whom I had no knowledge. These men had received our Nation's Highest Award for Valor, for "acts of Valor above and beyond the call of Duty." and I didn't know them? Unacceptable. I resolved to rectify that situation.
Today's post will describe the actions of Captain Hilliard Almond Wilbanks. Capt. Wilbanks was born in Cornelia GA. He enlisted in the USAF in 1950 serving 4 years as an Air Policeman in SAC before being accepted into the Aviation Cadet program. I suspect 4 years guarding Bombers in the Northern Tier would be strenuous for a Southern Gentleman. Anyhow, in June of 1955 (a personally excellent month), he received his wings and was commissioned.
His first assignment was as an IP (First Assignment Instructor Pilot (FAIP) to be precise). Completing that assignment, he flew F-86s before being assigned to Vietnam as a Forward Air Controller. Assigned to the 21st Tactical Air Support Squadron, he flew the O-1A Bird Dog. From April 1966 to Feb 1967, he flew 488 combat mission earning the Air Medal 19 times (technically 1 Air Medal and 18 Oak Leaf Clusters) as well as a Distinguished Flying Cross.
Ok, He's flying a single engine Cessna with a takeoff speed of about 90K, a cruise speed of 90K and a landing speed of 90K. It is not armored, nor strengthened from the civilian variant. It is armed, sort of, with 4 White Phosphorus Rockets. Yes, they will hurt you if they hit you, but they're primarily used for marking targets.
Capt. Wilbanks flew this aircraft in combat 488 times. He clanked when he walked.
In February a few weeks before he was scheduled to DEROS (Date estimated to return from overseas AKA get to come home), Capt. Wilbanks' primary AOR is moved further north into the highlands. On 22 February, an NVA Battalion captures a tea plantation in Capt Wilbanks old AOR and sets up an ambush. The next morning a South Vietnamese company walks into the ambush and is entirely killed or captured. No report is made as the radio operator threw the radio into a well to prevent its capture. The next day a South Vietnamese Ranger battalion is sent to figure out what happened.
Capt. Wilbanks replacement flies 3 missions but is unable to find the destroyed unit or recognize the ambush site. Capt. Wilbanks is diverted from his current area to return and help with the search. Based on his extensive experience, he is able to detect the ambush site. As he radios a warning to the Rangers, the NVA recognize that they have been detected and spring the ambush, even though the Rangers are not fully in the ambush crossfire.
Capt. Wilbanks begins doing the FAC thing directing the fire of three helicopter gunships while evading 50 caliber machine gun rounds and extensive small arms fire. Two flights of F-4s are diverted toward the area.
As the helicopters make a pass, one takes a 50 cal hit in the hydraulic system. He radios Capt Wilbanks that he will "probably' make it back to base. Capt Wilbanks clears the other helicopters off to escort him back to base.
On seeing the helicopters leave, the NVA launch a new attack on the Rangers. Capt Wilbanks checks the F-4s ETA, but they won't arrive in time. Capt Wilbanks rolls in and launches a rocket at the attacking force which stops them momentarily and diverts their fire towards him.
He is now out of rockets, but has an M-16 on board as a personal survival weapon in the event of a crash landing. He sets up for a pass, dropping the side window and holding the M-16 in the slipstream.
He makes several passes, causing the NVA to stop their attack each time, but he's taking hits from small arms and machine gun fire. Finally, he takes an incapacitating hit and crashes near enough to the Rangers that they pull him from the wreckage. He's alive, but perishes shortly thereafter.
About this time the Phantoms arrive, and the attack is defeated.
As I read this, I wondered why a Battalion (easily several hundred men) would stop an attack based on the fire from a single M-16. This gave me an insight. Evidently the only way a North Vietnamese soldier could get leave to go home was to shoot down an aircraft. It didn't matter how well he did on the ground, he was stuck for the duration. If he shot down an airplane though, he would get transported back to North Vietnam for some leave. I don't know whether Capt. Wilbanks knew that or if it would have mattered.
This site has more details of the battle for those interested. One caveat, the site's author has, shall we say, some baggage. The section on Capt. Wilbanks is well done though. Do a Ctrl+F and search on Wilbanks and you'll save yourself a lot of stress.
Capt. Wilbanks Medal of Honor Citation.
"For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. As a forward air controller Capt. Wilbanks was pilot of an unarmed, light aircraft flying visual reconnaissance ahead of a South Vietnam Army Ranger Battalion. His intensive search revealed a well-concealed and numerically superior hostile force poised to ambush the advancing rangers. The Viet Cong, realizing that Capt. Wilbanks' discovery had compromised their position and ability to launch a surprise attack, immediately fired on the small aircraft with all available firepower. The enemy then began advancing against the exposed forward elements of the ranger force which were pinned down by devastating fire. Capt. Wilbanks recognized that close support aircraft could not arrive in time to enable the rangers to withstand the advancing enemy, onslaught. With full knowledge of the limitations of his unarmed, unarmored, light reconnaissance aircraft, and the great danger imposed by the enemy's vast firepower, he unhesitatingly assumed a covering, close support role. Flying through a hail of withering fire at treetop level, Capt. Wilbanks passed directly over the advancing enemy and inflicted many casualties by firing his rifle out of the side window of his aircraft. Despite increasingly intense antiaircraft fire, Capt. Wilbanks continued to completely disregard his own safety and made repeated low passes over the enemy to divert their fire away from the rangers. His daring tactics successfully interrupted the enemy advance, allowing the rangers to withdraw to safety from their perilous position. During his final courageous attack to protect the withdrawing forces, Capt. Wilbanks was mortally wounded and his bullet-riddled aircraft crashed between the opposing forces. Capt. Wilbanks' magnificent action saved numerous friendly personnel from certain injury or death. His unparalleled concern for his fellow man and his extraordinary heroism were in the highest traditions of the military service, and have reflected great credit upon himself and the U.S. Air Force."
*Jocelyn Murray, Corfe Castle