Bruce Shearer talks about his Silver Star on May 5, 2017, in his Glendale home. The medal was awarded to him for a rescue in Vietnam 45 year ago. Mark Henle/azcentral.com
Smoke and fire enveloped the afternoon of April 18, 1972.
The town of An L?c in South Vietnam was under siege by the Viet Cong, who had the area surrounded. Hercules C-130s tried dropping supplies to the defenders, but the Viet Cong’s anti-air weaponry often shot at them before they could make the drops.
Spc. 4 Leonard “Bruce” Shearer, who now lives in Glendale, was part of a four-man crew manning a Bell UH-1H Iroquois or “Huey” helicopter tasked with reporting enemy troop movement. The helicopter crew had to cut its reconnaissance mission short, however, when Shearer noticed a C-130 engulfed in flames as it streaked across the sky.
“Did you see that?” the 19-year-old Shearer asked the pilots.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Roger Monette, chased the transport plane as it plummeted toward the ground while Capt. Robert Frank, another pilot and mission commander, radioed for another Huey to join them at the crash site.
As the Huey settled near the flaming wreckage, Shearer leaped from the helicopter without any orders and waded through knee-deep mud to find the C-130’s navigator, Maj. Roger Kilpatrick, slumped by the nose of the plane. Kilpatrick had escaped through a hatch at the top of the plane, but had to slide down the side as he didn’t have a ladder. The fall had left him dazed.
As the two made their way back to the helicopter, Kilpatrick said he was part of a seven-man crew who were likely toward the back of the plane.
Shearer trudged back toward the flaming wreckage as rice paddies burned around him, and entered the plane through a gaping hole torn open on its right side. There, he found and rescued four more men, including a South Vietnamese soldier whose legs were shot up from small-arms fire. Shearer carried him back to the helicopter when out-of-sight enemy soldiers opened fire.
One of the Huey’s gunners, Spc. 4 John Deslauriers, returned fire as Shearer made his way back. The two Cobra gunships that had accompanied the Huey during the reconnaissance mission launched rockets into the tree line.
“I never saw ’em, because (there was) just too much smoke, fire, people shooting at us; it gets confusing,” Shearer said. “It’s called ‘The Fog of War’ and it gets real confusing.”
A second Huey arrived soon after and its crew rescued the C-130’s two remaining crew members. With everyone on board, the helicopters fled to a nearby base.
It was a rescue worthy of a medal, but not one the rescuers would receive until 45 years later.
A rescue worthy of medals, but none came
He isn’t sure why the Army didn’t recognize his crew after the rescue. He figured the person responsible for recommending awards felt the rescue fell within the call of duty, or that perhaps the appropriate paperwork got lost somewhere. Either way, the crew didn’t pursue the issue.
“It’s just something you don’t do,” Shearer said. “You don’t go trying to see about getting an award for yourself.”
Deslauriers left the service and became a firefighter, while Frank and Monette continued in the military. Shearer worked at a trucking company for six years after he was discharged, but grew tired of civilian life and re-enlisted in the Army as a private. From there he served until he retired as a major. The men didn’t bring up the rescue with their new commanders.
“It would be poor form to go and say, ‘Hey, I need to be recognized for something I did, you know, back in Vietnam,’ and so it just never happened,” Shearer said.
It never happened — until the Air Force got involved.
In 2005, the Air Force held a ceremony in Little Rock, Ark. where it awarded Silver Stars to the six U.S. C-130 crewman. It also recognized Shearer and his former crewman — who were in attendance — for their efforts, but was surprised to learn the Army hadn’t done the same for them. Air Force officials began asking questions the rescuers had kept to themselves for decades.
The line of questioning eventually reached Congressman French Hill of Arkansas, who asked the Pentagon to re-examine the issue. Shearer said Hill hounded the Pentagon for over a year until it finally obliged.
The rescuers and the rescued had to provide sworn statements regarding the events of April 18, 1972. The Air Force had to find the records confirming it had lost a C-130 that day. Reams of paperwork passed back and forth until the Army agreed the helicopter crew deserved special commendation.
Until this year, 45 years later
On April 18, 2017 — 45 years to-the-day — the U.S. Army awarded Shearer, Frank, Monette and Deslauriers the Silver Star — the military’s third-highest honor.
The ceremony took place in Trapnall Hall, a 19th-century home nestled in downtown Little Rock. Veterans and politicians packed the historic home, but the day belonged to the honored and their families. Shearer said Jim Guy Tucker, a former governor of Arkansas, sat in the third row — behind Shearer’s wife and mother.
“It made you feel pretty good,” said Shearer, now 64.
Hill pinned the Silver Stars to the four veterans — a moment that was better than Shearer had imagined, for it offered something he had silently wanted for a long, long time — closure.
Though Shearer and his former crew appreciated being honored at the 2005 Air Force ceremony, it wasn’t the same as being recognized by the branch in which they served.
“That ceremony was really nice, but it’s sort of like getting a hug from a distant relative instead of a parent,” Shearer said. “And getting a Silver Star from the Army was like getting a hug from a parent.”
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