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Vietnam Veterans Honored with New Exhibit at Air Force Museum

Aerial view of the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Aerial view of the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Under heavy enemy fire, Army Green Beret 1st Lt. Randy Harrison had one chance to get on board an Air Force Huey helicopter or face the likelihood of death.

Door gunner and Air Force Staff Sgt. Fred Cook wasn't going to wait any longer: He fired an M-60 machine gun with one hand at North Vietnamese Army soldiers and yanked Harrison aboard with his other hand so the bullet-riddled helicopter hovering near a river bank could escape.

"I was scared and he was slow," Cook said.

Harrison, Cook and members of Air Force 20th Special Operations Squadron known as the "Green Hornets" who flew in a secret war in Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam war reunited Thursday to dedicate a new exhibit at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force that commemorated that dangerous mission in November 1968.

They joined a throng of hundreds to watch present-day 20th SOS airmen, based at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., land a tilt-rotor CV-22 Osprey on the front lawn of the museum Thursday morning to mark the link between the old warriors and the new.

"The same thing is happening almost every day in Afghanistan where Air Force guys and Army guys and Navy guys are being put in incredibly dangerous situations," said Harrison, 72, of Issaquah, Wash. "...But the main thing is this kind of brotherhood and dedication and sacrifice is going on today with young Americans today in godawful places."

"They're our heroes," said Lt. Col. Charles Mauze, 37, of Wilson, N.C., who flew the aircraft with pilot Capt. Heidi Harker, 32, of Enon. "This squadron has a long legacy going back to Vietnam and even before."

Paul "JJ" Jensen, 70, of Pelkie, Mich., an Air Force left door gunner whose gun jammed so he said he stood in a doorway to protect those aboard on the 1968 rescue flight, was "elated" the secret missions were revealed.

"It was something that could not be told back in the '60s and '70s because it was a classified mission," he said. "As far as any of the American public knew, we had nobody in Laos and Cambodia and we were there."

Harrison, then 24, didn't think he and the six other men on the Army special forces team -- including four mercenaries -- were going to survive that day.

The Air Force airmen had flown the Green Beret-led team to near Duc Co, South Vietnam. They were on a mission to find out if the North Vietnamese were using a river as a supply route.

But about an hour after they left the helo, they faced withering North Vietnamese gunfire on three sides. Hundreds of enemy soldiers, perhaps between 800 to 1,200 -- were hunting for the men, Harrison said.

What started as a reconnaissance mission turned into a call for a rescue.

Cook and Jensen were the door gunners on the UH-1F Huey that tried to rescue the Special Forces team, but the aircrew abandoned a first attempt under heavy fire when the Special Forces team couldn't reach them.

The airmen tried again.

"When you got shot at and had to leave and come back, now you know what you're getting into so it brings a whole different feeling," said Cook, 72, of Dothan, Ala. "But you also know you are the only way that team has to get out of there. Because there's no back up, if you don't get them they get killed."

Again, the helicopter came under fire, penetrating metal and blowing out the windshield. The pilot, Lt. James P. Fleming, "sat there on the ground and waited for us to fight the 50 meters to him with NVA coming at us" within a few dozen feet, Harrison remembered. The pilot would later receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Another gunship flown by Maj. Leonard Gonzales provided covering fire, according to the museum.

Everyone involved survived.

"Not one friendly wounded," Harrison said. "Nobody got the Purple Heart that day. That's why they call it the miracle on the river. It was absolutely incredible."

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