Friday, March 02, 2012

TFH 3/2: 1LT John Birmingham, USA

The Vietnam War was the dawn of airmobile warfare using helicopters on a large scale. The brave aviators who flew their lightly armed and usually unarmored ships into the teeth of the enemy day after day, hour after hour, were a special breed. They put themselves at extreme risk to insert the infantry into combat, keep them supplied, provide air support from treetop level, evacuate the wounded, and extract the combat forces at the end of battle.

On this day in 1969, one helicopter commander did everything within his power to provide fire support to soldiers on the ground despite heavy and accurate antiaircraft fire. When his craft was forced down, he established a defense on the ground, cared for the wounded among his crew, and made sure that all his men were evacuated before he left the field of battle.

His name was John Birmingham. His heroism resulted in his decoration with the Distinguished Service Cross, our Nation's second-highest honor.

From Military Times' Hall of Valor:

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918 (amended by act of July 25, 1963), takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to First Lieutenant (Corps of Engineers) John Birmingham (ASN: 0-5253374), United States Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations involving conflict with an armed hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam, while serving with 195th Aviation Company (Airmobile Light), 222d Aviation Battalion, 12th Aviation Group, 1st Aviation Brigade. First Lieutenant Birmingham distinguished himself by exceptionally valorous actions on 2 March 1969 as fire team leader of two helicopter gun ships supporting an eleven-man Special Forces reconnaissance team which was surrounded by an estimated two companies of North Vietnamese near Dau Tieng. Arriving over the battle site, where fierce anti-aircraft fire had already badly damaged both ships of another fire team, Lieutenant Birmingham quickly located and destroyed a hostile machine gun emplacement with well-placed rockets. As he continued to make low level firing passes, his ship was riddled by enemy bullets, seriously wounding his pilot in the leg. Lieutenant Birmingham made one more suppressive run against the North Vietnamese in support of the ground forces and then was forced to autorotate his failing aircraft into an abandoned fire support base. Fifty meters from the ground the helicopter came under intense fire from positions around the base, wounding the pilot once again. Although he was himself hit in the head by shrapnel, Lieutenant Birmingham executed a perfect landing and established a defensive perimeter. Ignoring his own injury, he administered first aid to his pilot and engaged the communists with his rifle. When a rescue ship attempted to land, he exposed himself to the hostile fusillade to wave it away from the hotly contested area. After a second helicopter landed despite his warnings, he waited until his entire crew was aboard before entering the ship, which then sped to safety. First Lieutenant Birmingham's extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.

An Internet search turns up an obituary for a John R. Birmingham, an Army Vietnam Veteran, who passed away on August 2, 2011 at age 64. He is buried in Nichols, NY. I don't know for certain if this is the same man as the heroic helicopter pilot of March 2, 1969 - but it is plausible that it is.

The descendant of the 12th Aviation Group, now known as the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade, is part of US Army Europe near Ansbach, Germany.

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