Retired Maj. Bruce Grable couldn’t take his eyes off the CH-47 Chinook helicopter when he entered the 3rd General Support Aviation Battalion hangar June 20 at Fort Drum.
The former Army pilot looked it over top to bottom, inside and out. After exiting the cockpit, Grable said he could fly it right out of the hangar if given the chance.
Grable joined retired Col. Dave Johnson and their wives on a tour of the hangar, where they spoke with 10th Combat Aviation Brigade Soldiers. The two Vietnam War veterans were invited to Fort Drum as special guest speakers at the annual Salute to the Nation ceremony June 21, rescheduled a day after Mountainfest due to the rain.
This was not their first visit to Fort Drum. In 1985, Grable was selected to go to Fort Drum as part of the reactivation team for the 10th Mountain Division and lived in the North Country for more than 30 years. Grable was instrumental in establishing the 10th Aviation Brigade at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome which, today, is the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade at Fort Drum.
He retired as brigade executive officer in 1989 and became a business owner that served the military and civilian communities in the area. Johnson had spent time at Fort Drum in the summer of 1981 during a training exercise with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.
They first met when Johnson’s helicopter was shot down over Cambodia in July 1972 during a reconnaissance mission, and Grable responded to the distress call.
“We were shot at with a couple of missiles and then we were hit by a .50-caliber round,” Johnson said. “We landed real hard in a big open area, and we came under fire immediately. We called the mayday in on the radio … taking fire from three directions, and within about three minutes a call came back on the radio, saying ‘This is Hillclimber 32. We’re a Chinook, and we’re en route to pick you up.’”
Grable and his crew were returning from an ammo resupply mission when they heard the call. They quickly planned the rescue, laying down suppressive fire while executing a skillful landing so the hatch got close to the Soldiers on the ground.
“They ran and dove onto the back of the ramp,” Grable said. “As soon as the flight engineer said that they were on, we just got out of there. What I didn’t know until later was the flight engineer almost fell off the aircraft.”
Grable said that they lost an engine, but that did not worry him.
“I had a fantastic crew, and I had flown with them before and they really did a great job,” he said. “We always worry about someone panicking, but they were rock solid. Everybody did what they were supposed to do.”
Johnson said that when the Chinook appeared over the tree line, the enemy had a much bigger target to fire upon.
“It was a scary day, and I think it’s almost miraculous that none of us were hurt,” he said.
Grable echoed that sentiment.
“Things happen, but we were fortunate. We were blessed that day,” he said.
Johnson said that Grable didn’t even have to respond to the call – the crew wasn’t directed or ordered to do so.
“Bruce saved my life,” Johnson said. “He rescued me and five others that day. I’m forever grateful to this guy.”
Johnson said that he never got a chance to properly thank Grable after they returned from the rescue, but he recommended the pilot for a Distinguished Flying Cross. He didn’t know if Grable ever received it, until 46 years later when Johnson shared his story on the PBS documentary series, “We’ll Meet Again,” which ended with a reunion of the two veterans.
“For many years I thought I should give him a real thank-you, and over time, that became more significant to me,” Johnson said. “I needed to express my gratitude.”
The search for Grable included a stop at Fort Rucker, Alabama – home of the U.S. Army Aviation Museum and the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence. Johnson learned there that Grable had survived the war and had remained in the Army afterward. Still, Johnson needed to find out if Grable was alive.
He met with the president of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots’ Association in Montgomery, Alabama. There, he learned that Grable resided in South Carolina, and a mass email was sent to members of the 147th Hillclimbers to see if anyone had knowledge of his whereabouts.
That query eventually led to the reunion that was documented on the “Saved in Vietnam” episode of the PBS series.
“It’s so great to be reconnected with this guy,” Johnson said. “It means a lot to me.”
“And me, also,” Grable added.
Another story appears in the same episode about a war veteran who would have left Vietnam with an amputated leg if it wasn’t for an Army doctor who had the confidence and skill to save it. Johnson said that he was glad to have seen that story, because it articulated the fact that every veteran has stories, and they are personal to those who lived them.
“When we tell our story, and I’ve told it a lot of times, I have the feeling that this is the biggest story ever – and it’s not,” Johnson said. “It might be minor, but this was my story. And there are so many others. All the other sacrifices and all the guys who did things and lost their lives, maybe helping people or putting their lives at risk. I have the greatest respect for those who died, who lost limbs.”
Grable said that he was humbled to know that his actions had impacted Johnson’s life so significantly.
“I really was reluctant to do much of anything about it (because) I didn’t want this to insult all those medevac pilots who do this every day,” Grable said. “In fact, they probably did three or four of them while I did that one. That was my major concern.”
Johnson said that he decided to write a memoir a couple of years ago about his three tours in Vietnam.
“I had a little book printed, not published, and I called it ‘Vietnam Times Three’ that I wrote for my grandchildren,” Johnson said. “As my wife was proofreading chapters of it, she said that she had a lot of remembrances about this. I said, ‘Write them down,’ and so at the end of each chapter she wrote two or three pages about what was going on in her life and how she was dealing with it.”
“I would encourage other veterans to do the same,” he added. “I think it is important to capture that, because everyone has a different, unique story. I think before we get so old that we don’t remember everything, it would be a good idea to write it down and make a record of it.”
The Fort Drum and North Country communities are invited to hear some of their stories when they address the audience during the Salute to the Nation ceremony, beginning at 4 p.m. June 21 with a live military demonstration on Division Hill.