‘I was at the end of my life. And the enemy came. The guard looked down on me. He ordered me up. He yelled at me. I could not. I was done. And then there was Xanh, looking worried, bending toward me, the guard yelling to discourage his effort. He persisted in moving to help me.’ Bill Reeder, US Army AH-1G Cobra pilot.
Many flying stories begin when the pilot takes off, en route to some dangerous target far behind enemy lines. As told by Byron E Hukee in his book USAF and VNAF A-1 Skyraider Units of the Vietnam War, this one commenced when two men were shot down in the midst of the enemy. Neither knew the other, but they were soon to become united in a struggle for survival.
During the Vietnam War, Capt Bill Reeder was a US Army AH-1G Cobra pilot. On May 9, 1972 he was pilot supporting the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Ranger outpost at Ben when he was downed by enemy fire. His co-pilot/gunner, Lt Tim Conry, died from his injuries shortly after the helicopter had crashed. Earlier, he and Reeder had witnessed the downing of an A-1 Skyraider near Polei Kiang, but they had been denied permission to attempt to rescue the pilot. The latter, Lt Nguyen Dinh Xanh of the 530th FS, had been supporting ARVN forces at Polei Kiang, an outpost west of Kontum near the Cambodian border, when his A-1 was hit by AAA.
`I had a badly broken back, burns on the back of my neck, a piece of shell fragment sticking out of my ankle and superficial wounds on my head and face’, Reeder recalled. `I was in the midst of many hundreds of attacking enemy soldiers’.
After evading the enemy for three days, Reeder was captured and herded to a prison camp carved out of the jungle just inside Cambodia. ‘There were South Vietnamese military [prisoners], there were indigenous mountain people referred to as Montagnards who had allied with US Special Forces and there were two Americans, myself and another helicopter pilot, Wayne Finch, captured a month earlier’, Reeder explained. ‘There were at least 200 prisoners altogether’.
Xanh had also been captured following his shoot down on May 9, 1972. He too had been force-marched through the jungle to this very same camp. Reeder described his meeting with Xanh on Jul. 2, 1972, nearly two months after he had been captured;
`My weight went from around 190 pounds to somewhere around 120 in just a few weeks. I was skin hanging on bone, with a beard that grew very long over time. I did not shave for more than five months. I received no medical attention at all, and no one fared any better than me. One day I was taken outside my cage and lined up with a group of prisoners. There were about 25 South Vietnamese, as well as Wayne and myself. I would soon learn that one of our group was a pilot who had been shot down on the same day as me in an A-1 Skyraider at Polei Kiang — the very same Vietnamese pilot I had been denied the chance of rescuing. His name was Lt Xanh.’
The group was told by one of their guards that they would be taken to an improved camp where they would receive medical treatment. ‘You all should try hard to make it’, the guard told them. ‘It should only take about 11 days’. Reeder described his mindset as they set off down the trail;
`If you did not continue to march, you would die. In normal life you have to take some overt action in order to die. You have to kill yourself. As a prisoner of war, under these circumstances, that truth is reversed. You have to reach deep within yourself and struggle each day to stay alive. Dying is easy. Just relax, give up and peacefully surrender, and you will die. Many did. They died in that first jungle prison camp, and they died along the trail. Some would complete a day’s journey and then lie down to die. Others collapsed on the trail and could not continue.’
The journey to the next camp lasted three months, the march covering several hundred miles until it finally ended in Hanoi. ‘It was a nightmare, a horrid soul wrenching nightmare’, Reeder remembered. ‘Every step, every day wracked my body with pain. My infections became worse and disease settled in me. I was near death. The pain kept my face contorted and a cry shrieking within every corner of my consciousness, pain that was burning a blackened scar deep into the centre of my very being. And there was Lt Xanh, suffering badly himself, but always encouraging me, always helping as he could’.
Lt Xanh became a part of Reeder’s life at this moment. ‘On the worst day of my life I fought so very hard. I faltered. I dug deeper. I staggered on. I faltered again, and I struggled more, and I reached deeper yet, and I prayed for more strength. And I collapsed, and I got up and moved along, and I collapsed again, and again. I fought, fought with all I had in my body, my heart and my soul. And I collapsed, and I could not get up. I could not will myself up. I was at the end of my life. And the enemy came.
`The guard looked down on me. He ordered me up. He yelled at me. I could not. I was done. And then there was Xanh, looking worried, bending toward me, the guard yelling to discourage his effort. He persisted in moving to help me. The guard yelled louder. Xanh’s face was set with determination, and in spite of whatever threats the guard was screaming, he pulled me up onto his frail, weak back, pulled my arms around his neck and clasped my wrists together. He then pulled me along with my feet dragging on the ground behind him. Xanh dragged me along for the rest of that day. Occasionally, he was briefly relieved by another prisoner, but it was Xanh who carried the burden that day. It was Xanh who lifted me from death, at great risk to his own life, and carried me, and cared for me, until we completed that long day’s journey’.
The following morning Reeder’s ordeal was not over. Despite the glimmer of hope provided by the previous day’s miracle, he fell from a log and lay in a shallow river. This time Xanh was forbidden to help him, he and the other prisoners being marched away at gunpoint. ‘They were marched away with the rest of our prisoner group. I never saw Xanh again’, Reeder explained.
However, for some reason his captors decided to give Reeder penicillin injections to treat his massive infections and, after a time, he was able to stand, and even walk again. ‘I was put back on the trail, this time travelling with groups of North Vietnamese soldiers moving north, and accompanied by my own personal guard. It continued to be an agonising trip, but the worst was behind me’.
Reeder eventually reached Hanoi and ended up in the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’ POW camp. He survived against all odds to be released at the end of the war. Later, having made contact with ex-VNAF personnel who had made it to the USA, he enquired about Xanh. Initially, Reeder struggled to locate him until he finally found a website that served as a gathering forum for former VNAF A-1 pilots. Eventually, through this site, he was reunited with Xanh;
‘At our first encounter, I looked upon an older man, but instantly I saw the soul of my beloved friend in his eyes. I’d not seen him since I’d watched him forced across that log and marched away, knowing that I owed him my life, or what there was left of it. But there in the jungle I made a promise to myself and to Xanh. Since he’d worked so hard to help me live through those two toughest days of my life, I felt like I owed him my very best to try to do my part to make his efforts worthwhile — to survive the rest of my journey and somehow get home at the end of it. What he’d done for me saved my life, and Xanh’s selfless actions gave me even more determination to overcome everything between me and the freedom that waited at the end of my captivity.
`Nguyen Dinh Xanh has always been a great man, and now he is a great American. I am so thankful he was my friend when I needed him, and I am grateful I have found my friend again.’
Xanh’s A-1 was one of 23 Skyraiders lost by the 530th FS between 1970 and mid-1973 — data does not extend beyond the latter date, so its losses were almost certainly higher. The unit also had six pilots killed or listed as missing in action.
USAF and VNAF A-1 Skyraider Units of the Vietnam War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Bill Reeder, U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army