In Vietnam: 900 missions, Purple Heart and Silver Star
LOS ANGELES -- Don Esmond never backed away from danger. But after his first tour at sea as a Navy ROTC candidate -- riding out a hurricane off Bermuda, watching destroyers vanish from view in the roiling sea -- Esmond decided he wasn't cut out for the seagoing life.
Attending Illinois Institute of Technology on an ROTC scholarship, Esmond changed direction -- aiming to become a Marine aviator, rather than a Navy pilot taking off from aircraft carriers. He was the only member of his ROTC class to make that choice. It's likely that was due to his classmates' instinct for self-preservation: Marine aviators were being sent into the grittiest, bloodiest combat zones of the Vietnam War.
"We all wanted to be jet jocks, but [the Marines] needed helicopter pilots," Esmond recalls. "It boiled down to the needs of the service."
After receiving training as a Medevac pilot, 1st Lt. Esmond shipped out for Vietnam in 1969. Once there, he flew more than 900 missions, was shot down twice, wounded once, and received the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, 45 Air Medals and the Purple Heart.
It was on a mission in November 1969 that Esmond, piloting a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, was awarded the Silver Star, one of the U.S. military's highest honors for gallantry in combat.
Evacuating infantry casualties near Da Nang, Esmond's helicopter came under fire. Esmond was wounded -- as were two of his crewmen -- and the aircraft was seriously damaged. But Esmond held steady until all casualties had been loaded aboard.
Esmond limped his crippled helicopter out of the combat zone but was forced to crash-land the aircraft on a beach before reaching base. Despite his own wounds, he helped transfer the other stricken men to his wingman's helicopter before returning to base.
Asked about the life decisions that put him in that perilous position, Esmond says: "You don't think about it until you get out there."
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