Capt. Hilliard A. Wilbanks was born in July 1933 and raised in the small, rural community of Cornelia, Ga. This area, tucked into the northeastern corner of the state, was almost isolated in the 1960s, yet seven of its men died in Vietnam. One of them, Wilbanks, earned the Medal of Honor in a true-to-life David vs. Goliath fight.
Wilbanks was a fighter pilot, but he arrived in Vietnam in April 1966 as a forward air controller with the 21st Air Support Squadron. He was still flying, but instead of a sleek fighter jet, he was piloting a Cessna O-1E Bird Dog, with a top speed of about 105 mph.
FACs were the key link in providing close air support to ground troops fighting in the Vietnam jungle. By Feb. 24, 1967 he had flown 487 combat missions and had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and 17 Air Medals. He had spotted numerous enemy forces and directed uncounted fighter strikes against them, saving hundreds of allied lives.
He was within two months of returning home to his wife and four small children.
Late in the afternoon of the 24th, Wilbanks was in the air above the Central Highlands, about 100 miles north of Saigon, flying reconnaissance for a South Vietnamese Ranger Battalion. He discovered hostile units concealed on two hilltops. The Rangers were on foot, making their way through a tea plantation that gave them little or no cover. They were walking into a trap.
As Wilbanks flew his O-1E on a low-level sweep of the area, he radioed a warning to the Rangers. The enemy troops, seeing his plane, knew their ambush was being compromised, so they reacted with a barrage from mortars, machine guns and automatic weapons. Wilbanks flew through the heavy fire as he marked the area with white phosphorus rockets. The Viet Cong, knowing that fighters would soon be coming, charged down the slopes toward the outnumbered Rangers.
Wilbanks watched the drama from above and realized the fighters wouldn't arrive in time to save Ranger lives. The enemy force needed to be delayed a little longer. Diving toward the advancing troops, Wilbanks dropped his remaining phosphorous rockets. The line momentarily stopped, but the Viet Cong were old hands at this and knew he had no more rockets. They began their advance again. Still, the fighters hadn't arrived. Wilbanks had one more weapon, an M-16 automatic rifle. Grabbing his rifle, he began a series of strafing runs at about 100 feet, firing the through the side window and reloading between passes. He managed to distract the enemy troops and momentarily slowed their advance. The Viet Cong diverted their fire against the low-flying O-1E. On his third pass, Wilbanks was severely wounded and crashed in the battle area. An Army Ranger ran to his plane and pulled the unconscious Wilbanks from the wreckage. A flight of F-4s roared in to strafe the enemy while a chopper picked up the wounded Wilbanks. He died while being evacuated to a hospital.
On Jan. 24, 1968, Secretary of the Air Force Harold Brown presented the Medal of Honor to Wilbanks' widow in the Pentagon, Washington, D.C. Wilbanks is a member of the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame. A six-foot tall, two-sided black granite memorial was erected in his home town, about 400 yards from where he was born, commemorating the country boy who, without hesitation, flew a Cessna into battle and into history.
His citation reads:..."For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. As a forward air controller Capt. Wilbanks was pilot of an unarmed, light aircraft flying visual reconnaissance ahead of a South Vietnam Army Ranger Battalion. His intensive search revealed a well-concealed and numerically superior hostile force poised to ambush the advancing rangers. The Viet Cong, realizing that Capt. Wilbanks' discovery had compromised their position and ability to launch a surprise attack, immediately fired on the small aircraft with all available firepower. The enemy then began advancing against the exposed forward elements of the ranger force which were pinned down by devastating fire. Capt. Wilbanks recognized that close support aircraft could not arrive in time to enable the rangers to withstand the advancing enemy, onslaught. With full knowledge of the limitations of his unarmed, unarmored, light reconnaissance aircraft, and the great danger imposed by the enemy's vast firepower, he unhesitatingly assumed a covering, close support role. Flying through a hail of withering fire at treetop level, Capt. Wilbanks passed directly over the advancing enemy and inflicted many casualties by firing his rifle out of the side window of his aircraft. Despite increasingly intense antiaircraft fire, Capt. Wilbanks continued to completely disregard his own safety and made repeated low passes over the enemy to divert their fire away from the rangers. His daring tactics successfully interrupted the enemy advance, allowing the rangers to withdraw to safety from their perilous position. During his final courageous attack to protect the withdrawing forces, Capt. Wilbanks was mortally wounded and his bullet-riddled aircraft crashed between the opposing forces. Capt. Wilbanks' magnificent action saved numerous friendly personnel from certain injury or death. His unparalleled concern for his fellow man and his extraordinary heroism were in the highest traditions of the military service, and have reflected great credit upon himself and the U.S. Air Force."
Sources compiled from the Air Force History Support Office and the Virtual Wall.org