An extraordinary partnership, forged by the bonds of survival

  • Published
  • By Ann Skarban
  • 302nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
At first glance, Bill McPherson appears to be a simple, outgoing, southern Colorado community leader with a deep appreciation for local military members.

But it's only after you get to know this highly-decorated Army veteran, who retired as a colonel after 30 years of service, and his story of being shot down in Vietnam that you learn just how close he is to the 302nd Airlift Wing Air Force Reserve aeromedical unit.

In October 2008, Mr. McPherson, a city administrator for the small mining town of Cripple Creek, Colo., was invited to participate in an Air Force Reserve Community Relations Tour to McChord Air Force Base, Wash., sponsored by the 302nd Airlift Wing. The tour, which allows Air Force organizations to reach out to local civic leaders, took Mr. McPherson and 24 other Colorado Springs and Denver-based leaders to the Northwest where they learned more about the Reserve.

It was during the two-day tour that then-302nd AW commander, Col. James Muscatell, Jr., learned about Colonel McPherson's military career, including his experience as a combat helicopter pilot and the rescue and transport by Air Force aeromedical crewmembers who played an important part in saving his life in Vietnam.

On June 24, 1966, then-Chief Warrant Officer 4 Bill McPherson, a seasoned UH-1 (M) Huey pilot on his 197th combat mission, was flying a close-air-support mission to assist U.S. special forces whose camp was being overrun by North Vietnamese army soldiers.

"(The special forces) called for support, so I went in fully armed and provided close-ground support to the camp," Colonel McPherson said. "All of a sudden, enemy fire was directed at me, so my aircraft received several hits of ground fire. I received three wounds in the abdomen. The rounds from the ground fire badly damaged the aircraft and, as a result, I was shot down."

Colonel McPherson said he remembers how the 8,000-pound helicopter crashed inside the special forces compound and the impact tearing the transmission from its fasteners, killing his co-pilot.

"My crew chief saved me by pulling me out of the aircraft as it started to burn," Colonel McPherson said.

Colonel McPherson was then loaded onto another helicopter evacuating the special forces from the remote camp. A flight medic provided emergency treatment to his wounds until he reached the Army's 93rd Evacuation Hospital based in the town of Long Binh. There, he received emergency surgery for spinal injuries and the bullet wounds to his abdomen. As soon as he was stabilized, the warrant officer was whisked away to an awaiting Air Force C-141 Starlifter at nearby Ton Sun Nhut Air Base.

"There were several nurses and medical technicians on the aircraft," Colonel McPherson said of the aeromedical evacuation flight nurses who took him from Vietnam to an Army hospital at Camp Ho Zama, Japan."They were hovering over me throughout the whole flight. They were angels of mercy."

"For a servicemember who is critically injured, it is the (aeromedical crewmembers) who may be their last thought," Colonel McPherson explained. "The (aeromedical crewmembers) could remind them of their mother, wife or daughter -- they are in their thoughts during their last moments of life. I was saved by U.S. Air Force (aeromedical crewmembers)."

Colonel McPherson said the then-commander suggested he become an honorary commander with the 302nd AW 34th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. Less than six months old, the newly-formed 34th AES was in need of a civilian counterpart to participate in the 302nd AW honorary commander program, which pairs subordinate organizations with local civic leaders.

"As the first commander of the new aeromedical evacuation squadron, I had several recommendations for an honorary commander, but none were the ideal fit," said Lt. Col. Kathleen Flarity, the 34th AES commander. "When Colonel Muscatell shared his experience of meeting Colonel Bill McPherson, I jumped at the chance to meet him."

Two years later, Colonel McPherson has proven to be an incredible match for the 34th AES.

"Colonel McPherson is one of the most patriotic and committed men I have ever met," Colonel Flarity said. "At 76, he has more energy and passion than most 40 year olds. He has sacrificed so much for our great country over the years, yet he is humble and non-assuming."

And Colonel McPherson's record of participation with the 34th AES has been flawless.

"I've missed only one (unit training assembly) in the two years I have been the honorary commander," he said. "I'm a mentor."
The colonel routinely draws on his 30 years of military service and 54 months of combat duty between Korea and Vietnam, allowing him to share his experiences with the Reservists.

"He quickly established rapport with every member of our squadron, as a coach, guide, mentor and role model," Colonel Flarity said. "He sends the message that he not only cares, but supports those who care for our nation's heroes. He gives a talk to our new members about what they bring to the fight . They allow the Soldier, Sailor, Airman and Marine to know they will be cared for if ill or injured. When you hear it from a Soldier who has been shot down and is critically injured, it is a lasting emotional bond."

"Being able to work with and talk to the young men and women of the Air Force Reserve is special," Colonel McPherson said. "I am 76 years old, and it is just wonderful to see dedicated men and women give of their precious time. I am sometimes overwhelmed at the sacrifices it takes to be a part of the Reserve and to serve our country."

In January 2011, members of the 34th AES are scheduled to deploy to Southwest Asia in support of overseas contingency operations.
When asked what advice he could give to the deployers, some who are deploying for the first time, Colonel McPherson said, "I would tell them how critical their job is, how stressful combat can be and how much their training will play an important part in their survival. There is nothing more honorable than treating the wounded and bringing them home."