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Capt. Hilliard A. Wilbanks

Capt. Hilliard A. Wilbanks. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Capt. Hilliard A. Wilbanks. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Medal of Honor - Posthumously Awarded

On the afternoon of Feb. 24, 1967, Capt. Hilliard Wilbanks, a forward air controller (FAC) assigned to the 21st Tactical Air Support Squadron, was flying a reconnaissance mission in support of a South Vietnamese Ranger battalion. About 100 miles north of Saigon, he spotted a large communist force waiting to ambush the Rangers.

An experienced FAC who had already flown 487 combat missions, Wilbanks knew exactly what to do. He warned the Rangers by radio, marked the communist positions with white phosphorous rockets, and called for close air support. With their location revealed, the communists opened fire on Wilbanks in his unarmed O-1E Bird Dog and attacked the Rangers.

Realizing that they would overrun the Rangers before close support aircraft could arrive, Wilbanks attacked the communists with his remaining white phosphorus rockets, but the enemy quickly realized that the unarmed O-1E could do little damage and resumed their charge. Without hesitation, Wilbanks attacked with the only weapon he had, an M-16 rifle. From an altitude of only 100 feet, he strafed the communists, reloaded, and strafed again. His heroic actions disrupted the communists attack, but at a terrible cost. On his third pass, Wilbanks received a mortal wound and crashed nearby. Pulled unconscious from the wreckage and put on a helicopter, Wilbanks died while being evacuated to a hospital. He was within two months of returning home to his wife and four small children.

On Jan. 24, 1968, Secretary of the Air Force Harold Brown presented the Medal of Honor to Wilbanks' widow.

Click here to return to Forward Air Control in Southeast Asia.

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