50 states, 50 heroes: Valley of Death

Published 7:01 am Saturday, June 13, 2020

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Born Nov. 20, 1927, in Neely, Mississippi, Ed W. Freeman grew up on a farm in McLain, Mississippi. At the age of 13, Freeman watched one day as thousands of soldiers engaged in military maneuvers passing by his home. Longing to get out of his small town, Freeman was inspired by the soldiers to join the military.

In 1944, before graduating high school, the 17-year-old Freeman joined the Navy and served aboard the fleet oiler USS Cacapon in the Pacific. He was discharged in 1946 and joined the Army two years later.

During the Korean War, Freeman was in the Army Corps of Engineers. During the bloody 1953 Battle of Pork Chop Hill, Master Sgt. Freeman received a battlefield commission; his gold second lieutenant insignia was personally pinned on his uniform by Gen. James Van Fleet.

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As an officer, Freeman was eligible to become a pilot, a childhood dream of his. But when he returned to the U.S. and applied for flight school, he was denied entry because at 6’ 4”, he exceeded Army height limitations for pilots, earning him the nickname “Too Tall.” In 1955, the Army raised the height limitations and Freeman was accepted into flight school. He initially flew fixed-wing aircraft before switching to helicopters.

In 1965, Freeman was sent to Vietnam as a captain in Company A, 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, First Cavalry Division (Airmobile). He was second in command of a 16-aircraft unit responsible for flying infantrymen into combat zones.

On Nov. 14, 1965, flying unarmed and lightly armored UH-1 Huey choppers, Freeman and his men flew a battalion of soldiers of the First Cavalry Division to Landing Zone X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley, located in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. The ensuing battle marked the fist major confrontation between American and North Vietnamese forces. Transporting the men took several trips; on the fifth trip, the choppers came under fire from North Vietnamese forces.

Upon returning to base, Freeman learned the heavy enemy fire closed the landing zone to medical evacuation helicopters. But the men in the valley were taking heavy casualties and running low on supplies. Freeman’s commander, Maj. Bruce Crandall, then asked for volunteers to fly into the combat zone to resupply the infantry and evacuate the wounded. Freeman alone stepped forward.

Over the next 14 hours, Freeman and Crandall flew into the valley. On every trip, they brought fresh ammunition, water and medical supplies and returned with wounded men. On several occasions, the North Vietnamese almost overran the landing zone, forcing Freeman to land his chopper in a small emergency landing zone about 100 to 200 meters away from intense enemy fire.

In all, Freeman made 14 separate flights in and out of the Ia Drang Valley and evacuated dozens of wounded men, several of whom might not have survived had he not volunteered to get them out.

Freeman left Vietnam in 1966 and retired from the Army a year later with the rank of major. He spent another 20 years flying choppers for the Department of the Interior.

For his actions at Ia Drang, Freeman was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, but Crandall, who felt Freeman deserved more, later recommended him for the Medal of Honor. At the time, the military had a two-year statute of limitations on Medal of Honor recommendations – because Crandall’s recommendation came after that, no action was taken. Congress, however, repealed the statute in 1995, and on July 16, 2001, President George W. Bush presented Freeman with the Medal of Honor.

Freeman was portrayed by actor Mark McCracken in the 2002 film “We Were Soldiers” depicting the Battle of Ia Drang. Freeman was present again at the White House at a private screening, after which Bush shook Freeman’s hand and said, “Good job, Too Tall.”

Freeman died on Aug. 20, 2008, in Boise, Idaho, and was buried in the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery in Boise. The post office in Freeman’s hometown of McLain was renamed the Major Ed W. Freeman Post Office in 2009.