BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The Silver Star is the third-highest honor the Pentagon can bestow on a Marine, just below the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor. A mysterious letter and a secret recording of a medical evacuation mission in A Shau Valley, Vietnam almost 50 years ago has the Navy reconsidering a local veteran's medal.
The recording, which was made by a fighter pilot circling high above the firefight outside the village of Me Hiep, tracks the radio conversations between medevac helicopters, fire support aircraft, and ground troops calling for evacuation from the area on May 9, 1969. Marines on the battlefield were severely outnumbered by the Viet Cong. The job of getting them out fell to helicopter pilot Major Pat Donovan and his crew chief Sgt. Ken Altazan in a mission that became 5-Mike.
"The Marines were mixed up with the enemy. They're all in the same area. We can't come in and the Hueys cannot provide air cover. What are we gonna do, and we decided to go we're going in," said Donovan.
"When we landed, we took no fire. It seemed like everything was gonna go," remembered Altazan, who was halfway through his second tour. It was his job as crew chief to help co-ordinate the rescue, which was no easy feat with a dozen injured Marines scattered across nearly three acres of rice paddys.
"The bad guys knew they were there, and they were being shot at," Altazan said. "Quite a few were hit coming to the aircraft."
Many were injured so badly they could not stand, much less run to the helicopter. Donovan said this meant he would have to air-taxi his aircraft from one injured soldier to the next to get them on board. It was on his fifth "hop" that Donovan said he saw Altazan leap from the front of the aircraft.
"I saw this flash out of the corner of my eye," said Altazan. It turned out to be a wounded Marine waving a green tee-shirt. Altazan said he ran for the Marine's position and found not one but two injured soldiers.
"Ken picked those two Marines up," said Donovan. "One by the web belt in his left hand, and he had the other Marine over his shoulder. And he was struggling to get back."
That's the way it was recorded by both the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps for nearly 50 years. For his bravery, Altazan was awarded the Silver Star in 1970.
No one knew of the tape recording of Mission 5-Mike. In 1969, there were no voice recorders in fighter jets. The pilot who captured the cockpit conversations had installed his own tape recorder in his jet just one day before the mission.
In the early 2000's, that tape surfaced and changed the way the Pentagon viewed 5-Mike and Altazan's role in the mission.
"The last thing in the world you're supposed to do as a crew member is leave the aircraft," admitted Altazan. "It's a no-no."
Not long after the recording surfaced, a letter found its way to the Pentagon. It was written by the corpsman attending to the wounded in the back of Donovan's aircraft.
"All of a sudden, this entire picture starts to open up, and the whole story is out there" said Donovan.
In the letter, the corpsman admits to seeing Altazan jump from the rear of the aircraft to rescue two Marines, contradicting Donovan's story. It was not that Donovan or Altazan were being untruthful, the layout of the helicopter made it impossible for Donovan to see the rear or the corpsman to see the front.
As it turned out, Altazan had jumped from the aircraft not once, but twice. It happened on the second "hop" of the mission.
"I picked up one of them on my shoulder and grabbed the other one, and was lugging them back to the helicopter," Altazan said. "And the one that I was carrying got shot again, and we all went down."
That fall tore the anterior cruciate ligament and the medial meniscus in Altazan's right knee. Still, he managed to hobble back to the helicopter with both injured soldiers. By the time he jumped out of the front of the aircraft on the fifth "hop," he should not have been able to walk.
"When I left that helicopter, nothing was on my mind except going to help these two guys – as it turned out two – but help this guy who was waving a tee-shirt in the rice paddy in Vietnam," he said.
A couple of weeks ago, 48 years after he completed Mission 5-Mike, Altazan received a phone call from a major at the Pentagon. "He said 'I assume you got our letter by now.' I said, 'No sir, I hadn't gotten a letter.'" That's when Altazan learned his Silver Star would be upgraded to the Navy Cross.
On Tuesday, along with about 100 of his family and fellow corpsmen, Altazan will be inducted into the small ring of men who have received the Navy's highest honor. Like most heroes, Altazan does not think he deserves the honor.
"It's a lot easier to say, 'No I don't deserve it,'" he said. "I was picking up dead people that were in a war. We were their lifeline. We got them to the hospital, but they were the true heroes of that day."