The war wasn't over yet, even though the last sizable US Army combat unit in Vietnam was furling its colors and preparing to go home. It was June 29, 1972. North Vietnamese regulars were pushing south, and the South Vietnamese were trying to throw back their assault.
Near Quang Tri, a US Air Force OV-10 Bronco was in the thick of the action. Capt. Steve Bennett, a forward air controller from Danang, was directing American close air support fighters. His backseater, Marine Capt. Mike Brown, was laying the firepower from naval vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Two decades earlier, the French had known this strip from Quang Tri to Hue as the "Street Without Joy." The American flyers called it "SAM-7 Alley" because of the proliferation of that Soviet-built missile. It was deadly, especially against low and slow aircraft.
Just at dusk, Bennett got an emergency call. A mile away, several hundred North Vietnamese were massing to strike a South Vietnamese platoon. Could the Bronco help? If not, the platoon would surely be overrun.
No fighters were close enough to get there fast enough. And with the platoon between the enemy and the sea, it was too risky to try the flat-shooting naval guns.
That left one choice. Steve Bennett put his OV-10 into a power dive and attacked with his 7.62-mm machine guns. He was going down into the SAM-7's prime shooting gallery, and he knew it. After he'd made four strafing passes, the North Vietnamese began to fall back. Bennett attacked a fifth time to keep them from regrouping, and on that pass, his luck ran out. The OV-10 reeled as a SAM-7 came up from behind, hit the left engine, and exploded. Shrapnel tore holes in the canopy. The left landing gear hung down like a lame leg, and the small airplane was afire.
Bennett veered south toward an emergency landing field. The last thing he wanted to do was ditch in the Gulf of Tonkin. He knew that the cockpit area was likely to break up on impact and that no pilot had ever survived an OV-10 ditching.
The fire continued to spread. The pilot of an escort aircraft warned Bennett that he and Brown had better punch out. As they prepared to do so, Brown looked over his shoulder. His parachute lay shredded by fragments from the explosion.
Bennett had a good parachute, but he couldn't go out alone. The airplane was in a "command ejection" mode. After a fatal ground accident with ejection seats, it had been decided that when Marine spotters—who had not had the same training as the FACs—were in the back seat, the OV-10 would be configured for the pilot automatically to eject the backseater first, then himself. And now Brown had no parachute.
Even had the OV-10 been in a different mode, Bennett's ejecting alone would likely have been fatal to Brown. It would have left him in an aircraft without a pilot, and he would have been severely burned by the rocket motors on the pilot's ejection seat as it passed.
Momentarily, there was hope. The fire subsided. Danang was only twenty-five minutes away. North of Hue, the fire fanned up and began spreading. No choice now but to crash-land in the water.
The OV-10 dug in hard, cartwheeled, and flipped over on its top, nose down in the water. Submerged, Brown struggled free of his straps, went out the side of the canopy, and paddled to the surface. He tried to reach Bennett, but the OV-10 was sinking fast. Bennett, trapped in his broken cockpit, sank with it. They recovered his body the next day.
On August 8, 1974, Mrs. Linda Bennett accepted the Medal of Honor presented posthumously to her husband, Capt. Steven L. Bennett, for his actions in SAM-7 Alley and off the Tonkin coast.
Steve Bennett had made his decisions consciously: to press the attack on the North Vietnamese despite the known danger to his small aircraft—and then to ride the crippled aircraft into the sea so his backseater would have a chance to live, even though it meant leaving almost no chance for himself. He knew the odds. There just wasn't any other way.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, air power, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag