On June 29, the second day of the counteroffensive, an OV-10 flown by Air Force Capt. Steven L. Bennett had been working through the afternoon in the area south and east of Quang Tri City.
Bennett, 26, was born in Texas but grew up in Lafayette, La. He was commissioned via ROTC in 1968 at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. After pilot training, he had flown B-52s as a copilot at Fairchild AFB, Wash. He also had pulled five months of temporary duty in B-52s at U Tapao in Thailand. After that, he volunteered for a combat tour in OV-10s and had arrived at Da Nang in April 1972.
Bennett’s partner in the backseat of the OV-10 on June 29 was Capt. Michael B. Brown, a Marine Corps airborne artillery observer and also a Texan. Brown, a company commander stationed in Hawaii, had volunteered for a 90-day tour in Vietnam spotting for naval gunners from the backseat of an OV-10. Air Force FACs were not trained in directing the fire of naval guns.
The two had flown together several times before on artillery adjustment missions. They had separate call signs. Bennett’s was “Covey 87.” Brown was “Wolfman 45.”
They took off from Da Nang at about 3 p.m. During the time they were airborne, Brown had been directing fire from the destroyer USS R.B. Anderson and the cruiser USS Newport News, which were about a mile offshore in the Tonkin Gulf. Bennett and Brown had also worked two close air support strikes by Navy fighters.
It was almost time to return to base, but their relief was late taking off from Da Nang, so Bennett and Brown stayed a little longer.
The area in which they were flying that afternoon had been fought over many times before. French military forces, who took heavy casualties here in the 1950s, called the stretch of Route 1 between Quang Tri and Hue the “Street Without Joy.” US airmen called it “SAM-7 Alley.”
SA-7s were thick on the ground there, and they had taken a deadly toll on low-flying airplanes. The SA-7 could be carried by one man. It was similar to the US Redeye. It was fired from the shoulder like a bazooka, and its warhead homed on any source of heat, such as an aircraft engine.
Pilots could outrun or outmaneuver the SA-7—if they saw it in time. At low altitudes, that was seldom possible.
“Before the SA-7, the FACs mostly flew at 1,500 to 4,500 feet,” said William J. Begert, who, in 1972, was a captain and an O-2 pilot at Da Nang. “After the SA-7, it was 9,500 feet minimum. You could sneak an O-2 down to 6,500, but not an OV-10, because the bigger engines on OV-10 generated more heat.”
The FACs sometimes carried flares on their wings and could fire them as decoys when they saw a SA-7 launch. “The problem was reaction time,” Begert said. “You seldom got the flare off before the missile had passed.”
About 6 p.m., Bennett and Brown got an emergency call from “Harmony X-ray,” a US Marine Corps ground artillery spotter with a platoon of South Vietnamese marines a few miles east of Quang Tri City.
The platoon consisted of about two dozen troops. They were at the fork of a creek, with several hundred North Vietnamese Army regulars advancing toward them. The NVA force was supported by big 130 mm guns, firing from 12 miles to the north at Dong Ha, as well as by smaller artillery closer by.
Without help, the South Vietnamese marines would soon be overrun.
Bennett called for tactical air support, but no fighters were available. The guns from Anderson and Newport News were not a solution, either.
“The ships were about a mile offshore, and the friendlies were between the bad guys and the ships,” Brown said. “Naval gunfire shoots flat, and it has a long spread on impact. There was about a 50-50 chance they’d hit the friendlies.”
Bennett decided to attack with the OV-10’s four 7.62 mm guns. That meant he would have to descend from a relatively safe altitude and put his aircraft within range of SA-7s and small-arms fire. Because of the risk, Bennett was required to call for permission first. He did and got approval to go ahead.
Apart from its employment as a FAC aircraft, the OV-10 was rated for a light ground attack role. Its machine guns were loaded with 500 rounds each. The guns were mounted in the aircraft’s sponsons, stubby wings that stuck out like a seal’s flippers from the lower fuselage.
Bennett put the OV-10 into a power dive. The NVA force had been gathering in the trees along the creek bank. As Bennett roared by, the fire from his guns scattered the enemy concentration.
After four strafing passes, the NVA began to retreat, leaving many dead and wounded behind. The OV-10 had taken a few hits in the fuselage from small-arms fire but nothing serious. Bennett decided to continue the attack to keep the NVA from regrouping and to allow the South Vietnamese to move to a more tenable position.
Bennett swept along the creek for a fifth time and pulled out to the northeast. He was at 2,000 feet, banking to turn left, when the SA-7 hit from behind. Neither Bennett nor Brown saw it.
The missile hit the left engine and exploded. The aircraft reeled from the impact. Shrapnel tore holes in the canopy. Much of the left engine was gone. The left landing gear was hanging down like a lame leg, and they were afire.
Bennett needed to jettison the reserve fuel tank and the remaining smoke rockets as soon as he could, but there were South Vietnamese troops everywhere below. He headed for the Tonkin Gulf, hoping to get there and drop the stores before the fire reached the fuel.
As they went, Brown radioed their Mayday to declare the emergency. Over the Gulf, Bennett safely dropped the fuel tank and rocket pods.
The OV-10 was still flyable on one engine, although it could not gain altitude. They turned south, flying at 600 feet. Unless Bennett could reach a friendly airfield for an emergency landing, he and Brown would have to either eject or ditch the airplane in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Every OV-10 pilot knew the danger of ditching. The aircraft had superb visibility because of the “greenhouse”-style expanses of plexiglass canopy in front and on the sides, but that came at the cost of structural strength. It was common knowledge, often discussed in the squadron, that no pilot had ever survived an OV-10 ditching. The cockpit always broke up on impact.
Another OV-10 pilot, escorting Bennett’s aircraft, warned him to eject as the wing was in danger of exploding.
They began preparations to eject. As they did, Brown looked over his shoulder at the spot where his parachute should have been. “What I saw was a hole, about a foot square, from the rocket blast and bits of my parachute shredded up and down the cargo bay,” Brown said. “I told Steve I couldn’t jump.”
Bennett would not eject alone. That would have left Brown in an airplane without a pilot. Besides, the backseater had to eject first. If not, he would be burned severely by the rocket motors on the pilot’s ejection seat as it went out.
Momentarily, there was hope. The fire subsided. Da Nang—the nearest runway that could be foamed down—was only 25 minutes away and they had the fuel to get there. Then, just north of Hue, the fire fanned up again and started to spread. The aircraft was dangerously close to exploding.
They couldn’t make it to Da Nang. Bennett couldn’t eject without killing Brown. That left only one choice: to crash-land in the sea.
Bennett faced a decision, Lt. Col. Gabriel A. Kardong, 20th TASS commander, later wrote in recommending Bennett for the Medal of Honor. “He knew that if he saved his own life by ejecting from his aircraft, Captain Brown would face certain death,” said Kardong. “On the other hand, he realized that if he ditched the aircraft, his odds for survival were slim, due to the characteristics of the aircraft, but Captain Brown could survive. Captain Bennett made the decision to ditch and thereby made the ultimate sacrifice.”
He decided to ditch about a mile off a strip of sand called “Wunder Beach.” Upon touchdown, the dangling landing gear dug in hard.
“When the aircraft struck water, the damaged and extended left landing gear caused the aircraft to swerve left and flip wing over wing and come to rest in a nose down and inverted position, almost totally submerged,” Brown said in a statement attached to the Medal of Honor recommendation.
“After a struggle with my harnesses, I managed to escape to the surface where I took a few deep breaths of air and attempted to dive below the surface in search of the pilot who had not surfaced. Exhaustion and ingestion of fuel and water prevented me from descending below water more than a few feet. I was shortly rescued by an orbiting naval helicopter and taken to the USS Tripoli for treatment.”
Of Bennett, Brown said, “His personal disregard for his own life surely saved mine when he elected not to eject … and save himself in order that I might survive.”
Bennett’s body was recovered the next day. The front cockpit had broken up on impact with the water, and it had been impossible for him to get out. He was taken home to Lafayette, where he is buried.
North Vietnam’s Easter Offensive, battered by airpower, stalled. The South Vietnamese retook Quang Tri City on Sept. 16, 1972. The invasion having failed, Giap was forced to withdraw on all three fronts. It was a costly excursion for North Vietnam, with 100,000 or more of its troops killed and at least half of its tanks and large-caliber artillery pieces having been lost.
The Medal of Honor was awarded posthumously to Steven L. Bennett on Aug. 8, 1974. It was presented in Washington to his wife, Linda, and their daughter Angela, two-and-a- half years old, by Vice President Gerald R. Ford in the name of Congress. (Ford made the presentation because President Nixon announced his resignation that day. Ford was sworn in as President the next day, Aug. 9, 1974.)
The citation accompanying the Medal of Honor recognized “Captain Bennett’s unparalleled concern for his companion, extraordinary heroism, and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty, at the cost of his life.”
Since then, there have been other honors. Navy Sealift Command named a ship MV Steven L. Bennett. Palestine, Tex., where Bennett was born, dedicated the city athletic center to him. Among other facilities named for or dedicated to Bennett were the ROTC building at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, the gymnasium at Kelly AFB, Tex., and a cafeteria at Webb AFB, Tex.
Steven Logan Bennett (April 22, 1946 – June 29, 1972) of Palestine, Texas was a United States Air Force pilot who posthumously received the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Vietnam War on August 8, 1974
Prior to entering the U.S. Air Force, Steven Bennett attended the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now University of Louisiana at Lafayette) in Lafayette, Louisiana; he graduated with a degree in Aerospace Engineering. He was in ROTC and received his private pilot's license in 1965. He entered the Air Force in August 1968, and earned his pilot wings at Webb AFB, Texas in 1969. In 1970, he completed B-52 bomber training course at Castle AFB, CA. He was stationed at Fairchild AFB, Washington. He flew B-52s out of Thailand for almost a year. He then transitioned to become a Forward Air Controller (FAC), and graduated from the FAC and fighter training courses at Cannon AFB, New Mexico, before reporting to Da Nang, Vietnam in April 1972. He had only been in combat for three months before his Medal of Honor mission and had also won the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. He was also awarded the Purple Heart and the Cheny Award.
His call-sign at DaNang was Covey 87. Bennett had recently turned 26 when he was killed.
Captain Bennett was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Vice President Gerald Ford presented the decoration to Captain Bennett’s wife, Linda, and daughter, Angela, at the Blair House on August 8, 1974. Bennett is buried in Lafayette Memorial Cemetery at Lafayette, Louisiana. He was survived by his wife and one child. He had two brothers, David and Miles, and three sisters, Kathe, Lynne and Ardra. His mother, Edith Alice Logan Bennett, preceded him in death and his father, Elwin Bennett, died many years later in 2006. His daughter now lives near Dallas, TX with her husband, Paul, and two children, Jake and Elizabeth. His wife, Linda Leveque Bennett Wells, died on July 11, 2011.
Bennett's observer, Mike Brown, and was reunited with Bennett's wife and daughter in 1988. They have since remained close and together have attended numerous dedications in Bennett's honor throughout the United States.
Angela is a lifetime member of the OV-10 Association located at Meacham Air Field in Fort Worth, Texas. They have acquired an OV-10 and painted the names of both Bennett and Mike Brown on the side in memory of their last flight together. Angela was named by her father, who chose Angela Noelle, as in Christmas Angel; she was born near Christmas.
He is the namesake of the ship MV Capt. Steven L. Bennett (T-AK-4296) and his name is engraved on the Vietnam Memorial at Panel 01W - Row 051. There have been numerous other dedications done in his honor. They range from streets being named after him to buildings, including a gymnasium and a cafeteria, a sports arena and VFW posts, and many monuments. He has been mentioned in several military history books.
Medal of Honor citation
The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR posthumously to
CAPTAIN STEVEN L. BENNETT
UNITED STATES AIR FORCE
20th Tactical Air Support Squadron, Pacific Air Forces.
Place and date of action: Quang Tri, Republic of Vietnam, June 29, 1972.
For service as set forth in the following
Capt. Bennett was the pilot of a light aircraft flying an artillery adjustment mission along a heavily defended segment of route structure. A large concentration of enemy troops was massing for an attack on a friendly unit. Capt. Bennett requested tactical air support but was advised that none was available. He also requested artillery support but this too was denied due to the close proximity of friendly troops to the target. Capt. Bennett was determined to aid the endangered unit and elected to strafe the hostile positions. After 4 such passes, the enemy force began to retreat. Capt. Bennett continued the attack, but, as he completed his fifth strafing pass, his aircraft was struck by a surface-to-air missile, which severely damaged the left engine and the left main landing gear. As fire spread in the left engine, Capt. Bennett realized that recovery at a friendly airfield was impossible. He instructed his observer to prepare for an ejection, but was informed by the observer that his parachute had been shredded by the force of the impacting missile. Although Capt. Bennett had a good parachute, he knew that if he ejected, the observer would have no chance of survival. With complete disregard for his own life, Capt. Bennett elected to ditch the aircraft into the Gulf of Tonkin, even though he realized that a pilot of this type aircraft had never survived a ditching. The ensuing impact upon the water caused the aircraft to cartwheel and severely damaged the front cockpit, making escape for Capt. Bennett impossible. The observer successfully made his way out of the aircraft and was rescued. Capt. Bennett's unparalleled concern for his companion, extraordinary heroism and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty, at the cost of his life, were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the U.S. Air Force.