Improvise, adapt, and overcome are the standing orders in combat in the absence of general direction.Those who fail to do so often fail both the mission and their fellow men when the enemy throws their plan into disarray. Those who embrace the direction to adapt can often walk away with the nation’s highest military honor for their tenacity and spirited fight. Such was the case of Captain Hilliard Wilbanks in Vietnam. Captain Wilbanks was the pilot of a Cessna 0-1E Bird Dog that was designed for reconnaissance missions and close air support. Equipped with only a handful of rockets it was designed to step into the fight when needed and out as quickly as it had come. However, when his flurry of rockets failed to stop a numerically superior Viet Cong force from charging a group of ARVN Rangers and their American advisors, Wilbanks chose to adapt and overcome. Sticking his M16 out of the window, he began to make low passes over the enemy firing down upon them. Successfully delaying the enemy advance until help arrived, Captain Wilbanks now became the central target. This would be an adaptation in the fight that would cost him his life, but not before he had earned the nation’s highest military honor and the eternal respect of the Rangers who witnessed his unbelievable act of gallantry.
A Pilot’s Dream
As a young boy, Hilliard Wilbanks watched with awe as his nation took to the skies over Europe and the Pacific in the greatest conflict the world had ever scene. Not quite old enough to jump into the fight himself, he would have to pacify his heart for action with one newsreel after the other. As soon as he was able at the age of 17, Wilbanks joined the newly minted United States Air Force in 1950 with dreams of becoming a pilot. Despite war breaking out on the Korean Peninsula, Wilbanks would miss out on the action as he served as an air policeman with the Strategic Air Command.
He eventually found his way to a commission as an officer in 1955 and immediately joined the aviation cadet program. As the American war effort in Vietnam began to grow, pilots found themselves with a variety of options to get into the fight. Some would blaze over the skies in jet fighters while others would descend into the jungle on helicopters to insert the grunts into the field. What Captain Hilliard Wilbanks chose was something in between and fortunately for a group of ARVN Rangers and their American advisors below, it was something he was born to do.
Forward Air Controller
By 1966, Wilbanks found himself a forward air controller piloting the Cessna 0-1E Bird Dog with the 21st Tactical Air Support Squadron. These aircraft were used to provide reconnaissance for ground troops along with coordinating and providing close air support. It was designed to be right in thick of the fight, but with a top speed of only 105 mph, it also made a valued target for the enemy. To say that Captain Wilbanks excelled in this role was an understatement as by 1967 he had flown over 480 combat missions and picked up 17 Air Medals along with the Distinguished Flying Cross. Where a fight in the air was to be had, one could expect Captain Wilbanks to be there.
On February 24th, 1967, Wilbanks was flying near Da Lat, South Vietnam, when he noticed a disaster unfolding. A group of ARVN Rangers backed by their American advisors were heading right into the kill zone of a numerically superior enemy force below. Exacerbating the problem, the Rangers were walking through a field that provided little to no cover or concealment. The ambush had been planned well and the enemy was getting ready to have its way their opponent.
Never Out of the Fight
Instantly, Wilbanks dove his Cessna into the kill zone while he radioed the Rangers below and tried to warn them off. Realizing the plot was foiled, the Viet Cong forces unleashed everything they had. Mortars, rockets and machine gun fire began to descend upon the field with devastating effect. Having identified the two main groups of enemy forces, Wilbanks flew directly into the face of enemy fire to unleash his limited supply of white phosphorus rockets. Not only would these rockets have a deadly effect, but it would mark the enemy positions for additional air support.
Unfortunately, the Viet Cong knew this and opted to charge into the field and overrun the ARVN Rangers with overwhelming force and numbers. Coming back around to fire the last of his rockets at the charging enemy horde, the situation now looked even more perilous than before. Out of rockets, Wilbanks would have been reasonable to gain altitude and coordinate the coming air support. However, Wilbanks realized his comrades below would be overrun by then. Captain Wilbanks decided to adapt and overcome.
Out of rockets, Wilbanks turned to the one weapon he had left. That was his M16 sitting in the seat beside him. Normally, this weapon was to be used if he were shot down and in need of personal defense. In a case of remarkable adaptation, Wilbanks had other plans. He opened the window to his Cessna, pointed the M16 out the window and make to make low passes over the enemy. Flying with one hand a firing the M16 of the window with the other, Wilbanks made one pass after another strafing the enemy on each turn. Successfully delaying the enemy advance, the frustrated enemy now turned all their attention on Wilbanks and his low flying aircraft.
On his final pass, the enemy fire struck home sending his Cessna burning down into the jungle below. Remarkably, Wilbanks survived the crash and was pulled from the wreckage by the ARVN Rangers he had just saved. Unable to believe what they had just witnessed, the Rangers refused to let such a man fall into enemy hands. Captain Hilliard Wilbanks would succumb to his wounds on the medevac chopper out. His actions and adaptations that day were directly credited with saving the ARVN force. Captain Wilbanks would pay for his adaptation and spirited fight with his life, but not before earning a rightful place in the halls of military history. For his actions that day, Hilliard Wilbanks would posthumously receive the Medal of Honor and the respect of a group of Rangers who have him to thank for their lives.