DAMASCUS, Md. (WDVM) — Larry Earles, a 19-year-old army helicopter pilot, was taking another young army officer on a recon flight over the Au Shau Valley in South Vietnam on April 28, 1969 when he heard a call for help over his radio.
“I glanced out to the right and saw an F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber roll over on fire and explode,” said Earles, whose immediate thought was we just lost that two man crew.”
But Earles saw one of the crew members come out of the smoke in his ejection seat and float over the horizon in his parachute. The mountainous terrain reminded him of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
Despite the heavy triple canopy tree foliage, Earles located the airman, Marine Captain Floyd Massey from Martinsburg.
“He climbed up trees as be he could after disconnecting from his parachute and wrapped his arms around the skids of my light observation helicopter pilots called a “Loach.”
Earles flew Massey, the F-4 radar intercept officer, or RIO, to Firebase Rahakason nearby where Massey told Earles where he thought Captain Joe Garzik, the pilot, had gone down.
Within minutes, Earles rescued Garzik and flew back to Camp Eagle, home of the 101st Airborne Division where Earles was based. Earles in the center posed for a picture with the two fliers from VFMA-314, the top fighter squadron in the Marine Corps that year.
Then it was off to Chu Lai where Garzik and Massey were based on the coast of Vietnam. Enroute Earles had to dodge ground fire from Viet Cong guerillas and U.S. naval gunfire from off shore.
The commander of the Black Knights was waiting at the end of the runway with a six pack of cold beer. Later the squadron hosted their new found friend at Officer’s Club.
Before they parted company, Joe Garzik gave Larry Earles his most prized possession; a Randall attack knife with his name inscribed on the blade.
Earles received a Distinguished Flying Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, for rescuing the downed aircrew before North Vietnamese troops could capture them. Earles received an unprecedented second DFC for flying water and ammunition into 101st Airborne troopers during the Battle of Hamburger Hill in the vicinity of where Garzik and Massey were shot down.
“The citation says I also flew out eight wounded soldiers under very heavy enemy fire,” said Earles who received a battlefield promotion and 37 air medals during back to back tours of duty in Vietnam.
Of all his memorabilia, his most prized possession is an email from Joe Garzik’s widow that he received on Memorial Day two years after his death.
“Thank you for your service. But thank you will never be enough. Because if not for you, your courage and your skill I would not have had 43 years with Joe. My son would not exist. You gave Joe back to me. You gave me my life back. Forever in your debt. Patsy.”
Earles tears up every time he reads that email that he has framed along with the picture taken at Camp Eagle.
“Her level of appreciation just melts my heart” said Earles as he blinked back tears during out interview.
Earles knew he was rolling the dice when he volunteered to fly Loaches for two years in Vietnam, because the life expectancy for a LOH pilot was only eight hours. He flew more than 1,600 hours.
Loaches were part of a “Hunter-Killer Team.” They flew low and attracted groundfire so the killer part of the team, a Cobra gunship, could destroy the target.
When he learned the North Vietnamese had put a bounty on his head, dead or alive, Earles had his girlfriend in El Paso, Texas send him a six foot long red scarf.
“I wrapped it around me neck and assumed the personna of Snoopy and the Red Baron. I was telling the NVA to take their best shot,” laughed Earles.
They did and shot THUNDER 007 down seven times. “But like James Bond, agent Double Oh Seven, I survived,” and went home and married my sweetheart,” said Earles who noted that the back to back tours were the only way he could put the Vietnam War behind him and not have to return to Southeast Asia.
In August, Larry and Nora will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary with their two children and four grandchildren.
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