Gerald Young was the first Air Force helicopter pilot to receive the Medal of Honor. Born in 1930, he served as a Navy enlisted man before entering the Air Force Aviation Cadet program, winning his wings and commission in 1958. His first operational assignment was flying helicopters in support of the atomic tests being conducted on the Pacific Marshall Islands. After several assignments in Strategic Air Command, he transitioned to the Sikorsky H-3 helicopter in 1967 and was assigned to the 37th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron in Vietnam. Just after midnight on 9 November 1967, Captain Young’s HH-3E was part of a Search and Rescue (SAR) task force composed of another HH-3E, a C-130 flareship, and US Army helicopter gunships.
The SAR team was directed toward the jungles near Khe Sanh to rescue an Army reconnaissance patrol trapped on the side of a mountain by a North Vietnamese battalion. Two rescue helicopters from an earlier SAR attempt had already been shot down attempting to extract the pinned-down patrol, and the North Vietnamese now were attempting to lure the helicopters into a “flak trap.” Operating in the dark and in low clouds, the helicopters were forced within range of the hostile guns. As Captain Young stood by, the first Jolly Green Giant picked up three of the five survivors before sustaining extensive battle damage and being forced to land at Khe Sanh. Young then sped toward the two remaining survivors and picked them up. Just as they were on board, however, his HH-3E exploded in flames, flipped over, and cascaded down a ravine.
Captain Young extracted himself, beat out his burning clothes, and immediately began to search for survivors from the crash. He found only one man, also on fire, and smothered the flames with his bare hands. Knowing the enemy was setting up another “flak trap,” he hid the unconscious airman in the underbrush and, even though severely burned, Captain Young then began to lead the North Vietnamese away from the crash site. His plan worked. Seventeen hours after the crash, and six miles away, he established contact with SAR forces and was rescued. On 14 May 1968, President Johnson presented Captain Young with the Medal of Honor.