In May 1971, the Vietnam War was supposedly winding down. From mid-1969, when 569,100 Americans served in country, the force had been reduced to 156,800. Yet, in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, the war was plenty real. That’s where you could have found Camp Holloway and the Army’s 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion.
On any given day, its job was still to fly into harm’s way. May 25, 1971, was such a day. One of its UH-1H (Huey) helicopters with a four-man crew took off to try to evacuate three seriously wounded soldiers from a surrounded fire base. Heavy enemy fire greeted them when they reached their destination. Yet, despite the flak, the chopper landed and held until the wounded were aboard. As it departed, however, it was hit. Seconds later, it exploded and plummeted to earth. All seven aboard were killed.
Back at Camp Holloway, the rest of the 227th knew about the bravery of the four who had volunteered for the rescue. Later, after their bodies were recovered, they were remembered by comrades during a memorial service:
Pilot — Maj. William Adams, 31, Fort Collins, Colorado
Co-pilot — Capt. John Curran, 25, Phoenix, Arizona
Door Gunner — Specialist 4th Class Dennis Durand, 20, Allen Park, Michigan
Crew Chief — Specialist 4th Class Melvin Robinson, 20, Greenville, South Carolina
At the service, details were shared about the chance and circumstance that had brought each to the Central Highlands. But no story was more compelling than that of Melvin Robinson.
Raised with his grandparents on Pack Street in West Greenville, he had been drafted into the Army. His birthday — June 26 — had a low number in the draft lottery. A trip to basic training and helicopter maintenance school pretty much assured orders for Vietnam. He arrived on Aug. 21, 1970.
Like all in-country veterans, he counted the days until his yearlong tour was to end. But, about eight months in, he received word that his grandfather had died. Based on his circumstances, the Army approved compassionate leave for his return to the States for the funeral.
While at home, he requested a hardship discharge in order to support his grandmother, who was in ill health. But while the paperwork was pending, he was still a soldier and returned as ordered to Vietnam. The May 25 rescue mission intervened.
In war, individual bravery is not always noticed. In the case of this crew, however, it became fully recognized. Adams, the pilot, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony. Curran and Specialists Durand and Robinson were each posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second- highest decoration for valor, equivalent to the Navy and Air Force Crosses.
Local recipients of such medals have been properly honored before in Greenville.
In Cleveland Park, the iconic F-86 fighter jet memorializes Maj. Rudolf Anderson, the Greenvillian who was the only casualty of the Cuban Missile Crisis and a recipient of the Air Force Cross. West of the city, the bridge that carries State 183 across the Saluda River is named for Lt, Douglas McCrary, a Berea native commissioned in ROTC at Clemson University. During a February 1967 firefight in Vietnam’s Binh Dinh Province, he died attempting to rescue two wounded men from his platoon. A posthumous award of the Distinguished Service Cross followed.
So, at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 25, a solemn ceremony will honor Specialist 4th Class Melvin Robinson at the West Greenville Community Center at 8 Rochester St. Arranged by the City of Greenville, Upstate Warrior Solution, and community leaders, this event will initiate a tasteful and permanent remembrance on the grounds of the center to recognize that, nearly 50 years ago, this brave young man left his nearby home twice to serve his country and then gave his life trying to save others.
One need not look far to find heroes on Memorial Day weekend.
Bob Lloyd is a Greenville resident who served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.