Valor Friday

| August 13, 2021

Captain Steven Bennett

Steven Bennett was born in Palestine, Texas in 1946 but grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana. After high school he attended the University of Southwestern Louisiana. Participating in the Air Force ROTC program there, at his graduation in August 1968 he was commissioned a second lieutenant.

Bennett graduated undergraduate pilot training the following year and was assigned to fly B-52 Stratofortresses. Stationed in Washington State with the 325th Bomb Squadron from May 1970, he flew bombing missions over Vietnam from September through December of that year. The 325th, when not carpet bombing the jungles of Vietnam, was part of the Air Force’s nuclear alert system that saw aircrew ready to take off with a load of nuclear weapons on a minute’s notice.

Bennett must have liked what he saw in Southeast Asia, because in 1972 he volunteered for training in flying the OV-10 Bronco. The OV-10, much like the A-10, is considered something of an ugly duckling. Because it’s not a sleek, supersonic fighter, Broncos are usually not at the top of an Air Force pilot’s list of dream aircraft. The OV-10 though is highly prized and favored by ground troops.

OV-10 Bronco

The OV-10 Bronco is a light attack aircraft. Very versatile, it can be equipped to attack ground targets like tanks, vehicles, or personnel, or kitted out to be a helicopter killer. The bubble canopy, high seating position in the cockpit, and the tandem seating allowing for a back seat observer made it great for forward observation. Combine those traits with the Bronco’s superb low speed, low altitude handling and its ability to loiter over the battlefield for long periods of time and the Bronco became indispensable over Vietnam.

After Vietnam the Air Force and Navy cut the Broncos in favor of flashier, more expensive fighters. The US Marine Corps, far more pragmatic about equipment, retained theirs through the Gulf War. The type has seen a resurgence in the latter half of the 2010’s in the counter-insurgency role.

Bennett completed conversion training on the OV-10 and was immediately sent to Vietnam. He arrived at Da Nang AB in April 1972. By this point in the Vietnam War, the US had withdrawn most ground combat units as part of the “Vietnamization” of the war. The US would continue to provide air and naval support, but the last ground combat units departed in August 1972.

The North Vietnamese, sensing the weakness caused by the gaps in ground combat forces launched a major offensive against the South in the spring of 1972. Known now as the Easter Offensive, the main thrust began with 30,000 North Vietnamese troops supported by tanks and artillery in March. They pushed south, decimating the South Vietnamese, before the South was able to regroup and push back in May.

As the South pushed the North back towards the DMZ, they fought along the SAM-7 Alley. The Geographical feature was so named because it was lined with Surface-to-Air-Missiles (specifically the manportable SAM-7 model), which made easy prey of the low and slow South Vietnamese and Allied aircraft providing close air support and artillery spotting. It was into this challenging environment that Captain Bennett would find himself over the coming months.

On 29 June, Bennett took off one what was a routine mission for the crews of the 20th Tactical Air Support Squadron. In his back seat was US Marine Captain Mike Brown, a forward air controller calling in supporting fire from naval vessels offshore in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Brown had been a company commander and was stationed in Texas but had volunteered to do another deployment to Vietnam. He was well versed in calling naval gunfire, which follows a much flatter trajectory than Army artillery.

After nearly completing the day’s operations, Bennet and Brown had been on station for three hours. As dusk settled in, the men were preparing to return to Da Nang 25 miles to the south, the men learned their replacement aircraft would be delayed. They had plenty of fuel (I told you the Bronco could loiter for a long time) and remained in the air over the friendly forces.

It was then that an emergency call came in. A South Vietnamese (RVN) platoon were being attacked by several hundred North Vietnamese troops. Significantly outnumbered, they needed immediate help.

As Bennett and Brown surveilled the situation they realized that they had no nearby fighter jets to call in with any precision weaponry. Naval gunfire, while immensely effective at blowing up a lot of stuff in a short period of time, wasn’t an option as the enemy forces were on top of the friendly forces.

Bennett, whose aircraft was armed only with .50-calibre machine guns, decided to take matters into his own hands. He swooped down on the enemy forces and strafed them with his gunfire. Shoulder-carried SAMs and mobile anti-aircraft cannons were both very real threats to the slow moving aircraft that would have to fly at near treetop level to be most effective. Ignoring the risk to save the RVN soldiers he plunged down.

As the only target in the sky, his observation aircraft became a prime target for the enemy troops below. The first run being a success, Bennett returned again. Then again. And again.

Bennett’s one-man attack on several hundred North Vietnamese had caused the enemy to retreat. However successful, he feared that if he didn’t give it one more, final pass that the enemy might regroup and press their attack against the embattled RVN platoon.

Bennett once more brought his aircraft in for a fifth strafing run against the enemy forces. He’d tempted fate once too many times. As he came out of his attack run they were hit by a shoulder-fired SA-7 surface-to-air missile. Before being hit, Bennett had saved the lives of 50 men on the ground.

The missile blew apart the OV-10’s left engine and the left landing gear, retracted behind that engine, was mangled and hanging limply in the slipstream. The cockpit had been raked by shrapnel, but Bennett was uninjured and Brown had only minor injuries. Bennett started to work through the problems, but the fire was spreading rapidly on the left side from the engine.

Bennett steered his aircraft away from the friendly forces and headed for the sea. There he could eject what munitions and fuel he had remaining without endangering the RVN soldiers on the ground. Once lighter, he was hoping to be able to limp his aircraft back to base.

Over the water, Bennett was losing altitude fast. The aircraft was hard to control, as Bennett had to manhandle the controls to maintain straight and level flight. After dropping their excess weight he was at just 600ft altitude, but was able to hold steady. Another observation aircraft flew over to assist Bennett and Brown. Seeing the conflagration on the left side of the aircraft they advised Bennett to eject immediately before the aircraft exploded.

Brown, assessing his situation, glanced over his shoulder just before the two men were to eject and saw that the missile’s blast had shredded his parachute. He couldn’t eject. Bennett had a good ‘chute, but he wasn’t going to leave Brown behind.

For all the OV-10’s strengths (range, maneuverability, adaptability) that made it a preeminent forward air control platform, it had one major weakness. The high seating position, high wing (position above the fuselage), and large bubble canopy on a slender nose made it great at its job. What they didn’t do though was protect the aircrew if they had to ditch the plane. No pilot had survived ditching a Bronco. This was well known to Bronco pilots, who in their downtime would discuss such things. One OV-10 pilot said a Bronco pilot should “Punch out or get it on dry land, or whatever you can do, but don’t ditch it.”

Bennett weighed his options. He could eject and save himself, which would leave Brown behind alone in a dead stick airplane. That wasn’t an option for the valiant captain though. His only alternative would be to ditch the aircraft despite the odds. Maybe he’d survive, but he knew that was highly unlikely. Just maybe though, he could ditch gently enough that though he would die, Brown would survive. He decided that he was willing to die to try and save the life of Captain Mike Brown.

Bennett brought his aircraft down as easily as he could. With the damaged landing gear down, it caught the water first and, as Brown later said, “We dug in harder than hell.” The aircraft immediately cartwheeled over and went down in the water, nose first.

In the back seat, Brown tried to free himself in the flooding cockpit. Unable to get through the top hatch, he worked through an opening in the side of the aircraft and pulled the cord to inflate his life preserver. Having evacuated and making it to the surface he looked around for Bennett. His pilot was nowhere to be seen and only the tail of the Bronco was still above water.

Brown dove back down the sinking aircraft. Crawling along the smooth skin of the fuselage he couldn’t reach the nose of the rapidly sinking aircraft. He only made it as far as the plane’s win (about halfway to the nose) before he had to resurface. By the time he came back up that second time, the aircraft’s tail was already underwater. Brown was rescued minutes later by a Navy rescue helicopter. Bennett went down with his aircraft. His body was recovered the next day. He’d never had a chance of escaping.

Captain Bennett’s gamble paid off. By his gallantry and intrepid airmanship, he’d saved the life of Captain Brown, minutes after saving the lives of an entire RVN Marine platoon. Unfortunately, the act cost him his life. He left behind a wife, Linda, and young daughter, Angela. Bennett was only 26.

Bennett would be awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his valor in action. His would be one of the last Medals of Honor awarded for Vietnam (by date of action, several other medals for earlier heroism have been awarded since then). Bennett’s other awards include two Purple Hearts and four Air Medals. Bennett was the only OV-10 pilot to receive the Medal of Honor.

In 1997, the US Navy named the sealift command ship MV Capt. Steven L. Bennett (T-AK-4296) after Bennett, an unusual honor for an airman.

Bennett’s daughter, Angela Bennett-Engele, has been active in the veteran community. She has served as president of the OV-10 Association and as a volunteer with the Fort Worth Aviation Museum. In 2019 she said, “I was two years old when my father died saving those 51 souls,” said Bennett-Engele. “My mom said if he didn’t die in combat, it would have been while helping an elder cross the street. That’s just the kind of guy he was, ‘God, country, family’ and in that order.”

Category: Air Force, Historical, Medal of Honor, Valor, Vietnam

Comments (15)

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  1. Jay says:

    Damn good story to read to start a Friday morning. Thanks for sharing this. I had never heard of Capt Bennett OR the OV-10 Bronco before.

  2. Hatchet says:

    Thank you for posting this, Mason. As a kid(and similar to one of our other TAH denizens), I loved building models(Airfix, Revell, etc). One of my ‘early days’ favourite model-builds was a Vietnam-era Bronco OV-10 – loved the fact that this aircraft was so much-loved by the ground-forces it helped to protect.. Like Jay, I had never heard of Captain Steven Bennett’s story or had even heard of the unusual fact that the United States Navy dedicated a ship to honour his memory and memorialize his bravery. As General George Patton so famously stated “Thank God such Men lived”. Cheers Mason. Thanks again.

  3. USAFRetired says:

    Thanks much a for a little told story.

  4. David says:

    Great account!

    Fyi, where he was born is pronounced Palesteen, unlike the land of Israel. Beats me why, but that’s what the natives say. Nice town.

  5. Roh-Dog says:

    Dayum. No stronger sense of duty…
    Thank God such men have lived.
    Rest Easy, Captain.
    {salute}

  6. AW1Ed says:

    Hand Salute. Ready, Two!

    Thanks again, Mason.

  7. HMCS(FMF) ret says:

    Thanks for sharing that story…

  8. Sparks says:

    Thank you for this Mason. What a great recount of a true hero and warrior.

  9. Poetrooper says:

    Good account, Mason. Do you by any chance happen to know how many chopper pilots/crew won the MoH? About mid-1966 we started getting Huey drivers out of Ft. Wolters who were so young they barely shaved but in possession of huge cojones.

    As you might expect, they flew those Huey’s just like they’d drive a hot car back home: balls to the wall, and actually kind of fun to watch if you could get past them scaring the living shit out of you.

    [Edited to remove PII from display name -Mason]

    • Claw says:

      Russ, there were 17 chopper pilots/crew members (all services) who were MOH recipients during Viet of the Nam Times.

  10. Planet Ord says:

    My father flew OV-10s in Vietnam and Cambodia as a Rustic FAC. He told me this story a few times. He was in country when it occurred. I believe they knew each other. The OV10 is a hell of an aircraft.

    • Planet Ord says:

      I checked the dates, my father had rotated home when this occurred, but I do recall him telling this story once or twice. I need to check, but I believe my father flew with the 20th TASS as well. He flew out of Tan Son Nhut for half his tour and out of Ubon for the second half. I wish he was around to ask about this. I’ll ask the guys that flew with him.

      • Mason says:

        That would be awesome to get more information. What I got here was digging very deep. Not a ton out there on them.

        I was trying to find what happened to Captain Brown, but it’s a common enough name I couldn’t find anything. There was record of a Captain Mike Brown of the USMC in Vietnam at the time. There’s a debrief out there of that Captain Brown being shot down 21 June 1972 from a SA-7. If it is the same Mike Brown, then he got shot down twice in as many weeks.

        • Planet Ord says:

          Mason, I’m in contact with the Rustics and in particular with a guy that flew in the backseat with my father. I’ll ask them if they know anything. Also, they published a few books and I will research them to see if this incident is mentioned. It’s a small community. The author Mark Berent is active in the community and he’s fairly well connected and might know something too. I’ll ask.

  11. Mike B USAF Retired says:

    Did Aircrew Life Support on OV-10As with the 27th Tactical Air Support Squadron, 602nd Tactical Air Control Wing 86-88, George AFB California. For my first duty assignment.

    Our pilots would pull Air FAC duties for so long, then pull Ground FAC duties, we also had a few enlisted Romads assigned to us.

    Fun aircraft to get a ride in, and she could turn inside a dime. Was surprised to see a propeller driven aircraft equiped with an ejection seat system and the pilots wearing g-suits. Might have looked weird, but she was all business… Miss those birds that’s for sure.