Bernard F. Fisher, an Air Force officer who received the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War for rescuing a fellow pilot who had been downed on a shrapnel-ridden airstrip amid withering enemy fire, died Aug. 16 in Boise, Idaho. He was 87.
The cause was Parkinson’s disease, said a daughter-in-law, Linda Fisher.
By the mid-1960s, the United States had put groups of U.S. Special Forces in remote areas of Vietnam to draw out the enemy and interdict communist supply lines. One of those bases, in the A Shau Valley along South Vietnam’s western border with Laos, was overrun by about 2,000 North Vietnamese in early March 1966.
Many of the Americans at the compound were evacuated in anticipation of the invasion. But about 20 remained in the mountain valley, along with more than 350 indigenous Montagnard irregulars who supported the anti-communist cause, by the time then-Maj. Fisher flew into the area. His mission was to strafe the enemy and buy time for the extraction of friendly forces.
Some of the North Vietnamese managed to insinuate themselves between the U.S. base and its airstrip. Others, shielded by mountains and dense clouds, rained automatic-weapons fire on the Americans, both on the ground and flying overhead.
One veteran of the battle later likened it to “flying inside Yankee Stadium with the people in the bleachers firing at you with machine guns.”
On March 10, Maj. Fisher led a flight of Douglas A-1E Skyraiders, World War II-vintage propeller planes whose large gas tanks enabled them to hang in the area longer and do more strafing damage. He saw another airman crash on the airstrip and run into a nearby ditch. A rescue helicopter, he learned, would not arrive for perhaps 20 minutes, leaving the airman exposed to enemy capture.
“I don’t know that I did a lot of thinking about what came next,” Maj. Fisher later told the Air Force Times.
He went in after the downed pilot, Maj. Dafford W. “Jump” Myers, and taxied nearly the entire length of the 2,500-foot runway, skirting all kinds of debris. From the ditch, Myers waved and then made a fierce sprint to the airplane.
“Nobody’s ever seen an old man like me run so fast in his life,” Myers, then 46, said later.
Maj. Fisher said he yanked Myers headfirst into the Skyraider. “It was hard on his head, but he didn’t complain,” he told Air Force Magazine. Myers muttered a few unprintable words about them both being sitting ducks.
Two other Skyraiders raked the area with bullets, reportedly killing a North Vietnamese several yards away from Myers.
After Maj. Fisher returned to his base at Pleiku, it was discovered that 19 bullets had hit his plane, according to his citation for the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for valor.
President Lyndon B. Johnson presented the award, which noted Maj. Fisher’s “profound concern for his fellow airman,” at a White House ceremony on Jan. 19, 1967.
Jeff Underwood, historian of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, said the battle in the A Shau Valley was ultimately a victory for the North Vietnamese.
But he said that the engagement — and Maj. Fisher’s bravery — helped boost morale for fellow airmen and for soldiers sent to dangerous and isolated outposts. His Skyraider is on display at the museum in Ohio.
Years after the rescue mission, Maj. Fisher told Air Force Magazine, “I just felt so strong about it and still do. You just can’t leave a guy there.”
Bernard Francis Fisher was born Jan. 11, 1927, in San Bernardino, Calif., and grew up in Clearfield, Utah.
After Navy service at the end of World War II, he attended the University of Utah in the early 1950s and was in the Reserve Officers Training Corps. He left school after receiving his Air Force commission in 1951, during the Korean War, and received an honorary degree from the university at an awards ceremony in 2008. He retired from the military in 1974 with the rank of colonel.
He settled in Kuna, Idaho, and became a beekeeper and hobby farmer.
His wife of 60 years, Realla Johnson Fisher, died in 2008. Survivors include six sons; two brothers; a sister; 33 grandchildren; and more than 35 great-grandchildren.
Myers died in 1992.
Col. Fisher was awarded the Silver Star for his actions in the A Shau Valley. Despite what the citation described as “extremely adverse weather conditions and intense and accurate hostile automatic weapons and anti-aircraft artillery fire,” he managed for two hours to lend critical support to the besieged American forces.
The rescue mission for which he received the Medal of Honor came the next day.