Getting to know the 'Giants'

U.S. Air Force official photo

U.S. Air Force official photo

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” - Isaac Newton.


This weekend, on the 11th day of the 11th month, it will have been 99 years since the armistice was signed that led to the end of the “war to end all wars.” Armistice Day was originally designated to honor the veterans of World War I and in 1954, 11 November was redesignated as Veterans Day to honor all veterans of all wars. The men and women who came before us set the standard, provided the example and gave us the shoulders to stand on to make us the Air Force we have today.  This Veterans Day, take time to truly honor those giants that served to honor our country and get to know their stories.


Growing up, I remember a grainy, black-and-white photograph hanging in our house. The photo depicted a young WWI soldier in dress uniform named Robert Stahlecker. After some research, I found that Robert, my Great-Grandma Anna’s brother, was 23 when he fought and died on the battlefields of France in 1917 serving as a Private in the infantry. My Great-Grandma Anna never talked about him, but I know he died to save others. He was a giant.


As I researched that photograph, I also came across information on another of my Great-Grandma Anna’s brothers, Harold R. Stahlecker, a U.S. Marine that served in the Pacific during World War II.  Corporal Stahlecker fought in the Philippines during the Fall of Corregidor, 6 May 1942.  After the surrender of U.S. forces, Harold was captured by the Japanese and held as a Prisoner of War.  He was sent to a POW camp near Cabanatuan, Luzon, Philippines along with 3,213 other Americans. 


The last known report on Corporal Stahlecker show him as one of the 1,782 passengers on the Arisan Maru, a Japanese freight ship, or Hellship, used by Japan to transport prisoners of war to Japan to use as slave labor.  As it transited towards Japan, the Arisan Maru was hit by a torpedo from an American submarine.


Though Harold is considered Missing in Action, it is believed he died in the sinking of the Arisan Maru on October 24, 1944.  Based on these dates, Harold was a Prisoner of War for at least 902 days.  Though I never met him, I know served so others may live.  He was a giant.


A couple years ago, I had the privilege of spending a week with Colonel Bruce Crandall.  He flew over 900 combat missions through two tours of duty in Vietnam, earning the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery and heroism during the Battle of Ia Drang Valley.  If you have seen the movie We Were Soldiers, the actor Greg Kinnear played then - Maj Bruce Crandall.  Known by the callsign “Snake 6," he earned the reputation as an honest, straight-talking, and outstanding helicopter pilot.


Based on my time with him, I can vouch that he is definitely an honest, straight-shooter.  On 14 November 1965, Crandall flew his UH-1 Huey on his first combat mission, transporting troops from a base in Vietnam's Central Highlands to a rugged jungle landing zone in the valley of the Ia Drang River.


There, American troops faced a tough North Vietnamese force in the first major ground battle of the Vietnam War. The enemy fire was so intense that the ground commander ordered the pilots to abort their mission.  Sensing that the ground commander and his battalion would need additional ammunition, Maj Crandall relocated his base of operations closer to the fight in order to shorten the distance required to deliver ammunition and evacuate wounded soldiers.


Crandall volunteered and flew medical evacuation missions in an unarmed helicopter under intense enemy fire with complete disregard for his own safety, flying a total of 22 missions into the battle and evacuating more than 75 casualties over a course of 16 hours.  He only stopped when he was sure that every last piece of ammunition delivered and every evacuation was complete.  As a soldier, as a person, Bruce Crandall is a giant.


We know that every Airman has a story.  This weekend, take time to thank a veteran and learn their story.  Knowing the stories of those that have served and learning their sacrifices and accomplishments, helps us better understand what it means to be in the Armed Forces.  These men and women, our veterans, are the giants that have paved the way to making our military the world’s greatest.