Memorial Day weekend has become the gateway to summer for most. Our thoughts turn to the beach or other places of rest and relaxation. We do not stop and really think about the deep meaning of this day of remembrance.
Memorial Day is not just about putting flags on graves of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. It is about reflecting on the sacrifices of those who gave their lives in the name of freedom, not only for their country, but also for people in foreign lands that they might never know.
Such an airman was Capt. Hilliard A. Wilbanks, from the northeast Georgia town of Cornelia. He had a typical small town upbringing. After high school he joined the Air Force. He served with the Strategic Air Command in the early 1950s and went on to earn his pilot wings in 1955.
In 1966, Wilbanks was sent to Vietnam, where he flew the O-1E Bird Dog as a forward air controller or FAC. FACs were responsible for flying over an area to try to spot any enemy activity. Once they spotted something, the controllers would radio for air support from fighter-bombers and fire white phosphorous rockets to mark the area. This system helped to ensure friendly forces would not be killed or injured by accident.
The Bird Dog was a small two-seat Cessna. The pilot would fly low and at a slow speed. He would have little protection from enemy fire. Besides the smoke rockets for marking the target, all that was available to him was an M-16 rifle to use if he crashed and needed to protect himself on the ground.
Wilbanks story unfolds on Feb. 24, 1967. He was almost at the end of his assignment in Vietnam. His orders released him from combat duty on March 18. Wilbanks had already flown 487 combat missions. He had 17 Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross. It was almost time to go home to his wife and four children -- including twins he had never seen.
On Feb. 24, the North Vietnamese and the local Viet Cong set a trap for the South Vietnamese Army near the town of Di Linh. A South Vietnamese infantry company was to make a sweep of the area but instead found itself outnumbered and facing insurmountable odds. The men were not even able to radio that they were being wiped out. The dead and captured were hidden away, and the trap was reset.
When the battalion was not heard from, a group of South Vietnamese Rangers and their American advisers were sent out to find the missing men and to see if the enemy could be spotted. Wilbanks was called upon to help. He located the enemy and saw the Rangers were about to be ambushed.
Wilbanks radioed the senior officer that an ambush was about to begin and fired a rocket to mark the target for air support. The enemy began firing with every weapon they had on the Rangers.
The enemy was on the attack, and the Rangers were about to be overrun. Fighters had been called, but they would not arrive in time. Wilbanks decided to do all he could to help the exposed men. He fired his remaining phosphorus rocket into the enemy. He got out his M-16 rifle and started making passes over the enemy forces. He hoped his distraction would give the Rangers some time to seek cover.
After every pass he would reload his gun, and on every pass his plane was hit by enemy fire. Finally the plane was no longer making evasive maneuvers. Another FAC pilot flew up and saw Wilbanks slumped over. Moments later Wilbanks aircraft crashed and flipped over.
Three Rangers were able to get to Wilbanks, who was still breathing, and pull him out of the plane. Wilbanks and the Rangers were picked up by a Huey, but unfortunately, Wilbanks died in route to a hospital. He had given his life to save the lives of the South Vietnamese Rangers.
In 1968, Wilbanks was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery and selflessness. He was called the bravest of the brave. Wilbanks was inducted into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame in 2001.
Wilbanks represents all that is right with American patriotism, the giving of ourselves for others. That is what Memorial Day is all about. We honor all those who gave their time, their talent and their lives.
Marilyn N. Windham, of Fort Valley, is a volunteer at the Museum of Aviation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.