I am SCHRIEVER: Heroes among us

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- “I survived,” Danne Smith said, deadpanned. “That was my greatest achievement from my Vietnam days.”

While it may be hard to argue with that point, Smith’s war record says he did more than just survive -- much more.

“For heroism while engaged in aerial flight … gallantry of an exceptional nature … bravely landed aircraft in the midst of fierce fighting … heroic actions in keeping with the highest traditions of military service,” are just snippets of one of Smith’s Air Medals.

The 70-year-old 50th Civil Engineer Squadron programmer’s diminutive stature wouldn’t suggest he was formerly a U.S. Army UH-1H helicopter pilot who flew special forces in and out of hostile territory in Vietnam. His white hair and unassuming countenance doesn’t indicate he survived being shot down in a helicopter six times. And, if asked if he’s a hero, Smith will humbly say he’s not, despite what his three Air Medals with “V” devices, three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars say.

“Danne is an extremely humble individual and does not normally mention any of his time as a helicopter pilot or his awards for valor,” said Lt. Col. Andrew DeRosa, 50th CE commander. “He's a living legend in my squadron in my opinion.”

Smith enlisted in the Army in 1969. The 21-year-old specialist immediately began a year-long flight school.

“I wanted to fly,” Smith said. “The Air Force wouldn’t take me. The Navy wouldn’t take me unless I had a college degree. The Army took me and let me fly helicopters.”

After graduating flight school as a warrant officer UH-1H helicopter pilot, Smith departed for Vietnam.

The war-torn country gave Smith a taste of what was to come in his first days there.

“When I first got over there I kept a diary,” Smith said. “I had been in country for probably a month, and they decided to hit us with 122 mm rockets and 82 mm mortars. When they first started coming in, I was sleeping on my upper bunk. I had a round hit right above my bunk; and we had a revetment that was probably 2 feet wide filled with sandbags. Another round hit right there outside my window. It tore up my diary.”

Smith began flying what were known as “Ash and Trash” missions--Vietnam-era helicopter pilot jargon that denoted the type of mission. ASH stood for assault support helicopter (resupply, cargo lift, etc,) and Trash denoted administrative missions, such as flying passengers, parts and general non-combat missions.

“I flew copilot for about four months and then became an aircraft commander,” Smith said.

The helicopter pilot spent his first year flying with U.S. Army Rangers, working extensively with the Charlie 75th Special Forces group.

“If it was special forces, it was rather interesting,” the Vietnam veteran said. “You pick up a six-man team. There’s a pilot, copilot, crew chief, door gunner, and you’d usually have a pair of gunships that would fly and prep the landing zones. You had a command and control ship, nice and high, telling you where you’re supposed to take them. That’s what you did. Maybe you’d wait a day or two and then go pick them up; or, if they got into contact, you’d go pick them up right away.”

Providing special forces airlift frequently put Smith in dangerous situations across Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Vietnam helicopter pilots typically flew below 1,500 feet. The margin of error in good conditions was small. Jungle terrain and proximity to ground fire resulted in high mortality rates of helicopter pilots.

Being constantly exposed to enemy fire, Smith could not escape the odds of being shot down. He did, however, beat the odds of surviving being shot down.

“We never really got hit by RPGs; it was usually just a lot of lead,” Smith said. “It’s definitely scary. One time we crashed after we took fire. We were surrounded for probably about four or six hours at night. Finally, Koreans came in and provided cover for us after about three hours. We finally got an aircraft to pick us up.”

Smith said after a couple of times of being shot down, his thought as each next crash happened was, “Well, here we go again.”

“You’re trained,” Smith said. “You react; you land. The guys come down and pick you up real quick. Unless you’re unlucky, then you’re on the ground for a couple of days. The training they gave you as far as having your engine shot out, which I’ve had happen -- they teach you how to land without an engine or without rear rotors. Without an engine you can still land a helicopter. Try that in an F-16 and you got some major problems.”

Smith held the record in his company for the number of times he survived being shot down.

“Not that it’s something to brag about,” he said. “I’m smiling because I survived.”

Smith also held records for the number of hours he flew.

“You could only fly a certain number of hours per month,” Smith said. “Shoot, I had so many hours. In 10 months, I had over 2,000 hours. If they needed somebody to fly cargo, or gunships, wherever they needed somebody…”

Smith paused, tears forming in his eyes, before continuing.

“I was just trying to do what I could,” he whispered.

The war veteran estimated of the 100 or so pilots he knew, 40 didn’t make it home.

According to DeRosa, Smith’s quiet and reserved demeanor conceal the pain and sorrow the veteran has endured—a testament to the strength of his character.

“Danne has certainly seen some horrific things in Vietnam that he will carry with him forever,” DeRosa said. “However, you don't know it from meeting him and talking with him. He's easy going, doesn't seem to hold a grudge, doesn't sweat the small stuff and always has a smile and a greeting for you in the hallway.”

After returning home from his tour in Vietnam, Smith decided to separate and pursue other goals. A jack of all trades, Smith did everything from architectural design of buildings and high rises to designing parts for space shuttles in the early 1970s.

For the last seven years, Smith worked as a programmer in the 50th Civil Engineer Squadron.

“If you have a project that needs to get done on base, I make sure we have money and that all the T’s are crossed and all the I’s are dotted,” Smith said. “Anything that gets built on base, at least recently, I have probably had my hands in it.”

At age 70, Smith has decided it’s time to throttle back on the stick and end his time of civil service in the Air Force. The married father of four and grandfather of seven is excited about the down time.

“I’m looking forward to spending time with my family and traveling,” Smith said. “I’m also going to do some genealogy work. Right now, my family has been traced as far back as the 1600s.”

Smith’s last day of work is scheduled for March 31, a day his commander isn’t looking forward to.

“Danne is an extremely diligent and dedicated individual,” DeRosa said. “I'm sad to see him go, but happy that he's moving on to spend more time with his grandson and family.”

As Smith summed up the entirety of his life and career, he had a message for anyone who reads or hears about his story.

“Follow your dreams,” the aging veteran said with a smile. “Don’t get stuck behind a desk if you don’t like being stuck behind a desk. Do what makes you happy.”