45 years later, Nesbitt awarded ‘Distinguished Flying Cross’

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 25 August 2013 at 12:00 am

Vietnam vet honored for heroism with rescue in enemy zone

Photo by Tom Rivers

BATAVIA – On Nov. 14, 1968, Charlie Nesbitt and his crew members were told an American soldier was stranded in enemy territory in the jungles of Laos, across the border from Vietnam.

Another helicopter had been hit with a rocket and crashed. The crew needed to be rescued. Nesbitt flew a helicopter in and got out everyone, except one gunman, John Grimaldi, who was separated from his crew.

Nesbitt was a pilot in the Vietnam War and an aircraft commander of a helicopter.  On Nov. 14, he took the recovered crew members back to safety, and then returned to enemy territory to find Grimaldi.

“Charlie took it upon himself to say, ‘We’re gonna go back and get him,’” said Jim McKenzie, Nesbitt’s copilot.

The crew spent 9.2 hours in the air, including 3.5 hours exposed to enemy fire.

“He was in the jungle and we could see him, but we couldn’t get down to get him,” Nesbitt said Saturday night.

An onslaught of enemy fire and tiny landing areas made the task difficult. Nesbitt and his crew refueled twice, and the group finally was able to rescue Grimaldi.

Photos by Tom Rivers – Bob Williams, left, pins the “Distinguished Flying Cross” on Charles Nesbitt during a ceremony Saturday night in Batavia, when Nesbitt received the award during a reunion of the 57th Assault Helicopter Company, a group of Vietnam veterans from throughout the country.

McKenzie nominated Nesbitt for the Silver Star. McKenzie obtained the witness statements from the crew and submitted all the paperwork. But Nesbitt never got the medal.

Nesbitt served in Vietnam from May 1968 to May 1969. He flew helicopters that teamed with special forces soldiers. The pilots flew in those teams, often dropping them in the enemy zones where the helicopters were vulnerable. The special forces typically worked for about a week on secret missions to study the enemy. Then the helicopters would swoop in and pull the teams out of dangerous zones.

In 1999, McKenzie, who now lives in Texas near Dallas, was in Albany and met with Nesbitt for lunch. Nesbitt was a state assemblyman at the time.

McKenzie discovered then that Nesbitt never received his medal for rescuing Grimaldi. McKenzie made it a mission to get Nesbitt the long overdue award.

It wasn’t easy. McKenzie had to resubmit the nomination package, obtaining witness reports from the crew. He met with three congressmen and numerous congressional staffers. The process seemed stuck until 18 months ago.

McKenzie taught at West Point, and one of his former students was a district director for Congressman Randy Forbes of Virginia. Forbes took up the issue. On Aug. 9, Nesbitt was notified by mail that he would be receiving the “Distinguished Flying Cross” medal. On Saturday, his commander Bob Williams pinned the medal on Nesbitt’s chest. Richard Kleint, the crew chief on the helicopter, attended the ceremony, flying in from Salem, Oregon.

The medal citation notes that Nesbitt “flew aircraft in hostile enemy territory on three separate occasions while drawing enemy fire to accomplish the rescue of soldiers and crew members downed by enemy fire. His valorous actions were an inspiration to the officers and men of his unit.”

Nesbitt received the award in front of about 160 people at the Clarion in Batavia. It was part of a four-day reunion for the 57th Assault Helicopter Company, a group of pilots, crew chiefs, mechanics, gunners, cooks and other soldiers, including generals.

After the war, Grimaldi returned to Maine, where he has lived for 45 years.

“There is no greater reward than to find out two years ago that John Grimaldi is still alive in Maine,” Nesbitt told the group at the Clarion. “There is no greater reward for us. He’s had 45 years of life he wouldn’t have had.”

Nesbitt was chairman of the reunion for the 57th Assault Helicopter Company from Aug. 22-25. The group meets every two years for a gathering.

“Everyone of you could be up here,” Nesbitt told them. “I know all about you. Each and every one of you could be up here. I thank you for being my friends.”

Nesbitt thanked McKenzie for his “dogged determination” in securing the “Distinguished Flying Cross.” Nesbitt received the honor in front of his six grown children.

McKenzie said Nesbitt deserved the recognition.

“I was shocked he never got the medal,” McKenzie said. “He was the pilot and he said we had one of our men down and we had to go get him.”