ARLINGTON, Va. — John Daniel owes his life to Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on Tuesday, more than 42 years after he saved Daniel and two other airmen during an attack on their base in Laos.
Etchberger and Daniel were part of a secret mission in Laos to call in airstrikes on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. On March 11, 1968, the enemy overran their mountaintop base.
He and Etchberger were with three other airmen perched on the ledge of a cliff that dropped off about 3,000 feet.
The enemy was firing and dropping grenades on them from above.
As the shooting progressed, Daniel was hit twice in the legs and two airmen were killed. Another was hit and presumed dead but was just unconscious. At one point, Daniel used the body of one his fallen comrades to absorb the blast from a grenade.
From a hole nearby, Etchberger told Daniel to call in airstrikes on their position.
“We told them to keep all their ordnance on top of the hill, anything that moved was theirs. Nobody alive but me and Dick,” Daniel said. “Come to find out we were wrong, but at the time we didn’t know it.”
Shortly after daybreak, a helicopter from CIA-operated “Air America” saw the airmen on the side of the cliff. Etchberger broke cover and ran to Daniel to fit him into a sling that allowed him to be pulled into the helicopter.
“I think I said, ‘Thank you, Dick, thank you. God bless,’” Daniel said.
It was the last time Daniel talked to him.
By this time, the last airman in their group had regained consciousness and Etchberger loaded him into the sling. Etchberger was ready to go up when an airman from another group came running over. The two men locked arms and were pulled up together.
As the helicopter pulled away, an enemy soldier below unloaded his AK-47 into the aircraft’s belly. Etchberger was hit and bled to death before the helicopter landed.
Daniel blacked out from the pain during the flight, so he didn’t know Etchberger was dead until he was transferred to an airplane
“It was terrible,” Daniel said. “I said, ‘Hell, he hasn’t been injured, he hasn’t been shot. How is he dead?’ [Someone] said, ‘One round got him after you lifted off.’”
Daniel has no doubt he would have been killed if Etchberger had not gotten him on the helicopter. The enemy would have just shot him rather than have to take care of a wounded prisoner.
When asked how he feels that Etchberger is now receiving the Medal of Honor, Daniel’s voice drops. His friendly drawl becomes a growl.
“Forty-two-plus years too goddamn late,” Daniel said bluntly. “It should have happened 42 years-plus ago, and he should have gotten a damn 55-gallon drum full of them if he wanted them.”