On March 14, 1968, Sergeant Dennis Richardson found himself hanging out the door of a rescue helicopter as its descended through a barrage of gunfire spitting out from the jungle below. Part of a four-man crew, Sgt. Richardson, a door gunner, was firing his M-60 while attempting to rescue two downed pilots who had ejected over Vietnam, somewhere along the Laos border and west of Da Nang.
For his actions that day, Sgt. Richardson would earn the Air Force Cross—the nation’s second highest decoration of valor. But due to a paperwork glitch, it would be another 40 years before the Amityville resident and retired Air National Guard airman would learn that he had actually earned the medal.
A glitch in the processing, which was not explained by the U.S. Air Force, caused the delay and the now retired Chief Master Sergeant did not learn that he had earned the award until December 2007. It is still unclear exactly how the mistake was discovered, though one report suggests that a history buff pointed out the oversight to Air Force officials while conducting research.
On Saturday, nearly 40 years to the day that he had attempted to help rescue the pair of downed pilots in Vietnam, Chief Richardson finally received his overdue honor.
He collected his medal during an official ceremony, attended by more than 1,000 fellow airmen, veterans, friends and family members and held in Hangar B of the Air National Guard base at Gabreski Airport in Westhampton. Chief Richardson, a 30-year veteran of the 106th Rescue Wing, retired in 2005.
In fact, Chief Richardson is only the 21st airman to receive the Air Force Cross since the medal was created in 1960, according to an official press release from the Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing.
A humble individual, Chief Richardson said he did not deserve any award greater than that received by his three fellow crew members in the helicopter that day. “They risked their lives as much as I did,” he said.
Those in attendance on Saturday included U.S. Representative Tim Bishop, U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Frank Cardile, 106th Rescue Wing Commander Colonel Michael Canders, Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, Westhampton Beach Mayor Conrad Teller, Southampton Town Supervisor Linda Kabot, and Southampton Town Council members Chris Nuzzi, Dan Russo and Anna Throne-Holst.
Col. Canders, who flew with Chief Richardson for 23 years with the 106th Rescue Wing, introduced him during Saturday’s ceremony. Col. Canders noted that Chief Richardson exemplified the Rescue Wing’s motto: “these things we do, so that others may live.”
During his service in Vietnam, Chief Richardson became a seasoned combat flight engineer on the HH-3 “Jolly Green Giant” rescue helicopter, racking up numerous saves. But it will be for his heroics that March day in 1968, while hovering over the badlands of Vietnam, that the Air Force Cross recipient will be most remembered.
Heavy machine-gun and anti-aircraft fire had forced Chief Richardson’s crew to abort their first attempt to rescue the downed pilots. Despite sustaining serious damage to their craft, crew members returned for yet another try at the rescue.
According to the official military citation accompanying his award, Chief Richardson lowered the rescue harness with one hand, while laying down suppression fire from his M-60 with the other, as the aircraft hovered at just 10 feet above the jungle floor, all the while exposing himself to enemy fire. As Viet Cong guerillas emerged from the brush and began storming the helicopter, Chief Richardson continued to fire even after a bullet ripped through his arm, an injury for which he would later receive the Purple Heart. Ignoring his wounds, he kept returning fire as he leaned out of the helicopter’s door.
The mission was aborted a second time, but it was Chief Richardson’s blanket of suppressing fire that allowed the helicopter pilot to maneuver to safety. The citation reads, in part: “The selfless actions of Sgt. Richardson undoubtedly saved his helicopter and crew from certain disaster.”
On Saturday, Chief Richardson said that his only regret was that his crew was unable to rescue the two downed pilots.
After the war, Chief Richardson joined the 106th Rescue Wing, flying countless rescue missions until retiring in 2005. Along with the Air Force Cross and Purple Heart, he has also earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Air Force Aerial Achievement Medal and the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award.
Of the 40-year wait to receive the Air Force Cross, Chief Richardson said it was sort of a blessing in disguise. He explained that if he had received the honor four decades earlier, he most likely would have stayed in the service and, therefore, would never have met Deidre, his wife of 38 years. They now reside in Amityville and have five children.
“I guess everything happens for a reason,” Chief Richardson said.