U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Walter George Drago followed a hunch. It was during the Vietnam War, and he had been tasked with finding a missing helicopter. In the dark early morning hours and in bad weather, Lt. Col. Drago, a pilot, flew out to search for the aircraft.
“I kind of had a feeling where he might be because … where he was heading,” said Lt. Col. Drago, of Montauk. “We kind of low leveled back up in conditions not a lot better than what you have out here this morning, up into the hills, the mountains,” he continued, pointing at the fog outside the window of John’s Pancake House in Montauk, where he was interviewed on Monday morning. “And they wound up finding him. They crashed in the mountains.”
He didn’t think anyone survived at first, describing the “gray ash outline,” of the helicopter. But he later found out that while four people had died, three others were rescued after the large helicopter snagged some trees and crashed.
That was toward the end of Lt. Col. Drago’s two-year tour in Vietnam, where he flew more than 220 combat missions before being released from active duty in 1972. The helicopter search-and-rescue mission earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross For Heroism. That’s on top of a list of other military decorations: the Bronze Star Medal, 13 Air Medals, an Army Commendation Medal, a Vietnam Gallantry Cross and a Civil Actions Medal.
This week, he earned yet another distinction—induction into the New York State Veterans’ Hall of Fame. Lt. Col. Drago joined veterans from across the state at an induction ceremony in Albany on Tuesday.
Lt. Col. Drago, 66, learned that he was being inducted while on a trip visiting friends in China. “I’m honored,” he said. New York State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle, who selected Lt. Col. Drago, announced the news in a press release on Wednesday, May 15.
“Lt. Col. Drago demonstrated extraordinary courage and commitment in his service to our nation,” Mr. LaValle said in the statement. “The New York State Senate Veteran’s Hall of Fame is a fitting tribute that demonstrates the respect and gratitude of the First Senatorial District and all New Yorkers for his patriotism and sacrifice.”
A passion for flying motivated Lt. Col. Drago to enlist in 1968 in the U.S. Army’s Warrant Officer Flight Program. He graduated with honors as a Warrant Officer 1 Army Aviator. He was selected to fly the Grumman OV-1 Mohawk, which was used for reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. He was deployed to Vietnam in March 1970. His unit covered the middle half of Vietnam, southern Laos and northern Cambodia.
After being released from duty, Lt. Col. Drago completed his education at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in aviation management. He moved to Atlanta and joined the Georgia Army National Guard. He was later transferred to the U.S. Army Reserve as a master aviator and captain. He was promoted to major and assigned to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and retired as Lieutenant Colonel there in 2002.
He joined FedEx as a pilot in 1974, retiring in 2006. He has been active with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary since 2010, assigned as a pilot in support of Coast Guard missions.
His favorite places to fly are Hawaii and South America, he said, noting that “you don’t cross as many time zones.” He also said countries such as Venezuela and Brazil are “fascinating” with “interesting people and food.”
Mr. Drago has not lost his love of flying. In fact, after the Montauk fog cleared on Monday, he flew his Cessna 182 plane up to Albany for the induction ceremony.