U.S. Marine Sgt. Kenneth Altazan removed his body armor, leapt from a helicopter and sprinted 30 meters toward the North Vietnamese Army tree line to save two people. Injured in a previous rescue, Altazan hoisted an unconscious Marine onto his shoulder, grabbed the other person by the belt and, despite searing pain in his leg, took them to safety.
The place was Quang Nam Province. The date: May 9, 1969.
Forty-six years later in Louisiana, Vietnam War hero Altazan, of Baton Rouge, accepted a Navy Cross at the USS Kidd Veterans Memorial & Museum on Tuesday afternoon to a boisterous group of admirers. The Navy Cross is the highest honor awarded to Marines and sailors, second only to the Medal of Honor.
In 2011, U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., submitted to the Marine Corps new evidence of Altazan’s heroism that led to upgrading his Silver Star.
The evidence came in the form of a recording by an unlikely source: A serviceman who had been accused of encouraging friendly fire on his last mission decided to bring a recorder with him on his next flight to protect himself from further accusations. His plane was flying above Altazan’s helicopter that day, and his recording showed that Altazan not only jumped into the line of fire once to rescue others but twice, the second time after suffering an excruciating injury to his knee.
Altazan and his crew were responding to a call of 10-plus Marine casualties in an area overwhelmed by enemy forces, what Altazan described as a “particularly hellish mission.” The plan was to land the helicopter, a CH-46, in two places to rescue the injured. The helicopter, however, immediately came under heavy fire, and the wounded Marines were scattered. The crew instead had to extract them from five locations, touching the helicopter down each time.
At the second pickup, crew chief Altazan, standing on the ramp of the helicopter, saw one Marine carrying another. Both men fell, and Altazan ran to them in open fire. He picked up one Marine and began helping them. As they moved to the helicopter, the Marine he was carrying was shot, and they all collapsed, severely injuring Altazan’s knee in the process. He stood back up, however, and pushed forward.
Then, at the last landing, Altazan noticed someone waving a green T-shirt in a field of rice paddies, and he went out again, despite the excruciating pain in his knee.
He jumped from the helicopter, running to the Marine and toward the enemy line firing at him, with no regard for his own safety, and found not one person but two in need of help. One had heat stroke, and the other was unconscious. Altazan pulled the unconscious man onto his shoulder, carrying him and stumbling to safety while he assisted the other.
“By this time, the floor of the plane was covered in injured Marines,” Marine Lt. Gen. Rex McMillian said, quoting from the account Altazan gave him earlier.
“We are in the presence of a hero,” Cassidy said during the ceremony. “Thank you,” he said to Altazan, sitting in the front row with his wife.
Altazan thanked all of his fellow crew members, going through a list of men he admired, “his heroes.”
He included one Marine who lost his life while cleaning their aircraft after he had told Altazan to leave and get some sleep because he had a long flight in the morning.
“I’ll miss him the rest of my life,” Altazan said.
The air was thick with emotion Tuesday, and the people teary-eyed, when one of his former crew members stood and saluted him, followed by one of several standing ovations during the presentation.
Patrick Donovan, the pilot on Altazan’s crew that day, on Tuesday recounted his early days as a pilot, when Altazan, as his mentor, taught him a great deal. Donovan, of Texas, chose to stand on the floor directly before Altazan so he could look him in the face.
“He had the Bronze Star before I even got my wings,” Donovan said.
“He’s a friend, he’s a hero to me, and you’re so damn lucky to have him as a neighbor,” Donovan said to another standing ovation.
East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden awarded Altazan keys to the city and declared Oct. 13 Sgt. Kenneth Altazan Day.
“I’m sorry it’s taken us 40 years to get here,” said Congressman Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge. “Thank you for everything you’ve done.”
Altazan said he had just received the call last week from the Pentagon telling him he had received the Navy Cross.
“I don’t know how it gets any better than this,” Altazan said after he was pinned with the medal. “Forty-seven years ago, I would’ve never dreamed that this would come to pass.”