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Airman David (Dave) S. Branks

The following is a Shaw Air Force Base article:

Branks' Vietnam heroics Rate Airman's Medal


Sgt. David S. Branks, Field Maintenance Squadron, received the Airman's Medal and a citation Monday afternoon for his actions at Da Nang Air Base, Republic of Vietnam in March of 1970.

The award was presented at commander's call by Maj. Gen. Levi R. Chase, vice commander of Ninth Air Force.

A Navy aircraft crashed on March 16 on the southeast side of the air base's flight line.  Sergeant Branks, then an airman first class, was first on the scene and pulled several victims from the flaming wreck.

"I was off duty at the time," Sgt. Branks recalls, "just wearing bermuda shorts, sneakers, and a shirt. I'd gone down to pick up my mail and was walking back across a field when I saw the plane coming in. I barely got out of the way in time."

The plane, an EC-121 Super Constellation electronic surveillance aircraft, was coming in on a windy day with the number four engine dead. It banked while flying over a concrete revetment, a shelter, and caught the tip of the left wing.

The EC-121 immediately cartwheeled. It struck another revetment containing an RF-4C, causing the RF-4Cs two bombs to explode.

The explosion's force broke the EC-121 into three sections. One of these flying sections hit a tar truck knocking it into two power poles. The poles were severed and live power lines were strewn over the area.

When the plane finally lay at rest, 22 of the 31 men aboard were either dead or fatally injured.

"The whole think happened just snap, snap, snap," says the sergeant. "It only took about a minute.

"When the bombs went off I was thrown to the ground. I got back up and went into the aircraft to start pulling people out."

For several moments Airman Branks was the only rescuer on the scene. He pulled "six or eight" persons from the wreckage. "They were all unconscious or dazed." he reports. "None of them really knew what was going on."

After removing the first victim, he used his shirt to bandage the man's head wounds as well as possible. "There were 40- or 50-mile per hour winds that day and his head was really busted open. So I took off my shirt and wrapped it around his head to keep the flying sand out."

The airman later removed his tee shirt and wrapped it around the neck of another victim.

Despite his lack of protective clothing, Branks made his way unscathed through fire, exploding fuel cells and downed power lines.

Ironically, he nearly suffered serious injury after the fire crews had arrived and gotten things under control. He slipped on the firefighters' chemical foam and slid into a ditch which had recently been partly filled with burning fuel. The fire was out, but the ditch was still hot, and the soles of his sneakers were burned off before firemen could pull him out.

The crash occurred at 11:25 a.m. Airman Branks remained on the scene until 1 p.m. helping to clear the debris and reports that, "They didn't get it all cleaned up for days."

It took even longer for Branks to clean himself. "The wind was blowing tar from the smashed truck all over the place." he says.  "I was covered with that tar and it took weeks to get it all off."

He knows that at least one of the people he aided was among the survivors, but he does not know about the others. "I thought later about looking up the survivors, but I never did."

About the incident, Sgt. Branks remembers that, "I was thinking about getting those people out of there. I was thinking about their families and I was thinking, 'What if it was me in there.?' But mostly I was just thinking that I had to get to whoever was in there and get them out to where they would be safe."

The sergeant had been in Vietnam for seven months at the time of the crash. He has been at Shaw for one year and is currently a crew member on the crash recovery team, 363rd FMS.

. . . . End of Article

 

Copy of Letter of Commendation:


BCH

17 March 1970

A1C  David S. Branks

4  TFS  (C)

1.  On 16 March 1970 at approximately 1125 hours, a Navy EC-121 crashed on the southeast side of the flight line, almost due west of your unit's quarters area.  I arrived on the scene within minutes after the crash and observed several men about to enter the aft part of the fuselage, which had broken away from the major portion of the aircraft.  Among these men was A1C David S. Branks of your organization.

2.  Although dressed only in Bermuda shorts, socks, and low-quarter canvas (tennis) shoes, Airman Branks went into the fuselage through the rear door and/or forward of the door at the point where the fuselage was sheered in two.  I personally saw him engaged in carrying out two wounded or deceased persons.  When I questioned him later, he estimated that he assisted in the removal of "six or eight people".  During this period, portions of the aircraft were burning fiercely within a few feet of Airman Branks, the area was criss-crossed with downed power lines, and there were several explosions from causes unknown to me. There is absolutely no question in my mind that Airman Brank's life was in danger, and that his actions were performed at great risk without concern for his personal safety.  His lack of any protective clothing, even fatigues, increased the danger.

3.  For the next hour or so, I saw Airman Branks continuing to assist the personnel fighting the fire and also those attempting to remove bodies from the wreckage. He dragged hoses, moved debris, carried litters, etc. At approximately 1300 hours I noticed that he seemed to be exhausted, both physically and emotionally, and I insisted that he leave the scene. He did not wish to do so, but allowed me to take him to your office where I released him to other personnel of your squadron.

Robert P. Holdt, Ch, Lt Col, USAF

Installation Chaplain

 

Narrative Description from form initiating recommendation:


Airman First Class David S. Branks distinguished himself by heroism involving risk of life at Da Nang AB, Republic of Vietnam on 16 March 1970.  On that date a Navy EC-121 Super Constellation crashed while attempting to land, coming to rest on the southeast side of the flight line near the troop billeting area. Airman Branks, who was off duty at the time, was in the immediate area at the time of the accident.  Dressed only in bermuda shorts, a T-shirt, and tennis shoes, he was one of the first members to assist in rescue operations. Airman Branks made repeated trips into the burning fuselage through a hole which had been sheared in the impact to remove the wounded crew members.  During this time, there were repeated explosions in the aircraft and the resulting fire was intense. As documented by on-the-scene observers, the immediate action taken by Airman Branks was completely without regard to his own safety and well being, and resulted in the timely evacuation of survivors of the accident.  Such selfless and heroic action falls within the scope of candidacy for award of the Airman's Medal.

 

Citation:

CITATION TO ACCOMPANY THE AWARD OF

THE AIRMAN MEDAL

TO

DAVID S. BRANKS

Airman First Class David S. Branks distinguished himself by heroism involving voluntary risk of life at Da Nang Air Base, Republic of Vietnam, on 16 March 1970.  On that date, Airman Branks, while off duty, rushed to the area where an aircraft crashed upon landing.  With complete disregard for his own safety, Airman Branks, despite the hazard of exploding fuel cells, unhesitatingly entered the flaming aircraft and persevered in his humanitarian efforts until he succeeded in removing several of the injured victims to a place of safety.  By his courageous action and humanitarian regard for his fellowman, Airman Branks has reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force. 

 

Article from the Integrator, a weekly news journal by and about Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems, May - 2001

Melbourne hero is discovered via the Internet


Memorial Day: A Day of Remembrance in which we reflect upon and honor the contributions and sacrifices of our many servicemen and -women who, through great personal sacrifice, have secured and maintained our freedom.

The year was 1970. The location, Da Nang Air Base, Republic of Vietnam. An EC-121M Super Constellation electronic surveillance aircraft and its crew returning from Taiwan was attempting to land under windy conditions with one engine out when something went terribly wrong.

Suddenly there was a stall, a clipped wing, a cartwheel ? and a few horrifying seconds later, the plane crashed into the hangar area at Da Nang airfield and broke into three pieces. The cockpit and fuselage slid into a concrete wall, the center section landed upside down in the street, and the tail section came to rest on a softball field.

The plane destroyed two F4 Phantom jet fighters parked in revetments near the runway, exploding two of its bombs. That day - for Lt. Del Young and seven of his squadron members - a hero was born.

Airman first class Dave Branks, off duty at the time and dressed in Bermuda shorts, sneakers and a shirt, had picked up his mail and was walking back across a field when he saw the plane coming in with the number one engine out. "I barely got out of the way in time," he said.

When the plane came to rest, 23 of the men aboard were either dead or fatally injured. But thanks to the heroic efforts of Branks and others, eight airmen miraculously survived.

"The whole thing happened in a snap," says Branks. "It only took about a minute. When the bombs went off, I was thrown to the ground. I got back up and went into the aircraft to start pulling people out."

For several moments Airman Branks was the only rescuer on the scene. He pulled "six or eight" people from the wreckage - all of them unconscious or dazed. "None of them knew what happened," he said.

After removing the first victim, he used his shirt to bandage the man’s head wounds. He later removed his T-shirt and wrapped it around the neck of another victim. Despite his lack of protective clothing, Branks made his way unscathed through fire, exploding fuel cells, and downed power lines.

The crash occurred at 11:25 a.m. and Branks remained on the scene until after 1 p.m., helping clear debris before he was escorted to the base commander’s office by a chaplain.

"I was thinking about getting those people out of there," he said. "I was thinking about their families and wondering, ‘What if it was me in there?’ But mostly, I was just thinking that I had to get to whoever was in there and get them out to where they would be safe."

Until recently, the men never knew how they got out of that plane. Young, one of the survivors, discovered a memorial site on the Internet and registered in its guest book. From Rochester, N.Y., he wrote, "I was one of the eight survivors from the PR-26 crash at Da Nang. I was a lieutenant and an evaluator at the time. I was quite badly beat up and spent about three months recovering. Couldn’t wait to get back on flight status and spent a little over five additional years on active duty. I don’t know who pulled me out of the aircraft.  Would like to thank that individual, whoever it may be."

As a result of the message, Branks was able to reply to Del Young and his wife, Vera, via email in March 2001, after the message was forwarded by Connie H. of Texas, whose brother died in the crash. It was an emotion-charged reunion. Vera wrote, "Dear Dave, I am the luckiest spouse around. Thank you. Thank you. We are so grateful for your unselfish actions that day."

Branks, currently an LSA systems engineer at Melbourne, Fla., was eventually promoted to Sergeant. He continued to serve in the Air Force until the end of 1988, when he joined Northrop. While serving a tour at Shaw Air Force Base, he was awarded the Airman’s Medal and citation for his actions at Da Nang. The nomination read in part: "As documented by on-the-scene observers, the immediate action taken by Airman Branks was completely without regard to his own safety and well being, and resulted in the timely evacuation of survivors of the accident. Such selfless and heroic action falls within the scope of candidacy for award of the Airman's Medal."

The citation accompanying the award was presented at commander's call by Maj. Gen. Levi R. Chase, vice commander of Ninth Air Force. It summarizes not only the sentiment of the Air Force but of those he rescued as well. "By his courageous action and humanitarian regard for his fellow man, Airman Branks has reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force."

Amen.

-- Carol Klammer

 

Message from Dave put on Message Board:

Name - Dave Branks    Email - dbranks (AT symbol) ix.netcom.com

                    To all the survivors and families, and those families who lost a loved one in the PR-26 accident,

For over 31 years mine and my wife's prayers have been with you even if we didn't know your names. All of you are the true Hero’s who fought to survive and went on through life after a devastating crash March 16th 1970 11:25am at Da Nang VietNam. My deepest feelings for you all  cannot be explained. I struggle within myself for not doing more for you, and I ask God why he put me in the position. But I know he never gives us more than we can handle.

There is not enough room here to explain why to this day I feel a guilt for living. The pictures are imprinted forever in my mind. I tried to put the names with the 8 faces. The man who what appeared to have a broken jaw, and broken limbs, or the man with a deep gash in his head. Some burned, others who were badly injured.

I was afraid of hurting them more but there was no time or options. The fire had already burned off the soles of my sneakers and by this time I had no shirt and was covered in hot tar from the truck the EC-121 struck in the road.

Perhaps one day we shall meet. I think I would like very much. God Bless you all and watch over you always for you are the true hero's of that fateful day. 


 

Pictures from 16 March, 1970

See Update below - Arrow 2 is incorrect.
Branks Newspaper 2

"The number 2 in the newspaper article is myself. # 3 is where the two F-4's were sitting fully loaded with 750 pound bombs, full 650 rounds of 20mm and napalm. Number 1 is where one of the props flew between another F-4 front and back canopy while a friend of mine was installing an ejection seat. Number 4 is where the weapons shack burned."


The zeroxed copy of this photo Mr. Branks had sent us in 2000 wasn't as clear as this one sent by Max Bettman. I have added the arrows that were on the copy and used the information that Mr. Branks sent us to write the caption.


Update:  Wouldn't you know it?  I have misidentified Mr. Branks in the photo. In an email containing some photos, Dave let me know in the nicest way that he is behind the one in long pants.  Please make note.

 

Dave by Squadron Patch in Da Nang


4th Squadron Patch