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James Randall, a Roanoke native, thought he'd never see his Vietnam War gear again - but, 47 years later, his old helmet was found and returned to him.
Courtesy James Randall
James Randall, then a colonel in the Air Force, sits in the cockpit of an F-111 fighter jet. Randall flew the jet as a test pilot in 1968.
Michael Ciaglo | The (Colorado Springs, Colo.) Gazette
Retired Air Force Col. James Randall dusts off a model of his F-105 fighter jet that he was shot down in over North Vietnam. Randall left behind some of his gear, including his helmet, where he landed after ejecting from his plane.
Courtesy Gary "Paco" Gregg
Gary "Paco" Gregg holds the helmet that belonged to James Randall, which he received in the mail from Cambodia in June.
Courtesy James Randall
James Randall, then a major in the Air Force, makes his first solo flight in the F-105 fighter jet in 1964.
Monday, August 19, 2013
He heard their voices first.
Moments earlier, James Randall had ejected from his damaged and out-of-control jet over North Vietnam. He drifted by parachute to the edge of the jungle and scrambled into the brush for cover.
Lying prone, he watched as the North Vietnamese, guns in hand, came upon the parachute, survival pack and flight helmet he had just discarded. He watched as the men gathered up the gear and carted it off.
Randall, a Roanoke native and Lucy Addison High School grad, figured he'd never see any of that gear again.
Yet 47 years later, that helmet, bearing his name and then-rank of major, and the insignia of his 562nd Tactical Fighter Squadron, is resting on the desk of his Colorado Springs, Colo., home.
Randall, 86 and a kind of honorary Tuskegee Airman, was handed the helmet earlier this month at the annual convention of surviving alumni of the storied group of black World War II fighter pilots, ending the helmet's improbably journey back to its owner.
Along the way, the helmet traveled more than a thousand miles to Ho Chi Minh City, where it was found in a type of flea market by a renowned French Samurai sword maker from neighboring Cambodia, who then enlisted the help of a Vietnam vet from Nebraska in finding its rightful owner.
It's a measure that, perhaps like no other, has shown Randall the respect and reverence in which those who have chosen his path are held.
"I received a lot of awards and decorations in my military career," said Randall, "but I've not had anything handed to me that affected me as much as receiving this helmet."
Nearly a Tuskegee Airman
Back in high school in Roanoke, Randall seemed destined to be Addison's fifth Tuskegee Airman.
The son of a worker in the Norfolk & Western Railway East End Shops and a librarian, Randall was drawn to flight.
"I would leave school early, and I'd catch the bus and go out to Woodrum Field and I'd wash airplanes just to get a ride," he said. Until his mother found out.
The desire to fly was only fueled when he fell under the influence of older Addison students who went off to Tuskegee to join the ranks of the first black pilots in American military history. Randall remembers brothers Leroi and Eugene Williams, Theodore "Teddy" Wilson and Ralph Claytor all going off to Tuskegee and coming home in their dress "pinks and greens" uniforms - pinkish-toned khaki pants and green, wool belted jacket with brass buttons and crush hat.
"That was a beautiful uniform," Randall recalled.
Randall enlisted himself and headed to Alabama, but the war ended and his life as a pilot was forestalled, at least for a few years. In 1949, the military came calling and he became a pilot after all.
Randall flew 75 missions over North Korea, dropping 500-pound bombs from P-51 Mustangs onto truck depots, air fields and bridges.
After the war, he was a flight instructor, but found himself called back to combat in 1965 as the war in Vietnam escalated.
Based in Thailand, Randall flew 43 successful missions dropping bombs from an F-105 jet.
The trouble came on the 44th.
‘Not going home tonight'
He had released his bombs onto a bridge.
But before he could make his escape, anti-aircraft fire from the ground struck his F-105.
Among other problems, the hydraulics in the jet - which allowed Randall to control its flight - were destroyed.
More than a mile in the air and racing at 600-plus mph, Randall was helpless. His only choice was to eject before he crashed.
He recalls feeling for the ejection trigger, and that's about it. Blasted from the jet with incredible violence, the next thing he recalled was tumbling through the air, the light of the sky and dark of the ground flashing by him.
Once under control and dangling from his parachute, Randall saw the last thing he wanted to see below him: a village. He was 400 miles from the nearest friendly territory.
"I'm not going to tell you what I said to myself," he said. But its basic conclusion was, "I'm not going home tonight."
Luckily, a stiff breeze carried him beyond the village to the edge of some jungle, into which he scrambled for cover.
After the enemy soldiers carried off his gear, Randall made his way to a hilltop clearing, made radio contact with his unit and waited for rescue. He also discovered a wound on his leg and worried that after surviving thus far, he might bleed to death.
But it was only two hours before a helicopter arrived.
Under fire, the helicopter hovered low. Randall locked arms with a rescuer as the helicopter lifted off, only to lose his grip and fall back to the ground. On a second attempt, he was hauled safely into the craft.
He was cold, thirsty, and, his medical records would later show, in shock.
A photo of Randall from the era shows him in a flight suit and aviator sunglasses, his teeth Hollywood bright in a grin as he climbs into an F-105 for the first time - a chiseled, handsome man.
But there in the helicopter, he laid down and cried.
"I was just crying like a baby," he said.
As they flew back to Thailand, one of his rescuers peeled an orange by hand and fed it to him a single section at a time.
‘I know where your helmet is'
He had wondered about that helmet over the years.
After the war, when Vietnam was opened to tourists, Randall pondered going back to where he was shot down in search of all that gear.
"I would have wanted my helmet back," he said.
But the site was remote - hundreds of miles from Hanoi. And he wasn't sure how he'd be received by the locals.
"Having dropped bombs on them, they might not have been very friendly," he said.
The idea was forgotten, and the helmet, too.
Until the phone call late one evening earlier this year at Randall's home in Colorado, where he retired in 1980. It was a man from Lincoln, Neb., named Gary " Paco" Gregg.
Was this Col. James Randall? he wanted to know. The same man who as a major was in the 562nd Tactical Fighter Squadron in Vietnam?
"I know where your helmet his," Gregg told him.
"I know where your helmet is."
Gregg is himself a veteran of the war in Vietnam. The retired stone worker traveled periodically to Cambodia to work for a nonprofit called Cambodia Corps Inc., helping an orphanage for Montagnard children. The Montagnard are a native tribe of the region.
In 2007, he became friends with Dominique Eluere, who for decades has lived in Cambodia where he makes samurai swords.
Eluere told Gregg about a helmet he'd found in a market in the former Saigon some 20 years earlier. It was clearly American, and had the squadron insignia and the name Maj. Jim Randall on it. He wondered if Gregg, who occasionally was involved in finding information on soldiers missing in action, could help him locate its owner.
In a story in the Colorado Springs Gazette last month, Eluere said he reasoned that a helmet is a very personal item, like a crest, and he reckoned its owner would want it back.
Gregg told the Gazette the Air Force had no record of a Maj. Randall shot down in Vietnam, though he was later able to confirm the name and events through another source.
But how to find him? Internet searches were fruitless, so eventually they put an item in a magazine called Vietnam Veterans of America seeking information on Randall.
A man from Randall's squadron responded, telling Gregg that Randall was alive and living in Colorado Springs.
Incredibly, Gregg happened to be in Colorado Springs that day, for his grandson's high school graduation.
Randall said Gregg found him in the local phone book and called. They were perhaps a mile apart at the time, and met the next morning.
Eleure emailed them a photo of the helmet, and Randall recognized it immediately.
"I just could not believe it," he said.
In the right hands
Eleure wanted to come to the United States to return the helmet himself, and share a cold beer with its owner, Randall said.
But he wasn't able to make the trip, so they arranged for it to be shipped to Gregg.
Gregg would present Randall with it at a ceremony at the annual Tuskegee Airmen convention on Aug. 1 in St. Louis.
Gregg showed up with a video message from Eleure, which they watched before Gregg handed over the helmet.
Randall was overcome by his emotions as he thanked Gregg and Eleure and others.
"It was very, very remote that I would ever see that helmet again," he said. "There's no telling how many hands it went through before it ended up in that market."
Most movingly, it landed in the hands of someone who cared enough to find him.
"It could have been another individual had seen that helmet, and he may have bought it as a war souvenir and never thought about returning it to the owner," Randall said.
The lengths that Eleure and Gregg went to moved him, and affirmed to him the value placed on his service and others.
He told the crowd in St. Louis, "There are still some good people in this world."
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