After 51 years Marines say ‘thank you’ to pilot

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On May 12, 1966, at 10:30 a.m., 13 Marines were searching in Vietnam for a “lost patrol”—12 of their own who had lost radio contact. Instead of finding the patrol, the service members were nearly ambushed and killed when met with enemy gunfire. However, an Army pilot—unknown by that group of Marines for 50 years—was out flying another mission and made sure that didn’t happen.


On that day, then Marine Staff Sgt. Earl Davis formed a reaction squad to search for the patrol. The last time they heard from the missing service members was when they radioed a message about killing a water buffalo that tried to charge them. While conducting their search Davis and his squad crossed a Vietnamese graveyard and then came under fire from mortars and machine guns. They were able to get out of the firefight and continue on the same route as the lost patrol.

“We found the dead water buffalo, and about that time we heard a large volume of fire to our left front about 100 yards from the tree line,” he recalled. “We found out later that (was the) VC (shooting) the patrol. Of the 12 people in the patrol, 10 were killed and two survived.”

That pilot, then Army Warrant Officer Don Meadley, noticed the Marines on the ground getting closer to the VC who were hiding in the tree line. Davis had no idea that the enemy was waiting for the service members to cross their path.

Meadley noticed the Marines on the ground getting closer to the VCs who were hiding in the tree line. Davis had no idea that the enemy was waiting for the service members to cross their path.

By flying, Meadley was able to see the VCs on the ground, and he dropped a smoke grenade to warn the Marines. Although Davis saw the smoke he didn’t stop. After noticing the squad hadn’t heeded his warning, Meadley flew around again and dropped a red smoke grenade into the trench line, which indicated enemy. Even though red meant enemy ahead, the squad continued forward.

Meadley said he realized they weren’t stopping so he dropped a third smoke grenade and that finally got Davis’ attention.

“That dawned on me that’s not my squad,” he said about almost walking into a VC ambush. “I told the squad leader to pass word to everybody and wander to (the) dike behind us. We started doing that and got about 10 to 15 yards from that dike before it finally dawned on the VC (we had stopped), and they started shooting.”

Davis and his squad were able to rescue the two survivors from the lost patrol, and the next day they found the location of the lost patrol’s ambush.

Over the years, Davis never forgot about the pilot who saved their lives. He said he couldn’t find anyone immediately following the mission who knew the pilot’s identity, and he wouldn’t discover his identity until Dec. 26, 2016, more than 50 years after those grenades were launched.

The first-time conversation between Davis and Meadley was the result of a Marine writing an article for Vietnam magazine in April 2016 about the Marines’ initial landing in 1965 going into the Arizona territory, which is where Davis was located. While conducting research on the Marines, the author of the article read about the lost patrol and contacted a lieutenant who provided the author Davis’ phone number.

With the help of an Army webmaster and a little research Davis was able to finally find out the identity of the man who saved their lives. Although it took 50 years, Davis finally knew that Meadley was the pilot who threw the smoke grenades.

Davis, a retired Marine sergeant major, was finally able to talk
to the man who saved the squad. He called Meadley, who now lives
in Hodgenville, and arranged a
visit. Meadley said he believed
that he was going to meet Davis
and his wife for a late lunch. Little did he know that lunch would turn into a reunion. Not only was Davis and his wife in attendance but Meadley was also face to face with some of the other Marines who were part of Davis’ squad. Davis also chose the date strategically as their first encounter was exactly 51 years later—May 12, 2017.

Davis wasn’t the only person thinking about that day. Even though the military wasn’t a career for Meadley, he said he would often tell his wife he would like to meet some of the men he helped while he was a pilot in Vietnam.

“I’ve told my wife before I die I would like to meet some of those guys on the ground,” he said.

When he recalled the day when he saved Davis’ squad Meadley said at the time he didn’t know what to do except fire those smoke grenades until artillery got in the area.

While in Vietnam Meadley flew more than 72 missions and had more than 1,200 flying hours.

Although Meadley left the Army after four years, he said the year he spent in Vietnam was worth it.

“So many things happened,” he said. “God had to be guiding me.”

He pointed out that having the opportunity to meet some of the guys was overwhelming.

“I never expected anything like this,” said Meadley about the reunion.

Davis pointed out that had Meadley not thrown out those grenades as a warning he and his squad would have walked into another ambush because they were about 75 to 80 yards away from the trench line where VC were positioned.

“My personal opinion is the VC were laughing so hard at the dumb Marines out there they didn’t shoot,” he said jokingly. n