Edmund Francis Thornell

21st Tactical Air Support Squadron

505th Tactical Control Group 7th Air Force

Attached to HHC 1/22 Infantry

KIA 09/10/1966

 

 

PERSONAL DATA:
Home of Record: Redondo Beach, CA
Date of birth: 09/10/1933
MILITARY DATA:
Service Branch: United States Air Force
Grade at loss: O3
Rank: Captain
Promotion Note: None
ID No: 53783
MOS or Specialty: -----: Not Recorded
Length Service: 14
Unit: 21ST TAC AIR SPT SQDN, 505TH TAC AIR CTRL GROUP, 7TH AF
CASUALTY DATA:
Start Tour: Not Recorded
Incident Date: 09/10/1966
Casualty Date: 09/10/1966
Age at Loss: 33
Location: Phu Yen Province, South Vietnam
Remains: Body recovered
Casualty Type: Hostile, died outright
Casualty Reason: Fixed Wing - Crew
Casualty Detail: Air loss or crash over land

 

Captain Edmund F. Thornell was piloting a Cessna O-1E Bird Dog aircraft number 56-4184
while on a Forward Air Controller reconnaissance mission for 1st Battalion 22nd Infantry
when his aircraft was struck by enemy ground fire from a 50 or 51 caliber heavy machine gun.
His aircraft crashed inland approximately 500-1000 meters from the sea near Phu Hiep in Phu Yen Province.
He was killed in action on his 33rd birthday on September 10, 1966.

 

Pocket patch of the 21st Tactical Air Support Squadron

 

 

Edmund F. Thornell was born in Stoughton, Norfolk County, Massachusetts on September 10, 1933.

He entered military service on June 29, 1951.

Captain Edmund F. Thornell shipped out to Vietnam in July 1966 on board the US Naval Ship General Nelson M. Walker
which carried the 1st Battalion 22nd Infantry and the 1st Battalion 12th Infantry. The USNS Walker arrived at Qui Nhon,
Vietnam on August 6, 1966. Captain Thornell was killed in action only a little more than one month later.

At the time of his death he was married and had two sons and two daughters.

He was carried in the records of 1st Battalion 22nd Infantry as being a member of Headquarters Company 1/22 Infantry
at the time of his death.

 

 

Above: Part of the casualty report for 1st Battalion 22nd Infantry for the month of September 1966.
Captain Edmund Thornell's name is marked with a red asterisk. His first name is incorrectly given as Edward.
The entry shows him listed as being assigned to Headquarters Company 1/22 Infantry when he was killed in action.
His job descrption is given as FAC (Forward Air Controller.) His serial number and date of death are not given in the report.

Courtesy of Herb Artola

 

 

 

Decorations of Captain Edmund F. Thornell

 

 

 

 

The name of Edmund F. Thornell on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C.
His name is inscribed on Panel 10E Line 065.

 

 

 

 

Robert "Bob" Babcock was a Lieutenant and Platoon Leader of 3rd Platoon B Company 1/22 Infantry
in 1966. Bob remembers talking with Captain Thornell on board the USNS Walker as they both sailed
to Vietnam in July/August 1966. When Captain Thornell was shot down Lieutenant Babcock was tasked
with the mission of recovering Captain Thornell's body. Bob Babcock describes the mission which he led
on September 11, 1966:

"It was after 1:00 AM as I got my briefing from Major High on our morning’s mission. I was still keyed up
from our harrowing experience of providing relief to our bridge outpost.

“Yesterday afternoon, between 4:00 and 5:30, one of our battalion forward air controllers was flying
a reconnaissance mission when his plane went down. The wreckage was found just before dark.”

“A man was lowered down to it and found the pilot, dead in the cockpit, and the plane still burning.
We do not know what caused the plane to go down, but we suspect it was shot down by a .50 caliber machine gun.”

“Your mission is to be there at daylight and bring out the body. We have only three helicopters available so you
are limited to 24 men, including yourself…,” Major High continued giving me the details on the terrain and
other items I would need to know to accomplish the mission.

Needless to say, I did not look forward to this next challenge. I was drained from the mission we had just completed,
I did not like the prospect of running into a .50 caliber machine gun, and, most of all, I did not look forward to
pulling a burned dead man out of an airplane. My mind could picture the grotesque sight that would greet me
when I got to the airplane. As usual, I did not get to vote, so the mission was mine to accomplish.

It was an easy job for me to select the three squads that would go, Sergeant Benge and his third squad,
Sergeant Burruel and the two machine gun sections from his weapons squad, and Specialist Muller and his
second squad. Sergeant Roath, Stanley Cameron, my radio operator, and I would take up three of the slots.

I sent a runner to the perimeter to bring back Muller to join those of us who were not on perimeter duty.
It turned out the night off for Sergeants Roath, Benge, and Burruel had been anything but relaxing. At least they
were all sober after the mission to the bridge outpost.

Major High had instructed me to bring my men off the perimeter at 4:30 AM and be ready to get on the helicopters
by 5:30. After briefing my squad leaders, I decided I would try to get a little sleep. With two hours before we
had to start getting ready, I was convinced some sleep would do me a world of good.

As soon as I closed my eyes, I could see an image of the pilot in the burned out cockpit. I tossed and turned
and tried to think of something else but my mind always came back to what lay ahead of me. After half an
hour, I gave up on sleep, got up, and cleaned my rifle to occupy my time and my mind. I had never had a job to do
that I dreaded so much. Maybe it was because I knew the pilot (we had talked frequently during the boat trip to
Vietnam) or maybe my mind was just painting too vivid a horror picture.

It was still dark as we loaded onto the helicopters. Our destination was ten miles straight south. The plan
was to land on the beach and work our way inland. Not knowing where the .50 caliber machine gun was, the helicopters
would not fly over the crash site to let us see what we were going after. We had to rely on our map, compass, and
high level observation from a helicopter on station above us after we were safely on the ground.

Just before the helicopters took off, one of the battalion intelligence sergeants ran up to my chopper and handed me
a Polaroid camera. “Take pictures of the plane and the path it cut as it crashed. We want to try to determine
what caused the crash and which direction it was coming from as it crashed.” I really was not thinking of myself as a
photographer that day, I was thinking only of getting in there, getting the pilot, and getting the hell out.

One of the helicopters on the mission to recover the body of Captain Edmund F. Thornell

Photo from WHAT NOW LIEUTENANT? An Infantryman in Vietnam by Robert O. Babcock,
Deeds Publishing Company Marietta, GA 2008

 


We flew at low level over the South China Sea. The pilots ascended briefly to get their bearings before
they hovered in for a landing on the beach, just a few yards from where the waves were hitting the sand. It took us
no time to leap from the helicopters and disappear into the brush, a forty yard sprint away. It was just getting daylight
as we cautiously started working our way inland. The terrain was rolling sand dunes covered with thick thorn bushes.

One machine gun team set up on the top of a dune to cover the point squad as they hacked a path through the bushes
that tore at our fatigues. When the point got out of sight of the covering machine gun, we set up the
other machine gun team on a sand dune and leap-frogged the first team to be ready to take over again.

After about an hour of slow but steady movement, we had covered 500 yards and could see the crash site.
As we had planned, the three squads formed a defensive perimeter around the site. Sergeant Roath, Sergeant Benge,
and I had the job of pulling the body out of the plane.

As we had discussed the mission a few hours earlier, Sergeant Roath was insistent he should do the dirty work
since he had seen so many similar sights during the Korean War. I could not disagree with his logic and gladly
let him come along. Sergeant Benge volunteered since he thought it would
take more than two of us to get the pilot out.

My heart was pounding as we approached the plane. Had the VC set up their .50 caliber machine gun in a position
to fire on the wreckage? The crash site was well within range of a machine gun set up in the surrounding hills.
Had they been in during the night and booby trapped the airplane? What would we find in the cockpit of the plane?
A few small wisps of smoke were still coming from the wreckage as we peered into the cockpit, expecting the worst.

Nothing even remotely resembling a human was left. The fire had burned intensely and nothing was left
of the pilot’s body but the trunk. The only recognizable things on the body were his dog tags and a Saint
Christopher’s medal. The thought that crossed my mind was, “It’s a damned dirty shame anyone had
to die like that.” I just hoped he had been killed by gunfire and had not burned to death.

Once we knew what we had to deal with, we quickly went to work so we could get out of there.
As instructed, I took a roll of Polaroid pictures. The close-up pictures of the bullet holes in the tail of the plane
left no doubt it had been shot down by a .50 caliber machine gun.

We removed the body, zipped it into a body bag, and moved away from the wreckage. We knew now
there was a .50 caliber machine gun around there somewhere and we did not want it to find us. Using
the same caution, we moved back to the beach. By the time we reached it, we were ready to
slump down for a rest.

As I lay on the sand, listening to the waves pound the beach, it seemed more like a serene vacation spot
than a place that had claimed the life of an American pilot only a few hours before.

Our rest was short as the sound of the helicopters could be heard in the distance as they came to extract us.
They radioed for us to pop smoke to mark our location. After identifying our red smoke, they hovered in,
kicking sand into our faces as we rushed to board. Soon the choppers were again airborne,
leaving the crash site behind, another grim scar on the Vietnamese landscape."

 

Lieutenant Bob Babcock who led the mission to recover the body of Captain Edmund F. Thornell

Photo from WHAT NOW LIEUTENANT? An Infantryman in Vietnam by Robert O. Babcock,
Deeds Publishing Company Marietta, GA 2008

 

 

Bob Babcock further wrote:

I was platoon leader of B/1-22 IN who flew to the beach near where Captain Thornell's plane crashed. We
worked our way to the still smoking wreckage, knowing an enemy .50 caliber machine gun was in the area. While
our platoon provided security, my platoon sergeant and I removed his body from the wreckage. We treated the
remains with the respect all American casualties deserve. I never knew his name until just recently, but will
never forget that mission that was given to me as a rifle platoon leader.

 

 

 

Edmund F. Thornell was laid to rest on September 20, 1966.

Burial:
Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery
San Diego
San Diego County
California
Plot: PS-6 SITE 562

 

Grave marker for Edmund F. Thornell

Photto by Linda Claxton from the Find A Grave website

 

 

 

 

 

WHAT NOW LIEUTENANT? An Infantryman in Vietnam by Robert O. Babcock,
Deeds Publishing Company Marietta, GA 2008 pp. 104-109

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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