Friday, December 09, 2005

Novi resident awarded Silver Star from U.S. Air Force

It's been over 30 years, but the memories will be embedded in Robert Blough's mind forever.

Blough, a Novi resident since 1982, received a the Silver Star award from the United States Air Force for his heroic actions on May 15, 1975, And for good reason. It was because of him and his crew that 71 Marines, who were pinned down by enemy fire near the end of the Vietnam War, were able to walk away from Cambodia.

Although he's modest about the incident, Blough is happy that others haven't forgotten that day. After all, it was his first real combat mission.

"I received an e-mail out of the blue from this productions company in California, and they were expressing interest in doing a documentary on the operation," Blough said. "I responded, and they did a whole round of interviews with people they could contact from that day."

Blough, who was a helicopter pilot during the war, was interviewed by the History Channel at the Westin Hotel near Detroit Metro Airport. The documentary, titled "Heroes Under Fire; Deadly Reckoning," first aired last Friday. It will be airing again at 4 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 17.

He told about how his operation was late in the day. The United States had already recovered a U.S. ship that had been seized by Khmer Rouge Cambodian gun boats. But the crew was still being held by enemy forces.

"President Ford decided we were going to get the crew and the ship back," Blough said. "We pulled in some Marines from Okinawa, and we met them in Bangkok. They got on our helicopters, and we took off."

Blough had been on rescue alert two days prior. The night before, he slept in his helicopter, which he called "The Jolly Green Giant," in case any of the Navy pilots were shot down while keeping track of the ship.

In the morning Blough was told to go get some sleep. But when he returned later, there weren't any helicopters left.

"We had to sit and wait for a helicopter to become available, which happened late in the day," Blough said. "After we had successfully gotten the ship and the entire crew back, the Marines were trying to disengage, but were pinned down by machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades on the beach."

Darkness falls

Blough was a lieutenant with a crew of six in his helicopter. As darkness approached, he said his biggest concern was crashing the helicopter.

But he didn't.

By that time, only three helicopters were left flying, with Blough's being one of them. He explained that at one point, he was the only helicopter in the area, while the other two were carrying Marines from the island to an aircraft carrier about 60 miles away.

"That was before night vision goggles and all this neat stuff you see on television now," Blough said. "We flew around in the dark and basically couldn't see anything. The beach was real narrow with the tide coming in, and you couldn't see it until you were right on top of it."

Blough was now dealing with three obstacles: the enemy, darkness and the fact that he was told there were only about 20 Khmer Rouge reservists on the island armed with A-K 47s.

But, he soon learned there were at least 200 of them, armed with heavy machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

"They were very well trained," Blough recalled. "The Marines played survival games most of the day, and they did manage to increase their perimeter a bit, but as soon as one of our helicopters came in to the beach to try to rescue them, it would be raked by machine gun fire and mortars."

Blough's best friend at the time was shot down that day when the tail of his helicopter was blown off. He spent the day surrounded by a dozen Marines on the beach, and the Khmer Rouge just wound up using them as bait to lure other helicopters.

"We lost several helicopters trying to get those guys out before we were finally successful," Blough said. "There wasn't much of a plan, and any plan we initially had was thrown out the window because we ran into 10 times the number of enemies and weapons we expected."

Turning negative into positive

Blough and his crew decided to use the darkness to their advantage. Sure it was difficult flying, but it also made it harder for the enemy to fire.

They turned off all the lights on the helicopter and, one trip at a time, were able to pull all the trapped Marines to safety.

"Diplomatically, that night was a big success because it was the end of the Vietnam War, and the United States had been kicked around pretty badly by Third World countries," Blough said. "It brought back a little bit of credibility to say, 'if you mess with United States citizens, we're going to do what we need to do to protect them.' In the big picture it was successful that way."

Ramez Khuri is a staff writer for the Novi News. He can be reached at (248) 349-1700, ext. 110 or by e-mail at