In the introduction to PBS’s show, “We’ll Meet Again,” Ann Curry speaks about the tides of war bringing people together and tearing families apart as she introduces the first segment of season two, “Saved in Vietnam.”
The show features two remarkable stories from the war and brings two pairs of participants back together after almost 50 years.
One of those soldiers is Dave Johnson, of the Village of Pine Hills.
As a young major, he was in a third tour of duty in the unpopular war, when an event changed his life forever.
He was shot down deep in Cambodia, and it looked like his life was soon to be over when the most improbable hero showed up.
“That pilot saved my life and all of the men with me that day,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to see him again and thank him for the life he gave to me.”
In the episode, Johnson finally reunites with the chopper pilot who threw caution and reason to the wind and saved him from certain death or capture.
Johnson had been married to his wife, Judy, for only seven months when he landed in Vietnam the first time, in December 1965, as part of President Johnson’s escalation in the war.
He came back after 12 months of brutal fighting, and Judy said he was a different man, unable to laugh as before and troubled by nightmares.
By July 1968, he had been promoted to captain and sent back for a second tour. This time he left behind his newborn daughter with Judy.
During a 60-day period he lost 20 soldiers, 17 to booby trap explosions.
The numbers of dead soldiers were stacking up in his mind.
On the morning of Dec. 29, he stepped on what became known as an Improvised Explosive Device, or IED. The explosion caused a lot of pain, but the three hand grenades that were wired to the main charge did not go off.
“If those had detonated I wouldn’t be here today, at least not in one piece,” he said.
Following six months of convalescent leave, Dave thought he was done with Vietnam, but the Army had other ambitions.
Judy recalled her feelings as he got on the airplane to return for a third tour.
“I thought this is it, they’re going to kill him,” Judy said in a quavering voice.
This time he was assigned as a military adviser to the Vietnamese infantry.
While on a recon mission along the border to Cambodia, his chopper was shot down. The pilot put the chopper down for a rough landing without power. Immediately, heavy machine gunfire from three enemy positions increased and Dave knew he was going to die or be captured in a matter of minutes.
In only a few minutes he received a radio call from a Chinook pilot advising him he was on the way to pick them up.
He advised the pilot that he would be under fire when he came in for a landing.
The pilot’s response was a cool, unconcerned, “Roger that.”
A Chinook is not a combat helicopter. This aircraft is a huge cargo transporter, designed to pick up and deliver large loads of ammunition and supplies.
“When we got back I had the opportunity to talk to the aircraft commander, Bruce Grable, and then he was gone,” Dave said. “Basically, he saved my life. There were no other forces close enough to come get us.”
In the late 1970s and earl y’80s, he tried to find Grable but was unsuccessful.
Recently he connected with the Chinook’s door gunner, who told him he was sure he was going to die.
As the soldiers ran from their downed chopper, bullets kicked up dirt at their feet and rattled through the aircraft hovering just above the field. Some of the rounds damaged the aircraft. The pilot cleared the tops of the trees by inches and made it back to base.
Dave recalled him saying, “I felt like the hands of God were wrapped around that helicopter, lifting us over those trees.”
“I hadn’t thought about it in that way, but I believe it was more than luck that day,” Dave said. “I’m here by the grace of God. Nobody even got hit. It’s incredible.”
After his failed attempt at finding the pilot who saved his life, years passed. Then, one day he was watching a television show called “We’ll Meet Again.”
The show brings people who experienced a life-altering event together. He contacted the show and told his story. His savior was found, and together they taped the show that airs at 8 p.m. Nov. 13 on PBS.
And the best part is, the pilot, Bruce Grable is coming to The Villages to watch the show with the Johnsons.