Fighter pilots cry too. And they can tell the most incredible stories.
“I am not a Rambo. … All I was was a scared little bunny rabbit trying to hide, trying to survive,” Capt. Scott F. O’Grady said Saturday.
At a news conference here, O’Grady broke into tears when the Air Force played a tape of his plea for help from the Bosnian bush. So did his friend and fellow pilot Thomas O. Hanford, who fielded the call in a patrolling F-16 near the spot where O’Grady had been shot down the week before.
Then, the moment of catharsis behind him, O’Grady vividly recounted a saga of grit, faith and luck that enabled him to avoid capture by Bosnian Serbs who repeatedly came within a few feet of him.
O’Grady, the first American shot down while enforcing a U.N. air embargo over Bosnia, told of parachuting from his burning fighter in full view of Bosnians below.
He told of soldiers firing at what they thought was an American pilot while he prayed nearby, his face thrust firmly in the dirt.
O’Grady spoke of great thirst. He spoke of an orange hat, a yellow sponge, smelly wool socks, red smoke, elusive ants, cows named Alfred and Leroy, a herdsman he called Tinker Bell. And a pistol he should never have loaded.
O’Grady’s ordeal began June 2 in his 1,085th flying hour when a Bosnian Serb SA-6 missile struck his single seat F-16 amidships over Bosnia.
‘This beautiful gold handle’
“No way I could fly this plane. The first thing I saw was the cockpit disintegrating in front of me, fire all around me,” he said. Then his eyes landed on “this beautiful gold handle” - the ejection handle. “It was the most gorgeous sight I ever saw - God let me see it.”
As the F-16 spun to earth, O’Grady impatiently deployed his parachute manually - and too high. Capt. Robert Wright, flying a second Aviano-based F-16, did not see O’Grady eject, but the parachute was visible to Bosnians below.
“They were watching me the whole time, waiting for me. I was near a major highway and a major city. There was a military truck and other cars. Luckily I did land in a mixture of bushes and a grassy area.”
O’Grady slipped from the parachute. He grabbed his escape kit, which included a map, a radio, packets of water, a camouflage net and a 9-millimeter pistol. He dived for cover, burrowing his face in the dirt and concealing his ears with hands encased in green gloves.
“In a couple of minutes I could hear people around the parachute, followed by people walking right by me for a couple of hours, maybe six feet away,” O’Grady said. “God protected me. It was not exactly dense vegetation, but I got into the heart of it.”
The 29-year-old Spokane native said he allowed his survival training to take over, “trying to find a place to hide, not giving away my position or doing anything during the daytime, trying to use nighttime to decide where to move.”
Eating leaves, grass, slow ants
Hunger was not a problem at first, O’Grady said, although by the third day he was forced to eat leaves and grass. Once he stuck a finger down an ant hole - “when you’re hungry you’ll eat anything” - but the ants proved too fast for him.
Thirst was an enemy. One night it rained in answer to his prayers, O’Grady said, but the rest of the time he made do. Unable to find any water sources, he collected dew with a yellow sponge, carefully storing the drops in little plastic bags.
One night he wrung out his soaked wool socks, “but I couldn’t get much out of that.”
He gave names - Leroy and Alfred - to two cows who closed in on his hiding place, together with their herder, whom he called Tinker Bell.
They were trying to kill me
He said the Bosnian Serbs never stopped looking for him, and they came shooting.
“It wasn’t so much that they were walking around me - I had somebody walking around me every day. It was that they were shooting their rifles. They weren’t shooting at bunny rabbits because I never saw any bunny rabbits. I never saw a squirrel,” O’Grady said. “I think they thought they saw something that was me and were trying to kill me.”
“I didn’t dare do anything during the daytime. I monitored the radio, but I didn’t dare do anything to give up my position,” O’Grady said. Among American searchers, each passing day without word of O’Grady diminished expectations for his survival.He knew that NATO was looking for him,
O’Grady said, but it was not until early Thursday that he decided to announce himself by activating a beacon signal on his radio.
“I was hopefully trying to let someone know I was there. I activated the beacon, and I lit up the world,” O’Grady said. “Thank God T.O. (Hanford) was there, and when I heard three clicks my heart started racing and I heard ‘Basher One One.’ I was really scared he wouldn’t hear me.”
Hanford’s jubilant confirmation of contact roused an elite force of U.S. Marines from their bunks aboard the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge in the Adriatic between Italy and Bosnia.
The Marines landed in two Super Stallion helicopters not long after dawn Thursday.
Red smoke, orange hat, loaded gun
The scene as he was getting ready to board the helicopter was almost comic, and involved O’Grady’s only apparent infraction of the rules.
A fog had descended in the valley where he had been hiding, and O’Grady had fired off red smoke as a locating device. He also had a hat, green on one side, orange on the other, that he decided to wear for identification purposes - “because I figured there wouldn’t be anyone out there, Serbian or Muslim, walking around with an orange hat, so they would know that if anyone had an orange hat on, it would be a stupid American.”
And he had his 9-millimeter gun, unused until then, which he decided to load at that moment. “I had the gun out, running through the bushes, through the fog, and I broke into the clearing where the Sea Stallion helicopters had set down,” he said. “And what did they see but this guy with a huge beard and a 9-millimeter pistol with an orange hat, running at them, going for broke.
“They stopped, they didn’t know what to do,” he recalled. “The funny thing about it is that the one thing you are taught to do if someone comes to rescue you, is never run to the helicopter with a loaded weapon.”