Ernie is proud of his Native American roots and his long family history of military service to the nation. He is descended from a Chiricahua Apache grandfather who was a wrangler for the U.S. Cavalry at Fort Clark, Texas in the 1930s, and then went on to serve as an artilleryman in the Pacific during WWII. At least one earlier family member had served as an Indian Scout for the U.S. Cavalry during the campaigns of the late 1800s in the southwest. Ernies father was a career Air Force NCO who, during WWII, was a gunner on a B-24 flying long range Anti-Submarine missions over the Atlantic, during which he was credited with shooting down three German flying boats for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Ernie is a veteran combat infantryman who, upon being wounded in action in Vietnam in 1968, then survived a perilous nighttime dustoff extraction under fire. This is his Purple Heart story.
Ernest G. Banasau Jr. was born in Del Rio, Texas, in 1946 and he grew up in an Air Force family. He went through public schools during his fathers assignments at Landsberg AFB, Germany and Wheelus AFB near Tripoli in North Africa. He graduated with the Class of 1965 from Jefferson High School in San Antonio, Texas. He then attended Southwest Texas State College at San Marcos for a time, but soon received his draft notice.
He entered active duty in February 1967 and after Basic Training and Infantry Advanced Individual Training was ordered to Vietnam. Ernie arrived in-country in July 1967 and was assigned to Company A, 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division. He soon became the 1st Platoon RTO (radio telephone operator).
Ernie says, I was with Company A in two major battles, the Battle for Dak To in November 1967, and in TET-68 in January and February 1968. I was wounded during the evening of February 7th near Kontum City in Kontum Province.
We came in contact with a dug in North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Company on Hill 761. The squad leader of 3rd Squad, 1st Platoon was killed in the initial contact and E-4 Adams was then hit in the chest by three AK rounds. I was the third person hit that evening with an AK round to my right back shoulder area. Later, at the WIA collection point there was great difficulty in getting helicopter casualty evacuation, first because TET fighting was going on throughout the country and also because we were in thick jungle terrain and the tall trees required special equipment to extract the wounded. Added to all that, we remained under enemy fire throughout the area.
An Air Force helicopter from Pleiku Air Base came to attempt the mission but in the darkness mistakenly hovered above an enemy position. The dug in NVA had a 51 caliber heavy machine gun and the chopper was shot down in flames. As luck would have it, an Army huey, Dustoff 30, was at the Ben Het Special Forces Camp at the time and upon learning that the Air Force helicopter had gone down, immediately volunteered to come to our aid. Dustoff 30 accompanied by an escorting gunship team, Crocodile 6, arrived overhead about midnight and Dustoff pulled me out. Although Ill be forever grateful for them saving my life, it sure wasnt pretty. Our Medics had called for the litter basket to be lowered to take out the badly wounded Adams first, but they sent down the jungle penetrator chair instead. Adams couldnt be put on the chair, NVA rounds were whizzing through the collection point and the Medics were screaming for some one of the other wounded, just anyone, to get onto chair. But, everyone was frozen in place, nobody was moving. I finally got up the nerve to make a move, I got on the chair and Dustoff 30 started pulling me up. What I didnt like was they kept their landing lights on me as they were pulling me up. The enemy was firing AKs at me as I was screaming for the crew to shut off the lights. When he pulled me aboard, the crew chief accidentally stuck a finger into my bullet wound. I was bleeding badly on the flight to the Ben Het Special Forces Camp and the Medics thought I had been hit in the legs because I was sitting in a big pool of blood. I was later told that I had lost two liters of blood.
Early next morning I was in the Operating Room of the 71st Evac Hospital in Pleiku when I was told that three of the four Air Force helicopter crew members that had been shot down had been rescued and were being treated along with me in the Operating Room. The fourth crewman had died when the chopper rolled over on him when it hit the ground.
I learned some added details 35 years later, meeting CW4 Joe Dienlin, Dustoff 30 for the first time since that fateful night. He and his crew knew the Air Force helicopter had been shot down but nonetheless determined to attempt the mission when they heard of our situation on the ground. They preferred to fly a night mission because they could see where the enemys green tracer fire was coming from. They always flew in the company of Crocodile 6 with those two gunships providing cover while Dustoff 30 was making an extraction. As I was being winched up, Crocodile 6 was calling for Dustoff 30 to cut the cable because of all the ground fire they were receiving, especially from the 51 caliber machine gun position. I asked him if they hadnt taken off with me still hanging and he said that they had. The crew chief had called out clear over the headset and he thought I was in the chopper when really the crew chief only meant I was clear of the tree tops. So, away we went at 90 knots in the darkness with me dangling just above the trees hanging on in a penetrator chair with my one good arm and no safety belt while still being shot at, all the while with Crocodile 6 yelling for Dustoff to cut the cable. He said he had cut the cable one time and swore he would never ever do that again. Not only did he save my life with that daring rescue, but he also saved my life by not cutting the cable.
The remainder of Ernies time in Vietnam was comparatively less eventful and he rotated back to the United States in July 1968, was discharged in December 1968 and returned to school at Southwest Texas State in San Marcos, enrolling for the Spring Semester in January 1969. Upon graduation in 1976, he was commissioned Second Lieutenant through the University of Texas Army ROTC program. He re-entered active duty on October 29, 1976, and now says, That was the start of my career as an Army officer.
This career carried me through two tours of duty in West Germany and protecting our Nation and Europe during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. I was there when President Reagan was successful to have the Berlin Wall taken down before he left office. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, I was responsible for processing all deployed troops in route to the Saudi Arabian desert for the first Gulf War. As it was, I was deployed again into a war zone in April 1991 as part of the follow on force to deal with all the issues related to the end of the war. I worked with the senior staff of Operation Provide Comfort to provide security and humanitarian needs of the Kurdish people fleeing Sadams forces in Northern Iraq along the Turkish and Iranian border. This was a joint operation with coalition allies, British, Italians, Spanish, Germans, and Turkish troops. Additionally, the U.S. Army, Navy and Marines worked side by side with each other to coordinate all required support and security in Northern Iraq. Besides the security mission, we were responsible for providing food, tents, sanitation, and medical needs of the Kurdish people. We established the Northern No Fly Zone and held this position until the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Upon completion of the deployment, I returned to Germany, completed my last overseas tour there, returned to the U.S. and Texas in 1992 to Fort Sam Houston and retired from the Army with the rank of Major on August 31, 1994.
After retirement, Ernest Banasau Jr. started an Emergency Roadside Service in Northern Hays County and Southwestern Travis County. He sold that business in 2000 and then worked at the University of Texas Army ROTC as the Supply Officer. He says, I spent the next six years with my former ROTC unit and helped in the training of our future Army Officers. Many of my former Cadets served proudly during the Iraq War and in Afghanistan in our War on Terrorism.
In 2002, Ernie was appointed to the University of Texas, Stadium Veterans Committee, for which he coordinates with the active duty, National Guard and Reserves for their support of a veterans appreciation event at one of the Longhorns football games each year. He was also involved with the 2008-2009 addition of the Veterans Plaza as part of the North End Zone expansion at the stadium. He has most recently been appointed to the board of directors for Honor Flight Austin that is now projecting a mid-May date for their first flight of a plane-load of WWII veterans to visit the monuments in Washington, D.C.
Ernie is a past Commander of our MOPH Chapter 1919, and a past Commander of MOPH Region V. Currently, he serves Chapter 1919 as the Americanism Officer and this month PATRIOT BULLETIN proudly salutes Patriot Ernest G. Banasau Jr.