Wednesday, November 13, 2013
On Aug. 12, 1972, an OV-1 Mohawk observation plane was shot down over the Marble Mountains in Vietnam. The two passengers – retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Joe Tallon, of Summerville, and aerial observer and tactical operator Army Spc. 5 Daniel M. Richards, of Detroit – were forced to eject from the aircraft.
While Tallon made it out alive with several injuries, Richards’ parachute was defective and failed to open. He died that night at 23 years old.
On Nov. 2, after 41 years, Richards’ next of kin received the Purple Heart in his honor in front of two dozen friends and family, thanks to Tallon’s relentless efforts to make sure he was honored properly.
U.S. Sen Tim Scott signed off on the decoration and his staff members A.D. Jordan and Brian Goff presented the award to Richards’ cousins, Paul and Fran Herdzik of Hamilton, Ala., on the senator’s behalf.
Tallon was awarded the Purple Heart in 2008, and has been working since the day of the accident for the two to get the awards they deserved.
“I feel like he’s a blood brother,” said Tallon. “He risked his life with me and gave his life. It’s still not easy to talk about.”
The long wait is a result of the incident’s official Army classification as a non-hostile fixed wing crash; the Purple Heart is a combat decoration and is only awarded to those who were wounded or died in battle with an enemy.
The crash was classified non-hostile, despite Tallon’s account of the events, because the Army didn’t have enough proof: the OV-1 Mohawk flew its spy missions at night, so there weren’t more than two witnesses, and the plane crashed in flames, destroying any evidence of bullet holes.
The crowd sat captivated as they listened to Tallon describe the order of events from the early morning of Aug. 12, 1972. Fighting back tears, he recounted how he met Richards only three hours before their mission, how enemy fire hit the plane, that Richards’ last words were “Sir, we’ve taken a hit on No. 2 engine,” and how he gave the order to eject.
The ceremony was an emotional one, and concluded with the solemn playing of taps.
“He was like a brother,” said Paul Herdzik, Richards’ cousin. “It brings closure to my family after 41 years of not knowing what happened. If it wasn’t for Mr. Tallon’s efforts we would not have known what happened.”
Tallon elaborated: “They never told the family what happened. They said he was in an accident and burned. They didn’t say he was on a mission.”
He continued, “We became blood brothers that night because we shared our blood on that ground. … I only knew him for three hours but he’s been on my heart and mind ever since.”
Staff writer Stefan Rogenmoser contributed to this story..