TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — Nearly 25 years after risking his life to save four American soldiers from a sniper-filled Laotian jungle, An Quy Nguyen accepted a hero's welcome Saturday.
"Whatever I did is my duty. I think everybody would do the same as I did," he said at this Northern California air base where he and his daughter, Ngoc Kim Quy Nguyen, were greeted by about 100 well-wishers.
Despite his wartime heroism, which in a separate mission cost him both arms, the former Vietnamese Army helicopter pilot was rebuffed by U.S. officials when he applied for a humanitarian refugee program.
Nguyen attempted to flee Vietnam four times, including once when he tried to build his own boat. He spent more than two years in jail for trying to leave.
"I try so many times just because the U.S.A. land is . . . the land of freedom," Nguyen said. He said he plans to live in San Jose and wants to visit the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington.
On Jan. 17, 1969, U.S. forces had just dropped troops near the Ho Chi Minh trail and were taking off when Army Capt. John Liner's helicopter came under enemy gunfire. The bullets punctured gas and hydraulic lines.
Nguyen said he saw the helicopter on fire. He immediately guided the crippled craft away from a clearing filled with spikes to a safer patch of 15-foot high grass.
The American soldiers hacked their way through the grass toward Nguyen's chopper.
Besides Liner, a Louisiana resident, also rescued were Col. Robert Stratiff, now a retiree who lives in Virginia, and Staff Sgt. Terry L. Whitehurst and Pfc. Ronald C. King.
Nguyen's last mission was Sept. 17, 1970, when he was flying a special mission and was bombarded by enemy fire.
The attack set his helicopter ablaze and in his attempt to land, Nguyen's arms and right leg were severely burned. Surgeons at a field hospital amputated both arms below the elbow.
Nguyen was later captured by the Viet Cong and forced into a labor camp. He was thrown out after nine weeks because without use of his arms, Nguyen could not feed or clothe himself.
Retired Air Force Col. Noboru Masuoka led the effort to bring Nguyen here with the help of several U.S. senators and military friends.
The U.S. government has granted Nguyen temporary admission, humanitarian parole, which only lasts a year. He could face deportation in January, 1995.