That Time Colin Powell Saved Crash Victims by Tearing Burning Metal With His Bare Hands

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Colin Powell during Operation Desert Shield
Chief of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, communicates via satellite with the Pentagon during Operation Desert Shield. (Jeff Wright/U.S. Army)

In 1968, then-Maj. Colin Powell was a Ranger assigned to the Army’s 23rd Infantry Division. It was his second tour in Vietnam.

Just five years earlier, he was one of the American advisors to South Vietnam’s fledgling army. While on a foot patrol in Viet Cong-held areas in 1963, the 25-year-old Powell was wounded by a VC booby trap.

He stepped on a punji stick, which the VC laced with buffalo dung. The excrement created an infection that made it difficult for him to walk.

“The Special Forces medics cut my boot off, and they could see my foot was purple by then,” Powell said in an interview with the Academy of Achievement. “The spike had gone all the way through, from the bottom to the top, and then come right back out, totally infecting the wound as it made the wound.”

That ended his time in combat. Powell was reassigned to the 1st Army of the Republic of Vietnam division headquarters for the rest of that tour.

On his second tour in Vietnam, he was again behind a desk as the assistant Chief of Staff for the Americal Division (as the 23rd was known). Though a staff officer, when you’re a man of destiny like Colin Powell, the action comes to you.

On November 16, 1968, the helicopter transporting Maj. Powell along with the 23rd ID commander crashed.

Powell, injured but clear of the wreckage, ran back to the burning helicopter several times to rescue comrades. Though the helicopter was in danger of exploding, he continued to attempt the rescue.

When he found one passenger trapped under the mass of twisted, burning fuselage, Powell tore away the burning metal with his bare hands.

Powell was awarded the Soldier’s Medal for his actions that day. He managed to rescue every passenger from the downed helicopter.

During his deployments to Vietnam, he also earned a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.


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