“Billy Pedersen was a scholar, an athlete, an officer and a gentleman,” said Claremont Professor Harry Jaffa in the dedication to “The Conditions of Freedom.”
Jaffa was a mentor and a friend to Pedersen. Both Jaffa and Pedersen shared a love of cycling. Billy Pedersen rode the entire West Coast twice, from La Cañada to Grant’s Pass, Ore., and then back down again. Jaffa was impressed and called Pedersen “one of the golden lads of who A.E. Housman wrote, who went to war, not gaily, but without a doubt that freedom and duty spoke with a single voice.”
The Pedersens were all nice people. After graduating from Claremont in 1968, Billy Pedersen volunteered for service during the Vietnam War. He refused his father’s efforts to secure a safer assignment.
The Pedersens were a Stanford family — the father and brothers Tom, Jim and Bob, were all Stanford graduates. Billy was an idealist who admired John F. Kennedy, so he enlisted in the Navy, where he graduated number one in his flight school class, and was assigned to fly helicopters with the Seawolves of Navy Attack (Light) Squadron Three.
Pedersen had served his tour and was waiting for a flight home from Da Nang, when the war heated up. He learned that a special rescue mission was needed. He volunteered to help.
Historian James D. Sprinkle, writing for the Journal of the American Aviation Historical Society, notes that on the afternoon of Sept. 15, 1970, there was an attempt to rescue casualties in the Ca Mau Peninsula, at the southernmost tip of Vietnam.
When it initially arrived on the scene, the medevac (call-sign Dustoff 86) was unable to make a pickup due to intense ground fire. The medevac withdrew and called for back up. The Seawolves were requested to provide escort for the Army medevac helicopter. Four gunship helicopters responded. One of them was Seawolf 312, piloted by Lt. Junior Grade Pedersen.
As the helicopters swept into the pickup area, it ignited in heavy, concentrated gunfire hitting all four gunships nearly simultaneously.
Bill Pedersen steered his helicopter to the forest line, where it crashed, crushing the nose compartment and killing Pedersen and his gunner. But his actions saved the lives of the two crew in the rear compartment. Pedersen’s commanding officer, Capt. M.J. Twite, USN, reported that Bill Pedersen’s courage and superb airmanship under impossible conditions contributed to the survival of two of his crew. Pedersen was awarded the Bronze Star.
Afterward, Pedersen’s father, Thorwald Pedersen, wrote the following letter to the parents of the killed gunner, Jose Pablo Ramos:
When children such as yours and ours lay it on the line, it simply has to be for the good of us all, hard as it is to find any appreciation in the everyday world around us for what they did. I am very proud of these two boys of ours and it helps with the pain. They didn’t run away from a dirty job. Call it patriotism if you wish. It’s a good word and it always will be.
Lt. Junior Grade Pedersen was 25 years old.
ANITA SUSAN BRENNER is a longtime La Cañada Flintridge resident and an attorney with Law Offices of Torres and Brenner in Pasadena. E-mail her at email@example.com.