James Randall did not expect to survive when his bomber came under fire from the North Vietnamese army.
After bailing out from the flaming plane, Randall landed in a thick forest behind enemy lines; narrowly escaping a certain death straight into the enemy territory Randall could only hope for a quick rescue. He quickly abandoned his gear, including his favorite helmet, and waited in hiding for a rescue party to airlift him out.
Randall had very close connections with the battlefields of Vietnam and he always wanted to go back to the place where he landed and agonizingly waited for his comrades.
Randall was particularly interested in his long lost helmet that he left in the forests in then North Vietnam; however the task of finding it was so monumental that he had to give up his ambition quite a few times.
However, in June 2013, James Randall received a call that changed his life, bringing back all his memories of the war. He was informed that his helmet was found by another veteran in Vietnam and that he wanted Randall to receive his gear.
Talking about the moments Randall received the call for his helmet, he told of immense gratitude and a flurry of mix emotions. Randall was sitting with his wife sipping on a cup of tea when the news arrived and left the couple in awe, bringing back the memories from the past; memories that Randall said never left him for a single moment.
The story of Randall’s helmet’s discovery is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster; thanks to another Vietnam veteran Gary Paco. Helmet’s journey from the thick Vietnamese forest is riddled with chance encounters, painstakingly long and often dead-end searches, flea markets and ends with a French sword maker.
Talking about the discovery of his helmet from Vietnam Randall said that he would never have believed the tale if it would not have happened to him.
Randall was carrying out bombing missions as a major, over North Vietnam in 1965; mostly targeting bridges and other supply lines to enemy. Until the day he was shot down, Randall had successfully flown 118 missions targeting some of the key targets enabling US and its allies advance into enemy territory.
Born to a librarian and a rail worker, Randall grew up in a segregated society and did not think much of his future prospects in white dominant society. However after witnessing the fame of the first All African American fighter pilot squad known as Tuskegee Airmen, Randall decided to enlist in the Army and take part in the World War.
Soon after Randall joined the Air Force in 1945, the world war abruptly ended with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Anticipating a peaceful era ahead, Randall came back home and decided to go back to college; however he was called back to service in 1948.
Randall graduated as a fighter pilot in 1950 and fought in Korean War, where he flew P-51 Mustang in a total of 75 successful missions.
When the US decided to side with South Vietnam in its struggle against the North Vietnamese, Randall was asked once again to carry out bombing missions. This time, he was given a much more sophisticated and very large bomber F-105 for his missions, which was equivalent to 10 regular size bombers.
The battle was fierce and three out of every five pilots that went on sorties did not make it back to the base; this made the missions more challenging for Randall who absolutely loved a bit of the tough situation. Talking about the odds, Randall said that he simply ignored the stats and chances of survival and merely focused on his missions; as he knew he could do it and finish his job successfully.
On his last mission, Randall was on a bombing mission with three other bombers when they came under enemy fire. Randall’s bomber took major hits and lost all its systems very quickly; seeing his bomber plummeting to ground with 600 mph speed, Randall decided to eject and landed in a Vietnamese forest. He quickly abandoned his parachute and other gear and went to the highlands, where he stayed till the rescue arrived.
His helmet was first spotted by the locals after the war and was sold to a number of people before it ended up in a flea market hundreds of miles south of Hochi Minch city. An expert sword maker from France who had special interest in military gear and old swords bought the helmet from a market and kept looking for his owner for 28 years.
After befriending Gary Paco, the Frenchman Dominique Eluere showed him the helmet and asked for Gary’s help in locating the rightful owner. Gary waited months for the records to corroborate and then placed an ad in a local veteran’s magazine. Randall saw the add and left a message for Gary who got back to him with the good news that changed Randall life by realizing his long-held desire of getting his helmet back, almost fully intact.