[Photo: This black and white image from October 1973 shows the twisted, burned section of a U.S. Air Force helicopter’s fuselage in Hoke County woods following the crash. One of the survivors is hoping to thank the people who came to the rescue that day. (File photo)]
By Catharin Shepard • Editor • A veteran walked into the News-Journal office last week with a story and a question: could we help him find the people who came to the rescue in 1973, when a military helicopter crashed in Hoke County?
Elmer Adams was one of six servicemen in a UH-1N helicopter that went down over Hoke County farmland one October morning nearly 50 years ago.
Adams, originally from Chesapeake, Virginia, was a 29-year-old staff sergeant stationed at Fort Bragg at the time of the crash. He was left in serious condition from his injuries. Doctors rushed to transfer him from Womack hospital to an Army Burn Center.
He can still pull up his sleeve and show off the scars that made his buddies call him a “crispy critter.”
Adams and three others survived the crash: Maj. Robert J. Ellinger, Lt. Terry G. Ohlemeir and SM Sgt. David G. Smith. Flight mechanic Sgt. Billy R. Essary, and Lt. John Emerson Kewer of 5th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, were killed.
In the midst of the emergency, Adams recalled, Hoke County people stepped up to help. A story from the News-Journal published October 18, 1973 told the tale.
“Quick action at the crash scene by local men is credited with probably saving the lives of some of the survivors,” a reporter wrote.
Adams went on to have a family and a decades-long career in the military. Now 78 years old, he thinks about those people who dropped what they were doing and ran toward the wreckage, not knowing what they would find.
He wants to find them in turn, now, or their families, to be able to thank them.
The archives give a few names of those who were there that day.
“Earl Conoly and Chris Gaddy, who had been hunting in the area, were riding in the back of a pickup truck traveling south on 401 when they spotted the three helicopters,” the story from 1973 said, referring to the helicopter formation Adams and his crewmates were flying with that day. Gaddy was a Marine home on leave from Parris Island, according to the account.
It was none other than John Gaddy, Raeford’s city manager at the time, who was driving the truck with Earl Conoly and Chris Gaddy riding in the back. He “turned the truck around and drove through the plowed field to the edge of the woods” when he saw one of the three helicopters go down in the trees.
“Both Gaddy and Conoly ran to the crash scene. They, military personnel and other hunters and local sawmill workers used pine boughs and tops to put out the fire which spread from the downed aircraft. Using their hands and feet they cleared a three-foot wide fire break between the fire and the injured men. Young Gaddy said the injured were some distance from the wreckage.”
Two more names stand out: Jimmy Riley and Johnny Melton.
“Conoly said most of the injured men did not have boots on but all except one still had clothing on their bodies. The one who had only parts of his trousers and his boots still on his body reportedly asked hunters Jimmy Riley and Johnny Melton to cut his boots off.”
Adams said he remembers having to get his boots off. He remembers the kindness of strangers who saved lives that day. He hopes to be able to say thank you.
There are others who went unnamed in the story, the sawmill workers and other hunters who jumped in to help. Adams is hoping they might hear he’s looking for them and come forward if they can, so he can thank them.
Anyone who was there that day, or who is surviving family of someone who was there, and who would like to connect with Mr. Adams can contact us at the News-Journal at (910) 875-2121. We have his contact information, and we know he’d love to speak with you.