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Zippo lost in Vietnam crash returned

By Vincent Z. Whaley
Johnson City Press Staff Writer

(Published Sunday, Feb. 6, 2000)

JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. — On May 5, 1968, Marine Lance Cpl. Scott Brank, Jonesborough, was the crew chief aboard a CH-46 helicopter assigned to rescue another Marine unit heavily engaged in combat northeast of Dong Ha in the Quang Tri province of Vietnam.

After rescuing nine Marines, Brank's "Sea Knight" was shot down in a rice paddy by the North Vietnamese Army. His pilot was killed and his copilot lost his feet.

That day was dubbed "Silver Star Sunday" for Brank, who received the distinguished award for carrying his copilot to safety and ensuring his passengers had escaped the burning helicopter.

"There were two groups of Marines who had been in crossfire for about a day," he said. "They were out of water and out of ammo. We flew in and got the first three, lifted up maybe 50 feet and went 100 yards and got six more on the second stop, lifted up about 150 feet and they just blew us out of the sky.

"The helicopter rolled over to the left three times and crashed. We were on fire before we hit the ground. There was a crew of four — a pilot, copilot, I was the crew chief, and a gunner — and we picked up a total of nine infantrymen, so there were 13 people on the helicopter when it crashed. We called it 'Silver Star Sunday' because that's what God does to you for playing war on Sunday."

Brank, who was serving in the 165th Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron, 36th Marine Aircraft Group, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, lost several personal belongings in the crash, the most noteworthy being a silver Zippo.

"For Christmas of 1967, my commanding officer gave each of us a Zippo lighter that had our unit's name and crest engraved on it," he said. "I took it to a local vendor and had my name, 'Scotty,' engraved on it. But I didn't smoke. I just used it to light the heat tabs on C-rations. But I lost the lighter, a 35mm camera, some film and other items in the crash."

On Thursday, Randy Gibson, a Zippo collector who lives in Garland, Texas, returned Brank's lighter after almost 32 years. While it's a mystery how the lighter came to be in his possession, Gibson had contacted the 165th squadron historian, Jimmy Wismar, Canton, Ohio, in mid-January to begin the search for Brank.

"They put a company of infantry around the crashed aircraft to salvage what they could, then they used about 30 pounds of C-4 explosive to destroy what was left. I'd say somebody on that recovery crew picked up my lighter," Brank said.

"(Gibson) called me, I described the lighter to him and he rushed it to me via UPS. He can't remember if he bought it at a flea market or garage sale, but he said it had to be one of the two.

"It's unbelievable. I put a flint and some lighter fluid in it and it fired right up. I realized I had lost it a day or two after the crash, but I forgot about it and hadn't thought of it since. It was irrelevant compared to the injuries and the lives that were lost that day."

Story © 2000-2004 Vincent Z. Whaley and the Johnson City Press, 204 W. Main St., Johnson City, Tennessee 37605, 423.929.3111.
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596th Signal Support Co., 97th Signal Battalion
47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division
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