Frederick Ferguson got a part-time job driving a gas truck to pay for flying lessons while serving out his enlistment in the Navy, earning his pilot's license before his discharge in 1962. Over the next two years, he hung out at airports and got his commercial license. Then he took his first helicopter ride and knew instantly that he wanted to be a helicopter pilot. He joined the Army's Warrant Officer program and graduated from the nine-month program in May 1967 certified in rotary-winged aircraft. Two weeks later, he was in Vietnam, a copilot with the 227th Aviation Battalion of the 1st Cavalry (Airmobile). By August he was in command of his own helicopter, a UH-1D slick.
On January 31, 1968, at the beginning of the Tet Offensive, Chief Warrant Officer Ferguson was flying back to base, having just dropped off engineers to repair a damaged truck. As he was monitoring the radio traffic, he heard that a helicopter carrying members of the 1st Cavalry had gone down in the enemy-controlled city of Hue and that another helicopter had been badly shot up in a failed attempt to rescue them. "The Air Cav doesn't leave its men behind," Ferguson said to his three-man crew. They all agreed that they should go get the downed Americans.
Waiting to refuel at his base, Ferguson asked the crews of three Huey gunships if they wanted to accompany him on a rescue mission. "Why not?" was the reply, and the four helicopters took off.
On the ground, the beleaguered GIs had taken refuge in a tiny, isolated South Vietnamese Army compound, reporting by radio that they were under heavy fire. Ferguson circled until the fire abated; he knew he would have to get in and out quickly because enemy mortars had already targeted the site.
Then, despite warnings to stay clear of the area, Ferguson and his gunship escort began a low-level flight at maximum airspeed along the Perfume River. The North Vietnamese were everywhere, and the gunships were firing at them constantly. Ferguson located the compound, stood his helicopter on its tail, and began to descend blindly in the dust storm created by his rotors. When he touched down, he saw that there was a one-foot clearance between a flagpole and a rotor blade on one side of the craft and one foot between the blade and a wall on the other.
As the GIs quickly got on board, the enemy mortar fire began. One shell hit near the helicopter's tail. When the last man was pulled aboard and Ferguson was powering the helicopter straight up, another mortar hit beneath him, spinning the craft 180 degrees. He regained control, put his nose down, and headed out.
One of the Hueys was shot down as it was heading back to base, but its crew was rescued. The other two that did manage to land were so badly damaged that they were no longer able to fly.