FORT HOOD, Texas - A 1st Cavalry Division AH-64D Longbow Apache pilot got word that two of his friends, fellow pilots, were shot down during a fierce battle in An Najaf, a city in Iraqi Army control south of Baghdad Jan. 28, 2007.

Not thinking of his personal safety and facing an unknown enemy force, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Zachary Johnson sprung into action, which resulted in him being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross at the Fort Hood Catering and Conference Center Jan. 28.

Johnson, the pilot-in-charge and unit commander from 4th Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, was commended for his roll in that battle as he worked with Iraqi Army troops, U.S. Special Operation Forces and U.S. Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controllers to determine the location of friendly and enemy forces while protecting the crash site that took the lives of his friends, Capt. Mark Resh and Chief Warrant Officer Cornell Chao.

"The odds were against us," said Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil, Jr., the commanding general of the First Team from Portola, Calif.

The enemy had around 600 soldiers in well-fortified, dug-in positions. He said they called themselves "Soldiers of Heaven" and believed that if they killed the spiritual leaders, it would bring on the second coming of their messiah, Fil said.

There was a fierce ground battle underway and the Iraqi and U.S. Soldiers on the ground needed air support.

Johnson and his crew were that support.

In eight minutes, Johnson led his team from Forward Operating Base Kalsu to the battlefield.

"Those were the longest eight minutes of my life," he said. "There was sadness because I just lost some of my friends. I was worried about my friends who were still there. I was scared."

But he didn't show it.

Johnson, originally from Nampa, Idaho, orchestrated more than an hour of organized attacks before running completely out of ammunition. His team flew back to FOB Kalsu, rearmed and went back out into the fight.

"He had nerves of steel," said Fil of Johnson after watching the performance on screen at Johnson's award ceremony. "He was calm, reasonable and making sound decisions."

But he didn't feel calm.

"I thought my voice was shaking and I was thinking about a million things at once," Johnson said. "But like the movie Black Hawk Down, when the bullets are flying you just do your job. I tried to stay level headed and cool under the pressure."

According to Fil, he succeeded.

The enemy had dug trenches that were 12 to 15 feet deep in a zig-zag pattern to prevent air support from firing in straight line all the way through. Fil said the insurgents were well equipped and organized with supplies and medical stations, but the enemy was virtually destroyed.

"There was some good shooting that day," Fil said.

That opened up the road to a successful deployment for the 1st Cavalry Division he said.

"I can't imagine how much more difficult it would have been for us if we had lost," he said.

On a smaller scale, it made a huge difference for the people in the city.

"The governor met me and was sobbing. Not out of sadness, not out of anger but out of thankfulness," he said. "He was so grateful that we took away that burden."

That wouldn't have been possible without the skills and professionalism of Johnson and his team, he said.

"I have never been associated with anyone more deserving of the Distinguished Flying Cross than Chief Warrant Officer 3 Johnson," said Fil.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16