CORNELIA - "Do hard things." That was the message given to Hilliard A. Wilbanks Middle School sixth-graders Monday morning.
The words came from John H. Wilbanks, son of the late Capt. Hilliard A. Wilbanks, on the 47th anniversary of the captain's death in Vietnam.
The sixth-grade students filled the Cornelia Community House as special guests for Capt. Hilliard A. Wilbanks Day.
Spellbound, the students heard firsthand accounts of Wilbanks' heroism from eyewitnesses through means of video.
Wilbanks was a Medal of Honor recipient who was presented with the honor posthumously on Jan. 24, 1968. He died while protecting friendly forces from the Vietcong in his single-engine, unarmed plane.
Citing the book Do Hard Things, John Wilbanks provided examples of George, David and Clara, young people who changed the world.
Those young people were George Washington, David Farragut (the U.S. Navy's first admiral) and Clara Barton (founder of the American Red Cross).
Some of the students gasped when they learned that Farragut was given command of his first ship at age 12 - the age of many of the sixth-graders gathered.
Wilbanks told the students those three young people and others did hard things. Similarly, his father did many hard things.
"Capt. Wilbanks did hard things when he joined the Air Force in 1950, right out of high school which he attended here in Cornelia," his son said. "Capt. Wilbanks did hard things when he qualified for aviation school ... in 1955. Capt. Wilbanks did hard things when he left his expectant wife and two children and family and deployed to Vietnam on March 18, 1966 - only two weeks before my twin sister and I were born.
"Capt. Wilbanks did hard things when he buckled the seat harness of his 0-1 Bird Dog for his 488th combat mission, not knowing at the time it would be his last," John Wilbanks said. "Capt. Wilbanks did hard things when he flew reconnaissance ahead of the 23rd Battalion of Rangers as they approached the tea plantation, not knowing the ambush awaited.
"Capt. Wilbanks did hard things when he spotted the VC forces and marked their position with smoke rockets, and began to direct the fire of three helicopter gunships to cover the retreat of the Rangers," Wilbanks said.
"Capt. Wilbanks did hard things when one of the helicopter gunships was hit and he ordered the other two to escort it to safety, leaving only himself to support the 23rd Battalion Rangers," he said.
"Capt. Wilbanks did hard things when he assumed a close air support role, flying low over the treetops firing his M-16 out the window of his unarmored 0-1, drawing the enemy's attention away from the Rangers below," his son said.
"Capt. Wilbanks did hard things when on his third and final pass he gave his life," John Wilbanks said. "To be sure, many did hard things that day. But Capt. Wilbanks' unselfish acts of courage and heroism were able to minimize friendly losses. Before the battle was over, the Rangers had lost 36 members, but had it not been for Capt. Wilbanks that number would have been many, many more."
Wilbanks challenged the students to "do hard things" to impact the world around them.
Following the ceremony inside, students and others gathered outside, where the Wilbanks family placed a wreath beside the memorial to Capt. Wilbanks.