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The shoulder fired missile hit the propeller of his A 1 Skyraider, just about blasting him out of the air.
The former Penn State lineman had only moments to ditch his plane. He was northeast of Qui Nhon and just south of the DMZ an area overrun by the North Vietnamese Army.
Even worse, gunfire ripped the air around Jim Harding as he floated to the ground. He pulled and jerked his lines one way, then another, to avoid the bullets.
Three foxholes full of enemy soldiers waited.
He got his pistol out, then put it back in his holster. He would need his knife first, to cut himself free once he landed.
He thought and planned the entire way down. pulled most of its ground force out of Vietnam. A few of Harding’s men were stranded in enemy territory. That’s why he was flying one of the last of his nearly 600 career missions that day.
Once he landed, he knew those foxholes had to be cleared. He killed the first North Vietnamese with his .38 pistol, the rest with the dead man’s AK 47 rifle.
Only then could he orchestrate yet another rescue before his own.
Buy PhotoAir Force medals on the cover of the book ‘Into the Blue: Uniforms of the United States Air Force 1947 to the Present’ belong to Jim Harding. history. He retired as an Air Force colonel in 1979.
Harding, who turned 82 last month, still credits his coaches and teammates from those 1954 Nittany Lions for preparing him for this life journey.
“The ability to say you can survive any situation, that’s what I got out of college, out of playing football at Penn State. . We were good athletes but also good thinkers. It was having the people at the top showing how you could do more than you think you could.
“We weren’t allowed to do anything stupid, or you paid for it dearly out on the football field later,” he said with a laugh. “That helped us to face the world when the world was kind of difficult.”
Buy PhotoJim Harding’s name appears in a photo of the PSU Panthers with the names of all of those who lettered. (Photo: KENNETH CUMMINGS/The Jackson Sun)
Part of that learning came from calling out blocking schemes on the offensive line for head coach Rip Engle and top assistant Joe Paterno.
“It’s making that split decision,” Harding said. “The quarterback makes his call, and you make your call,
and you’ve got to be right. In combat, everything you do is split decision timing. Everything has to be quick and accurate. If not, you won’t be around or your wingman won’t be around.”
Harding went to Penn State from tiny Brookville, Pa., between Pittsburgh and Erie. He describes growing up poor on the family dairy farm. He and his two brothers shared a room, all sleeping on a pullout sofa and hanging their clothes on a line strung from one end to the other.
A free ride to play football and earn a college education at Penn State opened unimaginable opportunities.
He said he turned down an offer to play for the Los Angeles Rams, as well as a much more lucrative job with International Harvester. Rather, he was determined to fly planes for the Air Force.
Buy PhotoJim Harding stands outside his Huntingdon home with his old football running shoes that he used during his time playing for the PSU Panthers in the 1950s. (Photo: KENNETH CUMMINGS/The Jackson Sun)
He was shot down twice during Vietnam and injured many times. The History Channel produced a mini documentary detailing one of the rescues he led.
Even now, he rarely slows. He still works 130 acres of pine trees in Huntingdon. When he’s not mowing, pruning and planting, he crafts furniture pieces by hand.
Often, he said, he looks back to what got him here.
“If there was any place in the world I learned humility, it was playing football for those coaches . and that humility carries over into the rest of your life. . That’s why so many guys (on that team) were successful. We were taught those things playing football.”
Buy PhotoJim Harding, now retired, works on his tree farm in Huntingdon. Harding was a PSU Panther in the 1950s. (Photo: KENNETH CUMMINGS/The Jackson Sun)Life was not easy growing up in tiny Brookville, Pa.,
in the early 1950s.
Former Penn State football player and war hero Jim Harding talks about his father working three and more jobs at a time to supplement his dairy farm and raise five children. His grandparents lived downstairs to help with finances.