As Newton Earl hung from a helicopter door, spraying the jungle with machine gun fire, he didn't think about dying.

He thought about the job he had to do.

Below him in Vietnam's Mekong River Delta, two Navy boats were trapped in a muddy canal, one boat disabled and the other nearly so, both taking sniper fire that was getting stronger. Twelve American lives were on the line.

It was May 3, 1969, and Earl, a 21-year-old Eagle Bend graduate, had willingly volunteered for the dangerous position of door gunner for the Navy Seawolf helicopter unit.

"For some payback," Earl explained recently, sitting at his kitchen table south of Osakis and sharing a story he hadn't told much until recently. "They rocketed and mortared us ... and I didn't take kindly to that."

Last month, Earl was inducted into the Enlisted Combat Aircrew Roll of Honor, run by a nonprofit that honors Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard enlisted men who saw air combat. Officers have typically gotten the accolades, and the nonprofit formed to recognize the enlisted soldiers as well, said Craig Jones, nonprofit president.

At first, Earl wasn't keen to accept the honor, said Jim Conn, who knows him as a fellow pilot and through the local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter.

"He said, 'I don't think I'm worthy. I'm still alive and I lost so many of my friends when I was over there,'" Conn recalled. "I said, 'Newt, you can still be worthy and be among the living.'"

Conn had known Earl for a decade before finally hearing the story of the mission Earl was part of to rescue the 12 stranded sailors. That was this spring, he said, following a meeting at the VFW.

"All of a sudden, out of the blue, he started telling me the most amazing stories of combat I had ever heard," Conn said. "It was one of those things he had bottled up for years and he just wanted to talk about it."

In those days, Earl slept with his clothes and boots on, ready to bolt to the helicopter when summoned. Originally a helicopter mechanic, he could have gone back to the States after just one year. But he extended his tour, signing up as a door gunner throughout 1969. He saw action every day, living on adrenaline, and would have done it longer if the U.S. hadn't started sending in south Vietnamese troops instead.

"You become an adrenaline junkie, you might say," he said. "You were always running on high octane."

One afternoon at base, as he went through the lunch line, a loud voice boomed over the loudspeaker, "Scramble Seawolves, scramble the Seawolves."

Earl dropped his tray and scrambled.

Two helicopters set out to rescue the stranded Navy boats.

The boats included SEALS on a covert mission. Now that the Viet Cong knew where they were, and one lame boat was towing the disabled boat, the 12 men aboard were in imminent danger.

On the second chopper, Earl readied rockets and his machine gun for a fight. Both flew toward the canal, just above the jungle trees. The boat captain radioed that the AK-47 fire they were taking from along the canal and a nearby village was getting stronger.

The Seawolves began firing along the banks. Then they got another radio call. Enemy fire had hit someone on the boats, possibly severing an artery.

The lead helicopter descended through foliage, its rotor spitting out branches and leaves, and landed on one of the boats, balancing on one skid. The wounded sailor was loaded in and flown to a hospital. Earl's helicopter escorted the boats to a point where other sailors were able to reach them.

Documents backing up Earl's induction into the Honor Roll include a copy of a creased and faded letter from the wounded man, J.K. Parr. It appears to be dated 10 days after the incident.

"Without courageous actions of Seawolf 74 and 76, I feel that none of us would have made it out of the canal alive," Parr wrote.

Forty-nine years have passed since that day. Earl lost good friends in Vietnam. But he also remembers those 12 men who were able to return to their families.

Twelve names, he said, that would have otherwise ended up on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.