In the annals of military history, there are countless tales of bravery and selflessness that leave a lasting impact on our collective memory. Most stories tell of heroic actions in battle, but those who serve may be called upon at any time to make a fateful decision. One such remarkable story is that of Navy Ensign Albert Hickman, a fighter jet pilot who made the ultimate sacrifice to prevent a tragedy at an elementary school.
On a fateful day in 1959, Ensign Albert Hickman, a young and courageous pilot, found himself facing a life-or-death situation. It was a routine training flight in his F3H Demon. Hickman, just 21 years old, practiced carrier landings that morning and then headed back toward NAS Miramar where he was assigned to land. While flying relatively low, just 2,000 feet above the ground, his engine suddenly gave out. As Ensign Hickman’s plane hurtled towards disaster, he quickly assessed the situation. Realizing that ejecting from his malfunctioning aircraft would send it crashing into a populated area, specifically the nearby Hawthorn Elementary School, he made a fateful and selfless decision. Determined to spare the lives of over 700 innocent children, he chose not to eject, but to stay aboard and guide the doomed jet away from the school.
Ensign Hickman’s courage and dedication to duty were truly extraordinary. With a calm yet resolute demeanor, he skillfully maneuvered the failing aircraft away from the path of the elementary school. Despite the imminent danger, he stayed on board, knowing that his actions would inevitably lead to his own demise. His sacrifice ensured the safety of the children and the surrounding community, at the cost of his own life.
Ensign Albert Hickman’s valor did not go unnoticed. His selfless act of heroism earned him recognition and respect from his fellow servicemen and the wider public. Hickman was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the highest non-combat medal awarded for heroism.
60 years later, Debra Dawson, a Hawthorne Elementary student who witnessed the event, recalled what happened.
“I was born into a Navy family like so many children in Clairemont at that time. The sounds of jets and sonic booms were everyday occurrences nobody thought anything about it, it didn’t disrupt our lives.”
“But that day on the playground there was a sound that was out of the ordinary and it caused many of us, including myself, to stop and take note and look up into the direction of the sound. As I did, I saw this jet making a very controlled glide and I could not take my eyes off of it. The reality of it hit me when I saw the fireball and it happened right outside of our playground and as you can imagine chaos ensued.”
“As an 8 year old child I had one view of that day, but as I have grown older it has taken on a much more profound acknowledgment of what happened that day. A 21-year-old man had the wherewithal and the compassion in his heart and the heroism in his soul, not to bail out, not to save himself but to save a playground at a school filled with children and teachers. There are no words to explain what he did, there’s nothing that I can say to give thanks to his parents for giving birth to a man that saved my life, that saved the lives of my schoolmates.”