COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) - A local veteran got the surprise of a lifetime when his phone rang one night. Someone found his military gear that was taken decades ago.
Col. James Randall, Ret. USAF, sits next to his helmet.
"I never, ever thought that I'd see that helmet again," Col. James Randall, ret. USAF, told 11 News reporter Katie Pelton.
The story begins in 1965 when Randall's F-105 fighter jet got shot down over North Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
"I was on my 44th mission and I got shot down over North Vietnam," Randall said. "I retained my helmet – most people when they eject from those airplanes, they lose their helmets."
Randall said he took cover as soon as he landed and saw the enemy nearby.
"I could hear these voices getting closer, so I stopped and there was a flat area next to the side of the hill and I was lying there and I had my head turned," he said. "I looked down and I saw them collect my helmet, my survival kit, parachute. And after they had everything together they start going in the direction where the airplane had crashed."
He was later rescued. He had an injured leg and said he likely broke his neck from the fall.
That was the last time he would see his helmet for nearly 50 years, until a stranger called.
"The phone rang, it was about 8 o'clock at night," Randall said. "He said, 'Well I know where your helmet is.' I said 'You what?' He said 'I know where your helmet is.'"
They sent Randall a picture of it.
"I looked at it, and it is my helmet, and I couldn't believe it."
It turns out a Frenchman found the helmet in a flea market in Cambodia.
"There was a businessman that lived in Cambodia, had been down to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon and he was walking down the street and he passed … a flea market and he happened to look in there and he saw this helmet hanging up there and he said, 'That looks like an American helmet,'" Randall said.
"So he went in and it still had my name on it, the squadron insignia was on it," he added. "It was all intact just like you see right there, only a little dirtier. I washed it off.”
That businessman and an American man from Lincoln spent 25 years trying to find Randall.
“When this gentlemen from Lincoln, Nebraska went over to Cambodia, he knew the gentlemen in Cambodia that had it," Randall explained.
"He put a notice in some type of military paper there in Cambodia and an American that was in the outfit with me in Kansas called it and said, 'I know who he is, and as far as I know he’s in Colorado, but I don’t know where.'"
"So the gentleman from Lincoln got on the phone and started going through the telephone directories and found me a mile from where he was," said Col. Randall.
Ironically, the man from Lincoln was visiting family in Colorado Springs.
“There was a Tuskegee Airman convention in St. Louis a month or so later and the gentlemen ... brought the helmet to St. Louis and presented it to me at the convention," Randall said. "That’s how I got my helmet back.”
The rest is history. Although the helmet's journey is still a mystery.
“I was in North Vietnam when I got shot down and from North Vietnam to Saigon is probably well over 1,000 miles," Randall said. "How that helmet got from North Vietnam to that flea market in Ho Chi Minh City – I’ll never know. We’ll never know. I don’t know how it got down there.”
Just recently Randall was honored at a Nuggets game in Denver for his amazing story.
Col. Randall retired in 1980 after nearly 32 years of service.
"Sometimes I look over there and I just can't believe all that has happened to me in my short lifespan," Col. Randall added.