On February 22, 2017, I will celebrate the 50th anniversary of escaping from a burning Air Force attack-bomber at just 700 feet off the ground about three seconds before it exploded in a ball of flame. Decades later, Brigadier General Harry C. “Heine” Aderhold, a legend in the Air Commandos, who had witnessed the spectacular explosion in the night sky, told me that the fireball was brighter than the sun. He and others had been watching anxiously from the ground as a barely flyable, burning A-26 approached Nakhon Phanom Thai Air Base for an attempted single-engine crash landing on its 6000-foot pierced-steel-planking runway. The fireball they witnessed was an A-26K twin-prop Counterinvader returning from a combat mission on the border between Laos and North Vietnam. The A-26 had no ejection seats. Captain (now retired Colonel) J. L. McCleskey and I had to blow off the canopy, un-strap our seat belts and shoulder-harnesses, and leap for the burning wings, hoping to miss the tail and for our chutes to open in time to save us. The flames had already enveloped enough of our aircraft to severely hinder its control. I had to make two exit attempts, because on my first try, the wind stream had knocked me back into the cockpit and entangled me in my shoulder harness. As I made my second desperate lunge, my only prayer was: “Lord, unto your hands I commit my spirit” (Psalm 31:5a).
Air Force “Jolly Green” helicopters rescued us within in 30 minutes. With a badly broken right foot, I could not walk. Air Force Sergeant Duane Hackney of Iowa, who later received the Air Force Cross for his heroic action on a mission less than two weeks before, had to carry me onto the helicopter. I had participated in the same February 7 rescue mission and knew first hand of his extraordinary valor and harrowing experience as the only survivor of his helicopter crew. He was rescued due to the incredible determination and courage of a second helicopter crew. It was a heartbreaking story but the most valiant scene of military daring I have ever witnessed. A year later, Hackney and I wound up in the same HC-130 Rescue Squadron in California. He told me then that the night I was rescued was his first mission since his miraculous rescue from a burning hillside. He admitted to being very apprehensive.
The A-26 squadron (call sign Nimrod) generally flew our night armed reconnaissance missions in pairs. Our companion A-26 and a C-130 flare-ship had accompanied us back from the site of our attack on a large convoy of North Vietnamese trucks and blazing gun-duel with three anti-aircraft guns. The C-130 remained high and was already coordinating with Air Rescue, but the other A-26 bravely flew underneath us several times to check on battle damage and the extent of a fire in our wheel-well that was being fed from a fuel tank puncture. I remember vividly the pilot’s words: “Your wheel-well is still on fire.” After a moment’s pause came: “My God! Your whole wing is on fire. Get out! Get out!” With the difficulties already mentioned, I was finally able to hurl myself toward the right wing, while McCleskey did the same on the left. Seconds later, our chutes opened, but debris from our exploding aircraft hit the other A-26 and killed both crewmembers instantly. Their fate was not known until the next day.
Our short-lived joy of survival was thus quenched by the loss of two good friends. They had been my roommates for several months in training. They were both married, and one had three small boys. McCleskey and I received some injuries from the low altitude bailout and debris from our exploding aircraft. McCleskey recovered in about six weeks, but my recovery took over five months. Nobody who claims to like war is on familiar terms with reality, or else they just don’t understand the math of probability. I dreamed about the incident almost every night for a month, while in the hospital, reliving the anxiety and loss. The dreams went away, but the memory never leaves. I enjoy watching July 4 fireworks and Civil War artillery demonstrations but seeing news films of anti-aircraft tracers and bursts makes me a little uneasy. But I also see as brothers and sisters every member of our Armed Forces and the veterans of many wars.
Why do I share all this? The why can be seen in a poem, In Flanders Fields, written by Canadian Army Surgeon, Lt. Col. John McRae just before his death in 1918. The last five lines are:
“To you from falling hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.”