August 15, 2013 marked the 40th anniversary of the end of air combat missions during the Vietnam War.
While, the January 1973 Paris Peace Accords ostensibly ended military operations in North and South Vietnam, in Cambodia there was no peace in 1973. The U.S. Air Force continued to carry out a massive bombing campaign to try to stop movement on the Ho-Chi-Minh trail of supplies to South Vietnam. As anti-war pressure grew, in June 1973, the Congress cut off all funds for combat in Cambodia– effective 15 August 1973, effectively ending the Air War in SEA. And that is where I found myself at noon – flying the last “unofficial” F4 fighter combat mission out of Udorn RTAFB for the Vietnam War. But more on this later.
War happens on a large scale to nations. At this level, war is always in the third person, much as it is today in Afghanistan: It is their war. And yet, war has a way of insinuating itself into many, many lives.
Director Michael Cimino in The Deer Hunter uses a wedding sequence to show how this happens. The wedding scene is elaborate and involves all the protagonists of the movie, it moves along at a leisurely pace and then the young men encounter a soldier in the bar. It is never explained why he is there. He intrudes into the festivities of the wedding and abruptly the mood becomes darker. The wedding may be seen on another level as America – the soldier as our involvement in Vietnam.
War insinuated itself into my life in such a manner. It was June 1966, senior week at Hobart College and I was about to graduate on June 12. On June 9, 1966, in the midst of all the partying that always accompanies graduation; we received the news that Major Theodore Shorack, one of our ROTC instructors at Hobart had been killed in Vietnam. To say that Shorack’s death was a shock, is very much an understatement. With his crew-cut, military bearing, active concern for his students, and gung-ho attitude, he demonstrated the type of leadership that motivated young men. A Hobart friend said Shorack made him realize “ I had to get my grades up and graduate, pass the physical, get my commission as a Second Lieutenant, pass the 13 months of Flight School.” He was well liked by his students and neighbors in Geneva. Shorack’s death brought home the realization war could touch ordinary lives. When I picked the F-4 for my aircraft, I knew that I picked Vietnam as well and Shorack’s war became mine.
On August 15, 1973 over Cambodia, as a WSO and member of the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron, I flew on the last “unofficial” F4 fighter combat mission of the Vietnam War out of Udorn RTAFB. It had not been planned that way. As the end of combat approached, a lottery was held among the senior officers in Thailand to see who would fly the official last mission of the war. Our crew was on alert that morning and after the “official last fight” had taken off, we scrambled at about 10:30 a.m. and dropped our bombs just before noon , so we in effect became the last combat mission of the Vietnam War. The mission was flown in F4D tail number 279 and the mission took 2.2 hours.
At noon, combat missions ceased and the war ended. Right at noon, a message was broadcast over Guard, the command radio net, “Little Orphan Annie has crossed the Blue Ridge Bridge, I repeat, Little Orphan Annie has crossed the Blue Ridge Bridge.” We thought, what does that mean, wondering if it was a coded message announcing the end of the war. Then we heard the sound of a toilet flushing. That was how eight years of air combat ended.
Now we, who flew those missions and fought that war, are older men and perhaps more reflective on life. A friend from Hobart put it this way when I asked him about Ted Shorack’s death: “Every time I have seen the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C., I re-acquaint my awareness of his [Ted’s] block and line numbers on the Wall, touch his name, choke down a tear or two and wonder why?” On August 13, 2013 I sat for a moment and thought of Ted Shorack and all those others who gave so much, perhaps too much so long ago.
A version of this piece appeared on Memorial Day Weekend 2013 in the Geneva, New York Finger Lakes Times.
Addendum: I wrote this piece in 2013 in honor of my mentor Major Theodore Shorack who died over South Vietnam in 1966, it was a Memorial Day piece as mentioned above. I have recently heard of other “last flights” — ours was the last one out of Udorn to that I can attest as I have a recording of the mission, which I donated to the current 13 TFS several years ago and most recently gave the original audio tape to the Air Force museum in Dayton.