For the past months, I have been going through all the letters I wrote to my wife from SEA.
16 June 1973: just when I was getting somewhat settled into my combat routine – we lost one. An F-4 took a direct hit while dive-bombing a Triple-A position (AAA – Anti-aircraft artillery weapons). The aircraft went in, no chutes, no survivors. This was a real wake-up. When you fly there is a trap that many fall into complacency. We had been warned about this repeatedly at RTU. Although Cambodia was not as dangerous as flying north, it still was dangerous.
Years later, I learned more of the details about this loss. In 2009, I read Colonel Phil “Hands” Handley’s excellent account of his flying career: Nickel on the Grass. Handley told about his long friendship with GIB Captain Jack Smallwood and how he was stunned to learn of his death in Thailand in June 1973. Smallwood and his front seater had perished at the time – although then I did not know the crew’s names.
When I finished reading Handley’s book, I wrote to him personally and shared how I had heard of this event so long ago and how sad I was to learn of his loss then. He graciously replied to me, a stranger, and yet not so much a stranger, but a brother in arms. Although we had never met, we shared this deep bond across the years. The story of Jack Smallwood’s death so long ago had touched us both.
This was recently brought home to me in another way. I was admitted to the local hospital for a severe infection. The first night there I was alone. The next day an older gentleman joined me. After a time we talked. He was 99 and had served in WW II. As he told me his story, I could see him as a young man – he trained, as I did on a T-29, and became a bombardier on a B-17 .
In my mind’s eye I could see him in his flying gear boarding a B-17 as part of the Eighth Air Force attacks on Germany. That in itself was amazing to hear him tell me all this. He was a link to the great air armadas of the past, the massive formations of bombers in the skies over Europe to defeat Hitler. I have always admired the men who flew those missions in such deadly skies.
Then, he continued, on the twentieth mission he was shot down. He parachuted over the mountains of Austria and had a bad landing, breaking both legs. For the next eight months, he was a POW of the Germans. As he spoke, my hand raised in a full salute to him. My small way of thanking him for his service so long ago. A bonding moment between brothers of the air.
We were brothers. This is something those who have never served will not understand.