McCain’s air war, and mine

For Vietnam-era carrier pilots, the danger began on the flight deck.

Courtesy of Brad Knickerbocker
L. to r.: Lt. Brad Knickerbocker, Lt. Cmdr. Wayne Fairbanks, Lt. (j.g.) Cliff Klingler, and Lt. John Paron aboard the USS Coral Sea before a mission in 1969.

My first words over North Vietnam in 1968 were “Hey XO, they’re shooting at us.”

I was flying on the wing of squadron executive officer Marvin Naschek, both of us in Navy A-4 Skyhawk jets off the USS Coral Sea, and we had just crossed into enemy territory. “I know,” Commander Naschek said. “Keep moving.” It was a fraught conversation in just 10 words.

It was my first combat mission, and for a nanosecond or two, I had thought the gray puffs around us were fireworks. But no, it was antiaircraft fire. We jinked – changed heading and altitude every few seconds – in hopes of spoiling the North Vietnamese gunners’ aim.

I thought of that day when reading about the flap between Donald Trump and Sen. John McCain. Mr. Trump had implied that Senator McCain was not a war hero because he had been captured.

My Vietnam combat tour (1968-69) came at a relatively quiet period in the air war. President Lyndon Johnson hoped to get peace talks going by instituting a pause in the bombing over North Vietnam. So my squadron’s missions were limited to the area just below the demilitarized zone separating North and South Vietnam, although we often slipped into Laos, working with Air Force forward air controllers to attack trucks, storage areas, antiaircraft sites, and other military targets along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

McCain had been shot down the previous year, when US air raids were directed at North Vietnamese targets around Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor.

While the opposition I encountered was sporadic and limited to “Triple A” (antiaircraft artillery), McCain faced MiG fighters as well as Russian-made surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), typically described as “flying telephone poles.”

Although the air defenses we faced were lighter, they were enough to prevent complacency. My squadron of about 20 aircraft and aviators lost four Skyhawks and two pilots. (The other two managed to eject over the water and were rescued by helicopter.)

The US military lost more than 300 A-4s in Vietnam – some to accidents, most to enemy action. I knew many of those lost, including two I’d roomed with – Dean Smith, shot down on his first mission, and Jim Dooley, who had been in McCain’s squadron on the USS Oriskany.

Jim Busey had been in that squadron as well, later commanding my squadron, then becoming a four-star admiral. Flying with McCain and Mr. Dooley, then-Lieutenant Commander Busey was awarded the Navy Cross for pressing his attack on a power plant as leader of a six-plane formation even though his jet had been severely damaged. 

McCain’s last mission was similar, although the outcome was different. The target was a power plant in Hanoi. McCain knew he was being tracked by enemy radar, but he kept up his diving attack, pulling off target just as a SAM blew off one of the Skyhawk’s wings, sending him into an uncontrolled vertical inverted spin. Both his arms and a leg were fractured during his high-speed ejection.

After 5-1/2 years of captivity, which included torture and long periods of isolation, he was released along with 591 American POWs in March 1973. 

I knew McCain, who was one of my flight instructors in 1965. He was a very demanding, sometimes abusive, teacher. Flight students – including me – dreaded flying with him. When I met him again years later, the first thing he said was “I’m sorry for the way I was then.” In his autobiography, he explains (while not justifying) his behavior as him being driven to see that his students survived combat.

What may be hard for civilians to understand – especially in this age of drone warfare – are the routine demands of flying then. The world McCain (and I) worked in could be extremely dangerous, even discounting combat.

Catapult launches and arrested landings – when the weather is good and everything in the aircraft is working properly – are almost routine. But never at night. I once had to be led down to a landing by another aircraft when I had lost my radios – at night and low on fuel. A fire on the USS Forrestal killed 134 sailors when a Zuni rocket misfired and struck the fuel tank on another jet.

A few months after that first combat mission on which I was his wingman, Naschek was catapulted off the Coral Sea at night. He never radioed a “Mayday,” but something happened – vertigo, perhaps, or an electrical failure – and he disappeared into the waters of the South China Sea.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to