John McCain's air war over Vietnam. And mine.

In an age when much of aerial combat seems to involve pilotless drones, it may be difficult to comprehend the dangers of military flying. Vietnam tested many pilots, including Sen. John McCain and one Monitor reporter.

Courtesy of Brad Knickerbocker
(L-r.) Lt. Brad Knickerbocker, Lcdr. Wayne Fairbanks, Ltjg. Cliff Klingler, and Lt. John Paron aboard the USS Coral Sea about to launch on a combat mission over Vietnam 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 aircraft carrier, and we had just crossed the beach 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 37mm or maybe 57mm antiaircraft fire. We “jinked” – changing heading and altitude every few seconds in hopes of spoiling the North Vietnamese gunners’ aim.

I thought of that day in 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 during the air war. Then-President Lyndon Johnson hoped to get the peace talks going by instituting a bombing pause over North Vietnam – first limiting such missions to the southern part of the North (away from Hanoi and Haiphong harbor) and then just to territory south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating what were then South and North Vietnam.

With that, my squadron’s missions – flown at night as well as during the day – were limited to the area just below the DMZ (largely in support of US ground forces), although as often as not we crossed South Vietnam into Laos, working with United States Air Force forward air controllers to attack trucks, storage areas, antiaircraft sites, and other military targets along the Ho Chi Minh trail (which was actually a network of trails under the triple-canopy jungle).

McCain had been shot down the previous year when US air power – Navy aircraft aboard carriers and Air Force fighters and bombers out of bases in Thailand – was directed at North Vietnamese targets around Hanoi and Haiphong.

While the opposition I encountered was sporadic and limited to “Triple A” (antiaircraft artillery), McCain faced North Vietnamese 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 certainly enough to prevent complacency. My squadron of about 20 aircraft and aviators lost four Skyhawks and two pilots. (The other two pilots made it back out over the water, where they ejected and were picked up by rescue helicopters.)

The rate of attrition during McCain’s tour in 1967 was much higher. In all, the US Navy and US Marine Corps lost more than 300 A-4’s during the Vietnam War – some to accidents, most to enemy action. I knew many of those lost, including two pilots I had roomed with – Dean Smith, shot down on his first mission, and Jim Dooley, who had been in the same squadron with McCain aboard the USS Oriskany.

Jim Busey had been in that squadron as well, later becoming commanding officer of my squadron, then going on to become a four-star admiral. Flying with John McCain and Jim Dooley, then-Lieutenant Commander Busey was awarded the Navy Cross (the nation’s second-highest military award) for pressing on with his attack on a thermal power plant as leader of a six-plane formation even though his aircraft had been severely damaged, then evading four SAMs while heading back to the aircraft carrier.

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

After 5-1/2 years of captivity, which included torture and long periods of isolation (and a refusal to accept early release offered when North Vietnamese officials learned that McCain’s father was the admiral in charge of all US forces in the Pacific Command), he was released along with 591 American prisoners of war in March 1973. Lt. Everett Alvarez Jr. – the first American pilot to be shot down and captured – had been a POW for more than eight years.

I knew John McCain, who was one of my flight instructors when I was in basic jet training in 1965 at the naval air station in Meridian, Miss. He was a very demanding, sometimes abusive, teacher, and 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, “Faith of My Fathers,” he explains (while not justifying) his behavior as his being driven to see that his flight students survived once they got to the fleet.

What may be hard for most civilians to understand – especially in an age when most aerial combat is in the form of drones with pilots sitting comfortably in bunkers halfway around the world – are the routine demands of such flying. The world John McCain (and I) worked in as much younger men 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 – can become almost routine. 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. Another time at night, I had to lead another “nordo” (no radio) aircraft to a landing.

Later, when I was a Navy flight instructor, I had to eject from an A-7 Corsair. Being blasted out of the cockpit is always a violent maneuver, but once clear of the aircraft my parachute descent over the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas was peaceful. I later joked that if I had "punched out" over Berkeley in those days, I probably would have been taken prisoner.

The deck of an aircraft carrier can be unforgiving. When I was flying, pilots (most were young officers) were paid an extra $100 a month hazardous duty pay; sailors working on the flight deck (many of them teenagers with enormous responsibilities for the aircraft and flight operations) earned an extra $50 a month.

A young sailor was killed there on one of my tours and another lost a leg when he was sucked into a jet engine. When he began flying in Vietnam in 1967, McCain was nearly killed during a flight deck fire on the USS Forrestal, which killed 134 sailors and injured 161 when an electrical anomaly fired a Zuni rocket across the deck, striking the fuel tank on another combat jet.

Was McCain a war hero? He would not say so. In his autobiography, he writes of his fellow prisoners: "They were a lantern for me, a lantern of courage and faith that illuminated the way home with honor, and I struggled against panic and despair to stay in its light." If anything, Trump diminishes himself by snidely discounting McCain’s service as somehow less than heroic.

A few months after that first combat mission on which I was his wingman, Commander 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.

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