In this divisive time, real news/fake news, patriotic/unpatriotic, heroes and pretenders, some perspective might be appropriate. It seems appropriate that I write this story, because I continue to be baffled that, how, for political expediency, Donald Trump felt it was okay to attack John McCain because of his being shot down and captured during Vietnam. Add to that attack, the Trumpian attacks against the intelligence and justice community, as well as his demand for a military parade—an idea rejected by President Eisenhower because according to him, “it makes us look weak” and the story, I am about to relate, becomes more than just another war story.
This is not my story, but it is a real story as told to me by a life-long friend, Jim Horn, who lived it, felt it, and remembers it, so just maybe we can walk back from the precipice of division that our President and his minions foment to keep, or take power.
To gain context, we return to August 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam. On August 2, 4, 1964, the USS Maddox was involved in an incident that led to direct involvement in the War in Vietnam by the United States (the U.S. had been providing advisors to South Vietnam prior to this). Following the incident reports (now believed to be largely exaggerated) told of a confrontation between North Vietnamese ships and planes and the Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, the United States Congress passed, on August 7, 1964, the Tonkin Resolution which authorized the President to send U.S. troops to southeast Asia without further authorization from Congress (this resolution was repealed in 1967), but many more would go before the war ended.
In October, 1967, ironically, John McCain was shot down over North Vietnam, captured, held prisoner and tortured, finally released at the end of the war, in 1973. Senator McCain is important to this story for two reasons: (1) being shot down and captured, and (2) being denigrated by a politician because of this very thing and his willingness to talk truth to power even in the face of attempts to belittle him.
It is the belittling of McCain by, then candidate Trump, and McCain’s fight with cancer, that made the telling of this particular story, at this time, all-the-more important.
JULY 25, 1970, 1800 Hours, a Wednesday, aboard a cruiser in the Gulf of Tonkin. How do I remember? Well, it’s an event that has never left me. The details wander in and out of my mind, but they never leave and now, at 69, in a world of politics by division and personal attacks, it seems that I need to tell the story of success, failure and what conflict brings.
Positive Identification Radar Advisory Zone (PIRAZ), located in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam, part of a carrier group that, among other things, launched air attacks over North Vietnam. Our ship, however, had a wholly different role. We were watching and listening to learn the intentions and actions of the enemy and to aid in responding appropriately. Further, we provided radar and general support, including rescue, for the carrier and the planes that were launched to aid in the war effort.
This zone is where I could be found on July 25, 1970. As a radioman, I rarely saw the light of day. Radiomen worked 8 hours on and 8 hours off, 24/7 and rarely were found on deck, but, daily, I was listening to the sounds of those directly in the fray, knowing that my responses and focus could well mean life or death. This day, however, I had occasion to be in the open air for a short while because my job brought me there. The weather was overcast, but with a high sky and the water was glass smooth. It was the kind of smooth you could have seen on Lake Martin, near my home of Dadeville, Alabama, shortly after a summer thunderstorm passed through and the weather calmed—think mirror.
The daily work had been normal, with sorties being launched by the carrier and the radar ships, like mine, listening and watching, as we were assigned. Occasionally, we provided support to different branches, particularly the Air Force, when they were flying into our area. An air controller was designated as “flight follower” for each Navy or Air Force formation of strike aircraft to track the strike’s progress and offer information required to complete the mission. Flight followers worked with as many as 24 aircraft on a single frequency.
On this July day, a plane crashed, a NAVY, F-4, flying Combat Air Patrol, which meant that it circled the area around the ships on guard duty, if you will, to protect the ships and returning aircraft from any MIG fighters that might come out of North Vietnam. It was the starboard lookout that made the call of a plane down. What happened to the plane is truly unknown, even today, but the distress was sudden and catastrophic, leaving little, or no, time for the pilot and weapons officer (navigator) to make any decisions. It was known that the weapons officer/navigator was in the water, but no one had seen the pilot eject.
All we knew was that the wounded plane was in the water and our ship was called to general quarters. General quarters’ calls meant everyone, NOW. I had been in the mess, having dinner, and felt our engines begin to spool up to full power so I headed to the radio room and upon arriving found all the stations manned, and, being curious, I went to a location where I could observe what was happening. As I was coming on deck, I observed one of my fellow sailors, T.C. Combs, climbing high, carrying a rifle. He was going up to the roof over the bridge in order shoot sharks as they would inevitably come and would be a very real danger to anyone in the water.
At top speed, we raced to the downed navigator. Our “whale” boat with 4 crewmen and a diver was lowered into the water and rushed to the one man we could see. It took about half an hour to get him back on board and though we were able to rescue him from the waters, the plane, with the pilot on board sank quickly. The Gulf of Tonkin is about 230 feet deep where the plane went down. and the diver, along with others, searched for the pilot, but to no avail.
We never saw the pilot, but I, along with others, would learn from the navigator that the pilot likely stayed with the plane to insure it would not hit any of the ships that were racing to provide help.
The reason for the crash may never be known, since it is unlikely that the U.S. Government will ever retrieve the plane. We are left to speculate whether, or not, there were mechanical issues or hostile fire, but the result is undisputed.
I have never shaken the feeling that the pilot could have saved himself, nor have I ever lost sight of the fact that this man, whom I did not know, took the action that he did to insure the safety of people he did not know.
This pilot was not a loser. Like John McCain, he did his duty and suffered for his actions. Is this a man that should, for purely political reasons, be belittled by any politician, especially one who did not serve in any capacity—no reserve, no National Guard, no active duty, no alternative service? I think not.
That pilot, on July 25, 1970, died serving his country, died saving the lives of people he did not know, and to my knowledge is likely at the bottom of the Gulf of Tonkin today. John McCain suffered injuries, torture and imprisonment for 6 long years and, along with others like him, did this in service of this country. Neither man was given a military parade for his sacrifice, nor has McCain demanded one.
We are still sending young men and women to war and making “mouth-noises” of support, while providing not near enough support after they return, but even that pales in comparison with the neglect shown those who returned from Vietnam, so no one has the right to denigrate these men and women for their service, their wounds or their deaths.
The hubris of our President, a man who sits in what is supposed to be the most important governmental chair in the world, is astounding. He feels compelled to belittle anyone who disagrees or challenges his world view, whatever his world view might be, because he has, certainly, demonstrated that his views are malleable. Everything is about him, personally. He would spend tens of millions of dollars for a parade, ostensibly to show power, rather than provide services for veterans. There is not a self-sacrificing bone in his body.
He plays to the worst in all of us—pitting races against each other, pitting rich versus poor, sick versus well, educated against those who seek knowledge. How can he even come close to understanding the mind of John McCain, or that pilot who still sits at the bottom of the Gulf of Tonkin?
I lay no claim to all the answers, but I know a bully when I see and hear one and Trump is just that. He is a man for his own season. He has sold many a bill of goods based on hate and manipulation and my fear is that by the time he is through, we may not be able to recover.
While the words and opinions of the commentary are mine, I cannot take credit for the story. This is the experience of Jim Horn, my friend and high school classmate. The experiences are his and the impact of these events remain with him 48 years later. As you read this, try to put yourself on that cruiser and feel what Jim felt on that summer evening. Feel what the family of the multitudes of pilots, navigators, Marines, Sailors and Soldiers might feel when their efforts are belittled because they were the victims of the hazards of war.
While John McCain survived his ordeal, many did not and anyone who would denigrate Senator McCain’s service does a disservice to the office holds and, moreover, to the other people who have served. We, as a republic, cannot tolerate this kind of attitude and then ask our young men and women to put themselves in harm’s way.
In telling this story, I am confident that Jim Horn agrees that John McCain was done a disservice by candidate Trump and the fact that President Trump has not personally and publicly apologized for his disrespectful words diminishes the office he, Trump, holds.
By publishing this story, I wish to acknowledge the service of John McCain, the unknown missing pilot, and all soldiers, no matter their role, male, female, gay or straight. Thank you.