My father is a Vietnam veteran.
I did not find out what that really meant until December 31st, 2006; when my life changed, forever.
My father and I were not the closest throughout my childhood, and that one strange night in 2006 changed my life, his life and our relationship forever. Growing up in Australia and my father here, (in America), all I knew was that my father was a Vietnam Veteran. I had no idea who or what he was in the Naval service. On this New Years eve night I found out that my father was a real life hero, and so much more than that. He lived without fear, and did things not many other people could; he was awarded the prestigious ‘top gun’ award as a fighter pilot. But most of all, he was honored and proud to protect and serve his country.
After spending a brief, but intense hour that night talking to him about Vietnam and what being a ‘top-gun’ pilot meant, I decided I had to hear more about this before he rushed his departure back to Florida in the morning. So, I met him for breakfast at a local diner the next morning. I was flooded with questions! Who was this man? What was a fighter pilot? I realized I didn’t even know much about him or our own family!
We sat and talked about his service, my childhood, and his own relationship with his father. It felt like the first real conversation I had ever had with my father (in 25 years). He shared what it was like growing up on a farm in Minnesota on welfare, and how joining the service seemed to be the best option for his future. I will get into the military aspect in a second, but the two things that I will never forget from that conversation to me were: that he never really got the chance to say goodbye to his father before joining the service, and this caused him tremendous pain. And that he was sorry I was never shown ‘a good example of a loving relationship growing up’.
We both cried! We sat in that diner for three and a half hours, (until they kicked us out). It was very intense. Amazing! Over-whelming! Who was this veteran? He was hero??? Who was this father that I feel I had never given any opportunity at all to get to know? Well, I was about to find out.
He left for Florida shortly after our breakfast. I could not think of anything else. I had to get to know my Father and find out about this war he never spoke of for the first 25 years of my life.
I started doing as much research as possible on the Vietnam war; (mostly the ‘air’ part of it), due to my father’s involvement as a fighter pilot, on an aircraft carrier in the navy.
The best book I read was called ‘Scream of Eagles – The creation of Top Gun and the U.S Air Victory in Vietnam’ By Robert Wilcox.
I spent the next three months watching documentaries, reading and learning anything I could on the Vietnam war and his involvement. I also went to Florida to visit him a several times in the next month. We would just sit and talk for hours and hours about his service. This started to feel like the stuff great movies are made out of.
He initially joined the navy as something to do, to become something, and he had no intentions or idea of the hero, idol, top-gun fighter pilot, and life-long inspiration (to me and others) he would soon become.
He joined the service at 18, and went through all the usual aptitude tests. After his testing, it became very apparent that he was no ordinary enlisted individual. He scored in all the top tiers, and was given the suggestion to pursue becoming the highly sought after position: Fighter Pilot. (I would imagine this was quite an honor. Most Naval Pilots attend four years of Naval Aviator training, after enlisting, before even considering becoming any kind of Pilot). Well, one thing led to another and he became a pilot; Not just any pilot, but a very talented fighter pilot. He specialized in night bombing missions (which not many pilots can do). Never mind having over 400 missions, THREE tours and THREE Distinguished Flying Cross Medals. (DFC Citations are seen here:)
At one point he was THE youngest, most decorated lieutenant in the Navy; and was invited to the annual Naval Ball as a guest of honor. He was also shot down 11/11/72 (Veterans Day) over land and somehow managed to actually turn his plane around and eject over water (otherwise he would have been a P.O.W!) Wow. I cannot even begin to fathom what that must have taken for him, the courage to push through that kind of fear, a real testament to his incredible valor. When he told me this story, what he was most upset about, was the fact that he was flying someone else’s jet that night; and sorry it was now on the bottom of the South China Sea! Most pilots would have turned in their wings after a night like that. Not my Dad. My father was able to gather up the tenacity to get right back into a jet the very NEXT day, he believed he had no other choice; because if he even considered letting his fear get to him, even one little bit; he would never have flown again.
UPDATE: A few years later, I heard the ACTUAL recording of when he was shot down. Words cannot even begin to describe the emotional journey my Dad & I shared listening to that recording. As I write this, the TEARS are flowing. I have parts of that original recording here, and just absolutely had to listen to it again right now, as I write this.
There are so many astonishing things about my Father & the Navy as a whole in this recording. You can actually hear my Father say to his wing-man Ray Oswald: “OK,Gotta go Oz”. And he sounded so impossibly CALM. I cannot, even for one fraction of a second fathom what was going through his mind at that exact moment. I also got to hear his wing-man ‘Ray-Ray’ Oswald, say ‘Are we going to attempt another pick up?” As he kept circling over-head, WHILE he was running low on fuel, because he would be damned if he, under ANY circumstance was going to LEAVE my father, his wing-man, ever. (Also, the helicopter that was sent in, had to attempt the pick up twice, due to dense fog and getting vertigo the first try, meanwhile, this entire recording is almost 30 minutes long, and my father is sitting in the middle of the South China Sea, in the dead of night.). At the end of the recording, you can hear the helicopter say “OK, we’ve got him aboard”. The goose-bumps, and relief I feel in every fiber of my body, never dissipates, no matter how many times I hear that one sentence.
Man, the tears… I cannot stop crying; for many reasons, first of all, that I am grateful beyond words that I did not lose the opportunity to know this incredible human-being who became my father, and secondly, all the collective courage among these hero’s that call themselves men. The way that they are somehow able to keep themselves composed, staring directly into the face of danger, and certain death is nothing short of unfathomable, righteous character.
I was also informed, the man on that night, in radio control was actually one of my Dad’s old students from his flight training days. (After my father’s first tour in Vietnam, he did a tour in the U.S, VT-23 in Texas as a flight instructor, and of course he was younger than his students!)
The school of Top Gun was initiated as we were losing the air portion of the Vietnam war; we lost scores of U.S pilots; with one main cause. Dog-fighting (a form of Ariel combat between fighter aircraft; in particular, combat of maneuver at short-range) had been outlawed. The reason was, the U.S had created increasingly greater speeds and longer range weapons, for their fighter aircraft that would push dog-fighting to be obsolete. We would be able to out run and out gun any opponent…or so we thought.
Unfortunately this was not the case. The Vietnamese were supplied with Russian MIG fighter aircraft. These jets, although smaller, and not nearly as powerful (artillery and engine wise) as our U.S planes, were highly maneuverable. They were able to ‘turn faster’ if you will, into American planes, from behind lets say, and therefore able to get within range to use their dog fighting weapons, that we were not equipped with.
So Top-Gun was created to reintroduce ‘dog fighting’. Only the top 5% of pilots from any given attack squadron were even invited to this school.
The top performer of each class would be awarded with ‘Top Gun’. My father was one of selected, special few.
Even as I type this, I get a teary-eyed. What is amazing is, through learning all this, I have also had the absolute pleasure to come to know my father. He is one of my best friends. We learned we are very similar, and I do not know where in the world I would be without him as such a mentor and inspiration in my life. Knowing my father has given me the courage and strength to overcome many of life’s difficulties, which I am certain I could not have been able to, had I not had his support and known of his inexorable bravery.
I also paid a tribute to him, in the form of tattoos (which I am sure he wishes I hung a painting or something instead, lol):
And I made my father this tribute video. These are ACTUAL photos of my father taking off from an aircraft carrier. Him & I cannot watch this with a dry eye!
Thank you for taking the time to read this, and get to hear & know first hand, a real life hero.