We were approaching the coast just below Vinh only twenty minutes after leaving the carrier Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV-42) on duty in Yankee Station. For weeks we had been hitting the docks of Haiphong and the other ports of North Vietnam and there was scarcely a target left. We had been lucky so far in having lost few aircraft, mostly to AA and small arms due to our low approaches. The sky had been filled with Russian-made SAMs, but they could not lock on target at such low altitudes. We merely flew through and around them like some kind of aerial pinball wizards. It was our fighters, the F-4s, who flew our cover at altitude that were in danger from those flying telephone poles. The fighter boys, guys like Bill "Ace" Driscoll and Randy "Duke" Cunningham, flew lazily around the sky at forty thousand feet bagging the occasional Mig and getting all the glory while we attack squadrons hammered the enemy in anonymity.
I had been flying an A-4 in Attack Squadron 12 (VA-12) for a year now. Like all green naval aviators I was disappointed that I had not been assigned to fighters, but then I learned that we are hitting the enemy where it hurts while the fighter jocks are just glorified stunt pilots.
Every outfit has a nickname, a handle. We were the "Flying Ubangi's," also known as the "Kiss of Death" squadron. Our logo was a human skull blowing a kiss.
Today's mission was something new. We would cross over the isthmus of North Viet Nam and hit targets on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Our fighter escort would stay behind to cover the Mig bases around Vinh while we carried our heavy ordinance to an unwary enemy that wasn't expecting us. After the strike we would link up again with the escorts over the coast for the trip back to Yankee Station. I was wingman for Lt. Cmdr. William A. Nelson, a veteran of Korea who had over 500 carrier landings and who knows how many hours in the air. As we weren't anticipating any Migs, SAMs or even serious AA resistance, we were prepared for a cake walk. The ground war in the South was growing stronger and the Army was on our ass to do something about the continual NVA re-supply down the trail.
Migs were clearly visible on the tarmacs of the scattered airfields around Vinh as we flew over at 35,000 feet. If they decided to come up for a challenge, Cunningham and the boys would tackle them. Further, the SAMs were being suppressed by USAF Wild Weasels out of Thailand and could not concentrate on us. I could see the explosions below that reminded me of the Fourth of July of my youth on Black Lake in Olympia, Washington.
It was there as a child that I first knew I wanted to fly. World War Two brought a fighter base to Tumwater, Olympia Field, and though I was very young I can remember the fighters roaring over our house. I thought the P-38 Lightnings that flew out of there were the most beautiful planes ever to fly. Maybe I still do. In those days the Air Corps and later the Air Force kept the polished aluminum fuselages shiny bright. Nowadays buffed aluminum was common to Soviet Bloc aircraft, while we tended to use blue, white or camouflage green. I didn't want to see the flash of aluminum anymore. That'd be the certain first sign of a Mig. The second would be his air-to-air missile going up my ass.
It only took about ten minutes to cross NVM and we began our steep decent down upon our targets like hawks dropping down on quail. The squadron had split up into groups of two to spread the strike out and of course lower the possibility of midair collision.
I kept close to Commander Nelson until the break. We were suppose to make two bomb passes and if possible two more strafing runs if there were visible targets. Otherwise we were to save our gun ammo in case of Migs on our trip back. I thought this foolish as even a half-ass commie Mig pilot could take out an A-4. Hence the need for the Phantoms to cover us.
Our targets were merely coordinates on a chart. We were depending on intelligence gathered by CIA operatives and their Lao allies behind the lines. As far as I could tell there was nothing down there but forest. Nelson gave the order to break.
"Obangi leader to all ships. Break formation and begin descent. Obangi 2 stay on my port side."
"Obangi 2, roger" I responded. I really didn't know where we were, I'm glad he did. These targets were not at all like the cranes, warehouses and boats of the harbors on the coast.
We dropped down in a fast dive. I concentrated on an innocent patch of forest to lay down my bombs and just hoped there was something under them. Our speed approached Mach, a dive being the only time an A-4 could hit that speed. We had to release early enough to climb out and late enough to be accurate. I dropped my load at about two thousand feet and barely had time to pull out before my own ordinance began going off behind me. After all, my bombs were dropping at the same speed I was. As I pulled hard on the stick and gave more throttle the G forces pushed me deep into my seat but I could see out of the corner of my eye the explosions from my comrade's bombs as they scored hits on their targets. The telltale signs of secondary explosions proved our intelligence was accurate. After pulling up and breaking to starboard as previously ordered in the briefing, I nearly collided with the transaxle of a truck that seconds before had been lazily driving along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
"Woooeeee! We really hit those bastards!" One of our guys yelled over the air. The others made similar remarks but with each man stepping on the other's words it was mostly an inaudible screech on the radio.
"Okay you guys there'll be plenty of time for braggin' when we get home. Everyone report." Nelson kept his cool while the rest of us were like kids at a carnival.
"Ubangi One, okay."
"Ubangi Two, ditto."
"Ubangi Three, still with you."
And so forth as our drivers reported in.
"Ubangi leader to Flight. Form up as planned and begin low level strike. They know we're here now so they may throw some stuff at us this time."
Our plan was to come in at tree-top level in pairs of two from every compass point this way the enemy couldn't concentrate their fire in any one direction. The only problem was in staying clear of each other. I found Nelson or should I say he found me and we formed up about two-hundred feet apart and four miles out from the target area. We would be there in seconds before the monkeys had a chance to recover from our first strike. At best, they could throw some small arms fire at us.
As we approached the target again I could now see men and vehicles. The first strike had blown away their trees and artificial camouflage making them easy pickings now, or so I thought. Just a second before I was to release my second and final load I saw the tell-tale signs of tracers from a triple A coming right at me! I pressed the button and broke hard port resisting the urge to climb out which would have made me an even easier target. I could hear the big lead from the enemy's gun hitting my plane. It sounded like someone banging on garbage cans. I could also see men firing at me with their small arms from all directions. I was only about 150 AGL (above ground level). It all took place in slow motion. I saw holes appearing in my wings, tracers passing the ship by mere inches and bullets piercing my canopy and ricocheting around the cockpit.
Suddenly a heavy round burst my control panel. I saw glass, plastic and metal flying all about. My helmet was blown off as I felt a hard slap on my forehead. I was blinded by both blood in my eyes and smoke in the cockpit so I pulled back on the stick to climb away from any obstructions that might be lurking nearby. I would make a better target climbing up but at least I wouldn't slam into a mountain.
The A-4 cruises at about 550 mph and can cover great distances in minutes. I needed to clear the cockpit of smoke and my eyes of blood so I could get oriented, check out my damage and either eject or join up with my wingman. I found myself automatically screaming "Mayday, mayday, Ubangi Two!" even though my mic had been blown off with my helmet so no one could hear me. It seemed like minutes before I could regain my senses. I wiped the blood from my face with the back of my hand. My head hurt. Hurt bad. There was a constant roar of rushing wind and clanging sounds coming seemingly from all areas of my aircraft. I thought she was breaking apart. After regaining my composure and seeing that I was clear of any mountains I brought her back into level flight.
I quickly assessed my situation; The smoke had cleared from the cockpit. I think it had been an electrical fire. My control panel had a huge hole in it and several smaller ones with wires and melted plastic hanging down in grotesque globs of mush. Some of the plastic was still dripping down on my boots. The canopy had a large opening forward and several smaller ones around the perimeter but was still holding together though I now had natural air conditioning that didn't come from the Douglas factory. I also had a gaping hole on the deck just between my feet big enough to watch the world go by beneath me. I unconsciously felt my crotch area and all about me to see if or where I had been hit. I found a chunk of plexiglas from the canopy in my chest and another in my forehead. We had been taught to leave things there but I instinctively pulled the one from my head. It turned out to be a chunk of my own helmet the rest of which was nowhere to be seen. I left the other pieces of plexiglas in my chest. It didn't seem to hurt.
I looked out at the wings and was awed by the number and size of bullet and cannon holes in them. As all pilots, I immediately checked my control surfaces. I pushed the rudder pedals back and forth and the stick up and down and saw that I still had pitch and yaw so my tail section must be undamaged. The ailerons were a different matter. On the starboard side the aileron and flaps were hanging down clanging in the breeze. On the port side they looked okay. Turns were going to be tricky and I didn't think it wise to make a carrier landing with that metal hanging down to interfere with the hook wire on the Roosevelt's deck.
Next, I cranked my head around to see where my wingman, or for that matter any member of my flight was. I saw nothing, no one. The radio and other avionics were completely shot to hell as was nearly every instrument including the magnetic compass. I wasn't going to be able to call anyone. I still had a good airspeed indicator and an artificial horizon so that was something. I cranked my head around more trying to get oriented.
What direction was I traveling? How much time had passed? What was my altitude?
As I pondered these elemental questions I realized that I did still have a chance at radio communication. My emergency radio in my flight vest! It was tuned to a SAR (search and rescue) frequency so that downed pilots could be found. Somewhere out here was an EC 121 monitoring that channel. I awkwardly searched my vest. "Ow." That piece of plastic in my chest now started to hurt as did other pains as my adrenaline started to wear off. I groped around for the cigarette-sized unit and found it in two pieces, one still in my pocket, the other on the deck, a bullet or piece of shrapnel having pierced it.
"Okay, remain calm," I advised myself. "I'm still alive and my aircraft is still flying."
"Where am I? Where are the others? What heading am I on?"
"Check the fuel gauge. How many pounds do I have left?"
My initial panic at being hit and lost was wearing away. My training was paying off.
"Ah shit!" Where the fuel gauges had once been was now just a hole in the dash with wires hanging down.
"Okay, okay. Stay calm. I had twenty minutes of fuel available for hitting the target. How long ago was that? Ten minutes, maybe less. Okay but what heading am I flying?"
I then became aware that the sun was in my eyes. "West! Shit I'm going the wrong way!"
"If I've been flying West for almost ten minutes then that means it'll take me ten minutes to get back to the target area and rejoin my squadron."
I made a long slow turn to the left. Without the right aileron it was slow and mushy and took me a long way farther south before I was headed east again.
"Okay, now I'm headed east but how far south have I gone? Will I come in over the DMZ, cross the target area and below Vinh? If so, how will I find the ship? If I overshoot I'll wind up over Hainan and be shot or forced down by the Chinese!"
"Don't worry." I thought. "The F-4s will be waiting and every ship and plane in the Navy will be looking for me." I tried to comfort myself.
I was only at about 5,000 feet and would make a good target for the SAMs on the coast. Though the weather was starting to move in around me they didn't need to see to get me; their radar control was every bit as good as ours. I didn't dare climb though. I was unsure of my remaining fuel and the damage to my starboard wing didn't inspire confidence in keeping this bird in the air. It was flapping up and down making a squeaking noise while the aileron banged against my fuselage. If I could I would just reach out there and pull it off completely. It seemed close enough for me to do that.
I was in serious pain now. My mind raced with all of the possibilities; death, ejection and capture. I thought about my mom at home. About the hometown girls, the ones I had known and the ones I wished I'd known. Summer days by the lake and autumn nights at the high school football games.
The clanging of the dangling aileron brought me back to the present.
"Get it together, Bob! Concentrate. How long has it been now?" I looked at my watch. At least that was still working. I had been over the target at 1400 or was it 1405? It was now 1418. Most if not all of my reserve fuel was gone. I needed to get back to the Roosevelt but how? If I didn't find an escort there was little chance I would find that small dot in the Gulf of Tonkin. If I ejected without a mayday they wouldn't know where to look for me. I would become a member of the Gulf of Tonkin Yacht Club. One of my greatest fears suddenly gripped me. "Sharks!" I know it was unreasonable but it scared me more than the SAMs, the Migs or any other unnatural end.
"Maybe when I hit the coast I could turn south for the DMZ, maybe even make Danang?"
"Who was I kidding? Running along the coast would make me SAM bait for sure and Danang was way out of my fuel range. Perhaps I could eject over friendly territory? The Marines occupied I Corps but then so did the enemy."
The pain in my forehead grew worse still and I had difficulty keeping the blood out of my eyes. Up ahead through the broken clouds I could see the blue of the Gulf. I suddenly felt more secure but in fact I was now in the danger zone. I looked down to see if I could identify any landmarks. I couldn't. There were roads and villages, farm fields and rice paddies. I could be anywhere. I continued to scan the skies for any sign of friendly aircraft. I never felt more alone. I was only a few miles from the coast now and could see below and off my port side an airstrip. The sun reflected off the planes on the runway.
"Migs! That's all it could be." I didn't recognize this particular field but it certainly wasn't one of the ones hit by the Weasels around Vinh. There was no damage to be seen. No smoke. No wreckage. Whatever base this was it was still operational. At least it gave me a benchmark of some kind. I pulled out my chart and tried to make an educated guess as to where I was. I concluded that I was somewhere between Vinh and the DMZ.
"Shit! That doesn't tell me anything!" I thought, exacerbated.
I looked down again and saw two obvious Mig 21's moving along the runway preparing to rotate.
"God Damn it! Where are those F4s?"
I found myself playing the blame game and thinking I was going to be killed because some fighter jock couldn't wait to get back to the carrier for evening chow. It wasn't doing me any good. I continued cranking my head around looking for help, any kind of help. I also kept checking my damaged wing as if by looking at it that it would some how magically stay attached. My obsession with the starboard wing caused me to take the port wing for granted. I checked it more closely now and saw a slight vapor trail coming from below it.
"Oh fuck! Fuel." I was losing some, but how much and really what difference did it make if those two Migs caught me up here? I estimated that they would reach me in less than two minutes. I couldn't out-climb or outfight them even in the best of shape. Did I dare drop down to the deck? No, that would only give them the opportunity to use the ocean as a nice back drop for gunning me. I found myself unconsciously praying.
"Hail Mary, full of grace the Lord is with thee ...
Mother of God pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of our death.
Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominicus tecum ..."
I pulled out my St. Christopher's medal, which had been blessed by Fr. Murphy at St. Michael's parish in Olympia when I was home on leave after basic flight school. He had dipped it in Holy water and whispered a prayer in Latin. He told me that it was only a piece of metal but that the power of the water and the love that it represented would give its user the protection of "all the angels and saints in heaven." He said in his heavy Irish brogue.
I remembered that St. Joseph was the actual patron saint of pilots and I had learned his prayer in flight school. I didn't think St. Christopher would mind:
"St. Joseph who bore calumnies ... Jesus said 'When I will be lifted up, I will draw all peoples to myself ...' Give us courage and protection and always keep in mind your great example."
I felt so alone as I repeated these prayers to myself over and over. Through my mind raced all the memories of my childhood. I thought about how I had gotten to where I am now. The boyhood love of flight and airplanes. The air shows at McCord AFB in Tacoma with all of the war birds of WWII present. The books, the John Wayne movies, college and then the Navy. I thought again about my mom. They say that a man who is about to die always thinks of his mom.
I saw a glint of aluminum out of the corner of my eye on the port side and below me. I increased my throttle. If he was going to kill me he was going to have to catch me first. I didn't care any longer about the condition of my plane. It would either save me or fail me. I continued to repeat the pilot's prayer:
"When I will be lifted up, I will draw all peoples to myself ... Give us courage and protection…"
I continued to crank my head in all directions, up, down and around. Another glint of aluminum, this time on my starboard side and above. The worst possible position for me, the best for an interceptor.
"Hail Mary full of grace ... pray for us ... now and in the hour of our death."
I was fully over the Gulf now flying at my top speed toward Yankee Station and safety. My aircraft sounded like an old jalopy on a bad road, clanging, banging, moaning and groaning. I increased throttle yet again, nearing 600 mph, the best she would do in this condition.
" ... Give us courage and protection."
I cranked my head back over to my right, the starboard side, to check out the position of the first Mig. It was closer now, nearing my altitude on an intercept course. I knew what they were doing. One would get me from below, one from above. They had me in a vise. In combat flight school they had taught us that Soviet Bloc pilots preferred a head on attack but that was against a more worthy opponent than my beat-up A-4. No, they were going to take me out quickly and beat it back to base before our guys could intercept them. I continued to check the skies above and the sea ahead for the cavalry. I saw nothing.
"St. Joseph who bore calumnies ... I will draw…people to myself."
I rechecked my port side expecting at any moment the 20 mm shells of the Mig 21 to come crashing through my fuselage. I'm sure they wouldn't waste a missile on me. I saw the buffed metal glint again but instead of an attack course it was leveling off to my altitude and paralleling my course. I looked back over to my right and that Mig, too, was leveling off far out to my starboard.
"That's not a Mig." I thought to myself. "It has twin booms!" I strained my eyes harder but the sun's reflection from it's perfectly waxed exterior obscured my view. I looked again over my left shoulder and saw the aircraft had taken up formation 300 feet off my wing.
What were they doing, teasing me? Were they going to photograph me first, put me in their scrapbook to show their children and grandchildren someday the "Yankee devil" they had killed?
I could not get a very good look at this aircraft either but it, too, was not a Mig. Actually, it appeared to be a turbo-prop, probably a Yak fighter from the forties or fifties. The North Vietnamese Air Force had flown them earlier in the war. "Shit." Not only was I going to be shot down and killed, but by an antique at that.
The Yak moved in closer and I could see the pilot making hand signals. Hand signals were not common anymore but as I had no radio reception this was the only way he could communicate with me. "Fuck!" Before he splashed me he was going to give me the finger first. I remembered that Japanese pilots in WWII had delighted in that when confronting a crippled enemy plane. I wasn't going to give him the pleasure. I decided to ram him! Before I did I looked back to see where the other guy was. "Oh my God! What's going on here?" The twin boomed plane was now only 100 feet off my starboard on a parallel course as well. This time I could see it plainly. It was a P-38! But that's not possible! This was Viet Nam, not a stateside air show. Where did these planes come from?
I looked over to the Yak again, it was in much tighter now and I realized that it was not a Yak, but a P-51 Mustang in the markings of the Royal Air Force!
All right! I'm saved. You bastards gave me a real scare for a second. But that can't be right. The RAF doesn't fly Mustangs anymore. They must be CIA planes.
The P-38 began to fall back now and I got a sick feeling in my stomach. He was lining up into the slot position for a perfect shot from my rear. The Mustang pilot kept hand signaling me but I didn't understand. Just then a shadow appeared over my canopy and looking up, not twenty feet above me was another plan passing over on the same course. He was so close that I couldn't identify the make but it was a prop, painted blue all over. As he took up lead position forward of me I became aware of other aircraft crowding in around me. I hadn't seen where they came from but a blue USMC Corsair took up position far out on my starboard and a green Curtis P-40 with tiger shark teeth painted on it's cowling and in the markings of the Nationalist Chinese Air Force took up the inside wing position. I could clearly see that the pilot was Chinese as he smiled, saluted and pointed forward.
I looked ahead and the plane which had overtaken and was now leading me lowered and raised his landing gear in the international language of aviation to "follow me and land." He then dropped about fifty feet so as to be in front and below me. I could now identify him as a USN F-4 Wildcat, an aircraft which had been out of service since WWII!
"What the Hell is going on here?"
Just then an all-white peppy little craft appeared on my port wing position not more than thirty feet away. It had a red ball painted on its surface. It was a Japanese Zero! This was clearly not the CIA, the RAF or the Navy. There were no Zeros flying anywhere in the world. I could see the pilot well. He was Japanese. He, too, smiled and made a flagging sign ahead. "Follow the leader" he was trying to say.
I thought I must be delusional. Six aircraft, all antique war birds had formed up around me and were escorting me out to sea. Further, they were flying at speeds at least 150 mph faster than their specs stated. Some of the fastest WWII fighters could only reach about 450 MPH and the Zero only 350 MPH. My speed indicated nearly 600. I also became aware that there was perfect silence. Radial and turbo prop engines make a terrible racket, you could hear them miles away but I heard nothing. In fact even the sounds of my own craft, the 10,000 lb Pratt & Whitney turbine, the air rushing through the holes in my canopy, the clanging, banging, moaning and groaning of my ship in it's grip of death were now all silent.
"I must be dead." I thought. "That's right, that's what this is all about. I'm dead and they are here to fly me to heaven."
I had read about this before. The near-death experience. It was all making sense now. The brightness of the sun shining through the haze was like the bright light and tunnel described by those who had gone over to the other side. These were my escorts, my angels. God does work in mysterious ways. He has sent me fellow flyers to bring me home. A sense of euphoria settled over me. I was no longer scared. I didn't feel the pain from my shrapnel wounds anymore. The fatigue, the blood, the perspiration were all gone. I was at ease.
I was suddenly brought back to reality by the sound of a banging noise and the jarring of my aircraft. It came from my right. I looked over and the P-40 had moved into a dangerously close position. He had apparently rammed me. I began shaking my fist at him trying to signal him to move off but instead he came closer and from below. Bam! He hit me again! Bam! Again! I waved him off frantically but he merely pointed at my dangling aileron and flaps. Bam! Very hard this time. The wreckage hung down even further, now being held by the flimsiest of twisted metal. I continued to motion the Chinese pilot away. He shook his head "no" and pointed to my wing. He waved his wings and jerked his ship up and down haphazardly. "What was he trying to say?" He again pointed to my wing and jerked his plane wildly up and down as if trying to shake something off.
To shake something off. That's it! He wanted me to shake off the last bit of wreckage by shaking my ship.
I came back on the throttle slightly and pulled up into a steep angle of attack. Just before stall speed I dropped the nose hard and wiggled my wings simultaneously. The twisted metal of what had once been the rear edge of my right wing dropped away towards the blue Pacific. I returned to a normal cruise speed of about 550 MPH. The ship handled a bit better now that the drag had been removed though I still had no aileron control for turning on that side.
I looked around. All of the other planes were still in formation with me and all the pilots were grinning, laughing or giving me the thumbs-up sign. I grinned and laughed back. I gave them the thumbs-up, but what for? Why was it important to shake that off where I was going? My attention was brought forward again as the lead plane, the Wildcat, again lowered his landing gear only this time he didn't retract them. I looked over to the other planes and pilots. The Chinese pilot saluted me, waved good-bye and dropped straight down out of formation, out of sight. The Marine Corsair moved into his position. I could now see his unit number and insignia VMF 214, the Black Sheep. The Flying Leatherneck also saluted and dropped behind, the P-38 taking his position. He waved his wings and made a hard break to the right as if in a hurry to get somewhere. Off to my port side, the pilot of the Zero, closer than ever, smiled at me, saluted and he too peeled off into a steep dive. The RAF Mustang came in closer and for the first time I could see the chiseled features and red hair of its pilot, the map of England on his face. He gave me the V for Victory sign and he was so close I could read his lips as he said "Tally Ho!" pulled up and pressed the throttle for a fabulous climb-out maneuver. I looked ahead. The Navy Wildcat was still leading me with his gear down but was now slowing and descending. I too reduced power and to slow even more I lowered my gear.
It was just me and him now. Perhaps he was my guardian angel or maybe my squadron's. I never did get a good look at his unit number. Maybe he was from VA-12 too. A smile came over my face as I accepted my fate but where was he taking me? Shouldn't we be climbing? Isn't Heaven in the skies? I momentarily felt silly trying to second-guess God.
We continued our descent and it occurred to me that maybe I wasn't dead yet. Maybe he was leading me down to crash into the sea before taking me up into eternal heaven. Maybe I was unconscious and just dreaming all of this. Maybe ...
The sound of rushing wind and the noise of my powerful engine brought me back from my dream state. I felt terrible pain in my chest, arms and legs. I was dripping with perspiration and blood. My head ached. My hand gripped the joystick like a gorilla. I looked around frantically.
"Where am I?" The Wildcat was nowhere in site. There one second, gone the next. I was at about 1500 feet above the water. In the distance I saw the outline of something gray. "The ship! The Roosevelt! It had to be! There were no other carriers out here." I was continuing a standard landing descent about two miles out. I was nearly on a perfect straight-in final approach. I only had to correct slightly, my damaged aileron being no problem. I saw two gray Navy Sea King helicopters hovering around the ship, waiting for me to either eject or crash. The Roosevelt, realizing that I had no radio communication gave me a red lamp signal meaning DO NOT LAND!
"Fuck that!" I said to myself. "I hadn't gone through all of this just to take a swim now." Besides, I didn't think my ejection seat was functioning. At least that's what I'd tell the captain when I caught hell later. I retracted and lowered my landing gear to indicate to them that I was coming in anyway. I just hoped they had the wires out for my hook. Seeing what I was planning, a green light flashed from above the bridge. PERMISSION TO LAND. I dropped it a little hard just over the threshold and missed the first guide wire but caught the second. I jerked to a stop. My engine shut down without my help. I had run out of fuel. I still wasn't sure if I were alive or dead. I became aware of men and voices around me but I was so tired that I just wanted to sleep. I wanted to return to that dream state I had been in where there was no pain or war or unhappiness.
I don't know how long it was before I awoke but I found myself staring up at the gray steel bulkhead of a Navy ship. My head hurt bad and my chest, head and arms were wrapped in clean gauze. I heard voices in the background.
"BP 60 over 120 and climbing. Heart rate 52, temperature 98.3."
"How ya doing Luetenant? You'll be feeling a little pain for awhile. Had to take part of your helmet out of your skull. Don't you know it is against Navy Regs to fly without a helmet?" The guy chuckled, obviously a Navy surgeon. I looked up and saw his balding head and the oak leafs on his collar. Beside him was a corpsman, a CPO with a big grin on his face. I was slightly aware of others in the background, talking, moving about, operating equipment. The doctor kept talking to me trying to get a response.
"What's your name, lieutenant? Where are you from? What city do the Dodgers play for?"
I continued to fight the urge to answer. I wanted to go back to where I had just been. The place where I could sleep and fly old war birds and live without clocks or uniforms. A place where the ocean was always blue and the sky even bluer.
"Come on, Carr, tell me your name!"
"Carr. My name is Bob Carr. I'm from Olympia, Washington." I thought to myself.
"Lt. Carr, I order you to answer me! Who is the President?"
My eyes opened again slightly and I saw the white clothed faces of medical corpsmen around me. They were talking to me but I didn't want to respond. Just then I heard a voice as if in my head.
"You'd better talk to them chap. I think they mean business." I heard in an English accent.
"Yes, it would be wise for you to wake up now." Said an obvious Asian voice. "We'll come back for you some other day."
"That's right swabby. That's an order!"
I looked past the faces of the concerned medical team and saw standing behind then a Marine major in a WWII flight suit.
"Get the lead out!" He barked followed by a chorus of encouragement in a variety of languages and accents. I looked harder, deeper into the wardroom. There in the rear, behind the medical gear and the busy corpsmen were five or six airmen in a variety of uniforms. There was a short Japanese with glasses, a thin Chinese in a leather jacket, the tow-headed Brit with the big grin and a couple of other pilots I could scarcely see. They were wisps of people, transparent nearly. They saluted one by one and faded into the hull as the noise of the Roosevelt and the voice of the doctor grew ever louder.
"Who is the president of the United States?!" He demanded repeatedly.
"Lyndon Baines fucking Johnson." I yelled back. "Can I get some sleep now?"
Published December 2005