Thursday, March 12, 2015

Turning A Corner In November 1965

Earlier in my life, it was not uncommon for me to associate songs on the radio with a particular place and time.

On a snowy Idaho Monday in mid-November 1965, during our junior year in high school, we had just finished listening to the Unchained Melody by Bobby Hatfield of the Righteous Brothers as I turned my ‘57 Chevy onto the street where my newly steady girlfriend lived after school.

We had formed a bond at a school dance the Friday before that would last for more than four years including, but not enduring an extended absence as we turned 20 and giving me an understanding looking back of the song Unanswered Prayers.

As we slowly tooled down her street Yesterday by Paul McCartney then of The Beatles, began to play, which I believe was still #1 on the charts.  What can I say; we were schmaltzy Idaho Upper Snake River Mormon kids.

As a trivial aside, both songs were originally recorded as solos, although later sung live on tour with their singer’s respective groups.  The latter, with McCartney’s steel stringed acoustic guitar, was also the first time studio musicians were used on a Beatle’s, and maybe the last.

To bring the trivia full circle, McCartney now owns the rights to Unchained Melody, which my mother, when she was alive, was sure to remind me was a 1930s song, and one better known by my grandsons from the TV series, Glee.

As I pulled away after dropping off my girlfriend and heading to my job at a small, family-owned market, a news report came on the radio about a battle that had been raging in the central highland mountains of Vietnam called Ia Drang for the river that runs through it.

Less than four months earlier, there were only 75,000 troops in Vietnam but by year’s end there would be 189,000, and by the time I graduated the next spring, another 100,000 had been deployed.

Less than seven years older than me, my uncle was preparing less than 90 days later to be deployed to Vietnam as a newly minted fighter pilot with the 389th TFS where he would go on to fly an extraordinary 325 missions over North Vietnam through waves of enemy Migs and SAM missile defenses.

Unbeknownst to anyone in his family until I was given his personal effects, he had soon become highly decorated receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, the Air Medal with 26 oak leaf clusters, and a Bronze Star.

But I had mixed feelings about the war on my way to work that November afternoon in 1965.  In the months prior, several Americans had immolated themselves to protest the war including a Jewish woman in her 80s who had survived the Nazis during WWII.

In the hallways at school though, me and handful of friends talked each morning with three of us planning to enlist if we were not drafted the next summer after registering when we turned 18.

But the sobering news that afternoon was about a regiment of 7th Cavalry troopers; (Custer’s unit at his Last Stand) which had been overrun by North Vietnamese troops but they had still managed to fight them off.

The newscasts were already masking the significance with gruesome body count comparisons.

The acclaimed 2002 movie about that engagement entitled We Were Soldiers left something out from the book upon which it was based, co-written by then General Hal Moore and a journalist who was there, Joe Galloway.

The book, acclaimed for its insights had been published in 1992 three years after I moved to Durham, North Carolina, where I would finish a lifelong career in community destination marketing.

The book is highly recommended although it is the haunting theme song from the movie, a lament written and sung by Joseph Kilna MacKenzie that has stayed in my memory.

The song is named Sgt. MacKenzie in honor of his great-grandfather of the Seaforth Highlanders, a unit in WWI, but the lament was inspired while the author was grieving the loss of his wife.

Sadly, it doesn’t seem that officials sending troops into Afghanistan and Iraq had read General Moore’s book.  If they had, they may have done things differently.

Coincidentally, in the terrorist implosion of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11 was Rick Rescorla, a prominent part of the book who was left out of the movie.

I believe he was the trooper fleetingly depicted in the movie who after the battle found a bugle taken from a French unit massacred near there in the 1950s.

In the summer of 1966, while eagerly registering for the draft, I was advised that if I ever wanted to serve, I needed to have a football injury to my knee repaired.  Unfortunately, the advice was flawed.

With or without the surgery, the knee caused me to be rejected several different times as I repeated tried enlist over the next several years, using a variety of different avenues.

My last hope came while sitting in the student union cafeteria at Brigham Young University and watching the first draft lottery in December of 1969 revealing the order of draftees to be called the following year.

Signified by my birthday, July 8th, my number came up #13 out of 366, a portend causing some of my friends around me to gasp.

A year later, my uncle who had returned from three tours in Vietnam and having come to also oppose the war there was trying to talk sense into me.

When his superiors failed in their attempt to have his enlistment moved from reserve to regular Air Force, he was discharged, unable to fly for commercial airlines due to an injury to his ear drum when forced to eject during his first tour.

On June 7, 1966, he and another pilot had been on 15 minute ground alert status with a full load of napalm and 20mm cannon to support ground troops when needed, such as those that had been trapped 6 months earlier along the Ia Drang, a battle still raging.00622_p_10aeuyf6sw0078_b

They were scrambled, but declassified records show that while on takeoff, fire suddenly filled the left wing wheel well and the take-off was aborted with a crash landing beyond the end of the runway.

It wasn’t uncommon for fighter planes to take enemy fire during takeoff and landing.

Fire began to envelope the cockpit as the my uncle hurriedly tried to unbuckle the other pilot, who was trapped, just as the fire began to reach the plane’s ordinance causing fire fighters to withdraw leaving the shell shown in this essay.

Their plane may have been headed to the A Shau Valley, north of Ia Drang a similarly narrow funnel between mountain ranges for crucial supplies coming from the north down Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The battle there had been raging since that spring, when less than five months after parts of Hal Moore’s unit was overrun, a similar trap was sprung on Special Forces troops there.

From Idaho like my uncle and a former pilot for the Idaho National Guard then turned-regular Air Force, Bernard Fisher had volunteered to go to Vietnam in the summer of 1965 to fly in support of ground troops with his WWII era Skyraider, a single-seat propeller attack-plane with a distinctive engine sound I would often hear in Alaska when flown by hobbyists.

Fisher wasn’t the only pilot from Idaho over cloud-laden A Shau that day but in charge he repeatedly guided rescue helicopters in under the cloud cover along with other Skyraiders strafed the overrun fort below.

On the second day, he landed his plane under withering .50 cal. machine gun fire and pulled a downed pilot into his already cramped cockpit before taking off, receiving the Medal of Honor for his heroism.

But A Shau became emblematic for the war as a whole as did Ia Drang.

This all came back to mind as I drove through Idaho last August with my grandsons to a family lake-side retreat in the Northern Rockies and heard the news that Bernard Fisher had passed away at his home in Kuna.

Our stop for lunch along the Caribou Mountains not far from where my uncle grew up gave me an opportunity to tell his story as well as that of their great-grandfather and more than a dozen other ancestors who have served back to conflicts in the 1600s in this country.

Today, my uncle’s 389th TFS is also back in Idaho, an hour southeast of where Bernard Fisher died.

Sorting through ancestral documents and artifacts to organize them into histories for future generations gives me pause to reflect on what I was thinking on that November day in 1965.

Two friends who did make it into that war, one as a door-gunner on an Air Cav helicopter such as those pioneered by Moore, made it back safe, although it took years to fully resume their lives.

They, too, were soldiers once…and young.

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