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February 15, 1973, Vol. XVIII, No. 7
Home from the war
by Joe Shea
CLARK AIR FORCE BASE, Philippines — He was a tall, blond, and heavy man who breezed into the bar around 2 a.m. in a rumpled blue polo shirt. He ordered a Coke and we talked; he said he’d just slept 14 hours after a long, hopscotch flight from Tinker to Frisco, Wake, and Guam. Now he was standing by for a flight to Bangkok, and in the manner of a man who wakes up and wants to forget what he dreamed, he talked about his war.
“I knew a half-dozen of these guys,” he said, when we got to the POWs and the preparation for Operation Homecoming here, “Some of them weren’t on any of the lists I saw released. Maybe I didn’t see all the lists, I don’t know. But this guy Schwartfinger, I didn’t know him but I saw him go down, and Gaulotti, too, they weren’t on the lists, in fact; he just had the names twisted a little.
“I saw them go down right under me. The Sams (surface-to-air missiles) were pretty heavy that day, and when I saw their plane explode, boy, I got scared. I got the hell out of there and I heard their mayday coming over and one of them said they were going down. Scared, boy.”
That was in February, 1972; the pilot I am speaking to, in the bar of a seedy hotel on the backstreets of Angeles City, flew 194 missions over Vietnam. He flew an F-4 Phantom, a highly maneuverable aircraft that provided ground support for combat troops in the South.
“Did you ever have misgivings, morally, about what you were doing?” I asked.
“I asked myself that question, many, many times,” he said slowly. “I consider myself a gentle man, I mean I don’t beat my kids or my dog or anything like that. But it, the answer always came down to one thing. I never knew what I hit.”
He explained that as he flew over an area he’d been directed to bomb, very little was visible beneath him. He received instructions from someone on the ground via radio. It was impossible to pick out troops, ours or theirs.
“I would see the Sams exploding, maybe two or three miles from me, and, shpfft! I just unloaded.
“There was always the question of how many people the bombs killed. Sometimes they would say, ‘I think you got some of them,’ and sometimes you just wouldn’t know. But it was me or them.
“One time, thought, it was kind of gruesome. I flew in and unloaded and the guy on the ground says to me: ‘Well, I guess I’ll have to give you one kill, because I see a ribcage hanging from a tree.'”
Some came down the ramp to the red carpet and waiting admiral slowly, their hands gripping a yellow railing on each side. Some trotted down and waved, and one tall man stepped out and snapped off a salute to the flag held by an all-service color guard beside the plane. The first off was Captain Jeremiah A. Denton, United States Navy, senior officer on the first C-141 Starlifter back from Hanoi with 40 men aboard.
He shook with Admiral Gayler, Commander-in-Chief of Pacific Forces, then with Lieutenant General Moore, then with an Army NCO, and stepped to theme. The television cameraman broke ranks and swept like ungainly birds to a diagonal that followed the plane’s wing to the door. Gayler said something into th mike and then Denton was there, the first of all, the first POW returned by the military after eight years in prison.
“We are proud to have had the opportunity to serve our country in difficult circumstances. We are especially grateful to our Commander-in-Chief, and to the nation, for this day.” His voice broke then, a deep, thick break that was real in a way that still makes me shiver.
“God bless America!”
If everyone in this crowd of more than 300 reporters and photographers had smirked a thousand times at every statement made by Presidents and generals for the past 10 years, they did not smirk this time. There was something in his feeling, something that broke through so much and went so deep that if you had a pencil you dropped it, and if it was a camera you yelled hurrah.
The cheers of a far-off crowd, chanted like a football cheer, wafted over the engines’ whistle and the applause and cheers from us rang out and reached him and carried him like the carpet to the waiting, happy nurses and the ambulance bus. But that was not the best of it, and all of it was very good.
It was the guys who came behind him. Lieutenant Commander Everett Alvarez, Jr., United States Navy, shot down in the hot bloody August of 1964 and divorced by his wife in 1970, the longest-held Navy POW. He smiled and waved as we cheered, surprising everybody who’d been led to believe by a Tass dispatch he was “despondent.” The next guy was on crutches, and that did something to you.
There was the crowd from Clark with a 20-foot paper sign at their center whose legend read “We love you,” with cupids between the words and “God loves you” and “Jesus loves you” on either side. There were the military men who pressed forward ahead of the always-aggressive wire and agency fotogs to yell, “Hello, Waldo!” “Welcome back, Colonel!” But mostly it was the men themselves who did it to you.
There were men on crutches, as I said, and men of dignity with limps, and men with arms bent stiff, and men bent over. And there were the things they did, the salutes, the pride and the stiffness in some of them, the waves, the Nixon-praising flags painted in prison and handkerchiefs they waved to the big satellites network cameras behind us. There were the guys that walked with them, and the way they tried to smile. There was so much, so deep, for so long. It left you with a shell for a heart, and a long time needed to look back and think it out again.
But it was a child’s crooked crayon scrawl along a quiet, sunny yellow corridor in the base hospital here: Hector Cradel we love you an welcome home; Hector Cradel is a black third-grader at Wurtsmith elementary school, a child of this war. And it is funny, after the war, and these men, that a child will open you and let the horror of this long siege of conscience find rest in sighing.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 14, 2011