• • •
November 14, 1969. Friday. Took off at 4:40 p.m., call sign Firefly 36. Frank Brown was 37. We went to Barrel Roll and armed reccied with not much happening, so I called Alleycat and told him it was too hazy to armed recce. Alleycat said a Candlelestick fac was en route, but still forty-five minutes away. Frank and I had been in the area for quite a while and didn’t have the gas to wait, find a target, and strike, so Alleycat looked around for a ground fac and sent us to Bad Man. Bad Man said he had bad guys about 800 meters from his position and directed us in on them with napes and 500-pound bombs. After Frank made his passes, he called me on FM and said, “Bad Man doesn’t seem to be very excited. Why don’t we take our CBUs home?”
I agreed, so after Frank made one last pass I said to Bad Man, “We’re out of ordnance and going to go home.”
Bad Man said, “OK.”
I asked for BDA and Bad Man reported, “Ninety-five KBA,” which sounded inflated. We turned south. About the time we rolled out of the turn, Bad Man called back with more urgency in his voice. “They’re attacking my position! They’re coming up the hill!” Big mistake.
The bad guys obviously had a radio and heard me tell Bad Man we were out of ordnance, which wasn’t the whole truth. We were out of napalm and bombs, but we had enough CBUs, rockets, and guns to provide a nasty surprise for the attackers. Frank had two CBU-14s, each with six tubes. I told him to pip off three tubes a pass. I had flares and lit the area while Frank was CBUing. Bad Man loved it. When the CBUs were gone, I rolled in with LAU 59 white phosphorus rockets, one at a time. Bad Man said, “Oh, yes. That’s where they are.” When I was out of rockets I came in with my 20mm guns, but on the first pass my inboard guns jammed, so I armed the outboards. Lately we’ve had simple ball slugs with tracers most of the time, but tonight I had incendiary shells that sparkled when they struck the target or the ground. The incendiaries didn’t have tracers, but we could tell where they hit. After several passes, Frank said they were shooting back. He thought it was about twenty rounds of automatic rifle fire, but I was bottoming out high enough above the ground that it didn’t seem to be much of a threat, so I kept at it. We stayed until we had less than bingo fuel then turned for home. I called Alleycat to tell him of the situation. Bad Man gave us ninety KBA on the second half of the strike. Not bad if we could believe 185 KBA on one mission.
• • •
I came out of my room one afternoon and saw Ron Marzano walking past with some papers in his hand and his head down. “What’s the matter, Ron?” I asked.
He stopped and said, “Rick Chorlins’ mother has written a letter to the wing commander asking about what happened to Rick, and he passed it to the squadron commander who passed it to me, and I have to write the reply.”
“That’s a tough assignment.”
“For example, here is some of what she says,” he continued. “’A piece of paper isn’t much of an exchange for a son. I would like to know more about the circumstances of the mission he was on, exactly where he was, who was with him, and how he died.’ How do you write a letter like that?”
Even though I had gotten to know Rick fairly well and had flown with him several times, it was not like he was a part of my family. I felt badly about him getting shot down, about losing a friend. I had just flown with him and had been in the same airplane the night before. It renewed the fears I first felt way back when Jim East was killed; but I forced myself to put them out of my mind as much as I could.
Those fears were never far below the surface, but somehow a pilot had to take on a feeling of invincibility when facing the guns over the Trail. He had to tell himself, “They’re not going to get me tonight. I can thread my way through the shells. It won’t happen to me.” Maybe Rick thought the same thing. He probably did. But it did happen to him and now there were questions to be answered. Tough questions—and I didn’t envy Ron the task of trying to answer them.
It brought me back to the basic question, “Why are we here fighting a war that we aren’t going to win and that our government isn’t really trying to win?” To lose a young man with as much potential as Rick essentially for nothing was an awful waste.
The letter gave me the perspective of our involvement in the war from the point of view of those waiting at home, and it wasn’t a very pleasant picture. For someone like Rick’s mother to receive a letter saying her son wouldn’t be coming back must have been an awfully empty feeling, especially when she could only guess at the details of what might have happened. His body has never been recovered, so there was no military funeral service, no finality. Just a message and the return of some personal effects a few weeks later. That feeling could be multiplied by the families of the tens of thousands of American sons, brothers, and husbands who died in this miserable war.
We who were taking the fire had questions: “What would happen to our families if we didn’t make it back? How would they react?” We would never have the opportunity to tell them what happened. They would just have the empty fact that we weren’t coming home. The letter made me realize why my mother was trying so hard not to cry that morning nearly a year ago at O’Hare International Airport when she and Dad and Emily saw me off. She had said, “Be careful, Dick.”
“I will, Mom. Don’t worry.”
I knew I was well trained, and I could only imagine the hazards that lay ahead. Now I knew about those hazards first hand, and thanks to Rick’s mother’s letter, I could see a family’s side, the ones left at home, a little more clearly, and that may have been the more difficult to handle.
I have had it said to me, “I don’t know if I would have had the courage to do what you did—to face danger without flinching. You’re lucky because you know you’ve got what it takes.” I never know how to reply to that because I don’t know if I could do it again. All I know is I did it then and I was one of the lucky ones who survived. That feeling of invincibility is essential to anyone who looks danger in the eye and keeps going.
But the tragedies of Rick Chorlins and J. B. East and Clint Ward and Bob Moore and Dick Lytle and Jim Herrick and all my other friends who had been killed—and the sadness of their families—brought me back to the reality that we were playing for keeps and no one is invincible.