The following is written by a fellow 85th pilot in March of 2006…… Forrest Fenn. Forrest was a good friend then and now and a rare individual who has excelled in the military… A true fighter pilot in every sense of the word, and is renowned in the art and literary worlds. His web site tells that more eloquently than I can. Visit: www.oldsantafetradingco.com
I may editorialize a bit… It is rare when an individual allows a glimpse into
their inner soul. Forrest does that in his article. I have read it several times
and regret that I am unable to express myself as well. Do not stop… read the
entire article. Then you will reflect on your own life’s experiences in a way
you may never have. It has deeply affected me…
Thanks to my old friend, Forrest Fenn
emotions are not so much what I am writing but what I am thinking, and all of it
through the weakness of my words.”
MY WAR FOR ME
When the Vietnam War came along, I
found myself a fighter pilot Major in the Air Force. All of the frailties of
humankind had manifested themselves in that beautiful place and that terrible
situation. Lyndon Johnson had summed it up under the heading of “Saving
After all of the bullets and rockets
and bombs had finished flying through the trees and across the skies, there was
nothing left for us but the memory of 58,266 Americans whose names have been
etched, chronologically by time of death, on that shiny black war memorial,
which is constantly being washed clean by the tears of a million visitors. In
another generation or so most of those names will be but an asterisk in the
history of a forgotten war; a curiosity to wonder about, like the
The afterthoughts of later
elected-officials will all ask the same question and give the same answer:
“Why?” and “Never again.” Of course they don’t know why, and there
will always be another again.
I didn’t pay much of a price in
Many professional soldiers who have
been in the throes of life or death experiences may be forever branded by an
incident, although it may have lasted only a minute or two. Later, in one’s
reverie, those memories can come sparking back when ignited by something
innocently said, or something thought. If you see a warrior staring off, quietly
So it is with me now, as I sit here
, alone with only myself to know. I remember how it was at Tuy
Hoa on the
Some weeks earlier our F-100
single-seat fighters had flown eight ship sorties into
Air Force F-105 fighters from Korat,
My great friend, Bob Lynch spent seven
years confined, five of them in solitaire confinement, only to be released and
return home to die of cancer. I cried when I saw him limp down the steps of his
freedom plane and across the tarmac to kiss the pavement. This experience was so
distant from the many afternoons we had laughed around the golf course at Scott
Air Force Base.
Our Operations Officer was relaxed and
cavalier in his briefing: “Don’t worry about the friendlies; there aren’t
any up there,” “Pick targets of opportunity on the way back if you have
Mic-Mic (bullets) left, but don’t make a second pass,” “Keep your airspeed
up,” “If you get in trouble, go for the water squawking Mayday,” “You
guys are seasoned in the soil and I’m not worried.” Yeah, right, he wasn’t
With a hand signal to my wingman, we
slowly moved our throttles forward to the stop and we held the brakes hard. A
quick scan of the twenty-four gages on the instrument panel said my ship was
willing and ready, so with a head nod, we rolled in tight formation. After three
more seconds and another nod, we each moved our throttles outboard to the latch.
Then, with only a second’s pause, the fun started as 16,000 pounds of thrust
and fire exploded from our tailpipes through silver-plated titanium eyelids that
quickly moved in and out, then settled on an optimum temperature that gave
maximum power. At lift-off the
predictable whisper of the afterburner was soothing and reassuring, and we soon
outran the sound. My F-100C was so solid and strong that being afraid wasn’t
But with four 750 pound bombs, 600
rounds of 20mm, high-explosive incendiary bullets (mic mic), and 550 gallons of
fuel in two high-drag external tanks, we weren’t exactly charging the sky. The
climb out was smooth as usual, and the jungle through my windscreen was a deep
green and covered with 300’ high trees that seemed less and less important as
we clawed for altitude.
To the right was the beautiful
At about 4,000 feet, I jiggled my
rudder peddles, signaling my wingman to move out so he could relax and we could
better keep the watch. Suddenly, something wonderfully innocent occurred. A
small clearing appeared at
on my canopy and slowly worked its
way under my left wing to disappear behind. It was odd because a small waterfall
in the center of the clearing dropped water so far that it turned to mist before
it could spread on the rocks below. It must have been 200 feet or more. Large
birds were circling around as if they also thought it was an amazing sight. How
peaceful it all seemed.
I remember smiling and telling myself,
in an idle whim, “If I get back from this mission, I’m going down there.”
It was a silly thing and I knew it, but the seriousness of what lay ahead that
day somehow turned the whim into a vow; a pledge of sorts. I felt I’d made a
deal with that beautiful place. “You bring me back, and I’ll come down there
and personally thank you.” The deal was struck. I trusted it, and it could
trust me. It was our secret alone.
All of our planes returned from that
mission, and we kept going back. On each successive climb-out, before my
clearing could disappear beneath my wing, I winked and renewed the vow. And I
On one mission in North Vietnam, after
dropping bombs and turning for home, I let down to 1,000 feet looking for
targets of opportunity; maybe army trucks or a munitions storage area. My
wingman was 1,000 feet on my right and back at thirty degrees. At twelve miles a
minute the geography was changing fast and my brain was thinking and planning
Suddenly, on the left there appeared a
large group of people bunched up, maybe even a thousand or more. I wasn’t
ready for what was about to happen. Although my guns were hot, I knew I wasn’t
going to shoot because I had to first determine if it was a legitimate target.
If it was, I couldn’t come back around for a strafing pass. It was too
dangerous. What I could do, though, was call the guys behind me and give them
So with an alert to my wingman, we
turned in and started down to 500’ and lit the afterburners. When I got to the
edge of the crowd, I rolled on my left wing to get a good look.
It was a funeral!!!
We were traveling so fast no one had
heard us coming, and when I rolled my wing down I could see nothing but panic
and yelling and screaming and stampeding and terrible fear. It was horrible.
Women running with babies in their arms; children fleeing in every direction
with their arms up as if they were surrendering. One old, bearded man with two
walking sticks just looked at me as if he was resolved to meet his fate.
I was so ashamed I started crying in
my oxygen mask. Sobbing. I could hardly see through the dark visor on my helmet,
and my salty tears burned my eyes in a way I had not known for a long time.
Suddenly, I hated Lyndon Johnson, and Robert McNamara, and all of the other
politicians who were sitting in their fat offices at home, totally oblivious to
what war is really like.
About six-weeks later, on the 20th
of December, three wingmen and I took off for a serious target at Tchepone,
After takeoff we rendezvoused with a
KC-135 tanker, topped off our fuel tanks, and headed for the target.
Each of our four F-100s was loaded
with different ordinance. My plane carried 4 CBU-34, which the Defense
Department designated as “Aerial Denial Bomblets.” We were going to mine the
main road on the Ho Chi Mihn Trail. The plan called for me to go in first while
my wingmen held high. I was to drop bomblets on each of two passes.
It was 1755 (
when I ejected from my crippled F-100 and floated down into a very uncertain
The wet jungle night served a chilling
menu of exciting events, the memories of which have both entertained and humbled
me over the years since. At first light, I was making notes about what had
happened. This is what I wrote while sitting under a forest of 300’ high trees
that were covered with white orchids as far up as I could see.
“Made first pass 250º into the sun, 200’, 585 knots airspeed, trying to surprise.
Probably got hit on that pass. At the end of the run I whifferdilled up and to
the right and back out of the sun hoping to blind the guns I knew were there.
Expended inboard CBU-34. Near the end of the pass I got hit by probably 10 ZPU
(50 caliber machine guns tied together and firing with one trigger) shooting
from the side of a hill about 2,000’ on the left and level with me. Hits in
nose, both drop tanks, canopy shot off plus some in aft section because I got
immediate compressor stalls and the oil pressure started down. I pulled up
abruptly, heated the guns (turned the switches on all four guns) and marked the
target with about 200 rounds of 20mm. Then headed 030º
for bailout and instructed wingmen to hit, with all ordinance, the guys that had
My engine had flamed out, but I still
had enough airspeed to get about thirty miles away from the target and into a
peaceful looking part of the jungle. I had all night to inventory my lot.
Initially I had felt myself going into
shock; clammy, hot, nervous. I remembered what they taught in “
The next morning, at 0755, Lt. James
Swisher, the forward air controller who had directed my flight the night before,
came looking for me. (From seven miles away he had been the first to call me
burning). With the help of my little radio, we were united, and he told me to
hang tough, that he would be back, and he left. Well, I remember thinking I’d
just as soon he would hang around for a while. But he had work to do and within
a few minutes the sky was full of American war planes, all with intentions of
things that were in my best interest. I really love those guys.
While the “
The 240’ cable ride up, on a big,
iron, jungle penetrator, through a tangle of breaking limbs, leaves, and tree
trunks, took my breath away. When I reached the hovering helicopter the Flight
Engineer, M/Sgt. Maples, grabbed the hoist and swung me in the door, yelling,
“Quick, get in the back and sit on a flack vest.” Boy, did I do that in a
As the helicopter sped up and away I
started taking inventory. Both my face and head were bleeding in a few places
but nothing serious. My left shoulder ached and my arms and legs, although
bruised, were intact. My pistol and Minox camera had been yanked from my body
but my folding hat was still in my G-suit pocket. Everything considered, it was
a great ride.
An hour later we landed at
The next day, while climbing out in a
C-130, the pilot asked me if I wanted to talk with my wife. So with patches
When we landed at my home base at Tuy
Hoa, I told my boss that I didn’t want to be shot down on my last mission and
begged for one more. A four-star general in
After that mission, it was time to pay
my debt to the waterfall and the magic clearing to which I felt so obligated.
After a combination of pleas, intimidation and a little rank pulling, a
helicopter-flying friend agreed to take me out. It was about an hour’s flight
to where the little stream dropped so mistfully onto the rocks below.
When we landed, the geography looked
much different from what I expected and from what I had seen from a mile up. The
small clearing was now about 300 feet across, and belly-high grass made walking
difficult. It was impersonal and disappointing. I was embarrassed and felt
foolish for making such a big deal out of something that now seemed whimsical.
Besides, this was enemy country, and although it seemed remote, we didn’t know
who might be nearby. Helicopters make a lot of noise so we agreed to stay only
After sitting on the edge of the
waterfall and throwing rocks over the drop, the pilot said, “Let’s go.”
The sound of the rushing water was stronger than the noise of the idling engine
and I was a little uncomfortable with the whole episode.
As we rose and started walking in the
tall grass toward the helicopter, a strange chain of events began to unfold. I
tripped over something and fell flat on my face. That never happens to me. Then,
when I started to push myself up, I came nose-to nose with a rude aluminum grave
marker. How strange and out of place it seemed.
I could barely read the dirty
nameplate, but did make out the name of a French soldier. Then suddenly we saw
more grave markers. The more we looked, the more we found. These soldiers had
evidently been killed during the French
YOU SHOULD EVER THINK OF ME
WHEN I HAVE PASSED THIS VALE,
AND WISH TO PLEASE MY GHOST,
FORGIVE A SINNER
AND SMILE AT A HOMELY GIRL”
Those words burned in my brain and I
can see them just as clearly now as I did then, when I was so rushed. I took
care to replace the stone marker as it had fallen, and smooth the grass to hide
it over. The promise that place had made to me had been kept, and mine to it, as
How innocent and foolish all of that
seemed at the time, and more so, that a strangely insidious something began to
gnaw on me. This could not be the end of it. There was no feeling of closure at
all; no sense of completeness. It was disappointing.
Is it fair that now no one recalls
where those brave French soldiers fell and are now interred in that remote
jungle clearing, hidden from life for a million sunsets? After a violent ending,
they had been swallowed up in a serenely beautiful place, and at the same time,
hidden by the ravages of time and nature. Those who fell there, in that hateful,
wasteful, losing war, (like the one in which I was involved) are forever
forgotten, save by me. It has been fifty-eight years since that war, and no one
cries anymore. That thought is deeply personal and indelible in me even now,
thirty-six years after I was there.
My experience beside the waterfall was
on December the 22, 1968. Two nights later I walked in my front door in
For the next month, while I was on
leave, the flourish of activities related to homecoming and reuniting with
family and friends put my jungle thoughts on hold, except for occasional flashes
that insinuated something unfinished. I didn’t know enough about what had
happened to even speak of it; much less understand what I was feeling and what
it could possibly mean, if anything. It took weeks to digest as thoughts slowly
started to seep back. What was this all about? Was it nothing?
It was all a foreign blur in my mind,
like a dream that kept floating in and out. Before the war started, I didn’t
even know where
As the months passed and I got back
into the swing of Air Force life, which by then involved teaching other men to
fly, my thoughts naturally started to analyze the things that had hitherto been
but a blur of incoherent incidents.
telling the story Forrest; get to the punch line that has been hidden under your
heart for so long.
Then, one day in 1969, as I was
looking through my Flight Log, my eyes fixed on an entry that had little
explanation but an asterisk. But I knew! I remembered every detail of that
flight and why I had marked it such.
That flight had been many years
before-thirteen to be exact-on
At about 0030 I lifted off for a long,
dark flight that would take me down the breadth of the Eastern Seaboard, across
a blur of lights that never slept; Boston, Providence, Hartford, New York,
Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Norfolk, and on. Because of the great
distance involved, it was necessary to climb as high as possible to save
fuel-49,000 feet. (Blood will boil in the human body if pressurization is lost
at 50,000 feet unless the pilot is wearing a pressure suit.)
I knew I was pushing it and the
plane’s oxygen system was antiquated. But the rules of flight were not unknown
to me, and I was a careful pilot. On the left side of the forward panel, near
the bottom, was a blinker. When I inhaled, the gage winked, meaning I was
getting oxygen through my mask. With a cockpit pressure altitude of 38,000 feet,
I needed all I could get. The last thing the crew chief did after he pulled the
chocks for taxi was to cup his nose with one hand and give me a thumbs-up with
the other. That meant “Check the blink and good luck.” So I checked the
blink every few seconds of the flight.
After a long climb to level off and
cruise, I felt myself trying to go to sleep. Flying the plane at that altitude
was hard enough without that kind of problem. I remember the air was quiet, even
over the large populated areas. No one was around; no one was on the radio, no
one to talk to. The impersonal lights were there, but I was all alone.
In order to stay awake I started
playing stupid games like moving my helmet from left to right then back and
lightly tapping the canopy on both sides. That helped, but it was distracting
and I didn’t want to break anything. Finally I started moving my left hand in
and out, looking at my glove as if I had not seen it before. Then, and for no
reason at all, I closed my fist, stuck my thumb out, and moved it close to my
face, an inch away from my left eye.
My God!!!! I had completely covered up
Well, I suddenly wished I had taken a
drink back at the club. The up side was that I didn’t have trouble staying
awake after that. The down side, though; I had covered a few million people with
my thumb and it took me to another dimension in my mind, a place where I would
not visit again until the grave marker entered into my life. Years later I would
meld these thoughts into one, the sum of which would change my life. I am coming
That innocuous incident made me wonder
how important one average individual could be in the whole scope of life. We all
live in the small cocoon of our own surroundings and a few friends and places.
We are victims of our tiny environments. We stop when the light is red and pay
the gas bill when it is due. Strangers move in and out of our lives, only to
punctuate the moment with something useful, like a waiter or the paper boy. The
human mind somehow wonderfully conjects that the body in which it resides is
important. It is constantly judging others and identifying faults without
relating them to itself. In many ways we are but sheep following the dictates of
other minds, many of which are not as fruitful as our own. So is there a deeper
meaning to it all? Can we pour all of the non-physical thoughts and happenings
into one cohesive boiling pot that will give us something useful? Maybe some
subliminal gene can be the answer to all that we cannot see but know is there?
Later I laughed at myself and
certainly wasn’t going to tell anyone about the
My personal contribution to the
Vietnam War was of dubious distinction. I had been shot down once in the south
of that country and once again in
Instead of having received all of
those medals I wish I could have been given a college degree in Survival or at
least an honorable mention for just having lasted it out. Or maybe, when it
comes my turn to die, somehow that year could be rebated and tacked on to let me
last a little longer. The sense of pride that I felt while serving in that war
has since seeped out of me. But I am still alive. What about those whose bones
are rotting under the headstones of a thousand wars? Are we forever destined to
the same old bloody waste, forever, over and over? Surely there is more out
there. But where? Looking back now, I feel like I was being slowly educated by a
larger hand, one that I could not then identify.
So let’s sum it up. I have already
said that the whole
It is more than sad to me, not just
that the French soldiers are dead and buried, but because no one knows where
they are or even who they were. No one is crying now that a half a century has
passed. The ground knows and the tall grass knows, but they won’t tell. And
what of the soldier’s wives and children? Have they gone on to live with a
hundred forgotten memories? Sure they have.
So, in my mind the lines have
converged to tell a story that satisfies me in my heart, where only there it
really counts. I justify expressing my thoughts here because they have been
pounding at me for so long. I certainly can’t identify all of the strings as
they spin the web that forms the latent beliefs that brought me here, but these
I borrow now from Omar Khayyam, who
died in the first quarter of the twelfth century. His words are some of those
that tell the insidious stories the best, stories that have made me think:
Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.
for those who for To-day prepare,
And those that after some To-MORROW stare,
A Muezzin from the
“Fools! your Reward is neither Here nor There.
was the Door to which I found no Key;
There was the Veil through which I may not see:
Some little talk a while of Me and Thee
There was – and then no more of Thee and Me.
is it not? That of the myriads who
Before us pass’d the Door of Darkness through.
Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
Which to discover we must travel too.
I love that thought because it says so
much to me.
And there are those who have said the
same thing perhaps less eloquently, but just as true, such as Andy Warhol, who
certainly had his fifteen minutes.
And Shakespeare’s As You Like It, "All
the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players. They have their
entrances and their exits, and one man in his time plays many parts".
OK, just name one player or even one
part, about which you speak. The name may be remembered if it is written, but
what of the person? No, they have all faded like the smell of a dying daffodil.
And as soon as it departs, again and again, another takes its place, only for
the same episode to befall.
Did Shakespeare really say, in other
words, that most of us come into this world for a little while, are blessed
perhaps, then depart and are soon forgotten by history? Of course he did!
Longfellow, who was born almost 200
years ago, bent my thought around a little when he wrote. “Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime, and
departing, leave behind us, footprints in the sands of time.”
But what about those of us who are not
great men? Are we not somehow entitled to leave a slight footprint or at least a
small impression… somewhere? Did Lee Harvey Oswald thirst so for a remembrance
that nothing else mattered? Or John Wilkes Booth? YES!
All of them, and a multitude of
others, have conveyed the same meanings in vastly different words and at vastly
different times and places. But they all really said the same thing: “Look at
me, I’m somebody; please don’t forget.”
So of course we forgot. The fun side
is that it really doesn’t matter who we are if we are someone to ourselves. No
one else can think my thoughts, so I am myself only to me. Does that make sense?
So to be important only I need to impress myself. And I can do that if others
are positively affected by what they see in me or see me do.
Why do the yellow and purple flowers
flourish where no one is there to see? The answer is at last obvious to me. No
one has to see what is there. The grass sees and the trees and rushing waters of
the spring creek also see. What has made me think that I had to see the beauty
that is there in order to confirm its existence?
We are all here only for the pleasure
everything living; only for the pleasure of others. Of course, that’s it!
That’s why the stone marker said “and smile at a homely girl.” It had to
be pounded into me! That’s why so large a
So, when this realization hit me
frontal, at last I knew. If I cannot enrich those with whom I interact each day
and cause them to be better for my having passed their view, then I have wasted
my turn. That I succeed in that endeavor is not as important as it is for me to
make a solid try. For if the try is sincere I have succeeded in whatever failure
Kiss her on the cheek and whisper
something from which she will make a later note in her heart of keepsakes.
Open the door for her, not to make her
way easier but just to say you care.
Be there when she arrives to let her
know your time with her is important.
If her baby is ugly say she’s sweet.
When she cries tell that it is important to have emotions. And when she’s sick
send her a well bug. Bubble gum will do.
It is important to touch; the hand of
a woman; the shoulder of a man. But touch.
Silence can be well understood if she
sees an approving look.
There are others to know and we must
search to learn. Spontaneity counts.
And now at last at least for me I know. And if no one should ever think of me when I have passed this vale, it will be of no matter for I have finally found my way, and am at peace with all of it.