Release Date: December 5, 2021
Surprises are an essential part of the Christmas experience. But in wartime, the surprises aren’t often joyful. In this episode we’ll hear stories of Christmas from people who survived the war in Vietnam, and from people whose losses nearly 50 years ago have colored every Christmas since.
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(FRANKLIN): [00:00:09] While you’re in Okinawa, your expectations are you went on floats. And the best floats were the ones going to Australia, the ones going to Thailand. The floats going to Hong Kong, you could buy cameras, you could buy tape recorders, you can buy suits and all of these things were in the back of your head. I want to go [00:00:30] on a float. I want to go on the float. When am I going to go on this float?
(HOST): [00:00:39] You’re listening to Franklin Mendez, and he’s about to get a lesson in be careful what you wish for. The years 1964 and Franklin as a young marine in the first Amtrak battalion stationed in Okinawa. He had enlisted less than a year earlier at the age of 18. And at that age, I think most of us have a special talent for misreading [00:01:00] signs or missing them altogether. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which effectively launched America’s full scale involvement in the Vietnam War, was passed by Congress on August 7th of that year.
(FRANKLIN): [00:01:15] We were in the enlisted men’s club in the evenings after work, and we got to be friends with a lot of the guys there, different units, and we had this one friend that was in reconnaissance and we’d have a beer with him and he would be gone for two [00:01:30] or three weeks and then he would come back. And, you know, his demeanor would change and he was really nervous. And so he was shaking sometimes, and we would ask him what’s up? And he had been on missions placing markers in Vietnam, the the reconnaissance people that were already placing markers and identifying Red Beach Blue Beach in Da Nang. They were identifying locations and they would swim in and mark the beach, and [00:02:00] he would come back and he would after a couple of beers, he would open up and tell us, and he didn’t really know where he was, but he knew he was marking some beaches. We never really gave it any thought or talked about it or discussed it or anything like that. So my expectation came true, and I believe it was November. We boarded on the USS Thomaston and we headed south. I was so excited because my dream was coming true. [00:02:30] We were going on a cruise, so we went down and got into the Philippines Subic Bay. It was Christmas Eve and we could see that there was a carrier Bob Hope had his Christmas show.
(FRANKLIN): [00:02:46] We were immediately told not to expect to go to the show that we were not invited. So we spent the night in Subic Bay the next morning at six o’clock in the morning, [00:03:00] Christmas Day. We got the word to load back up on the ship. We didn’t have a clue why while I was in Okinawa, I don’t recall anyone in the battalion. Having said to us that we were preparing our vehicles to go to war, that we were preparing to go to Vietnam. And I don’t recall having any training exercises that trained us for what came. So [00:03:30] we loaded back up on a ship. And of course, we’ve been celebrating Christmas Eve all night long singing Christmas carols, reminiscing about Christmas Times back home. Everybody had a story. Everybody had up and had a memory of a great Christmas at home, so it was a very long, nostalgic night Christmas Eve. So in the morning, we were not ready to get up. And as soon as we loaded back up, [00:04:00] we all went to bed. I woke up three days later. I didn’t go to chow, I mean, I was so tired and so I guess hung over that I did not get up for a while. So when I did get up, I went up to the to the deck topside and I could not believe what I was seeing.
(FRANKLIN): [00:04:23] I look to my left. There were ships to my left as far as my eye could see. I look to the right [00:04:30] and I saw ships as far as my eye could see. This was a whole naval flotilla heading somewhere, and I had no idea where we were going. But I knew it wasn’t just an exercise. We were steaming pretty fast. So about two or three days later, we were briefed that we were going to go into the South China Sea. We [00:05:00] were going to go make a landing in the plain of jars outside of Saigon. What had happened? The Vietcong had bombed the hotel where many of the officers were staying in Saigon the night before Christmas Eve. The hostilities escalated. In the seventh grade, I believe in Austin, Texas, we had a veteran Navy teacher [00:05:30] and he was telling us boys in the seventh grade, he said the next war is going to be fought in Southeast Asia. And you guys are going to fight it. And you know, in the seventh grade, you’re looking at this teacher telling you that and you’re wondering what in the world is he talking about? I’m not going to Southeast Asia to fight anybody’s war. I still remember that because when I got to Vietnam, that [00:06:00] resonated in my head. I heard this in 1957, and here I am.
(HOST): [00:06:08] Surprises are an essential part of the Christmas experience, but in wartime, the surprises aren’t often joyful. In this episode, we’ll hear stories of Christmas during the Vietnam War from people who survived the conflict in Southeast Asia and from people whose losses nearly 50 years ago have colored every Christmas since. From [00:06:30] the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, founders of the Wall. This is Echoes of the Vietnam War. I’m your host, Michael Croan, bringing you stories of service, sacrifice and healing from people who still feel the impact of that conflict. Nearly 50 years later. This [00:07:00] is episode 19, Christmas and the Vietnam War. Well, this is embarrassing. Two weeks ago, I got all excited or something and announced that we were all done for this year, no more episodes until January, I said, and here we are bringing you another episode. The funny thing is, I was already working on this episode when I recorded that one, which is why I should never, ever be allowed [00:07:30] to multitask. Anyway, this time I really mean it. This is our final episode for 2021. We’ll be back in January with episodes about Khe Sahn and the Tet Offensive. If you have interesting stories or perspectives about either of those topics, we’d like to hear from you. Email us at [email protected] or leave a short voicemail message at 202-330-0963. You know, next year is the 40th anniversary of the wall, [00:08:00] and now you can be a part of its enduring legacy by making a gift to the new legacy endowment. Unless we act now, the service and sacrifice of Vietnam veterans may be forgotten when their generation is gone.
(HOST): [00:08:12] For 40 years, VVMF has led the way to help heal our nation. Remember those who gave all and honor, all who served. The legacy endowment will ensure that we can continue honoring Vietnam veterans for the next 40 years and beyond. We’re launching the Legacy Endowment with a $500000 [00:08:30] matching gift campaign. The legacy challenge for the next 12 months. Each new outright gift or gift established through a will will be matched up to 50 percent with a maximum of $25000 matched per gift. All qualifying gifts established or newly identified before November 12th, 2022 are eligible for the match. Learn more at vvmf.org/legacy. We opened this episode with a story from Franklin Mendez. That audio [00:09:00] came to us courtesy of our friends over at the Witness to War Foundation. They’ve built a massive archive of interviews with veterans from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and they’re actively adding Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to their canon. If you’d like to check them out, you’ll find them at www.witnesstowar.org and now on with the show. A couple of years ago, Joe Lex was digging around in the basement and he found a cache of letters that he’d sent home from Vietnam, where he served [00:09:30] as an assistant battalion surgeon in the Army’s 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi. Just twenty one years old, Joe wrote the letters to his parents and to his kid brother, Mark, who was nine years old at the time. Joe offered to read a couple of these letters for this episode.
(JOE): [00:09:50] Twenty four December 1968, Dear Mom, Dad and Mark, Merry night before Christmas. Our Christmas truce has started about [00:10:00] 30 minutes ago and extends until midnight Christmas. Bob Hope is going to be in Cu Chi in the next day or two, and our battalion has an allocation of about 320 people for whom there will be seats. They are going to try and send in as many line infantrymen as possible, since they’re the ones who really deserve it. For once in the army, the people who deserve something are getting it. More [00:10:30] of the same today, we went on our midcap and checked up on our bubonic plague victims. Three people who are almost dead when we started treating them are now up and walking around. Doc Hodge is somewhat of a village hero since there has been no more sickness. After we gave the shots, people are starting to pop red and green star clusters, so I guess Christmas is officially here. Christmas mass at 08.30 tomorrow and we’re getting [00:11:00] entertainment in the form of Red Cross Doughnut Dolly Choir. Oh, well, ain’t much, but it’s still Christmas more later. Love Joe! Twenty [00:11:30] six, December 1968. Dear Mom, Dad and Mark, Ooo I just got finished playing football and I’m soaked, I’ll probably take another shower after dark. Christmas was all that could be expected in the field. We had a delicious turkey dinner with trimmings at about 4300 hours and all the turkey we wanted for late evening snacks.
(JOE): [00:11:55] Christmas mass was blasé, but the thought was there anyway. I [00:12:00] treated myself to a Christmas gift of silk pajamas. I’ll send you a picture after they’re developed. We didn’t have the traditional snow, but it did rain like crazy. Dry season started over a month ago. This caught us in a bind in our hold on the ground. It settled the dust for about 12 hours, but as soon as the Sun came out, so did the dust. Bob Hope is in Cu Chi tomorrow, and they’re expecting a crowd of 20000 to see him. Doc Hodge and I are staying [00:12:30] back in the field, so the rest of the people can go. I’m sure that the show will be good, but I just got back from leave and still remember what an American girl looks like. More later. Love Joe. P.s. The Christmas truce for us was just that 24 hours of silence, no artillery firing out over our heads, no firing on the bunker line, just like a huge cookout. We had a little Vietnamese boy to share our dinner with, [00:13:00] and his eyes popped when he saw all the food. I hope he realizes we eat c-rations most of the time. More later. Love Joe.
(HOST): [00:13:23] Joe Lex is a retired professor of emergency medicine from Temple University in Philadelphia. His kid brother, Mark, is now a grandfather [00:13:30] with five children. You can find more of Joe’s letters on his blog notes from Nam at JoeLex.xyz. That’s J-o-e-l-e-x.xyz. For every service member who spent a Christmas in Vietnam, there was at least one somebody back in the states whose holidays were equally filled with longing for some, that longing would never be relieved and Christmas. Whatever else it might be, is also a reminder of their loss. Here’s [00:14:00] Sandy O’Dea from Alexandria, Virginia.
(SANDY): [00:14:15] I think one of the first memories I have of my dad celebrating Christmas was in Germany. I was about three or four years old. I’m one of four siblings, the youngest, and my dad was on the holidays, always celebrating whether it was Easter, [00:14:30] Christmas, what have you? We lived in a three storey apartment complex that overlook the sports fields and big picture windows framed windows. It hadn’t snowed in Germany as of yet. We were in Frankfurt. And he brought home, well, several cans of snow that he wanted to decorate the windows. And so my dad got out there and decorated put Merry Christmas backwards, you know, and did everything so that we would have snow for Christmas. And oh my gosh, you know, as soon as he did that, it just came down and it wouldn’t stop. [00:15:00] But the worst part was took my mom and my dad about until March to get that snow, that fake snow spray snow off the windows. But the best was the last Christmas we got to spend with my dad. We lived in Kansas, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and my dad [00:15:30] was not very good as far as putting things together. I didn’t know a screwdriver from a wrench or anything like that, but he vowed he was going to get all three of us girls a bike and put them together. So down in our basement, he cordoned an area and it was Santa’s workshop and he put these bikes together. But just to know that he took the time and that’s what Christmas meant to him.
(SANDY): [00:15:55] It was doing something special for other people in this particular case [00:16:00] as kids. So, yeah, that was the sweetest memory I have of my dad. My dad was a lieutenant colonel served in World War Two in Korea. He had just moved to North Carolina. And my dad got the orders to go to Vietnam. When he left, he went to Saigon and my mom was excited, well, not excited, but pleased that he would be in Saigon, and that would be his. That would be where he would work. But that wasn’t the case. My dad wanted to be with the troops. And so my dad got a position as [00:16:30] a military adviser in Henan province, which is right on the border of Cambodia and Vietnam. My dad spoke five different languages and one being French. And since the French occupation, a lot of the Vietnamese knew that language. My dad could communicate with the townspeople, the people around him, and that gave them a sense of security and warmth that my dad would communicate in their language. And so we didn’t know much about my dad’s job [00:17:00] other than he was there to advise and whether that was to communicate with the people in the South Vietnamese military. I don’t know. We never in the letters, my dad wouldn’t always say what was going on other than it wasn’t good. It was it was a very contentious time in sixty eight, 1968, as you can imagine, after the Tet Offensive.
(SANDY): [00:17:25] But things have calmed down a little bit, but in that area it wasn’t. It wasn’t always good. My [00:17:30] dad left right after Labor Day with us kids had just started our first day of school and my mom was already making plans for Christmas, so she was able to find a little Christmas tree and pack that up by October and made cookies for my dad. So we packed all this stuff up and also sent a tape recorder so that my dad could record messages for us kids. And [00:18:00] Christmas came and, you know, we just thought it was going to be another Christmas that dad’s not here. I remember Christmas night, all sitting around the tree, kind of wondering what my dad would be doing and the very next day, you know, as kids, us girls are all playing with our with our toys and what have [00:18:30] you and the green car pulls up, and I just remember, you know, somebody coming to the door and the doorbell ringing, my mom answering the door. She let out a cry and my brother came up behind her and told the guys to go away, that this is not this is not true. Just leave the house. And that’s when they handed the The Telegraph that they were trying to reach my mom. And she said, Your dad was killed on Christmas Day. [00:19:00] I just had a birthday, so I turned eight, just a month shy of when my dad was killed.
(SANDY): [00:19:20] As I mentioned, my dad was very caring about others and wanting to make sure everyone else was OK and, you know, to celebrate Christmas, my dad was it was all about other people, [00:19:30] friends and loved ones and his troops. And so he and Mr. Appling, which was the CIA adviser, senior adviser and a pilot, a young pilot that had only been in country maybe a month, got in a helicopter and wanted to fly around Hainan province, where my dad was located to wish his troops well and wish them a merry Christmas. And the last trip that they took, Mr [00:20:00] Appling said that my dad was he was still chatting with the military, South Vietnamese and American military that were there, and they had to go on to the next, the next stop. And so my dad normally sat in the front seat of everything and he was in the back seat. So my dad was in the back seat and they took up over water and for some unknown reason, it shot forward. And as it shot forward, it flipped on its side and crashed upside down [00:20:30] in the water. Mr Appling and the pilot came up. Mr Appling went back down to retrieve my dad, but couldn’t get the seatbelt unbuckled and they tried hard, couldn’t get it and fear that my dad had already passed away in the helicopter and the helicopter sunk. And it just was a fog from the time we got the news to making the plans.
(SANDY): [00:20:56] My dad was coming in to Chicago where, you know, that’s [00:21:00] where he grew up and he would be waked in Chicago and then buried at Arlington. And, you know, trying to to pack up four kids to get him on a plane to, you know, to go to Chicago from North Carolina. I wore my Christmas dress that mom had gotten for me to wear to church. That was the dress I wore. You know, when when we were there for three days to wake my dad in Chicago with all of his friends and relatives, and then they flew us to Arlington. [00:21:30] And it was snowing. I Dad loved the snow. But I’ve got to tell you by signing on to VVMF and by putting my name and my email out there, I was sent an email. She spent about 20 years now from a gentleman who retrieved [00:22:00] my dad’s body from a helicopter. An amazing man that lives here in Virginia, his name is Mr. Villafana. I hope he’s out there still, I haven’t heard from him in a while, but he let me know that he was the one who retrieved my dad’s body. And lo and behold, all this time I was going on Christmas Eve to lay down Christmas cookies for my dad. He would be there Christmas morning, you know, to to say a prayer for my dad every Christmas morning. Every [00:22:30] Christmas morning.
(HOST): [00:22:37] Sandy’s father is Thomas Francis O’Dea Jr.. He was killed on Christmas Day 1968, and he’s memorialized on the Wall Panel 36 West, Line seventy-six. In December of 1972, just a few days after peace talks with North Vietnam had broken down, President Richard Nixon announced a massive [00:23:00] bombing campaign to break the stalemate. For nearly two weeks, American bombers pounded North Vietnam in what became known as the Christmas bombing. American B-52s and fighter bombers dropped more than 20000 tons of bombs on Hanoi and Haiphong, 15 B-52s and 11 other American aircraft were lost in the effort. Colonel Robert Certain was an Air Force navigator on a B-52 g at the time. On December 18, [00:23:30] 1972, the bomber that then captain certain was flying in was hit by two surface to air missiles over Hanoi. The crew was forced to eject and Certain and two other crew members who had survived the crash spent the next 101 days as prisoners of war. Certain was released during Operation Homecoming on March 29, 1973. He recounted that fateful bombing run to our friends over at Witness to War, who provided us the audio to share with you.
(ROBERT): [00:24:00] I [00:24:00] was assigned to the ninety seventh bomb, weighing the three 40th bomb squadron out of Blytheville, Arkansas, when we went to overseas and we were temporarily assigned to whatever the strategic wings were that were stationed to do to power Thailand and Anderson Guam. The first time I went over was in the fall or the summer rather of nineteen seventy one to OODA Pal Thailand on the Gulf of Siam [00:24:30] and had flew combat missions out of there and B-52 D models. I had 50 missions out of there between our arrival and July until we left in early December, came home at Christmas and then bullet shot, which was the movement of G model airplanes to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, started in April and we went over in July of [00:25:00] nineteen seventy-two. And flew out of Anderson, our missions were fairly routine. We were not flying in areas that were threats to us at that late in the war. The we were drawing down our combat forces, our ground forces in Vietnam. We were turning over the war to the South Vietnamese army. We didn’t have all that much in seventy one and seventy two that required us to have [00:25:30] close air support. Mostly, we were quite frankly, it was the so-called secret war in Cambodia that we conducted against the safe, so-called safe havens of material supplies, troop concentrations, fuel that were kept over the border in Cambodia. And so we we tried to make sure that that was as useless as [00:26:00] we could make it.
(ROBERT): [00:26:02] Well, the last mission was my last half mission. It’s one of those that you never wanted to fly, is it? It was a real flying cliche. It was the day we were scheduled to go home the 18th of December, nineteen seventy two and on the 15th of December, our rotation was suspended and we were notified that nobody would be leaving. And they didn’t tell us why. But every airplane that landed [00:26:30] was being refueled and rearmed, and so we knew it was going to be big. We came in on on that Monday morning and we’re told our target was going to be a railroad yard in the northeast part of the city of Hanoi, and surface-to-air missiles were everywhere. Hanoi was probably had as many surface-to-air missiles surrounding it in defense as Moscow, Russia did. So it’s going to be a very, [00:27:00] very dangerous mission. About 90 B-52s would be involved in the strike that night, starting around sundown and in three major hits. The first one that we were assigned to was shortly after sundown. Then there would be another one around midnight and another one just before dawn. B-52s coming out of Thailand would go in first, and then the ones from Guam would join up behind them [00:27:30] as we got over to the theater and come in behind them against the targets. Now, I was twenty three. Twenty four years old. I was invulnerable, invincible and immortal.
(ROBERT): [00:27:42] I was never nervous on a mission that was always sure that I was always sure that the airplane was in good shape. I was always sure that the crew knew what we were doing and that we were watching out for each other and would make it back. It never occurred to me that there was any [00:28:00] danger at all. But on the way over, we ran into a number of small issues, starting with on taxi out as we were waiting in line for takeoff. There was a small Earth quirk tremor on Guam, which was not a good sign and then somebody in the line in front of us. We were going to be the twenty first airplane taking off out of Guam, and somebody up front had had [00:28:30] a bad air-, broken airplane. And so they were changing airplanes and then moving to the back of the of the strike. And so we moved up to the 20th airplane. And then as we started our takeoff roll, somebody had aborted in front of us. So we moved up to the 19th airplane, which was OK, and then we were going to be what we call a wave lead of the third wave. A wave was three cells the cells three airplanes, so a wave included nine B-52s. [00:29:00] And so we were the 19th. So we were the bringing up the third wave and I would be the lead navigator, which was fine with me because I figured I was better than everybody else anyway.
(ROBERT): [00:29:14] Everybody thought that about themselves, but we were very highly competent crew. So then we climbed on out and flew the mission. We [00:29:30] were under orders not to take evasive action from initial aiming point to the bombs and release point, and so if surfaced to air missiles came after us, we were just supposed to pray that they wouldn’t hit us. Fortunately, in the black hole, I couldn’t see out, but there were so many Sam calls that I had to turn off my outside radios so I could hear the Bombardier and the Bombardier could hear me as we ran checklists into [00:30:00] the target, and we were checking the time after eight hours and 40 minutes of flying. We were going to be precisely to the second on time when those bombs touched the ground. So I was pretty proud of my capabilities as a navigator to be able to do that with all the other things we’d had to work with. And it was clear that we had a good system. At 15 seconds to go on the bomb run, the Bombardier opens the Bombay [00:30:30] doors and I had 10 seconds. I started stopwatch as backup in case anything went wrong, and about a second later, the radar shut off. And at first I was thinking an electrical failure now is in and I’m ready to do a countdown. When the copilot started yelling on the intercom, they’ve got the pilot, they’ve got the pilot.
(ROBERT): [00:30:54] And I thought, was that mean? And then the E.W., the electronic warfare officer, was [00:31:00] shouting, Is anybody alive? And I realized we’d been hit by a surface to air missile, surface to air missiles. The missile doesn’t hit the airplane, it blows up, and it’s like a shotgun shell. With all this debris, the shrapnel from the exploded missile comes at you at 18 hundred feet per second, and it’s everywhere, and a jet engine if a jet engine sucks up a piece of metal it’ll break the blades off and then shred out the engine. You lose the engine. If [00:31:30] it punctures a fuel cell, it’s hot, so it’ll start a fire. It apparently had ripped into the airplane and had mortally wounded the pilot and the gunner. I looked over my left shoulder and there’s a bulkhead door behind the navigators position that leads into the forward wheel well and then the catwalk goes to the Bombay and and when I looked over to the porthole in that door, I could see we had fire. And by then [00:32:00] we were just short of the target and I turned to the Bombardier and said, Drop the bombs, let’s get them out of here because I was thinking, I don’t need fire in front of all those hundred and fifty pound bombs back there. And he jettisoned the bombs out, and I realized that that fire was right below the main mid body fuel tank above the the the wheel well, and it holds about ten thousand pounds of jet fuel.
(ROBERT): [00:32:29] So we [00:32:30] have this Bunsen burner burning back there, fixing the light off this fuel. And it just as that happened, the E.W. ejected. The pilot was still alive, but ordered the rest of us to eject the navigator. The Bombardier eject to the bottom of the airplane. And so we’re strapped in. The parachute is connected to the seat and there are explosive bolts that hold the [00:33:00] lap belt, the seat harness and the parachute and the crew member in the seat and then explosive cartridges that blow the hatch, the bottom hatch off from the bottom of the airplane and then fire the seat through the bottom of the airplane. It’s activated by a ring between your legs, and there are little retainers that you kick back on and the retainers hold your legs [00:33:30] in. You reach down and grab the ring and pull up, and then you go to the bottom of the airplane and then takes about a tenth of a second to leave. And then after you, about a second after this airplane, the seat leaves the airplane. Then explosive bolts blow off the seat belt and the parachute, and a inertial reel that goes behind and under you tightens up and throws you out of the seat. Because the weighs over three hundred pounds. [00:34:00] You don’t want to come down in that and the parachutes between your back and the seat, so you have to get rid of it.
(ROBERT): [00:34:06] So I got into position, cleared my desk, stowed the desk, got all my navigator charts and equipment and threw them way as far in the back of the airplane as I could. So that would I ejected. It wouldn’t come in and pound against me, kicked back in the leg restraints and synched up my oxygen mask. All the [00:34:30] oxygen were called green apple or green knob to start a flow of oxygen. And initially thought the Sikh wood had failed because it moved what appeared to be very slowly. I knew from studying the system that it would take one tenth of a second to clear the airplane. But I was watching my radar set and panels moving up at a fairly slow speed and [00:35:00] I was thinking, Oh great, it’s going to get hung up on the rails and they’d be out in the Airstream and get beaten to death and die. But the next thing I knew I was tumbling it to space airplane. The seat had worked as as advertised. It took a tenth of a second. It’s just that I was. It’s like movies when they show a car crashes in slow motion, they don’t really happen in slow motion, but that’s what it seems like when you’re involved in them. [00:35:30] So clear the airplane. The seat worked as and kicked me out of it. We were at thirty five thousand feet, was fifty five degrees below zero centigrade at that altitude and we were at the bomb release point eighteen be fifty two and drop bombs in that target at that same point in the sky and eight more were going to within the next minute and forty five seconds, and we’d take two minutes for me to freefall to fifteen thousand feet where the parachute opened.
(ROBERT): [00:36:00] So [00:36:00] the entire time I was tumbling, I was first. I was tumbling. It seemed like around all three axes, and it took me a minute or so to get stabilized in the fall, and I was more concerned at that point about getting stabilized before the parachute opened. So when it did open, it wouldn’t just wrap around me and I’d hit the ground like a balled up cocoon. So I got stabilized in the fall, the parachute open, passing fifteen thousand feet. Was [00:36:30] initially swinging like a pendulum and had to make a call, a four line cut at a daisy chain strap, I pulled on and not released for the four lines on the parachute to create a little spillway to stabilize. So I was about fourteen thousand feet by then and then so I look down between my combat boots. I was hanging right over the target. And saw the last twenty seven bombs blowing up as they walked their way through the target. [00:37:00] I thought, Oh great eject, get a good parachute land in the fire. This is not good.
(HOST): [00:37:09] You can hear the rest of this incredible story, along with many others at www.witnesstowar.org. Our final story [00:37:30] for this episode comes from Darlene Simeone. She was a freshman at Immaculate College in Washington, D.C., when she met Pat Buckley, a midshipman first class at the United States Naval Academy. The year was 1965.
(DARLENE): [00:37:44] I had a friend who graduated from high school with me that I was also at the Naval Academy, he had asked if I wanted to go to a navy picked game, which I did. And I met Pat’s roommate at that navy game. I did not meet Pat, but [00:38:00] I met his roommate. And after a couple of months of writing back and forth to him and not seeing him, he became engaged. And Pat wrote to me saying that his roommate had gotten engaged, but he was available. So we started to write, and then we eventually started dating. We finally got to see each other after writing quite a bit. And I just remember getting out off the [00:38:30] bus and him coming out of the gate with this big smile on his face. And I was just I said, Wow, how lucky am I? And he was great. I mean, he was good looking, yes, but he was also, well, read. He was extremely bright. He loved life. He rode a motorcycle. He had an MG classic. He loved jets. He he just [00:39:00] had this zest for life that I’ve never found in anybody else, really. And all these years, nobody else has that kind of zest. And for four years, we we were together. It was not an easy relationship in that when he graduated, I was a freshman, he was a senior when I met him. When he graduated, he was stationed in various places. He was going into flight training. So [00:39:30] he was in Pensacola, Florida, California. Georgia, I believe, was one of the places he was stationed. And he he was from Virginia. I lived on Long Island.
(DARLENE): [00:39:47] It was difficult to be able to spend time together, but we did our best, you know, we travel. And once he got his pilot’s license, after all his training, he would fly into a local air [00:40:00] station on Long Island and I would go pick him up and then he’d fly back to California, where was the last place he was stationed before he went to Vietnam. He left for Vietnam in July of 1969. We had just gotten engaged, I had wanted to marry him actually before we went to Vietnam because my fear was that as a bachelor, he [00:40:30] would be send on the most difficult missions because he wouldn’t be leaving a family behind to safeguard him. I had. I had wanted to elope, and we talked about it, but there just wasn’t enough time. He didn’t like to write, but when he went to Vietnam, he was writing sometimes two three letters a day, [00:41:00] which was very unusual. I was very happy, but it was very unusual for him. He was a reconnaissance pilot, so he, you know, he’d have to have an escort pilot which who would be a fighter pilot, who would have ammunition on his plane as a protection because the reconnaissance pilot only has camera equipment. He didn’t talk about the danger, but he he did talk [00:41:30] about the fact that they were only four reconnaissance pilots, as opposed to quite a few more fighter pilots on an aircraft carrier. And if one or two of those reconnaissance pilots was out of commission, they use the others to fly all the missions, which was very exhausting.
(HOST): [00:41:51] December 1969,
(DARLENE): [00:41:54] I had sent him an artificial Christmas tree, a small one, obviously, and [00:42:00] some Christmas cookies I had baked and a couple of things that he asked for books that he liked, and I wrapped them all up and sent them in a big box. And I had sent them out early because I wanted to make sure he had gotten them. And he. He he acknowledged that he had gotten them, he said he ate all the cookies, but the other thing the tree was set up and the presents were under the tree, but he was going to wait until the 25th [00:42:30] to open them. He was reported missing on December 16. They had returned from a mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and he was headed back to the aircraft carrier and is the fighter escort had to refuel, so he they changed positions. He appeared to be having trouble with his radio. He wasn’t receiving [00:43:00] transmissions too well, but they switched positions and then the fighter did air to air refuelling because he was low on fuel and he hooked up to the tanker. And the guy on the tanker said, Where’s your wingman? And he said, he’s waiting for me because nobody’s there. It was 11 o’clock in the morning on a clear day. He had fallen off the radar, but there were [00:43:30] other ships there. So if he had continued going, the theory was he would have been picked up on somebody else’s radar. That didn’t apparently happen. So they launched a search and they found nothing. There was no debris and there was no emergency signal from him and there was no wreckage. They just disappeared. I [00:44:00] heard from his sister, his sister called. I don’t think his mother could get on the phone. She was too upset and they asked me to spend that Christmas with them.
(DARLENE): [00:44:14] So I went down to Falls Church and spent Christmas with them that year. And I stayed for about a week because the hope was that. He would be found. [00:44:30] You know, that maybe he had floated somewhere, you know, they had a life raft on the plane that you could blow up and, you know, somehow he landed somewhere and he wasn’t able to get in touch with anybody or who knows, but I think there was hope that he would be found. I remember being down there that Christmas and his father taking out maps and, you know, talking to other pilots. And so there was hope. [00:45:00] And then about four days after he disappeared, I got a package in the mail. And from him. And my first thought was, Oh my God, they found him, he’s still alive because the package came not even thinking that he sent it long before that. So that was kind of bittersweet, it was a beautiful, beautiful jewelry box [00:45:30] that looked like a chest of drawers, and he put some jewelry in it. But then after about a month or two, I think although nobody really said it, I think the understanding was he had died that day. But after that, it got to be more difficult because I. I mean, his mother was mourning. I said when I was there, I remember [00:46:00] we sat up one night, everybody had gone to bed and. I said to her, I don’t I don’t know how to go on, I said, I just I, I just adored him. I don’t know how to go on with my life. And she said, Oh. You’ll go on, darling, she said, but I’ll never replace my son. And she was right. I did go on. But [00:46:30] it never really goes away.
(HOST): [00:46:41] Victor Patrick Buckley is memorialized on the Wall panel 15 West, Line sixty one. You can’t talk about Christmas and the Vietnam War without acknowledging the man who brought a little bit of home to Southeast Asia every Christmas from 1964 to 1972. Bob [00:47:00] Hope’s annual Christmas show was attended by a small but lucky fraction of the troops in Vietnam. But for them, he managed to ease their loneliness, provide a couple hours of laughter and remind them what they were fighting for. We’ll close this episode, and this year, the way Bob Hope closed every one of those Christmas shows. Here’s a clip from the 1968 show on the island of Guam the lovely Barbara McNair leading the troops in Silent Night. From all of us at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. [00:47:30] Enjoy the holidays. Take good care of each other and we’ll see you in 2022.
(MUSIC): [00:47:37] Bob Hope Christmas Tour – Barbara McNair (68)
(BOB HOPE): [00:48:40] Have [00:48:30] a merry Christmas, and God bless you. Bye.
No video interviews are available for this episode.
- Witness to War Foundation – witnesstowar.org
- Franklin Mendez full interview- https://www.witnesstowar.org/combat_stories/Vietnam/7196
- VVMF Legacy Endowment – org/legacy
- “Notes from Nam” Joe Lex – https://www.joelex.xyz/notes-from-nam
- COL Robert Certain full interview – https://www.witnesstowar.org/combat_stories/Vietnam/704
- Full Darlene Simeone interview –
- VVMF Wall of Faces: Thomas F O’Dea Jr. – https://www.vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces/38359/THOMAS-F-ODEA-JR/
- Full Sandy O’Dea interview –
- VVMF Wall of Faces: Victor P Buckley – https://www.vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces/6587/VICTOR-P-BUCKLEY/
- YouTube Echoes of the Vietnam War Interview playlist – https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLK63b6Cn53unMMj-yZYEch0RuYy1YN1zl
- FairyTale Waltzby Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ Source: http://incompetech.com/music/royalty-free/index.html?isrc=USUAN1100232 Artist: http://incompetech.com/
- I Saw Three Shipsby Audionautix is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ Artist: http://audionautix.com/