In military families there are some things that seldom, if ever, really get discussed openly and freely. Hollywood loves to spin tales of heroism in war but it’s only on rare occasions when someone slips in a military family and the word gets out–and even then, the details remain glossed over. And so on this Memorial Day, 2013, I want to bend the rules a bit and thank God for sparing my father while also giving honor to other men who served with him, and one of his crew members who died instantly above the jungles of Viet Nam.
I think in the past I’ve mentioned this story briefly. For kindergarten, most of the year, my mom and two brothers and I were back home in Hobart, Indiana at the grandparents’ while dad served in Viet Nam a second time. This trip was for his participation in an elite USAF Huey helicopter group, 20th Special Operations Squadron, nicknamed “The Green Hornets.” (They were so hated by the VC, there was a bounty for any Green Hornet killed.)
Apparently much of what they did in those days still remains classified (though if you follow this link to Wiki, you’ll get a general idea), so I honestly don’t know anything about their missions. And I would not even know this story but for Grandpa Claxton pulling into a plant nursery on Route 51 in Hobart in 1978 as we were being transferred from Northern Michigan’s K.I. Sawyer AFB back out to Castle AFB for the third time in my life. With me and probably two brothers in the back seat we were all talking and then grandma let the cat out, “You know, you remember that time your dad got shot down in Viet Nam….” It wasn’t a question. It was a statement and of course, being 12 or 13 at the time, I perked up.
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN THE TIME DAD GOT SHOT DOWN IN VIET NAM?!”
And that’s when the previously mentioned part of military family mode kicked in. Inquires to dad, who also was pulling up with mom in the next car went deflected. Mom, eh. Grandma gave up just a few more morsels. “Your dad used to write your mom every day. Every day. And then all of the sudden the letters stopped for two weeks.” Mom confirmed this part. “You don’t remember that?! I knew something had happened. I just didn’t know what.” I was in kindergarten, so thankfully I’d been spared that suspense.
I remember us getting to McConnell AFB in Wichita, Kansas for first half of first grade, (I finished first grade back in Atwater, CA–our second trip there–at Elmer Wood Elementary) but that was after we’d made a stop down in Florida, I think at Tindell AFB. The only reason I remember this trip to Florida was because we went to Disney World, we endured a hurricane, I can vaguely remember the view of the school yard in my mind’s eye, and I remember not wanting to get on the school bus one day to go to school and mom forcing me. Seems like they also showed us a movie on how to get out of your house if it was on fire, (which caused nightmares for days) and I don’t recall much more.
McConnell AFB, Wichita, Kansas
I remember a medal ceremony. Just within the past year I’ve gotten this accounting of all that dad earned during his career: “three Distinguished Flying Crosses for valor in combat operations, two Meritorious Service Medals, 11 Air Medals, three Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards with V, and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm.”
But that still doesn’t talk about what happened that fateful day over the jungle.
Over The Jungles of Nam
Years later, in Montgomery, AL I was going through one of our storage sheds in the backyard and found a box with dad’s stuff in it. In it was a report of what happened that day.
They were flying in their UN-1N Special Operations gunship low level over the jungle. From the day, dad had a high-8 video camera and we’ve seen the silent films of them flying low over the jungle. And every time I’ve ever heard a chopper coming in the city since, I’ve wondered how much harder this could have been for the Viet Cong.
So they were flying low over the jungle and they flew over something dark, black. It was square, as I recall. They immediately began a hard bank of the chopper. As they began to turn, as I remember reading it, at least one of the gunners, men who were basically hanging out the doors on each side with a big caliber machine gun, was cut in half by the rounds. A shot came up through the floor between dad’s legs and went out thru the ceiling of the aircraft. And then they began the process of crashing. The rest of the accounting is about how dad destroyed the radios of the chopper so they couldn’t be used by the enemy. And then somehow he got picked up by another chopper. My Aunt Lynda, dad’s youngest sister, quotes dad as saying, “They came in and picked me up just like I would have picked them up.” Another military tradition…..
Memorial Day 2013
And so today, I’m thankful and proud to honor the memory of a soldier whose name I don’t know, but who played a part in my being here, able to tell this story today. There were many missions before he died that day, and there were more after, and on days like these, Memorial Day, I often try to reflect how different my life would have been if the bullet that went up between my dad’s legs that day had hit him or worse.
God works such miracles in our lives, things we don’t even realize and does them some times in just a fraction of an instant, or by a fraction of a few inches. My heart will always grieve in part for the family of the solder who did lose his life that day. And for all veterans who have served our nation. Such memories make seeing the US Flag a little more special. They make the playing of the National Anthem that much more meaningful and important. And they make me thankful to live in a country where men and women are brave enough to risk it all so we might continue living here.
Most Americans will simply look at today as another one off. The beginning of summer time. The ending of school. For me, it’s a reminder of how different my life would have been had one bullet been a few degrees off or a milisecond slower.