I did not participate in the ship's return voyage of February, 1973, since I already had returned by plane to San Francisco in September of 1972. However, I did return with the ship in 1971, and what a memorable homecoming it was. The only two things bad about it were its beginning and its end.
The Midway had arrived in Westpac on May 7, 1971, and we had begun our first stint off the coast of Vietnam on May 18. It was now October 19 and the last day of flight ops before we started our return stateside. We were no longer near Vietnam, being part of a Korean Expeditionary Exercise in the Sea of Japan. The day was marked by the over flight of a gigantic Russian "Bear" airplane and the informal visit of a Russian Destroyer complete with surface-to-surface missiles. We were showing off in front of the Russians as our last mission before leaving. They, in turn, were showing off in front of us.
I suppose we had a right to feel cocky. We were deployed six months, five of which were spent on Yankee Station. Carrier Air Wing Five planes had flown more than 5,000 sorties without the loss of a single life, and the ship had fared likewise. It had been a hallmark in carrier operations, for which we would receive a Meritorious Unit Commendation from the Secretary of the Navy.
The Russian Destroyer kept at a three-mile distance and observed as we carried out our various flight ops evolutions. This was the last day of the special three-day "Show of Force" exercise. The time was about 1:30 PM, and an E-2B Hawkeye (twin engine, prop-driven radar plane informally called a "Frisbee") was coming in for a landing. Meanwhile, a formation of four A-7B Corsair II jet planes streaked over the Midway. Suddenly an A-7B connected with the stabilizer fin of the E-2B, ripping it off and crippling itself. The Corsair struck out for Japan, hoping to land at the air base. It only made three miles before the pilot had to eject. Our helicopter picked him up in good condition a few minutes later.
The Hawkeye crew was not so lucky. After being hit their plane appeared to pull out of the encounter okay. It lifted its nose as if to fly over the ship's flight deck for a second landing attempt. However, the nose did not level off but continued to rise in a cartwheel pattern. Upon completion of the nearly 360 degree cartwheel, the Frisbee plunged nose-first into the sea. The craft did not surface and went down with its complete crew of five men from VA-115 Air Squadron. The Russian Destroyer helped with the rescue attempt. The only outcome of the search and rescue attempt was a small amount of wreckage collected on the Midway's hangar deck. I especially recall seeing a blood stained, broken crash helmet.
Shortly after the mishap occurred it was discovered that a sailor on a nearby ship had snapped pictures of the planes during the accident. The Midway's Captain and the Air Operations Officers were anxious to obtain the pictures for the crash investigation. So a helicopter went to retrieve both the sailor and his camera. Since there was no place on the sailor's ship for the helicopter to land, a rope was lowered and he was lifted off. Unfortunately, before the sailor could be pulled to safety aboard the bird, something happened to the rope and he fell to the deck below. I heard he suffered a broken back.
The day had turned into an anti-climax of the severest nature due to hubris and some unusual carelessness. Consequently, the Russians had a chance to witness both our flight ops and our response to emergencies, including search and rescue procedures. They also had a chance to ease international tensions by assisting in the rescue attempt.
Later, we were steaming back toward CONUS (continental United States) when Captain Harris made a surprising announcement. He said that, if we would like, he would take the ship down to Australia for a week's layover. En route we would cross the equator. Those of us not already initiated would get our chance to become "shell backs," i.e., members of the elite few who go south of the equator. He made it clear that this little excursion would add a few weeks to the date of our arrival home.
Captain Harris made the venture sound very appealing, but even I, who had nobody awaiting my return in California, was anxious to get back. The Captain dropped the suggestion after it became apparent that the overwhelming consensus was for us to return directly. At the time I thought the whole incident was out of character for a ship of the fleet. One did not receive options, one received orders. As it turned out, however, there was method to the Captain's madness.
The Midway was to arrive at San Francisco on November 6, 1971. However, some things were happening that made that date inadvisable. First, the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Coral Sea was due to leave for her sixth Westpac cruise on November 12, and there was being exerted a major effort by S.O.S. (the Stop Our Ships movement) to keep her from leaving. The main tack was to persuade her crew not to sail. (In the end, only a few enlisted men went AWOL (Absent without Leave), and a few lower-ranking officers publicly denounced the war and renounced their commissions. Another ship being "worked" on by the movement, the carrier U.S.S. Hancock, was due to leave on January 12, 1972.) The day the Midway would be arriving would be right in the midst of the S.O.S. turmoil.
The second situation concerned itself with the highly controversial nuclear bombing of the 40-mile-long island of Amchitka. Amchitka was only one of about 150 islands in the 800-mile-long chain of Aleutian Islands off Alaska. Yet it had an appreciable history with the United States. During World War II it held a US Air Force base. From this base the Allies launched the attack that repulsed the only Axis occupation of North American land. The Japanese had occupied the islands of Attu, Agattu and Kiska as of June, 1942. The repulsing invasion that lasted from May 11 to 30, 1943, saw the entire Japanese garrison at Attu wiped out and the other two islands abandoned.
It was not Amchitka's historic service to the United States, however, that made many people outraged at her being abused for nuclear testing. It was the fact that the island had residents who had to be evicted from their land. It was because the environmental damage caused by the underground, five megaton explosion would be incalculable. It was the thought of the resulting radioactive cloud circling the earth for who-knew-how-long. Even deeper, there was a need for post-World War II baby boomers to fight back against the seemingly dauntless approach of an atomic war. Its inevitability was something we had been threatened with all of our lives. Until the last minute, efforts continued to save Amchitka.
The bomb detonated on schedule November 6, 1971, sending seismic and other shock waves around the world. Massive protest rallies immediately followed, including one that stretched across Golden Gate Park and onto the Golden Gate Bridge. Meanwhile, the Midway was arriving home.
Our triumphal homecoming had been planned in great detail and rehearsed for some days. Several planes were parked facing forward on the ship's launching area. A line of men wearing their dress blue uniforms and white hats stood at attention, outlining the entire flight deck. Several other sailors were on the flight deck's angled landing strip. These men were arranged so that a person looking down from the Golden Gate Bridge would see the white hats spelling out "PSALM 23.4."
I was on watch in Faccon, so I missed out on the proceedings. Our families had been notified well in advance. There were banners and cheers as we sailed under the bridge. Unfortunately, some unhappy citizens had their own ceremony planned. Suddenly a rain of paint-filled balloons fell on the flight deck detail causing another type of environmental damage.
The year 1972 was fraught with turning points in the war, in politics, and in my life. February brought President Nixon and Henry Kissinger's visit to Communist China. This began a time of friendly relations with mainland China broken for more than twenty years. On April 15, the day before the Midway crossed back into the "Domain of the Golden Dragon," US carrier aircraft struck Haiphong Harbor, damaging Soviet freighters in the bargain. May 8 brought the mining of Haiphong's port under President Nixon's orders. I wrote "A Deed was Done" on May 10. Seventh Fleet sealed the blockade of North Vietnam on May 11. June 17 saw the arrest of Mr. Nixon's "plumbers." August 12 brought the departure of the last U.S. ground troops from Danang. A 43,000-man support force remained in Vietnam; reduced to 16,000 by December.
Meanwhile, US forces in Thailand grew toward a head count of 50,000. Between December 18 and 30, US planes dealt North Vietnam the heaviest bombardment in the entire war. Fifteen, $8 million B-52s were shot down during that period. December 30 brought the announcement that peace talks would resume on January 8, 1973. [This ultimately resulted in the Treaty of Paris on January 27, 1973, bringing what we hoped would be "peace with honor."] Also of note, at least to me, the odyssey of my departure out of active service began in early September.
Scuttlebutt had it, when the ship began its second Westpac crossing since recommissioning, that anybody on board who was due to leave the service during the cruise would have their EAOS (End of Active Obligated Service) extended until the ship returned stateside. Another rumor said we would not be held over. All officials remained mute on the subject. However, by late August it would have taken no less than World War III to keep me in any longer than the original EAOS.
While the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and North Vietnam intensified, my psychological and spiritual participation diminished on a precipitous curve. By early September it was as if I had departed already. Only the body remained behind to attend all the interviews and physical exams, complete paperwork, and do, in other words, everything necessary to receive its (and my) freedom. The body, also, continued with the motions of being an active member of Faccon. Yet it did not have much help from me; not until it reached CONUS (Continental United States). [To eliminate possible confusion I will continue to speak of myself as with the body.]
"RM3 Paige, Plank Owner, departing" was announced over the ship's internal and external PA systems as I walked down the gangway for the last time overseas. It was September 14. My MPC friend Brown also got off the ship that day. We hailed a taxi near the ship at the Naval Base, Cubi Point, Subic Bay, Philippines, and headed for Clark AFB (Air Force Base). Commissioning Certificate (126 KB)
We were not the only men awaiting flights stateside, so we checked in and waited our turn to board a military flight home bound. We didn't receive a flight until the fifteenth. Then the eighteen hour journey took us to Yokota, Japan; Anchorage, Alaska (our port of entry, where we had to declare for customs); and finally to Traverse AFB in California. Leaving Traverse, we arrived in San Francisco about 11:00 AM, still September 15. Brown and I rented a room at the Arlington Hotel, checking in at the Treasure Island Naval Base that evening. We still had to go through more interviews, physical exams, paperwork, etc. But since it was Friday, after some preliminaries we received the weekend off. Mustering out would be conducted and concluded Monday and Tuesday.
My duty status changed from Active Duty to Inactive Reserve as of September 19. Brown flew to his home back east the same day. I dawdled around a few more days, keeping the same hotel room until returning to Michigan for a brief visit. My plan was to return to San Francisco after a one week stay.
The Midway would not return until February, 1973, three months later than originally planned. Her bombs had continued to be part of the effort to force North Vietnam to the bargaining table. She and her crew were finally released from Westpac after the cease-fire was signed January 27. For her sustained participation, the ship and all who served aboard anytime during the tour received a Presidential Unit Citation.
I boarded the Midway shortly after her return, for the last time until her decommissioning in April, 1992. I was allowed access to Faccon and MPC, where I visited old comrades. By their shell-shocked appearance I gathered they had been through a sustained nightmare. Unexpectedly, I now felt distant from these fellows with whom I had shared countless experiences, and spent so many hours, days, weeks, months, and in some cases up to three years. But now I was a civilian, free to govern my own destiny, an "Honorable" escapee from what, irreverently, I sometimes had called "Never-Never Land." Still, I felt a twinge of connection upon seeing a faded, mimeographed copy of "Recipe for a Facconer" taped to a Faccon bulkhead.
For an account of the Midway's dramatic part in the evacuation of Saigon in April, 1975, read Al Santoli's Vietnam Veterans oral history anthology Everything we had. The ship's part can be found in chapter "The Fall of Saigon" by Stephen Klinkhammer. Klinkhammer then served as Navy Hospital Corpsman aboard the Midway.
The Vietnam experience initiated me into the warrior class of one of my ancestral lines, ironically, "Bliss." Before nestling into Michigan more than a hundred years ago, we had been marching across the globe. We migrated from east to west in a relentless search first for power and land, then freedom and land, and finally, just land. We had started (in recorded history) in Scandinavia, invading south into France with Rollo the Dane before the end of the first millennium AD. There we inhabited an area later ceded to the Northmen by an overpowered French king.
When this land and power was not enough we sailed against England with William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy (William I of England). Later, we temporarily wrested the kingship of England, itself. This act by Stephen of Blois, grandson of the Conqueror, threw England and some Norman princes and princesses into civil war that lasted two decades.
Our fortunes declining in France, we settled in England as yeomen, where things were mostly quiet for a few centuries until we took up the cause of Puritanism. This nonconformity threw us up against Charles I of England and his henchmen. After much religious and political persecution, including loss of life and property, in 1636 we transplanted to the New World. Here we found a new game field that seemed more amenable to our family's survival. Once in North America we came up against another king (of sorts), Metacomet, sachem of the Wampanoag tribe and son of benevolent Massasoit.
After his father's death, Metacomet (called King Philip by the English settlers) took exception to the arrival of wave upon wave of immigrants and decided something had to be done to close the flood gate. When he took up arms, we took up arms, and the result of King Philip's War is history.
England, herself, got in the way of land and freedom. With many others we took up arms to place the barrier of sovereignty between us and her, driving the English king, George III, insane in the process. Then things continued peacefully, as far as family participation was concerned, while we ratcheted across the country. By the time this branch of ancestors reached Michigan, which occurred just after the Civil War, the native population of Potawatomi Indians had been removed to the Green Bay, Wisconsin, area.
The Civil War and World Wars I and II saw family military involvement. Korea saw almost none. I was a family representative to the Vietnam conflict. Yet this military action did not involve the acquisition of land for America or Americans. There was little power to be gained, save that gained through the mobilization of a nation and the rapid advancements in technology and wealth thus stimulated. Also, the claim that we were helping South Vietnam, a sister democratic nation, fight against her wicked Siamese twin, North Vietnam, was hardly a valid notion. While aiding South Vietnam we destroyed her will and ability to protect herself as early as the Kennedy Administration. When we finally pulled out, she was left virtually helpless and alone to absorb the horrendous vengeance to be wreaked by an almost mortally wounded North Vietnam.
Peace activist Jane Fonda, in her real life role as "Hanoi Jane," stood up at her own peril in 1972 and made a proclamation over Radio Hanoi. She accused us, pilots and crew members aboard the aircraft carriers then devastating North Vietnam, of being war criminals. Speaking her mind and her conscience as she did, Jane embodied the spirit of correction and reformation for which our country is known. Through it we are great. Without it we would lose that spiritual and ethical edge we have had over most other countries since our declaration of independence from England. Yet, as with most things advantageous, this spirit of correction also has a dark side. It can be invoked among and against us by our enemies. It can become a most workable means of destroying our national resolve from within, bringing the country to its "political" knees.
Jane's charge of war crimes as well as a multitude of other charges and counter-charges of treason coming from many voices are toys with which historians, philosophers and politicians will play for many years to come. One thing is certain. The Vietnam Era will continue to leave its mark on much of our country's future policy, just as it continues to leave its mark on the lives of many Americans who suffered loss or disability for its sake.
As for me, I am not proud to have been part of the Vietnam conflict. I am, however, proud to be an American and to have served as a member of the United States Navy. I would like to extend an admonition to anyone considering joining a branch of the Armed Services, whether Navy or other. The experience will test every strand of ones moral fiber and lay fundamental, time worn convictions exposed to scrutiny.
Copyright 1992, 1998 Charles W. Paige
Last modified: Saturday January 25, 2003
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