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If The Tooth Be Known

by Dan Glenn

On the day I was shot down, my stress level seemed much lower than it was during many of my previous hundred and thirty-four missions. I’m not superstitious, but I would note later that it was the thirteenth mission of my second combat cruise. While most of our squadron mates made their way to breakfast on the aircraft carrier, our flight of four A-4 Skyhawks roared with determination across the North Vietnam coast. At our alternate target on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the jungle would absorb our rockets like a lake taking on a hailstorm. That all changed when flight lead decided the overcast that covered Ha Tinh Province was breaking up and we should go down to take a look. Two ker-plunk’s preceded one tremendous KA-BOOM and an unnerving jolt to my aircraft. I keyed the mike button and tried to report in my most professional naval aviator voice, “unh, this is Warpaint two, I’ve been hit.” I got an inkling the situation was headed south when I heard Warpaint three transmit in a frantic voice, “Warpaint two is hit! He’s on fire and out of control!” Oh shit! That got my attention. It was worse than I thought. My day and the A-4 I was flying went rapidly downhill after that. The next five seconds played in slow motion while flames burst forward from the engine intakes, engine rpm plummeted to zero, controls froze and Ha Tinh Province started up to meet me. Reports of pilots who died because they stayed too long with a non-flyable aircraft passed through a part of my mind, but another part of my mind told my hand, just pull the ejection handle. Ejecting from an airplane turned into a fireball imparts a mixture of thrill and terror, but parachuting into a country that’s at war with you is a life changing experience. The ground war was something I read about in “Stars and Stripes” and “Newsweek,” from the comfort of the squadron ready room on the carrier and I had zero interest in becoming a part of it. The most meaningful thing for me about the ground war was my cousin Gary. I had met Gary when he was 2, shortly after his mother -- my aunt – was killed in a car wreck on the way to visit us in Oklahoma from California. His bereaved dad let him spend the summer with the aunts, uncles and cousins who fell under his special charm that included a mixture of a winning smile and a flair for mischief. After his mother died, life didn’t come easy for Gary, so I wasn’t surprised when I heard he had left home at 17 to join the U.S. Marine Corps. I wrote to him on my way to Vietnam. He wrote back that he also was headed to Vietnam and would be looking for me from the ground. We were as far apart as Oklahoma and California, but now there was a battlefield connection. Every time I flew a mission in support of ground troops, I thought about Gary and what he might be thinking on the ground below. Now that I had gone down in flames I wondered what might be in store for him.....

by Dan Glenn
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