Thank You Perry Giles – Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Committee, for your article of Sept. 2, “We Were Airmen Once, And Young,” for sharing those memories of war and conflict, endured by men that paid the ultimate price.
The article stirred my memory of service during the Vietnam War in South East Asia and the part that many airmen played during what was called Operation Linebacker (Dec.18-29, 1972).
Memories of the poverty in the surrounding communities, the heat and the long shifts of duty (day and night) that we were required to work; but memories of those weeks in December 1972, stood out above all the rest.
I was assigned as an administrative clerk to the Avionics Maintenance Squadron. I would travel to the operations center and pick up all the maintenance work orders left by the aircrews, following their bombing mission debriefings.
The Vietnam War was the first military conflict that the United States Air Force flew bombing and refueling missions around the clock, 24/7 and 365 days, without skipping a beat; as we tried to sleep in our open air barracks near the runway.
During those December weeks, toward the end of my one year tour of duty, I remember how everything seemed to have changed. I could feel the tension in the air as I walked by the aircrew briefing rooms. I just knew that I did not want to get in the way of a crewmember coming back from a bombing or refueling mission.
For 10 months everything was routine as I typed the maintenance records of all the assigned aircraft, until in December 1972, a handful of senior officials walked in to our office, took one of the maintenance books and walked out. Of course, I was curious, since they were messing with my work. I quickly learned that the aircraft, represented by that book of records had just been shot down over Vietnam. It was the first lost aircraft of my tour and it would not be the last we experienced.
Of the aircraft that were destroyed and crews that gave their lives serving God and country; one in particular stands out in my memory. It was a story documented in the August 1983, copy of Air Force Magazine entitled “Valor: Miracle at U Tapao.”
It was one of those hot and restless nights in our barracks that ended in the early morning. I overheard talk of one of our bombers that had just crashed outside of the base. As I and a few of my fellow airman hurried out the door and were lucky enough to catch a ride out to the crash site, we gathered more details about the crash, some true and some we later found to be rumors and misinformation.
It was by all accounts a tragedy where all but one aircrew members unknowingly chose death over life attempting to protect one of their own. Here are the details of the story reported by John Frisbee, Contributing Editor of the Air Force Magazine:
“As Hymel’s B-52 dropped its bombs and turned off target, the rear gunner called two SAMs coming up. Despite evasive action by the B-52, the missiles exploded just to the right of the bomber, wounding the gunner, knocking out two engines, and causing major fuel leaks and other undetermined damage. The aircraft commander headed for an emergency landing at Da Nang, then decided that, with several refuelings, they could make it back to their base at U Tapao, in Thailand. The wounded gunner would have better medical treatment there. Shortly after midnight, the BUFF started a straight-in approach to the Thai base.
“Capt. Brent Diefenbach, a B-52 aircraft commander who had just returned from a mission in the North, sat in a crew bus, waiting to cross the end of the runway as Hymel’s battle-damaged bomber neared the runway lights. The approach didn’t look or sound right. Suddenly, the aircraft veered to the left and the engines roared as power was added for a go-around. Diefenbach watched, horrified, as the big bomber pitched up, plunged to earth about a mile beyond the runway, and exploded in a ball of fire.
“Hymel survived, miraculously saved by Diefenbach, who beyond reason, followed a guiding voice to the crash site and was able to pull the surviving member of the crew out of the burning aircraft.”
There are so many of these little known stories of service and sacrifice that remind me of a profound statement once made in a little known World War II movie called “The Hook,” that offered this dedication:
“Dedicated to the lowest common denominator of all military forces … and the highest …the individual man. For in the brief and quiet intervals between the loud and terrible noises of war, he is capable of great and revealing moments of nobility.” (author unknown)
The stories and sacrifice are as many as the men that served, and during my life I have heard some of these stories and have been among men that had stories that they could not or would not tell.
James B. Parker, Major, USAF Retired, is a resident of Midlothian.