One minute you were soaring in the wild blue above the fields of North Vietnam and environs of Hanoi “at about Mach 1.3,” and the next instant your aircraft was on fire and disintegrating around you.
To even aspire to be an American air warrior, “You had to believe that you were the best pilot, that you were bulletproof, that you were invisible, that no one could touch you.
“Anyone who didn’t believe that didn’t have any business being there,” recalled retired Air Force Col. Joe Kittinger, a veteran of 483 combat missions and a year in the notorious prison camp known as the “Hanoi Hilton.”
You were the best, even if you were shot out of the sky after downing MiG jet fighters and three combat tours. You needed to be the best to live to tell about it.
With luck, you ejected and your parachute opened, dropping you from 10,000 feet away from the worst surprise of your life, toward the worst days and nights of your life.
Kittinger recalls “I had studied at every survival and escape school there was, and I was going to hit the ground and evade for a year, make my way back.”
Instead, his parachute plopped him square in a field filled with rice and farmers “and about 50 of them swarmed my butt.”
The first thing, they stripped his boots, his flight suit, grabbed his pistol. Wobbling on a wounded left leg, “in my skivvies … the first thing an 80-year-old lady waved a knife at my neck and I jumped back. The next thing, a 14-year-old boy did the same thing.”
Kittinger, like other surviving POWs, lived because North Vietnamese militia or troops arrived, pulling him out of the crowd, and pushing him into transport to an infamous prison camp that inspired dread in aviators known in the jargon as the “Hanoi Hilton.”
“It’s just the worst ‘Hilton’ in the world,” Kittinger joked to a tent full of aviation history buffs at the Los Angeles County Air Show. They gathered to hear about the air combat of the Vietnam War.
A robust man at 89 years, with a zest for good beer, good food and good friendship, he added, “The service was awful! The rooms were too small. The food was lousy. There’s just nothing to recommend it. Don’t ever go there!”
Kittinger experienced a storied career before his parachute descent into a kind of hell.
In 1960, to advance the cause of high-altitude research for the Air Force, he executed a free-fall parachute jump from higher than 103,000 feet, more than 20 miles above the Earth. Over Vietnam, between 1963 and 1971, he logged a staggering 483 missions, the last one that dropped him into a year in the Hanoi prison camp.
“I was going to stick with the Geneva Convention, name, rank and serial number,” Kittinger said. His interrogator told him, “The Geneva Convention does not apply to you, because you are not soldiers. You are criminals.”
Held in solitary confinement, beaten and treated as war criminals, Kittinger said, “We considered it a tour of duty … and a duty to resist. We held church every Sunday. We’d each have a hymn, and nobody could remember the second verse, so we’d sing the first verse four times.”
Kittinger, by virtue of his POW survivor status, led a history panel of history-making military pilots. Joining him on the panel was retired Air Force Lt. Col. Dick Rutan. Kittinger and Rutan share a connection bonded by air combat, and making history.
Rutan piloted the Voyager — designed by his brother Burt — on the world’s first round-the-world unrefueled flight. The spidery Voyager aircraft was basically a flying gas tank filled to the wingtips that completed its trip into the record books in 1986.
Other panelists included retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Doug Pearson; retired Air Force Col. Bob Ettinger; and retired Air Force Col. Roy Martin, all who became distinguished test pilots after their tours of duty in the flak-filled skies over Vietnam.
The men on the small stage in the small tent were variously still lean, or had put on weight. They were some bald, some with hair gone white. Martin still wore a dapper, black tailored flight suit known to combat pilots as a “party suit” with a lot of patches and embroidery. Others retained their leather jackets, and the general sported a blue blazer sport coat and highly polished loafers. Their common denominator was a confidence and surety innate to warriors who fly and fight.
In Vietnam air war, the existential hazards were “Triple-A,” Anti-Aircraft Artillery, SAMs (surface-to-air missiles), and MiGs — the Soviet or Chinese jet fighters who were their opposite numbers in the Vietnam air war.
Rutan volunteered to fly “Misty FAC” missions, a low-and-slow aerial recon mission, Forward Air Control aircraft tasked to find “Triple A” guns and SAM sites. These missions were done in a two-seater F-100 Super Sabre, a workhorse fighter-bomber of the early Cold War tasked for protecting aircraft penetrating North Vietnamese air space.
“It was very exciting,” Rutan said. “Your job is to find targets, and direct fighter-bombers in to destroy them.
“We would go round up some fighters, go in and destroy it … ‘Wow we got to see the whole thing.’”
Rutan added, “We had a high loss rate … the highest. … We lost 28 percent, one out of four shot down, including yours truly.”
On his last mission, his aircraft was hit, on fire, and he nosed it toward the Gulf of Tonkin before ejecting.
“That was the day I joined the Gulf of Tonkin ‘Yacht Club,’” he said, floating in a survival raft until he retrieval by a search-and-rescue helicopter.
“I knew I was going home — that I had made it.” Curling up in the chopper, he said “I wrapped myself in a blanket, and went to sleep.”
To the audience of the enthralled, Rutan said he offered “a little pseudo psychology” about the mindset of combat. Which followed, it is “Kill, or be killed.” Destroy the enemy’s guns, or be destroyed. Forget adrenaline, Rutan said. That is about running away from bears chasing you.
“The epitome of competition is one man against another,” he said. And that spirit of competition is fueled by what Rutan called “The combat gland,” which might be somewhere in the back of the neck.
“The combat gland has an addictive, euphoric effect,” Rutan said. “Every time you shoot back, it’s kill and be killed. You want more, and you want more, and you want more.
“If you’ve lived your life without being shot at, you’re missing something,” he said. It is a physical component, particularly of the “testosterone-charged male.”
The hazards of air combat are fundamental. Injuries that maim and burn, but more likely, instant death by fiery explosion, or burning to death in a flaming airframe.
Pearson, who went on from his air combat duty to be commander at Edwards Air Force Base — the world’s capital of flight test — recalled three specific encounters with death.
“Years later you think what’s important, what changed your life,” Pearson reflected. “For me, it was about three, maybe four deaths that changed my life …
“The first time I killed a person, and knew I killed him,” he said. “When you drop bombs you think you probably killed people … when you look somebody in the eye and kill them, you see them and you know that you killed them, you have to live with that the rest of your life.”
The next death encountered came “When your wingman or lead gets shot down, and they’re on the ground you have to live with that for the rest of your life.”
In 1972, after a dozen years of fighting, President Richard M. Nixon’s decision to initiate the “Christmas Bombings,” of Hanoi and Haiphong harbor was intended to bring the enemy, the North Vietnamese, back to peace negotiations. One key motivation of a massive bombing campaign was to compel the communist regime in Hanoi to release the American POWs.
“In the Christmas bombings, our B-52s flew same pattern night after night,” Pearson recalled.
Pearson, in his first combat tour, was flying an F-4 fighter-bomber.”
“You never forget sight of a B-52 receiving an SA 2 in the weapons bay, with 50,000 pounds of fuel, and 30,000 pounds of bombs going off all at one time.”
The bomber, and its crew’s destruction, looked like a nuclear fireball.
Ettinger recalled that flying to drop bombs on Hanoi was called “Going Downtown.”
His tour of duty was in 1967, and he, too, piloted an F-4 Phantom, another of the two-seater workhorse fighter-bombers of the Vietnam War. The job involved being a witness to death, and demanding the internal fortitude not to be panicked or shaken by that proximity to sudden, most often, fiery death.
“The only way you can think about it is that it’s the other guys who are gonna get shot down, and well, that’s too bad,” he said. “But you have to get over it, and even if it’s very close, it’s a miss.”
For the five men gathered to unspool some of the history of an unpopular and long-enduring American war, it was a kind of class reunion, even though none of them had flown together, and most flew during different periods of combat that for the record books began in 1960 and ended in 1975.
For the most part, as Kittinger, the elder statesman of air warriors recounted, “it was a crappy war” run by “crappy leaders … politicians who did not let the military do their job.”
For his part, Martin said he arrived in Vietnam as a young Air Force fighter pilot poorly prepared for the experience. He flew in the later stages of the war.
“I had 15 air combat training missions, and the training was not adequate,” he said. “I was not ready to be subjected to combat … I later heard from (an) Israeli said they wouldn’t think about sending you out with less than 100 training missions.”
Typically, 10 combat missions would be flown over territory in the Republic of South Vietnam, and the 11th would sortie into North Vietnam. Martin said he arrived at Da Nang Air Base in South Vietnam as the Marines were pulling out in 1972 and South Vietnamese troops were taking over security of the base perimeter. So, rocket attacks by the enemy accelerated.
His first night in country, rocket shrapnel penetrated his “hooch,” the sleeping quarters. Martin was on the top bunk. The air crewman from a gunship was in the low bunk, and the shrapnel “took out his eyes. I realized this was serious.”
With his squadron moving to Thailand, he met a brother officer, a “hooch mate,” roommate really, who said he had to catch some sleep because of a special mission the next day. His roommate was killed the next day.
A flight leader’s encouragement to “stay on my wing and I’ll bring you home” provided Martin the encouragement, and the courage, that he needed to fly and fight.
“I realized, don’t ever fall behind. Don’t become isolated. You have to keep up.”
Missions to take out air targets in the environs of Hanoi were started and stopped during various stages of the war for reasons of politics, Kittinger recalled with some bitterness.
The president, “Lyndon Johnson would pick the targets,” Kittinger sputtered.
From the time of Ettinger’s tour during a bombing offensive in 1967 named “Rolling Thunder,” followed by a bombing halt in the north, until 1972 when Nixon decided to resume bombing, the tactics and technologies improved, Martin said.
During the late-in-the-war “Linebacker” offensives, electro-optical and laser-guided munitions provided the Air Force the means needed to take out bridges used to resupply North Vietnamese Army forces.
“They would have the bridges rebuilt and back in use in 12 days,” Martin recalled.
The offensive known informally as the “Christmas bombing” of Hanoi and Haiphong harbor starting on Dec. 18, 1972, involved hundreds of aircraft dropping untold thousands of tons of bombs — the intention, to usher in negotiations to end the war, free the POWs and bring about accounting of the Missing In Action, MIA Americans.
“We could have won the whole damn war if we had started that bombing 10 years earlier,” Kittinger said. “We didn’t do that, and we lost 57,000 fine young Americans for no good reason — because of decisions by crappy politicians.”
Pearson, sobered by watching B-52 heavy bombers blown out of the sky, and losses of his friends and comrades, said he understood that the Christmas bombing would compel the North Vietnamese to come back and negotiate.
Flying over Hanoi, Pearson said, “We were ordered to stay away from the ‘Hilton,’ but there was an F-4 that flew over on Dec. 27, Joe, and I hope that you heard it.”
Kittinger said his brother American POWs returned with pride, and honor, for having maintained their morale and integrity. He said he remains angry that American troops were not welcomed home with the honors they had earned, but that he and his fellow POWs “were treated like royalty, and we returned to a grateful nation.”
It was a paradox of history, but both things happened.
Kittinger said America’s cause was to save a small democracy from being overrun by a communist invader. And he remains bitter that the United States failed to protect the people that America had promised to defend.
“We did not keep our word to those people,” he said. He added “It was the Jane Fondas who turned Americans against the people who fought the war.”
With the return of the POWs, Rutan recalled the words of the American warriors’ most beloved leaders, Adm. Jeremiah Denton, the most senior officer to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Stepping off the return aircraft to a red carpet welcome at Clark Air Base in the Philippines, Denton spoke for the men he was responsible to lead through their ordeal in captivity.
Rutan observed, “These men were shot down … he spent six years as a POW in the most abominable conditions.
Rutan recited Denton’s words, saying “Every time I say this, I choke up.”
Quoting Admiral Denton, he recited “I consider it an honor to have had the privilege to serve my country under difficult circumstances.”
Rutan reflected, “I think about the totality of what he said, and I think to myself, ‘Who are these people, such remarkable people?’”
Kittinger summed it up, saying, “I came out of Vietnam as a POW. Fifteen percent of us were shot down … many buried there. The rest of the POWs were lucky as hell. We were determined to maintain our morale. We were Americans, some who had been there for seven years, no food, no mail, no nothing. We never lost faith. We kept faith that ‘My country will not leave me here. We came out as better Christians, better Americans, better people.”