High Desert Hangar Stories: A Tale of Two Davids, and a mission for the books

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Vietnam Wall Panel 13 Row 6 (Courtesy photograph)

I heard a Special Forces soldier say recently that his greatest hero is the Vietnam veteran. In his words, he said the reason that today’s soldiers are treated so well is directly related to the disrespectful way the Vietnam veterans were treated upon returning home.

I agree that today’s warriors have it a lot better than the young men of the 1960s and 1970s, who fell into the cracks of a nation divided over an unpopular war. Many of those young men never crawled out to find a life free of the scars of that war. Even today in a country where the Welcome Home banners and parades try to mend the wounds, the reality is that so many years after the fact, the years lost in the void are hard to mend with catch phrases and flag-waving — but of course, the efforts of so many good people to try and heal those old wounds does go a long way in trying to make amends for quality of lives lost.

Inspiration for my stories comes from many places. Sometimes it comes from a chance moment at an event or with a special individual who could be living or not. This week, it comes from both. As I was standing in the cold night air, listening to Taps at the Mobile Vietnam Memorial Wall in Palmdale, a name on Panel 13, Row 6 had me thinking about the fortunes of war and how it would affect lives years later.

Lt. Cmdr. David McRea (Navy photograph)

Lt. Cmdr. David Edward McRae was a young pilot flying F-4 Phantoms off the USS Coral Sea back in 1966. With his rear seater, another young lieutenant, they took off on Dec. 2 for a raid on North Vietnam. The two crewmembers had no idea just how fate would deal them two completely different hands, which would define their lives with a cruel fate. At the end of the mission they would both become heroes, but it would be a long journey for them before they could touch the soil of America and bring closure to their journey. One would live; the other would die, and the Antelope Valley would have a direct connection to the story and mission as it played out.

With the raid completed and a turn to head back to the USS Coral Sea, the F-4, call sign City Desk 461, fell victim to anti-aircraft fire and McRae gave the order to eject to the young lieutenant in the back seat. As the craft exploded, the delay of a split second was the difference between life and death for the pilot and the weapons officer. The pilot never had a chance and went down with the craft, but the weapons officer, caught up in a massive fireball, cleared the aircraft and slowly descended to earth.

Lt. j.g. David Rehmann (Navy photograph)

Lt. j.g. David Rehmann, Antelope Valley resident and high school graduate, was badly burned and hanging under a slowly descending parachute. He was greeted by angry mobs who abused and beat him, parading him through the streets. Split seconds ensured that only one David would appear on Panel 13, Row 6 of the Vietnam Wall. David Edward McRae’s name would not be followed by the name David Rehmann, even though they were sitting only a few feet from each other.

What then transpired for David Rehmann was the beginning of a six-year odyssey as a POW at the hands of the North Vietnamese. For pilot David McRae, the journey would not end until 1996, when his remains would be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.

What really haunts me about this story is the friendship the two naval aviators shared after such a very short time together and how Rehmann would never bend until the very end of his captivity, to protect the pilot he would never see again and protect the code that existed between fellow aviators. Beaten and abused for six years, he never became a tool for North Vietnamese propaganda. Until his release, he never gave up the name of his fellow aviator and only fed them a false name (Lt. Linus Van Pelt, of the Peanuts cartoon strip), on the chance that if his pilot survived, he would not compromise his escape. Rehmann remarked about his time in captivity that “America’s leadership role in the free world is no easy task. Every day for six years as a naval officer, I never gave in to the constant desire of my captors to become a tool for propaganda.” Upon Rehmann’s release, he gave a full accounting to U.S. military officials of that fateful mission and learned that, after six years, his pilot was still listed as Missing In Action.

The Antelope Valley welcomes David Rehmann home. (Courtesy photograph)

Many years after the war, when relations between Vietnam and the United States eased a bit, teams were sent into the country to get an accounting of American soldiers who were listed as missing in action. McRae was high on that list and after several trips and some accounting by witnesses, an area was chosen to search. A 75-year-old witness stated that the pilot was buried in a shallow grave, but it wasn’t long before the local dogs had dug him up and spread his remains over a wide area. The POW/MIA researchers inspecting the site found the story credible, as human remains were found spread over a large area, with bits and pieces of a an aviators flight suit and equipment. Later, in Hawaii, the identity of the remains was confirmed. Lt. Cmdr. David McRae would be coming home to America. Sadly, the identification came two months after his wife had passed away.  

David Rehmann came home to a hero’s welcome here in the Antelope Valley. He never let his war hero celebrity overcome his desire to just do good things for others, without fanfare or fuss. David Rehmann, in my book, is the type of person that I believe best defines a soldier of good character and a citizen that truly is an inspiration. McRae, in a different manner, shares that same definition. He gave his all in the battlefields of the sky and returned to be an inspiration to others, without all the gloss and glamor of how many would view a hero in today’s world. He just quietly lays at rest in a field of heroes, reminding us every day of what the veterans of America are willing to do, as they fulfill their mission in life and in death of inspiring us to be better citizens.

Lt. Cmdr. David McRae’s grave site at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. (Courtesy photograph)

I hope that sharing this story will inspire us to say “thank you” to the two Davids for their tremendous deeds on our behalf. Maybe it’s time, while we still have David Rehmann around to speak for himself and his pilot, for us here in the Antelope Valley, the home of his youth, to make sure his good character, service and commitment to good deeds are presented and recognized in an appropriate manner. After all, even the soldiers of today believe they owe a debt of gratitude to the Vietnam veteran. Maybe it’s time for our community to publicly remember these Vietnam veterans in a special way and show our gratitude also. The two Davids would make a beautiful statue and story to be shared with future generations – how cool would that be?

Thank you to our Vietnam Veterans. Even though your journeys were difficult, never forget we love you guys.   

Until next time, Bob out …