I'm surprised, too as I never really wanted to jump into the Vietnam era on account of this particular airplane; the F-4 was too complex, too big to really look good on paper and too ubiquitous - by avoiding the era, I'd avoid the problem!
But, I was certainly wrong. Instead, the Fighting Eagle's Phantom is truly Sierra Hotel, even if I spent almost as much time figuring out the ECM pod as I did the rest of the airplane!
Anyway, 'you wanna' hear a war story? It's a quick one...
A little boy comes home to his mom after a day of school. Mom's waiting and notices - as moms do - that something's not quite right with her son. Puffy eyes, a furrowed brow - all the signs of a kid who's had a terrible day. So, she asks and the tears begin.
You can imagine the scene - mom drops to her knee, takes her kid into her arms and asks, "What's wrong, honey?"
"Dad's at war!" The boy exclaims. "In Vietnam!"
The mom consoles her son with a hug. "Yes. Yes he is. But he'll be ok...."
"But he's dropping bombs on kids like me! My teacher told me!"
I really wrestled with this post as two things are weighing in the balance. The first is the legacy of the 334th Tactical Fighter Squadron. The second is the legacy of the era.
Let me explain.
The story above comes from the wife of Colonel Crawford Shockley. He's the pilot mentioned in the artwork. She's the mom who had to love the venom out of the school teacher's bite. Not just for her boy, but for her husband as well. It's a sad story; I've told it to a number of people over the past couple days including a High School teacher and the reaction has been a universal sneer of disgust at the teacher.
"How could she do that to a little kid!"
This moment became all-the-more important when I asked "Shock" if I could have a look at his Silver Star certificate. He replied "yes" but also used the word, "reluctantly."
Over the years, I've picked up on the natural humility of highly noted warriors. I "get" the idea that they're sensitive to misrepresentation, especially the embarrassment of misapplied heroics. And, true to form, Shock let me know that his deed was not heroic but merely following through on what he believed to be the right course of action.*
However, I felt the need to poke a little more and got the most unexpected statement. "Well, we weren't exactly welcomed home, you know."
Ah yes. "Vietnam." It's not just about the airplane but the era.
Welcome to 1972.
That was 40 years ago.
Thank gawd times have changed.
Think about this. Regardless of our beliefs, I think all of humanity can agree that "Ignorance" has killed and harmed more people than any other force. But Ignorance also has an antidote that is shockingly easy to apply - Knowledge.
I think back on those times and wonder how on earth such a prejudice could be applied to people who by obligation (draft or enlistment) answered a civic expectation?!
Of course you agree - hindsight is 20:20. But do you care on betting that such a wave of silliness won't taint the waters again? Ha.
Would you mind having another look at my F-4? Only this time, don't just stop at the glance. And don't just settle on the unsettling demonstration photo. Do your brain a favor and check out a few books on the start of the Vietnam situation. I suggest this one (click here).
Knowledge is expensive - it requires time and energy but it's a fine bulwark against the forces of group-think and ignorant emotion.
Originally, I planned this post as an honorarium to Col. Shockley for being awarded the Silver Star. The story is rich in personal risk, teamwork (salute to WSO "Poobah") and individual accountability - these are the virtues that create the wealth and security that (most of us) desire.
Instead, I dedicate it to Lilly Shockley - mother of boys, wife of a fighter pilot and unfortunately, the Front Line in a culture war. Lilly, I am sooo sorry you had to bear that awful moment.
So, let's leave Lilly on a better note - the photo below is Shock's homecoming. It truly is good to be home, isn't it?
There's a silver lining to this story in that we live in a nation where dip-stick teachers can spout their swill ad lib. Think about this - what if you - you - were so afraid of your government that you didn't dare breathe otherwise?
In that spirit, I look at the Fighting Eagles of the 334th and consider this F-4E Phantom to be among my proudest moments.
P.S. - Crawford Shockley's Silver Star cert is below. I hope you read it. It's the military recognition of a Dad looking out for "his other boys."
P.S.S. - To that teacher of 1972 - wherever you are, I hope you went back to school. To learn.
*Shock did get his WSO's (the guy in the back seat) blessing before committing to sticking around the hot zone for the downed airmen. In every conversation I've had with Shock, he's mentioned Larry "Poobah" Henry and remains grateful for his trust and excellent skill.