If you need a refresher on Gene's story, click here, then here. This post, however, will mark this particular project's conclusion and a satisfying one at that. Though there are a few details in Gene's "Thud," that aren't perfect, I hope you're (at least) as pleased as I am.
One question I get asked regards how I come up with the artwork "Titles." For many years, I chose the reasonably logical method of titling based on the aircraft's name or serial number. But, when I noticed that patrons and public alike were more interested in the story, I started thinking...
For the most part, I'm getting the hang of it—the titles are pretty self-explanatory of the story behind the plane. Yet, I think the title of Gene's, "Prevailing Force" needs a little further description.
But, before I get into that, you should read this last posting from my year+ interview with the man. This particular conversation started with my question...
|Thought I'd throw this in - it's a study I did last year and represents my persistent imaginary afternoon of scorching my initials into the hard-pack South Dakota prairie with my F-105's afterburner.|
"So, what was it like on the day you left prison?"
"Well, it was 0600. March 12 (1973)...and they gave us our go-home clothes. They'd been nursing us back to health (since the end of December, 1972) and (the clothes) were made for each of us. Tailored. Blue pants, light gray shirt, a jacket and Red Cross stuff."
"Red Cross packages? I thought you didn't get Red Cross..."
"No we didn't. This was first time!"
"What can you recall about your mood that morning?"
"No emotion. (But) we were excited, believe me! But (did not show any) emotion. John Flynn* told us to keep our cool and we did. Then, about 0900..."
"Wait. Three hours went by?!"
"Yes! That's a long time, isn't it? And then, four, five buses came up and they walked us out. It was the first time in five years that we went outside (prison) without a blind fold."
"What was the mood on the bus like?"
"Quiet! We kept our cool! We crossed the Red River and as soon as we did, we pulled over to the side, got out and they offered us beer and cookies. Bud Day** was with us and he said, 'Get fucked!' (to the North Vietnamese) and so we just stood there."
Now, I have to hand it to the NV, they were masters of propaganda. Can you imagine what it would have looked like for the news media to have reported, "After being released, American POWs were treated to beer and cookies..."? Add this story to the list of reasons Bud Day** is a great American role model.
|A US DoD photo of POWs in line at Gia Lam Airport. Notice the bus; the day our local School District has to start painting camo on them like the NV did, we're doomed.|
Anyway, back to the story.
"Whoa! Then what happened?"
"We got back in the bus and they drove on to Gia Lam (Air base). We got out, lined up and prepared to board. The C-141 that was waiting for us had its engines running. I was two, three guys ahead of (John) McCain. When they called my name, I walked up, saluted (the American receiving officer) and headed for the airplane."
"Sounds rather unspectacular."
"Yes it was. But that was good!" Bear in mind, by 1973, both sides were simply ready to get "it" over with and move on.
|This is the C-141 I drew as part of ex-POW Charlie Plumb's story, "There. And Back".|
Gene continued, "(Once we'd all boarded), we turned fast and when we got airborne there was a cheer. But I tell ya' it wasn't until the pilot announced, 'Feet wet!' that the cheer really happened. Then...,' Gene paused for a moment, swallowed and stated with bold emphasis, 'we got free."
As a film producer, the poetry of that particular moment snapped to mind; ending the interview on the word "Free" would have been the perfect time to fade to the flag flapping, national anthem and impassioned reading of some great quote of our forefathers. Cheesey? Yes. But here? Totally appropriate.
|For the life of me, I can't source this photo! But I assume DoD.|
Anyway, it's color and shows the new clothes the V gave the POWs before release.
Any idea who the people are? Email me.
But Gene wasn't ready to stop talking.
Indeed, he spent the rest of the morning, describing the moments, days and months of re-engaging into American life. For example, he learned that he no longer had a living father as the man died nearly three years prior. Gene also had to be driven everywhere as his drivers license had (massively) expired. He also took particular pleasure in describing how his wife had managed to save $25,000 on the Air Force's faithful continuation of his pilot's wages.
"She saved that much?! Wow. She's a keeper."
"She was a remarkable woman.*** I came back to a waiting wife and great kids. Not every (POW) could say that. But I can and for that, I am so very (pauses) very...grateful."
|"Burst of Joy" - Pulitzer Prize photo by Slava Veder|
This photo's story has been told a million times and I hope it never stops.
I also hope it never happens again but people being people, I suspect it will.
If I ever get to interview Col Stirm, I will not bring this up.
I wish I had that last sentence about Gene's return to 'home life' recorded because the printed/written word does not do it justice; it meant so much more in Gene's baritone southern drawl, deliberate pause and inflective emphasis. Regardless, I was immediately struck by how, forty some years later, he remained humbled by his wife's (and others) positive influence.
Technically, I admire Gene's ability to master the complicated task of flying an F-105. So too his bravery in participating in the most dangerous missions**** of the Vietnam War. I'm also awed by his endurance of nearly six years of wretched captivity. I should also mention Gene adapted to peace-time life just fine as the successful Director of the Golden Triangle Airport (GTR) for twenty years.
But there's something especially cool about meeting someone who's achieved so much who keeps a sense of humility.
So, back to the title, "Prevailing Force."
The word "Force" comes from the USAF term used to describe the collective aerial team tasked with the mission. On October 25, 1967, Gene was the unfortunate one within the Force that targeted Hanoi's Paul Douhmer Bridge. However, the word "Prevailing" came from realizing the balance of character that persists today, perhaps in spite of, such a difficult time.
I hope this piece inspires others to do the same.
|Me, Gene and Chuck; I'm especially grateful for Chuck's introducing me to Gene as without his help, it wouldn't have happened. Thank you, Chuck!|
**Bud Day. You'll want to, click here, too.
***Rae Smith passed away just before Christmas, 2003. Gene has since remarried and happily so.
****A special nod of awe goes to the MISTY pilots. I hope to do this story justice, shortly.