29 August, 2013

Profile 79 - FINAL: "314" as flown by Lt. Col. Farrell Sullivan and Capt. Dick Francis

The following is from Dick Francis' son, Gavin.  He responded to my request for insight into what it was like to experience his dad's POW event.

It is unedited and presented in its entirety.

There are 17 paragraphs, but I suspect they'll be worth your time.

"I apologize for taking so long to get this to you. It has been a busy time. I am on vacation now, so I’ve had an opportunity to reflect and focus. This all happened long ago, so the actual details may have been a little different than I remember them. But this is what I recall:

I remember the day that we found out that my father had been shot down. I guess I was about 6 years old. My father had received his next assignment to the Philippines, and my mother, my younger brother, and I were staying with my maternal grandparents in Tulsa, Oklahoma, awaiting our move while my father was away on temporary duty, flying missions in Vietnam.

It was a sunny day, and from the backyard where I was playing, I could see a blue Air Force staff vehicle pull into the driveway along the side of my grandparent’s house. Two uniformed men got out of the car, put on their caps, and I immediately ran inside to tell my mother that some Air Force people had arrived. She met the two men at the front door, and then quickly asked my grandfather to take me back outside to play.

Although I didn’t fully comprehend the situation, I realized deep down that something was wrong. And later that evening when my mother explained what had happened to my father, I cried. I didn’t really understand where Vietnam was or why my father was there. I just knew that my father flew airplanes for the Air Force.

Not long afterward, the North Vietnamese released propaganda film footage of my father receiving medical attention in a Hanoi hospital after having been captured. One of the Tulsa television stations, KTEW-TV, acquired a copy of the footage for their news broadcast. Jack Morris, a local anchorman, invited us down to the station to see the film. In the darkness of the viewing room, we all watched the film to see what my father looked like, searching for some sign that he was okay. I was disappointed that seeing the film didn’t bring me any real assurances, and I still felt sad that my Dad was far away in a strange place where people didn’t like him.

Jack Morris, KTEW Anchorman (1921-2010)

(on)...reflecting on how television news had changed from his time as an anchorman, Morris noted that “there’s a little more show business than there was in those days. We were dead serious about the news. When you’re talking about death and taxes and all the sadness that makes up the news, it’s no laughing matter.”

After that, I began watching Jack Morris in the evenings with my grandfather to learn what was happening in Vietnam. Anytime there was film footage, I would scan the background to see if I could see my father, hoping that he had escaped and was trying to get home.

That was a difficult and confusing year for us. My mother had her hands full taking care of me and my brother, Ryan, who was only 9 months old. We’d already shipped our car and belongings to the Philippines. The military was able to ship everything back to the U.S., but we had to find a place to live. And without my father around, it was hard to know exactly what the future had in store for us.

Initially, my mother rented an apartment near my aunt and uncle in Shreveport,Louisiana, where she had grown up. I started the first grade there, but within a month my uncle was transferred to a new job out of state, and without any family support in Louisiana, my mother decided to move us back to Tulsa.

In Tulsa, my mother rented a house a few blocks away from where my grandparents lived. All of our belongings were shipped there. And that’s where everything stayed, in cardboard boxes stacked up around the otherwise empty house. We never actually moved into the house. My Mom and I really didn't want to live there. I think that setting up house again was just too much for my mother to deal with. Instead, we stayed with my grandparents and would occasionally visit the rented house.

I started school in the neighborhood at Robert Fulton Elementary. I was having problems learning to read, so my teacher put me in the remedial reading group. I was embarrassed by this, and the fact that my teachers and all the other kids knew that my father was a POW only made me feel more self-conscious.

During that time, I became increasingly frustrated with the folks over in North Vietnam because of their unwillingness to let my father come home. At one point, I devised a plan to go to Vietnam myself and bring my father back. I told everyone my intentions, packed a suitcase, and dragged it down the street a block or so before my grandfather came after me and helped me carry the suitcase back to the house.

One day, we went with a number of other local families of POWs to Oklahoma City, probably to Tinker AFB, where I met with a psychiatrist along with the other kids. The psychiatrist was obviously there to evaluate us, and he asked us to talk about how we felt about our fathers being held captive. I was one of the younger kids in the group, but I think I was able to express myself pretty well. I was glad to be able to talk to someone about how sad I felt.

My mother became friends with another local woman whose husband was a prisoner in Vietnam. She had a daughter about my age, and we would sometimes get together with them. I was vaguely aware that the woman was an activist of sorts, who had become involved with the National League of POW/MIA Families. Although her daughter was a little older than I was, we would sometimes play together, and I remember being jealous when we found out that her father was being released. But it was also exciting because it meant that Dad might also be coming home soon.

There was a group called VIVA (Voices in Vital America) which made bracelets, which a lot of people were wearing back then. The bracelets had the names of service members on them who were listed as POW or MIA. You were supposed to wear the bracelet until your loved one came home. I wore my father’s bracelet. It was a constant reminder to me that he was far away in a prison cell somewhere, but wearing it was a way for me to stay connected with him, and to keep hope alive that he would return someday.

Eventually, a cease-fire was declared, the war ended, and we found out that my father would be coming home. My father was released in March 1973, three days after my seventh birthday. We went to Wichita Falls to meet him when his plane arrived. I remember how anxious I was waiting for him to step off the plane. I was so excited. My paternal grandmother and grandfather were also there. And although it was a joyous occasion for all of us, it was also very stressful. My grandfather had been taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II, and had been part of the “Bataan Death March” in the Philippines. I think we thought that his presence might help to make things a little easier for my Dad because of their similar war-time experiences. But my father had been through a lot, he was very thin, and I think he may have been dealing with severe emotional issues. None of us really quite knew what to expect, but all that mattered to me was that my father had come home and I was glad to have him back.

It’s hard to say how the war and his imprisonment affected my father. After he returned to active duty, we ended up at Seymour-Johnson AFB in Goldsboro, North Carolina, where my parent’s marriage soon fell apart. Although my parents had been married for 10 years, they married very young, and I believe they’d always had problems. Indeed, my father was still in his twenties at the time he was shot down and captured. Obviously, such a traumatic experience would have a profound effect on anyone, especially someone of that age, and I’m sure that it affected him deeply. But after 40 years, it’s hard to know these things for sure.

At any rate, I’m very proud of my father and of his service to our country. I have a great appreciation for him and for all the men and women of the Armed Forces who have put themselves in harm’s way. 

Thanks very much for asking about my memories. I’m glad to have the opportunity to share this part of my father’s story with you."



Pictured:  Gavin, Dick, Betty and Ryan Francis, c. 1973, shortly after Dick's return the United States.

Note:  My editor read this post and made the comment that Gavin's story illustrated to him how no single man or woman goes to war alone.

22 August, 2013

Profile 80 - IN-PROGRESS: "837" as flown by Dick Rutan, MISTY 40, 612 TFS

I'll never forget the start of The Iraq War—March 20, 2003.

Not because the moment engendered any kind of patriotism or political rash but because of the reaction I got from others.  See, I was preparing to go to Europe with a few WW2 vets and the media was rife with stories of anti-American this and that.

I can remember distinctly one person, a family friend, being astonished that I didn't cancel my trip outright.  "You're taking a big risk!" she warned in a hiss as if to thwart the piqued ears of foreign spies.

And then there were...maybe, ten, fifteen more people who offered similar advice.  I remember another, "Well, if it was me, I'd sure think twice about going!"

Normally, I'm not the brightest bulb in the room.  So, I've developed the good habit of seeking advice when it comes to matters of question.   And the advice I seek is usually from those whom are counter to the first proposition.  In this case, I asked a man who was quite familiar with war, Europe and 'risk.'

I asked Punchy Powell, one of the WW2 fighter pilots I was intending to accompany.  "Punchy?"

"Yeah?" he replied in his collard-green drawl.

"This war in Iraq.  How you feel about that in light of our trip.  I mean, are you..."

"Wur-ud?" He interjected quickly.


"We go!  I learned a long time ago that if I was afraid of the little things, I'd be afraid of everything!"

In a flash, the well-intentioned but fretful faces of all those folk flashed before my eyes—teachers, weight lifters, managers, doctors—and I realized. These people were afraid.  And it wasn't so much the fear of something real, it was the fear of something possible.    And it struck me—they didn't seem to have the internal confidence that Punchy had.  They hadn't learned to control the fear of little things that was necessary to see the big things as—not fear—adventure.

Bottom line, I went and had a BLAST.  New friends, awesome sights, amazing history...and I was even cursed by a Parisian grocery store clerk (evidently, my American-ism was rather obvious).  To think that I would have lost all of what I gained on account of prudent possibilities makes me shudder.

I learned:  "Adventure" is not so much an act as it is an attitude.

Ok.  So what does this have to do with Dick Rutan's F-100F?    In the event you don't know the name, you may remember that strange, spindly white airplane that flew around the world back in December of 1986.  That airplane was called The Rutan Voyager and he and fellow pilot Jeana Yeager flew it around the world, NON STOP.

It took nine days, entirely in the air, in a cockpit smaller than a farmyard propane tank!

Nine days of eating, breathing, pooping without touching earth—much of it over water—pretty much qualifies as an "Adventure."  And I wonder how many people thought the act was madness.  "Dick, really now.  Isn't just a little foolish to get into that thing and..."

In a few weeks, I get to sit down with Dick and learn what it takes to live a life of obvious risk, boundary pushing and accomplishment.  Of course, I'll share what comes of that with you, too.

But, I suspect that such a life begins in-spite of all the admonishment with the words, "We go!"

Stand by...

05 August, 2013

Profile 79 - UPDATE - "314" as flown by Lt. Col. Farrell Sullivan and Capt. Dick Francis

It's a question that is so difficult to ask but impossible to leave behind...

"What was it like?"

It's the question that everyone seems to want to know but for a writer, it's a diabolically difficult one on account of the fact that what I'm really doing is interpreting someone else's perceptions.   Believe me, it can be mind-melting to bring a moment of the past to life and keep the integrity of events and people intact.

So, I'm going to take a different course with this post.  You have a chance to hear Dick Francis describe what it was like to be shot down and taken captive.

Click here.