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It is well that war is so terrible, or we should get too fond of it.-- Robert E. Lee
One long mission6687 Reads
Little did I know that within an hour I would be beginning the second half of my WestPac cruise, albeit in a new squadron. My name is Bill Angus and I was a B/N with VMA (aw) 224 embarked aboard the Coral Sea.
Today, (11June72) I would be flying as a member of 224's Vulture flight in a major Carrier Air Wing 15 Alpha strike against the Nam Dinh thermal power plant in North Vietnam.
What a trip to this point it had been!
I had joined 224 in the spring of 1971 while still recovering from my second left knee surgery, after spending almost a year in (VMA aw) 332. Had it not been for the three month delay to clean up some debris in my knee, I would have had orders to Japan and missed the excitement highlight of my life.
VMA (aw) 224 that summer and fall was an exciting place to be-MAG 14's best planes ended up on our flight line and thankfully we changed our call sign to Bengal. Most importantly, however, were the men that were signing aboard. The quality and number of NCO's was outstanding. To a novice, it appeared that the entire Table of Organization was staffed with dedicated and competent professionals. And with leaders like Clyde Smith and Charlie Carr we had the personnel to undertake the most rigorous and complex Marine A6 deployment to date.
Sandwiched between two deployments to Pensacola for day and night carrier qualifications was a five-day Carrier Air Wing 15 deployment to NAS Fallon, Nevada. I can remember vividly the comment that even though we would fly an Air Wing Alpha strike to culminate this training deployment, we would never see this gaggle again since this type of mission was not being flown in Vietnam at that time. (Right!) And I am also still waiting for the Coral Sea to take us to Singapore and Australia too!
For somebody not intending to make the Marine Corps a career, the preparation and ultimately our deployment was, nevertheless, true excitement. And being a charter member of 224's Vulture Flight was the icing on the cake. Planning and then executing preposterous mission profiles against significant hard targets was definitely exhilarating. Today's mission to Nam Dinh (Province), about 60 miles South of Hanoi would be no exception.
Led by CAG Sheets and our A-6's, the carrier strike group would divide in half as we approached the target with the Vulture Flight making a right hand roll-in to a 45 degree dive to drop 2,000 pound bombs against a power plant within a walled compound. To this day, the last sequence of events that I can remember is talking with Tom Sprouse as we left Ready Room 5 and passing through the maintenance shop enroute to the flight deck and commenting that I had no idea how we would find and line up on the target.
The next 14 hours remain to this minute an iron-clad blank except for two single frame pictures - an incredibly crazy attitude of our plane with my hands near the secondary ejection handle and some time later the view looking forward from the back of an army truck as it circles a filthy pond of water on a dirt road.
We had gone down on the last day of the next to the last line period-the Coral Sea returned for about seven days of flight ops before heading home. They would leave with out Roger and me.
Either very late that Sunday night or shortly after midnight my memory returns as I am being forced into an interrogation room.
The only articles of clothing that I have on are my white boxer shorts and one of my favorite golf shirts. My left arm is a bloody mess with a thin bamboo strip as a brace and wrapped loosely with gauze. Both arms had been pulled backwards and they had been bound together at my elbows with thin wire that had cut into my flesh. Needless to say, I was still in shock and very disoriented.
I remember being forced to sit on a stool under a single dangling light bulb in front of a simple desk and the interrogation commencing. Thankfully, my amnesia helped me with the Code of Conduct during the multitude of quizzes that I went through during the first couple of days. In turn, my unwillingness to respond due to memory loss also created some painful moments inflicted by the guards. This turned out to be fairly standard new guy treatment and did not even remotely approximate the brutality that was inflicted upon the FOG's- (endearingly the F______g Old Guys) that were shot down before the 1968 bombing halt.
As F_____g New Guys (FNG's), those of us shot down from late 1971 to the end of the war, at the most we were exposed to an infrequent attention getting beating as opposed to the prolonged character testing tortures that the FOG's underwent. It would be difficult to do justice either verbally or in writing to the tremendous courage and heroism exhibited by the FOG's- Men that I respect tremendously.
I remain in solitary confinement for the next two weeks. The quizzes continue and it's apparent I'm dealing with knowledgeable adversaries. Without seeing another American and with a significant memory gap of how I ended up on the damned ground, I've got my position fixed as some prison in Nam Dinh.
Thankfully, my next room move puts an end to this initial period of despair and self-pity. With no warning one evening, I am blindfolded and moved a short distance into an area of four narrow cells on either side of a hallway. I had cross-decked and was now a member of the Fourth Allied POW Wing. Our elder brethren, by comparison, often spent in excess of a year in solitary confinement upon arrival in Hanoi.
Straddling both concrete beds, I am able to look through the cell bars above my door into the cell directly across from mine. Waiting for me to report in is the most beautiful face that I have ever seen, that of a smiling Air Force Major by the name of Bill Talley, an F-105 Wild Weasel pilot. I wasn't alone after all! The relief that you experience when other Americans know of your existence is immeasurable.
The following week passes quickly. I find out from Bill that we are actually in an area of the Hanoi Hilton called Heartbreak Hotel. By communicating in a whisper or via hand sign language I find out the names of the other five cellmates in our immediate area. Most importantly, self-doubt is replaced with a measure of optimism and hope.
I'm totally stunned that my next door neighbor, Navy Lt. Commander Al Nichols, is yelling at the guards to light his cigarette. What does Al know about this place that I need to find out, or is he the most brazen person I've ever met!
A couple of weeks later and again late at night I am told to prepare to move. In tandem with my new buddy Al Nichols we arrive at the locked doors of Room 5 in the Unity area of the Hilton. Once inside our new room, we are reunited with Bill Talley and another 14 New Guys shot down before us. Unlike Heartbreak, however, we are sharing an enormous cell that is adjacent to similar rooms housing many of the FOG's.
I flashback to Vulture Flight's initial mission, if my memory serves me right, it was a daylight tree-top level strike by four A-6's on April 28 to hit the Bai Thuong Airfield in North Vietnam. While we were covering the airfield with Rockeye canisters, Coral Sea Phantoms were flying overhead trying to make radio contact with J. B. Souder and Al Molinare, a Phantom crew (VF-51) that had been shot down the day before in the immediate vicinity. Unfortunately, J. B. and Al had been captured almost immediately.
Waiting for me in Room 5 was none other than my shipmate J. B. Souder! Al Nichols and I must have talked with our new roommates for hours that evening. We are definitely within the POW organization now.
If you had to spend the summer of 1972 as a POW in North Vietnam, Room 5 was as good a place to be as any. New roommates were joining us every couple of days thanks to a very intensive air campaign. Each new arrival would bring updated information on what was happening in the real world-Olongopo and the various liberty spots outside of the Thai Air Force bases.
Although our room of New Guys was on the perimeter of the Unity area, nevertheless we were in constant covert contact with the FOG's. Slowly we learned the history of the Wing and the incredible heroism of its members and in turn we tried to fill their four year informational vacuum. As the only Marine in our room, I was a member of J. B.'s Navy flight from an organizational and duty standpoint.
My cracked left elbow and wrist healed on their own and the boils that sprung forth finally went away. Unlike many of my roommates, I didn't require the archaic and for the most part non-existent medical attention grudgingly offered infrequently by our North Vietnamese handlers.
Food was minimal and difficult to stomach and if there were anything decent, typically we would allocate this to our injured (POWs).
Thanks to the guidance from our seniors, we managed to repel the occasional propaganda efforts of the North Vietnamese ("NVA"). Our days were spent communicating and assimilating Wing guidelines, squadron chores, PT, card games and constant conversation and speculation-we were a captive audience.
Our universe had been boiled down to a 75 foot by 25-foot prison cell. I can remember more than one very serious squadron meeting discussing the merits of using a washcloth and the proper way to dry our clothes. A discussion of this nature is where you could really differentiate the added value of Air Force Academy training.
We had every type of personality in our room and to our credit we were very respectful of each other. Thank God we didn't have to endure what the FOG's went through! I can in all sincerity say that I don't know how they did it.
Towards the end of the summer, our group was joined by Roger Lerseth, a Navy A-6 B/N. Finally, I would find out how I'd gotten myself in this mess-my imagination was rampant. Unfortunately, all Roger could share with me was the fact that something unusual had happened-even more cause for my paranoia. I was fully prepared to get back to the States some day and be told that I had flipped out and ejected from a totally good airplane. Nobody had seen or had any word on my very good friend and pilot Roger Wilson.
In early fall, two very positive developments occurred. First of all, the internal barricades that separated the rooms surrounding the Unity compound were dismantled. Not only were we being permitted more time outside of our room, but now we were also permitted to co-mingle with the Fog's for a brief period of time each day. We were definitely the beneficiaries of this experience. For the members of Room 5 that were possessed with looking for "straws" on when we would be going home, this development was huge and implied release was around the corner.
Many of our admired predecessors became more than names during these encounters. Information exchange grew exponentially. Brian Seek, an Air Force Captain, and I were the sports authorities and we spent hours putting together a comprehensive newsletter on the previous four years events. And we were always good for a score or a ranking. After all, our audience certainly had no idea if we were right or wrong. Throughout Room 5 various groups of guys were busy transcribing their selected topics and these were then passed to the Fog's the following day.
The second major development was the early release of three officers in October from Hanoi. Since day one of my captivity, I was never permitted to write or receive mail. In fact, until my name showed up on the release manifest in January of 1973, the "NVA" had never acknowledged my existence as a Prisoner of War. Mark Gartley left Hanoi with my name and my family finally found out that I was at least alive four months later. This fact would prove to be monumental on my release date. Things were looking up.
A consuming dream of mine was to get back home and buy my Mom a home in the Scottsdale area with all the money I wasn't spending. Plus, we were raking in five bucks a day in per diem for substandard food and quarters!
Experiencing the Christmas (1972) B-52 bombings of Hanoi was incredible.
On the first night of the bombings and for the first five minutes, several of us thought the A-6's were striking but it was quickly apparent that this was something much bigger. From the barred windows in Room 5, we could look due south which was the direction from which the BUFF's were coming. Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs)were being fired in salvos by the hundreds and the AAA made the sky look like a fireworks display. The only problem was that we were at ground level zero and many of us had our doubts about the BUFF's accuracy.
The B-52 crews were great. Not only did they suffer far fewer losses of aircraft than anticipated but they also hastened the end of the war. For once the guards in our camp were scared to death. Within minutes of the air raid sirens, the "NVA" were six feet deep in covered bunkers-no grabbing their carbines and AK-47's and taking pot shots at the Air Pirates! President Nixon was even more of a hero to us after this show of force.
Being part of and then watching planes get shot at from the ground created conflicting feelings for me. While I would far rather be in a jet streaking back to the ship or an air base someplace, having been shot down I felt lucky to be on the ground and alive. All I had to do was stay healthy and I'd get home someday.
Within a couple of weeks after the Christmas bombings ceased, a mass move occurred within the Hanoi Hilton that was viewed properly as segregating the POW's into shoot-down order.
It was not by coincidence that those of us that had never written a letter home were assembled one day and told to quickly write our seven-line missive.
The next day we assembled in military formation for the first time as the "NVA" read to us that the peace treaty had been signed and that hostilities had ceased. The Paris Peace Accords provided for a fourth of the Wing to be repatriated every fifteen days with the injured/sick and women first and then on a first in first home basis. Two months to go.
Within days, we were moved as a group again to a camp called the Zoo on the southwest outskirts of Hanoi where we were re-united with other recent shootdowns.
No Roger Wilson, however, nor was there ever any word of him. I still had no clue what had happened to us on 11 June.
Magically Red Cross packages started appearing for the first time as the North Vietnamese made strides in humanizing their treatment. Way too little and way too late. It was during this period that I contracted what was diagnosed later as malaria-severe chills during which I was wearing every bit of clothing that I had followed by profuse sweating that completely drenched everything. I was sicker than I had ever been. Thankfully this cycle went away after a week.
I was beginning to doubt my luck.
Humor had been a major sustaining diversion for all of us during captivity. When you don't have much, you still have each other and the stories that were told, and the skits that were performed still brings a chuckle when we get together.
About a month before we were freed, using the alias of our unit's athletic officer, I wrote a squadron directive that certain of our members were still overweight (which was not true) and needed to shed some pounds because they weren't looking much like POWs. Needless to say, the guys thought this was great until the memo fell into the wrong hands. I've never seen my POW fitness report but I have a feeling this prank cost me.
March 28, 1973 - Freedom Day!
After a final strip search to make sure we were not taking any contraband home, we dressed in our recently issued civilian clothes and then boarded small buses for the trip from the Zoo to Gia Lam airport.
What a run-down and decrepit city. For the first time I was being transported during the day and without being blindfolded and bound. Hanoi had been a living hell but at least I knew I would be gone within a couple of hours while the "NVA" would remain. We crossed the Paul Doumer Bridge and viewed areas where the B-52's had obliterated everything.
For whatever reason, and within minutes of the airport, we disembarked from the buses and had a 45-minute tea party. One final opportunity to experience the humane and lenient treatment of our hosts. A few minutes later our bus circled a hangar and in front of us was the most beautiful airplane in the world, an Air Force C-141.
We assembled in formation by our date of capture and when our names were read, we marched forward, saluted smartly and we passed into American hands. Our escorts then led us into our "Flight to Freedom." A fabulous day reached it's zenith as we lifted off of the Gia Lam runway and about twenty minutes later when we exited the North Vietnamese airspace en-route to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.
As our C-141 neared Clark, my excitement turned to anxiety, as I knew I was coming face to face with the circumstances of 11 June. I was still hoping against hope that Roger Wilson would be there to meet me. On our approach into Clark, I started to hyperventilate and once we were on the ground, an Air Force nurse escorted me from the plane through the receiving line and onto another bus.
We were then whisked to the Clark hospital where the party began in earnest for everybody but me. The minute that I reached my hospital room I was approached by a Catholic priest who informed me that my Mom had died from a stroke on November 12, 1972.
What an emotional roller coaster I was on - from a high that I had never experienced before to the saddest day of my life within a two-hour period. My first hot shower in almost ten months and I couldn't stop crying. My sister and brother-in-law (retired Army) had been both brilliant and kind. They intentionally spared me, in the many letters that I never received, word of my Mom's death-a letter that would have been gleefully delivered by the "NVA". Hanoi was miserable enough, even for my short stay, without being the recipient of devastating family news.
I still had one bit of unfinished business to address-what had happened over Nam Dinh nine and a half months before. Thanks to a number of available sources, including Jerry Owen who was my escort back to the States, the following occurred that day. As the strike group was turning up on the flight deck of the Coral Sea, CAG and Charlie Carr's plane went down and they passed the Alpha Strike lead to Roger and me. We lead the strike group to the target, and as the lead aircraft, we were the first to roll in.
Just after releasing our ordinance and as the nose of NL502 was coming up, AAA blew our left wing off at the wing root. The A-6 proceeded to snap roll itself into a small lake in a matter of seconds. Both Roger and I managed eject; however, Roger's chute never deployed and he died on impact.
In May of 1973 I spent an evening with Roger's mother, sister and brother at their home in Virginia Beach. It was important for the Wilson family to hear directly from me regarding my memory loss and the fact that I could not answer any of their questions regarding the events of the day or Roger's subsequent status. The kindness and compassion of the Wilson family made a difficult and awkward evening bearable. Roger's remains were returned to the Norfolk area in the fall of 1988, bringing closure to a brave family.
Note: By Captain Bill Angus (retired) VMA (AW) 242 Carrier Air Wing 15 USS Coral SeaCVA 43
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