Combat photo

This is a photo that John Norvell took during a combat mission in Viet Nam.

Forty-five years ago this week — August 15, 1973 — I flew, in the back seat of an F4 Phantom II jet on a bombing mission over Cambodia. By Congressional order that day was the official end of the air war in South East Asia, a war that had gone on continuously since 1965. Our flight, call sign “Rick 1,” had been on alert and was the last unofficial F4 out of Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base for the Vietnam War.

Right at noon as the war ended, we heard a radio message: “Little Orphan Annie has crossed the Blue Ridge Bridge. I repeat Little Orphan Annie has crossed the Blue Ridge Bridge,” then the sound of a toilet flushing. At the time it seemed to be both a joke and sad commentary on all the lives flushed down the drain in that war. This — not dropping the bombs or the target we hit — is what I remember the most about that day.

In his book, “On War and Writing,” Samuel Hynes, a former professor and Marine Corps veteran, writes that there are two major sources for personal war stories: remembering and reporting. Remembering takes place in the anecdote I just shared and is often affected by time; reporting draws on the letters that are contemporary with the events.

Ken Burns’ two splendid documentaries: “The Civil War” and “The War”( a history of WWII), used many letters of the combatants to convey what they were seeing and feeling.

In The Civil War, a letter of Union Major Sullivan Ballou, written in July 1861, touches the reader with the strength of his words: I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter ... And I am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt …

The War episode, covering the very brutal battles of Anzio and Monte Cassino, cites the letters of Army infantryman Babe Carlo. They contain no lofty rhetoric. Babe wrote letters designed to spare his family the horrors of war so that they would not know what he was experiencing. Sadly, both Ballou and Carlo would never return home. Only the two men knew what they went through.

Forty-five years ago, beginning in May 1973, I flew combat missions almost every day until the war ended in August. My letters are somewhat like Carlo’s, but they also share some of the challenges I was facing. I mention flying in combat but also talk about my pay records being lost. I complain that my roommate drinks all my instant coffee and then add almost in passing, “We flew to Cambodia where we blew up a 451 caliber gun emplacement.” I talk of an emergency: “22 July 1973: We took off fully loaded with 18 Mark-82 (500 lb) bombs and started to get erroneous flight inputs. The plane lurched toward the ground and I thought that we were going to have to eject ...,” then write about a squadron party and the fact that I now had less than 300 days to get “back in the world.”

And then there is 15 August 1973: “I find it hard to believe that the war is over. Strange to be in combat one day, training the next as if nothing had happened.” It’s almost as if I didn’t want combat to end. Reading them now, I understand what the letters sought to convey: I did some amazing things — but I am OK, don’t worry.

No matter how far I am removed from these events of 45 years ago, they never go away. As the years pass, I think most of the men I served with in combat. They were some of the best men I have ever known. We shared an amazing adventure together. We were tested in the crucible of air battle and we were changed. I think I would never have missed this experience for a moment, despite being separated from home and family for so long.

Yes, being in combat was a bittersweet time.

John E. Norvell is a frequent contributor to the Times oped section. He is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, a decorated Vietnam air combat veteran, and former assistant professor of history at the Air Force Academy and Hobart alumni director. He has written for The Washington Post and several newspapers and historical journals around the nation. A 1966 graduate of Hobart College, he lives in Canandaigua.

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