Hugo, MN, USA
MEMORIES OF A VIETNAM NAVY PILOT’S WIFE
As a young starry-eyed bride in 1967, it was high glamour to be marrying a handsome Navy pilot in his dress white uniform and using a shiny sword to cut our wedding cake! I was aware of the danger only in the abstract until we moved to the Navy base at Beeville, Texas.
There, less than a month later, the flight training killed a Marine pilot we had just met, leaving his widow with four children. Suddenly, I became an obsessive worrier calling the base when my new husband was late from a scheduled “hop.” After one such call, when I learned that he had yet to leave the ground because the aircraft was “down,” I decided to get a job and try to worry less.
Meeting some of the best and brightest young men from all over the country was a high point of our Navy experience. I loved their stories of flying told in a unique language of aerial maneuvers like “octafloogarons” and “whifferdills” and technical jargon like “ramp strikes,” “cold cat shots,” and “Intruder weather.” The training was very difficult and my husband was so good at it, he was “turned around” which meant he immediately became an instructor pilot training others for Vietnam.
I waited next to the runway while he landed with a low fuel light in the middle of a terrible thunderstorm with the crash trucks racing to the scene. I waited while he went through survival school in bitter cold conditions and returned with a broken tooth and swollen jaw from his “training.”
I waited as he took off and dipped his wings to me on his own departure for Vietnam. I waited through endless “line periods” when we knew they were flying missions over the “beach” almost every day. I waited when the woman who lived behind me was informed that her husband was missing in action. I waited with the women who endured the “living hell” of not knowing if their husbands were dead or alive.
I waited on a college campus while Timothy Leary came to speak and students stoned on grass debated the ethics of the war while my husband was fighting it. I waited while pilots I knew were killed when wings pulled off their airplanes, while images of men in body bags flashed across my television screen and Mash was the hit movie of the year ...a movie that showed doctors joking while they fought to save broken soldiers in a different war that was a metaphor for Vietnam.
I waited for it to be over and became stronger and more independent for the year he was gone. I waited until Christmas of 1970 when he came back with his brother who had served on the same aircraft carrier. It was the happiest Christmas of my life.
Although I had many questions about the morality of the war, the limited way in which it was fought and the loss of friends, it took me a very long time to work out my feelings about the experience. I have been brought to tears by a weeklong seminar on the Vietnam War, the movies and the books that have been written and the names on the Wall. In teaching, I try to share with students the experience they cannot remember.
The war and the separation shaped my choice not to have children. I had seen military women raising their children alone. I didn’t know if my husband would return. When he left the military, we had schooling to finish and careers to build. More than that I had my “flyboy” back, a man I treasure more each day partially because of the time he spent in harm’s way doing a job for a country he loved.
We were extremely lucky and I know it every day. I remember the wives who waited for husbands that did not return. There, but for the grace of God.....