IN THE SPRING of 1966 a skinny kid from Talco, Texas, performed a heroic act in North Vietnam. For his heroism he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of our nation’s highest awards.
Last week, 52 years after he plucked a downed flier out of the North Vietnam jungles, Dave Waddell — still skinny — was again called to the stage to be recognized by a grateful nation and appreciative friends.
I’m trying to figger out how to tell you this story and not take up an entire newspaper page. And not get too bloodcurdling.
Waddell was in a Navy anti-submarine squadron which was diverted to do search and rescue missions in Vietnam. The big ole anti-sub helicopters made great targets, so they usually kept their rescue missions offshore.
The sailors had plenty of rescue training, but just the slimmest experience in weaponry.
One day Waddell’s crew was called to make a pickup of a flier inland in the jungle. He stood in the cargo door and using a ‘joy stick’ guided the helo over the downed pilot because the helo’s pilots couldn’t see the man. He lowered the rescue hoist harness to the pilot and began bringing him up to the hovering helo when small arms fire began raking the aircraft.
One shot in a million hit the rescue hoist’s steel cable and it began to splinter. The flier could not be raised any higher, and worse, if the cable parted he’d fall back to earth and to the enemy’s arms. Dave grabbed a spare rescue harness and used it to tie the cable to the helicopter. While doing this he was standing in the cargo door, presenting a wonderful target to the enemy.
The helo pilots then slowly left the area and took the dangling pilot out to sea. They had to resist the urge to fly fast because the flier would be slung back into the tail rotor. Not good.
They put him in the water and a waiting helo picked him up.
Dave’s helo was pretty shot up but it managed to struggle back to his aircraft carrier.
Fast forward to today
After WWII some folks began looking for enlisted aircrewmen in the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard who had demonstrated heroism in combat. See, sometimes the officers get the glory and the medals, and the enlisted men get forgotten.
This group called itself the Roll of Honor. They researched stories and flight records to find deserving heroic aircrewmen. The Roll of Honor went inactive sometime after the Korean War, and was resurrected again a few years ago to recognize deserving enlisted aircrew heroes from the Vietnam War and other more recent military actions.
They found Dave.
These days he’s a member of our small circle of Navy helicopter aircrewmen alumni who served in that squadron in the mid-1960s and who are in daily email contact. He casually mentioned that he was going to Charleston, SC, to be inducted into the Roll of Honor. Some of his pals — many of whom had not laid eyes on each other for 50-plus years — decided to go show their support.
I was with that bunch. Ironically, the presentation was to be in the hanger bay of the USS Yorktown, our old ship. It’s now a floating museum in Charleston harbor.
The act of getting together jogged our aging memories, and there were many other stories told. One crewmate was involved in three aircraft crashes in two hours. His crew picked up a downed flier, and then they crashed. Another helo picked them up, and it promptly crashed. Finally, they were picked up by a boat and taken back to the aircraft carrier. My friend went straight to the squadron commanding officer and told him he was through flying.
Another story: Two crewmates got lost in Bankok and missed the departure of the carrier. They hired a water taxi which took them to the underway ship and they clambered aboard on a rope ladder which someone had lowered. Lucky boys. ‘Missing Movement’ is an executable offense during wartime. And we were at war.
Sitting around in our hotel lobby, we recalled our many ports of call. Exotic places for a bunch of teenagers mostly from Small Town America. Stories didn’t get into detail because there were four wives present.
Let’s just say I was a bit anxious to drive by myself to and from Charleston. It was 1,950 miles. Me and the buggy’s navigation disagreed a few times and it mostly got me in trouble. Like Memphis and Birmingham. Coming home I drove through a tornado in Tuscaloosa. It had just done some damage in Meridian, Miss., where I spent the night.
Next, Louisiana, where rest stop water fountains never work. And highway signs are misleading. Like at Shreveport where the sign indicated that I-49 to Texarkana was open. Wrong. I took the exit and drove until I came to a Road Closed sign, and turned back to look for the REAL way to Texarkana.
By the time I got home, my buddies had already shared pictures of our reunion. I couldn’t find myself in any pictures, but there was a fat old man who was wearing clothes just like mine.
I once wrote that serving in the US Navy gave a Howard County boy the chance to see exotic places, make absolutely the best friends, serve his country and experience incredible things. I’m not changing that statement one bit.
WORD GAMES. The twins: Dot and Dash. The Morse Code kids.
HE SAID: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein, physicist
SHE SAID: “Never lose sight of the fact that the most important yardstick of your success will be how you treat other people — your family, friends, and coworkers, and even strangers you meet along the way.” Barbara Bush, 1st lady
SWEET DREAMS, Baby