As the story has been told – as I noted previously- the end of the war in Vietnam is considered the result of the Christmas bombing operations of Linebacker II, and so the convention of telling this story. I’ll end the “Christmas Stories” series discussing what I choose to refer to as the gifts of Christmas 1972 – memories beyond price.
Gift #1 – Flight Lead: It was probably around 8 PM Washington time on the night of the 23rd, already morning of the 24th in WESTPAC. Coming off our eighth line period, within about an hour or so after President Nixon announced the end to the Vietnam War (previous post) on national TV, USS Midway launched aircraft from all squadrons – as was normal for a carrier and airwing coming off the line for an in-port in Subic Bay/Cubi Point in the Philippines. Being on the fly-off got aircraft in for maintenance but most importantly got the pilots to the Cubi Point Officer’s Club bar one day sooner.
For the VA-56 Champs, Keith Floo LaFlair, Max Maximus Carey, Pat Munt Moneymaker and Boris (that’s me) as flight lead manned up and launched towards Cubi in absolute shock and awe that the Skipper and KT (the Ops Officer) didn’t bump us for the fly off. The war was over… the POWs were coming home including our own Champ guests of the Hanoi Hilton- Al Nichols and Mike Penn. For the four of us it was our first – and only – war cruise. Skipper Lew Chatham and Ken KT Sanger had been there back in Rolling Thunder days. They had close friends who’d been under the heel of the NVN prisoner treatment a long time. They deserved to get a first welcome drink – none of us would have felt wronged if we’d been superseded. But as always, Champ leadership was shown once again – those scheduled to get the fly off – the good deal rotated every fly-off – remained on the schedule, so off four ne’er-do-wells went.
Gift #2 -Champagne and Beer: I will never forget the wife of one of the CTF 77 staffers pouring champagne on my head as I climbed out of the cockpit - before both feet were even on the ground – and the hug quickly followed by a beer. The 77 wives heard the President’s announcement, found out an airwing was flying in, proceeded to fill up a tub with beer and champagne and had it at the line shack. We didn’t know any of them. They got there too late for all the other squadrons but us Champs, who as self respecting light attack fast pursuit pilots always in training, had done a little “2-V-2” before coming into Cubi, were the last CAG 5 aircraft to land. Late is not always bad.
We four certainly felt obligated to show our appreciation to these ladies for thinking of us, and so without further ado, Max, Munt, Floo, and I – still in our champagne soaked flight gear – proceeded to empty the tub. As all who flew out of Cubi recall, aircraft ramp parking space was on two levels. (Notice the elevated ramp at top left in the picture)
At some point I looked up over the line shack and there must have been at least 50 people watching us from the upper Cubi Point Airfield. The show must have been good, but it was about to get better.
At some point, a couple of wives from our own airwing showed up including “Phylee’s” wife from VF-151. Good times continued until she sat down and decided to start one of the yellow tow tractors. (Like the ones on Midway’s deck in the picture). No one figured she could start it.
Oooops… it started moving… in reverse, I think… and so also firmy implanted in the memory bank and most certainly “a big gift” for many careers – Munt’s above and beyond flying leap onto the cart thereby staving off the imminent collision with an F-4.
An empty tub – the flight line party ended with airwing honor salvaged by four intrepid Champs. The next thing I recall, its dark, we’re in the Cubi O’Club, expecting a big party atmosphere… and it’s like a ghost town??? After a while, the barkeep gave us a last call and said they were closing early… the war’s over and Cubi O’Club closing early … something is seriously wrong with this picture. So… up the hill to the Cubi BOQ Bar we head. It’s packed … now we’re talking.
Munt and I head to the jukebox, Max and Floo to the bar to grab the beer. Here starts Gift #3 -Eloquence by Boris: of a Jukebox, a Blackshoe Commander and a Urinal. When Munt puts some coins in the juke and selects some tunes, nothing happens. He tries again… same result. I swear here, as the sky is blue, Munt did what all of us would do… he smacked the side of the box… no harder than anyone else, including a kid… AND the front of the Cubi BOQ Bar jukebox shattered…. completely shattered. We looked at each other in a true WTF moment????
Suddenly from behind us comes the comment “this was a nice place until you guys came in.” Turning we see – still in khakis – a Blackshoe CDR with a Command at Sea Star, glaring at us. This ain’t the Subic Bay side, this is Brownshoe territory, again WTF? I’m lost for a moment, sheer vertigo, this is not right… he is CO of a destroyer or something, a Commander, I’m just a JO, but this… there’s something wrong with this picture. I’m truely shocked and awed.
Fortunately nothing else happens for a bit and then I see him go out the door across the hall to the Head. I’m Champ Lead for this, ya know, Skipper Lew would expect leadership… I cannot, must not fail my Champ duty… I need to talk to this guy, but an O-3 can’t confront an O-5 out in a crowd, toasted or not….. and soooo, brain half engaged at least, into the Head I follow… he’s at the left urinal, I take the right. “Commander,” I begin
with all due respect, Sir, maybe you aren’t thinking about this but President Nixon announced the end of the war today. Our squadron and airwing has lost some folks, my squadron has two POWs. They’re comming home. Munt didn’t mean to break the jukebox, the war just happens to be over, AND no one at Cubi seems to give a flying rat’s ass! The four of us are celebrating, we’re drunk and gonna get drunker.”
He leads the way back into the bar, never says a word. To his credit, he gathers up a few other shoes and departs the bar. The story of the 24th of January ends … early morning on the 25th in the BOQ pool. Last memory – Max, or maybe it’s Munt or Floo, maybe all of us on the diving board… I think??? Over to Floo, Max, Munt.
Gift #5 – Champagne for the Switches; Skipper Lew at his best (other than in the cockpit, of course): Midway docked on the Cubi Pier the next day, and the ship and airwing began a major celebration. Stories were out and about, but any ramifications were quickly overcome by a major party effort. I’ll leave those stories for other folks, and jump to the day we got back underway for… yes, one more line period – our ninth and record setting for days on the line for any carrier in the Vietnam War… Laos and Cambodia ops were still underway.
Some needed background. As the FNG, in April I was tasked to put on a party in Cubi to pay off a wager the Champs lost to the Rocks of VF-161 during deployment to Fallon. Given that the squadron had no “official” drink, I decided that Champagne made sense for the Champs and set up the party in the O’Club accordingly. First round was the good stuff, then when no one could tell the difference, well you get it. As the cruise went on, champagne flowed, a tradition – at least for that cruise established.
Now back to the morning as the Midway gets underway… most Champs are in the Ready Room, drinking coffee, reading messages, mostly just kicking back. Suddenly and loudly through the door storms in CDR John Disher, Commanding Officer of the VF-151 Switches,
GAWDDAMN IT LEW, I JUST SPENT AN HOUR WITH CAG GETTING MY ASS CHEWED. I”VE GOTTA PAY for chairs, two windows and other stuff up at the club. YOU GOT MY GUYS WASTED AND THEY DESTROYED THE PLACE. DAMN IT MAN, I WON”T SIT DOWN FOR A WEEK. THANKS ONE HELL OF A LOT. JUST GAWD DAMN IT!
About face and he slams back out the door. At which point the Champions of VA-56 in mass rose up, cheered and applauded the best damn squadron commander in the United States Navy. We were out of jail and our Skipper Lew Chatham led the jail break single handedly. Commander Walter Lewis Chatham, USN, never said a word, but the shit-eating grin was priceless.
The back story: That last night in port the O’Club was packed. Skipper Lew starts buying Champagne for the airwing – OK, he’s done that before. As he pours, he barely leaks a little into the glasses of “his boys.” WTF, Skipper? But as it turns out, he’s filling to overflow the glasses of the Switches. We’ve been going at it for days, tired, we return to the ship at a reasonable hour. Not so, the boys of VF-151, they party on
Lots of memories from that war cruise, but that few moments in our ready-room, while VF-151′s CO goes off has to be right there after the SAM for Floo and Boris, and a hell of a lot funnier.
0800 January 28th, 1973 Saigon Time, the Paris Peace Accords went into effect. The last Navy loss was on the 27th – CDR Harley Hall, CO of VF-143 with RIO LCDR Phillip Allen Kientzler off of USS Enterprise was shot down after their third bombing run just north of Quang Tri near the DMZ. Both men were seen on the ground. Kientzler was the last POW. CDR Hall’s remains were returned in June 1995. My last combat mission in Vietnam was in the same area on 23 January. Lew Chatham briefed Clay Thomas and I to make one run, drop all our ordinance and come home. We took fire.
I flew five more combat missions in February in Cambodia/Laos. They were pieces of cake but I didn’t like being there at all.
Midway pulled back into Cubi Point before heading back to California. Those of us lucky enough to be on the Magic Carpet flight spent a last night at the Cubi O’Club with plans to get on a bus to Clarke Air Force Base the next day and fly home the following day. That night the Cubi Officers’ Wives Club held a Las Vegas night in the O’Club. I couldn’t lose at the Crap Table. All the winnings were to be used in bidding for prizes. Nobody but nobody could out bid me for the two cases of champagne. From Boris and the Champs, “Champagne for my buds” waiting in the BOQ for the bus the next afternoon.
The BEST two GIFTS of all: A few days after we got back to Lemoore, the wife of one month I’d left behind for the Easter Offensive, along with Valerie, wife of our assistant Maintenance Officer, Mike Adams, put together one amazing Christmas dinner – turkey with everything and I do mean everthing imaginable. Mike and I amazed the women with our consumption. Paulette had left the Christmas Tree up waiting to celebrate our first Christmas together – whenever it might occur.
In May, Tracey, the baby girl made in Hong Kong completed the gifts and started a whole new chain of memories, including throwing up on Skipper Lew’s uniform and 18 years later going to Floo’s Change-of-Command for CVW-30 in Miramar, and meeting some of those Champs.