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Close to Lift Off

by Pat Dingle


It was in 1966 during our second ten month tour in the Gulf of Tonkin, and I’m learning to read, write and speak the Russian language. Me, whose first language is American slang. The class was held in a small space up in the fo’csle when nobody was around. Four years aboard the Yorktown and those classes were the first and last time I was ever up there. We students were notified on the same day a class would take place. The lessons were given by one of the ship’s doctors who happen to be of Russian heritage and fluent in the language. There were about six of us to start but it soon narrowed down to only three. The Air Intelligence Officer, I recall was a Commander, an enlisted guy and me, a new 3rd Class PO. The AIO and I had plans to join the CIA after life in the Navy, hence the class, so we quickly became friends. He worked just down the inboard passageway from CIC so I’d pop in to see him a lot when he was coming or going off watch by buzzing their outer door that was always locked and marked top secret. Mine was too but we didn’t have a buzzer.......low rent I guess. I’d regale him with some of my capers ashore over coffee that, as a big cheese, he couldn’t pull off. He always looked amazed or flabbergasted during those chats but now I’m thinking the look may have been more like a father stuck with a dumb son he can’t get rid of. But then I did have some amazing alone in native lands liberties. I wonder from time to time if he ever made it to Langley. I took a more domestic route involving adventure romance and intrigue.

One day I had mentioned to him that I always wanted to take off from the flight deck in an A-4 Skyhawk or really any aircraft for that matter. Well the AIO arranged for me to go up on patrol in one of our Sea King rescue helicopters about five day from then. Wow, a dream come true, I could hardly wait, it’s all I could think of. The next day or two one of our helicopters was shot down just off the North Vietnam coast. I was on duty in the air section of CIC when it happened. There was suddenly nothing on my scope. They just disappeared between sweeps. Chief Sorrel immediately manned the scope next to mine and that man stayed there for the next 24 hours searching for any sign of the craft in the water as only a Chief could. Our jets took off and also searched the area we knew it was last in, all to no avail. Prop aircraft continued to search the waters and then wreckage was spotted a few days after the shoot down. A helicopter was dispatched and recovered the torso of the pilot, still strapped in his seat. Other body parts were recovered from several of the crewmen. I remember the remains were stored down below in a freezer until a burial at sea was conducted a few days later with our Marine Honor Guard and ship’s crew. I watched it from across a hanger bay. Taps was played.

No, I never did take off from the Yorktown’s flight deck. They banned any and all non necessary personal from going up right after that. But this story isn’t about me, it’s about our airmen lost that day in 1966 in the Gulf of Tonkin. A day, during a time many years ago, that I’ll never forget.