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A Bad Day

AVIATOR FLIGHT LOG BOOK   3. January 1967. Day: 5. Model: A-4E. Serial Number: 151136. Flight Code: IQL Total Pilot Time: 0.9. First Pilot: 0.9. Instrument Time-Actual: 0.3. Carrier Landings: 0. Catapult: 1. Remarks: Shot down over Vietnam.

Did you ever have a bad day? I mean one of those days when you knew as soon as your feet hit the deck that it was going to be a hummer? One of those days when, if you had a choice, you'd crawl back in the rack, assume the fetal position, and suck your thumb until the next reveille?

At oh-dark-thirty I got a call from my best friend Mike Estocin, the cps officer of the World Famous Golden Dragons (VA-192), asking me to take his hop-the dawn patrol (weather recce). Mike had to attend one of CAG Billy Phillips' endless planning meetings. When I was an eager-beaver NavCad, a wise Chief took me aside and said "Stratton, if you want to succeed in this man's Navy, remember one thing-don't volunteer for nothin!" Thereafter, whenever I ignored the Chief's advice, I found myself in deep doo-doo. I ignored that advice on January 5th.

The dawn patrol was sort of an anachronism, to put it politely. It made sense in World War One, to check out the activity in the trenches; it made sense in World War Two, to check ahead of the convoy for surface-running U-boats; but it made little sense in the Tonkin Gulf in 1967. Regardless, if the weather was good (5,000 ft., 5 miles vis.) or bad (normal), we were going anyway. The only benefit, as the recruiter might say, was that after verifying the usual crud, the weather recce pilot could fly down the coast of North Vietnam, trying to catch some cargo-carrying junks that had run out of wind and luck, unable to reach their daytime hiding places.

I have no recall of the flight briefing; it was pure routine. Madman John (aka "The Animal") Parks was my wingman. Sometimes John was referred to as the Stratton Control Officer, one of the second tour pros assigned to keep us FNKs out of trouble. We hit the flight deck of Tico - USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) - waddling, much to the chagrin of WWII/Korean vets who had visions of yesteryear when unencumbered pilots ran with war whoops to man their aircraft. My aircraft was "Double Nuts" (Modex 400), CAG Billy Phillips' very own bird, painted like a circus wagon with the colors of all the squadrons and detachments. It was a target in itself, worth a couple of bullets.

How we got Double Nuts is a sub-plot to the story. Around Christmas of 1966 we had a stand-down when our leaders, LBJ and Robert (really) Strange McNamara, gave the Commies a holiday go they could replenish. The Golden Dragon skipper, "Big Ed" McKellar, flew to a "conference" at Atsugi, Japan. When it was time to "go back sheep," he couldn't get his bird started. Being an enterprising man, Ed slipped over to the Nippi rework facility and somehow managed to appropriate a replacement -the nicest, newest A-4E that has just completed rework, supposedly for delivery to the Marines. When Ed flew it back to Tico, without logbooks or other paperwork, we dressed it up in Dragon Gold and a few other colors. I was Maintenance Officer and had to manufacture the documentation for the new CAG bird. But, back to the story.

The flight was normal. The weather was cruddy. Returning along the coastline, John spotted something in a river mouth that I didn't see, so I gave him the lead and we went in for a look-see. I found a junk and unloaded my Zunis. Coming around, I saw some bridge sections along the river bank. The only ordnance I had left were Aero-7D rocket packs, so I unloaded them on the bridge sections and the manure hit the fan.

The Aero-713 pod, which held 19 2.75-in. FFARs (folding-fin aerial rockets), had proven to me in about 3,000 hours of light attack work to be a somewhat erratic, if not downright unreliable, weapon. Its primary value, especially without a nose cone, was as an effective speedbrake or aerial mine simulator. The rockets had folding fins. I was a liberal arts major, not an engineer, but even I understood that the rockets would not stabilize if the fins did not pop out. If you had up to 19 unstabilized things flying around in close proximity, bad things could happen. The bottom line is that, on that January day, the fins of some of the rockets did not pop out and bad things happened. Unstabilized rockets collided and the warheads exploded (well, at least, something worked right.) The A-413's J52 engine worked quite well while ingesting air, but not after ingesting rocket debris. Fire was coming out where the air was supposed to go in as I rolled for open water and broadcast my final inspiring words ("Oh, shit!). At 2,200 ft and 220 kts, the engine gave up and exploded. In the process, it blew off the tail and my ever-loving A-4 flying machine had all the flight characteristics of a free-falling safe. It was decision time.

My departure from NAS Lemoore flashed through my mind. My wife, Alice, took me off to the airpatch so I could fly out to join Tico. I was delivered in a broken-down station wagon with three kids ages 1, 3, and 5 -in the back, fighting, pooping, and squalling. I was running from the peace of peace to the peace of war when my wife whistled me back to the car, gave me a peck on the cheek, and whispered motivating words that re-echoed in my churning, burning cockpit 10,000 miles away from home. She said "Don't you dare die and leave me with these three little bastards!" That was a commitment. I ejected and landed in the only tree behind the only house within five miles. Before I had my helmet off, I was a prisoner, a status I experienced for the next 2,251 days. The peasants were not happy and beat the living hell out of me, then staged a mock execution and rolled me into my own grave. Within 24 hours I was at the main prison, Hoa Lo (Hanoi Hilton).

During interrogation, I thought of the Aero-713 rocket pod and was able to buy a whole day from torture by describing to the enemy a new secret weapon that had 19 independently targeted warheads, which even I didn't know where they were going.

And, remember the stolen Marine A-4E? I was wearing Marine fatigues when I was shot down and my parachute seat pan still had a packing slip signed by a Marine sergeant. The Commies thought they had a new situation on their hands -Marines flying A-4s from carriers. I was being tortured to admit I was a U.S. Marine! (Keep cool, my grunt friends. Two of the three "little bastards" in the back of that old station wagon now are Marines, and I also have a daughter-in-law Marine. All three currently are in Saudi Arabia.)

My best friend, Mike Estocin, volunteered for an Iron Hand mission just days before chopping for Stateside. He didn't return. Mike was awarded the Medal of Honor and had a ship named after him. Madman John survived his second cruise and was last seen in a TAR billet at Great Lakes. Skipper Ed McKellar retired after serving as CO of NAS Alameda.

To this day, when there is a knock on the door I don't know if its going to be SecNav with a DFC or the GAO with a bill for one stolen USMC A-4E.

The truth of the matter is that I shot myself down. Star Date January 5, 1967. A bad day.