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The Last Friendly Face

Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Vietnam Veterans Memorial

It was early in the morning when Tom McCormick dropped me off at the aerial port at Travis Air Force Base. It was early in the morning when I arrived in Washington to return the favor.

For the most part, we went to war alone. There was nobody there to say goodbye. We'd said our good byes at home, before individually making our way to the West Coast.

Everyone waiting for that plane was in uniform. Their faces were tense, their voices hushed, and they all looked tired. Many had spent the night on benches in the waiting area.

The transient quarters on base were overcrowded with replacements following the TET offensive. Off base, the motels were second rate, and everyone had to share a room with a stranger, but that was okay. Privacy was a scarce commodity and they were willing to take what little they could get.

Thanks to Tom McCormick, I'd spent a quiet evening with friends.

He and I had been classmates in navigator training at Mather AFB. We didn't have much in common -- he was from Southern California, I was from New York; he had a family, I didn't-- but none of that mattered. Tom was one of those people who always found the common thread that makes a friendship.

When UNT class 67-19 graduated, we went our separate ways. Tom went to electronic warfare school, and then on to Castle AFB for more training, before being assigned to a B-52 crew at Travis AFB. I went to navigator/bombardier school and got assigned to an EB-66 outfit stationed in Takhli, Thailand.

A lot of us from that UNT class were headed for Vietnam. As our port calls started coming in Tom spread the word that he and Carolyn had an extra room, and they wanted each of us to spend the night with them. They didn't think there was any sense in our staying anywhere else. One by one we passed through, used the guest room and went on our way.

Seeing an old buddy again is one of a soldier's few joys. On my last night before going to Vietnam, we talked about old times and old friends. We ate real food around a real table. We watched television and I played on the floor with Tom's infant son. More than anything else, I wasn't alone.

We were supposed to get together when I got back, but it didn't work out like that. That summer, Tom was transferred to Fairchild AFB in Spokane.

On paper, going to the Strategic Air Command was a stateside assignment. In reality SAC's B-52 and KC-135 crews were hardly ever home. As often as not, when they weren't pulling alert for seven days at a clip, they were in South East Asia.

Unlike the other aircraft in Vietnam, the B-52's and KC-135's weren't assigned to PACAF. Throughout the war SAC maintained control of the aircraft and the crews who flew them.

The crews were always assigned TDY, (temporary duty) and they were always rotated home before they could accumulate the 180 consecutive days in the combat zone needed to qualify for a tour in SEA. Officially, they never showed up in the statistics because they were only supposed to be there on a short-term supplemental basis.

The system served two purposes. From a public relations standpoint it reduced the number of men officially in the combat zone, and from an operational standpoint, it enabled SAC to maintain its highly-trained nuclear alert force while conducting bombing and refueling operations in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

For the crews it meant six months in South East Asia six months at home, year in and year out, over and over again. They got combat pay for those missions. But at any time they could get a permanent change of station and be sent to Vietnam for a full year's tour with no credit for the missions they'd flown or the time they'd served in combat.

In March 1969, Tom's crew was deployed TDY to Anderson AFB in Guam, home of the 43rd Strategic Air Wing and the 72nd Strategic Air Wing (Provisional).

The missions out of Guam were exhausting 12 hour long monsters. With a full load of bombs, the BUFF's were so heavy that they could barely make it off the ground. On hot days, it wasn't unusual for a plane to use every inch of the runway on takeoff roll, then skim low over the water before gaining altitude. Every sortie required inflight refueling prior to hitting the target, and many required another inflight refueling on the way back to Guam.

Most of the missions were flown over suspected enemy troop concentrations in the South, but almost every day the B-52's bombed targets, such as near the Mu Gia Pass on the border of North Vietnam and Laos, that were heavily defended with SAM-2 missiles, early warning radar, and other antiaircraft defenses.

At Takhli, we were briefed daily on how many planes had been lost, where they'd gone down and what the status of the crew was. One after another my friends and classmates showed up on that briefing board. Tom's name came up on May 10 1969. His bomb-laden plane had crashed on takeoff from Anderson. Tom and the rest of the crew (Captain Larry I. Broadhead, Master Sergeant Harold B. Deel, 1st Lieutenant Maurice E. Lundy, Captain Russell L. Platt and Major James L. Sipes) were killed.

Like Tom, many of the men I knew who died in the war had been stationed outside Vietnam. Some had been on Guam, others had been in Okinawa, the Philippines or Thailand. When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in 1982, I didn't know if their names would be on the wall. I didn’t even know if anyone considered us Vietnam Veterans.

That Memorial Day I saw two of their names on television during NBC's coverage of the dedication. Later I read Jan Scruggs' book To Heal A Nation and found that all the names were on The Wall, except Tom's.

His had been the last friendly face I'd seen before I went to Vietnam. No matter how much I felt drawn to go to Washington, I knew that I couldn't visit The Wall if his name wasn't on it.

Four years after the formal dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the names of 95 men who had been killed on combat missions technically outside the war zone, and 13 men who had died of wounds received in Vietnam were added to The Wall on Memorial Day 1986. Tom was on the list. It was time for me to go to Washington.

But when I got to The Wall I found out that because of the ceremony of adding the names, access to The Wall was closed to everyone except the relatives of the 95 men whose names had just been added.

There were some long tables set up along the sidewalk leading up to path that runs down along the West side of The Wall, and there were signs that The Wall was closed due to the ceremony and other sign directing relatives of the 95 men to sign in.

I didn’t know what to do. I could hardly breathe. I had waited so long and traveled so far, only to come up short.
Then my lovely wife, Cathy, suggested that I walk up to the table and ask. So that’s what I did.

With trepidation, I approached the woman sitting near the end of the table closest to The Wall, and said, “Excuse me. The name of one of my friends was just added to The Wall and I came here today hoping to touch his name and possibly meet his family. Is there any way I can find out if his family is here?

She looked up at me, and waved her right arm toward The Wall, and said, “Go on in.”

So I turned and waved to my wife and children and I walked to The Wall for the first time.

I found Tom's name where it had been added to line 101 of panel 24W. It was brighter than the rest.
I reached out and ran my hand over his name. A calmness settled over me, and after all those years I was finally able to relax.

When I turned around, I noticed a man standing at the edge of the path looking at me. For some reason I don't have a picture of Tom, and yet I was able to recognize his brother as he stood there next to The Wall. They looked the same and they had the same build.

So I walked over, extended my hand to him, and said, “You must be Tom’s brother. I flew with Tom in the Air Force. Is Carolyn here?”

The look on his face was almost unbelievable.

He said, “Yes.” Then he walked me along the entire length of The Wall to the area roped off at the east end of The Wall for the families to gather.

I met Tom’s wife again, and I met his son who now towered over me. After eighteen years, I was finally able to say thanks.

Twenty-five year old Air Force Captain Thomas R. McCormick was born on November 14, 1943. He was from Santa Monica, California and graduated from Loyola Marymount University. Tom’s name is on Panel 24W - Line 101.

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