The Wall Street Journal
I visited with three old friends recently at a park in my town. It seems like only yesterday that we were all together, but actually it had been 28 years. There was a crowd at the park that day, and it took us awhile to connect, but with the aid of a computer we made it. I found Lance at Panel 54W, line 037, Lynn over at Panel 51W, line 032, and Vince down at line 103 on Panel 27W. We were gung-ho young fighter pilots in Vietnam, the cream of the crop of the US Air Force pilot training system, and now their names are on that 250-foot-long, half-size model of the Vietnam Memorial that moves around the country. I had intentionally avoided visiting the wall when it came to town in years past, because I did not trust myself to behave in a composed manner, but after nearly three decades it was time to try for some closure on this issue. I told my wife that I preferred to go alone, if that was all right, and, truth be known, I nearly backed out at that.
Standing in front of that somber wall, I tried to keep it light, reminiscing about how things were back then. We used to joke about the psychiatric term for a passionate love affair with inanimate flying objects—we flew F-100’s—and we marveled at the thought that the taxpayers actually paid us to do this “work.” We were not draftees, but college graduates there by choice, opting for the cramped confines of a jet fighter cockpit over the comfort of corporate America. In all my life I’ve not been so passionate about any other work. If that sounds like an exaggeration, then you’ve never danced the wild blue with a supersonic angel.
I vividly remember the Sunday afternoon, in the summer of ‘68, when we flew out of Travis Air Force Base, California, on a troop transport headed for Vietnam. Lynn, Lance and I crowded around the same porthole and watched the Golden Gate Bridge disappear below broken clouds. We had gone through fighter pilot school together and had done some serious bonding. In an exceedingly rare moment of youthful fighter pilot humility, I wondered if I would live to see that bridge again. For reasons I still don’t understand, I was the only one of the three who did.
Once in Vietnam, we passed the long, lonely off-duty hours at Dusty’s Pub, a lounge that we lieutenants built on the beach of the South China Sea at Tuy Hoa Air Base. The roof at Dusty’s doubled as a sun deck and the walls were non-existent. The complaint heard most often around the bar, in the standard gallows humor of a combat squadron, was that it was “...a lousy war, but it’s the only one we have.” (I’ve cleaned up the language a bit.) We sang mostly raunchy songs that never seemed to end—someone was always writing new verses—and, as an antidote to loneliness, fear in the night, and the sadness over dead friends, we often drank too much.
Vince joined us at Dusty’s Pub halfway through my tour of duty, and since he was a like-minded country kid from Montana, we hit it off. He had a wide grin, slightly stooped shoulders, and his own way of walking—he just threw his feet out and stepped on them. But what he lacked in military bearing he made up for with the heart of a tiger. He often flew as my wingman, and we volunteered for the night missions on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. One starless night, the longest, saddest night of my life, we got into a really nasty gun duel with some anti-aircraft artillery batteries. I watched Vince die in a mushroom shaped fireball that for a moment turned night into day.
Lance—a New York boy who took unmerciful grief from the rest of us because he talked like a New Yawker—crashed into the side of a mountain in the central highlands while attacking a target. Lynn, a happy-go-lucky jock from Pennsylvania’s Slippery Rock College with a hound named John the Basset, returned to his base on a stormy night in July after weather aborted his mission. Two miles of wet runway weren’t enough to stop an F-100 landing at 160 knots with all it bombs still on board. He ran off the end, flipped over, and slid through the minefield at the perimeter fence, setting off a gruesome sound and light show.
At the wall, I told the guys only about the good parts of the last 28 years. Lacy, one of our associates from Dusty’s Pub, became an astronaut, and a few summers ago I watched from my back yard, near Tampa, as he blasted off. His voice over the radio from space was at least an octave lower than it was the day I heard him radio for help while swinging from his parachute hung up in a tree in Laos. Another Dusty’s patron, Rick, is now a two-star general, and I reminded them of what we used to say about the military promotion system—it’s like a septic tank, only the really big chunks floated to the top.
I didn’t tell them about how ostracized Vietnam vets are, that during that same week, one of the nation’s leading newspapers has run an article that implied we Vietnam vets were, to quote one syndicated columnist, “either suckers or psychos, victims or monsters.” I didn’t tell them that the secretary of defense they fought for back then has now declared that he was not a believer in the cause for which he assigned them all to their destiny. I didn’t tell them that a draft age kid from Arkansas, who hid out in England to dodge his duty while they were fighting and dying, is now the commander-in-chief. And I did not tell them we lost that lousy war. I gave them the same story I’ve used since the Nixon administration: “We were winning when I left.”
I relived that final day as I stared at the black onyx wall. The dawn came up like thunder after a year and 268 combat missions in the valley of the shadow. The ground trembled as 33 F-100’s roared off the runway, across the beach, and out over the South China Sea, climbing into the rising sun. On the eastern horizon a line of towering deep purple clouds stood shoulder-to-shoulder before a brilliant orange sky that slowly turned powder blue from the top down. From somewhere on that stage, above the whine of spinning turbine blades, I could hear a choir singing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” in fortissimo: The “...Lord God Omnipotent reigneth...,” and He was bringing me home, while Lance and Lynn and Vince will remain as part of the dust of Southeast Asia until the end of time.
I was not the only one talking to the wall through tears. A leather-vested, bare-chested biker two panels to my left was in even worse shape. I backed about twenty-five yards away from the wall and sat down on the grass under a clear blue sky and mid-day sun that perfectly matched the tropical weather of the war zone. The wall, with all 58,200 names, consumed my field of vision. I tried to wrap my mind around the mega-tonnage of violence, carnage and ruined lives that it represented. Then I thought of how Vietnam was only one small war in the history of the human race, and I was overwhelmed with a sense of mankind’s wickedness.
My heart felt like wax in the blazing sun, and I was on the verge of becoming a spectacle in the park. I arose and walked back up to the wall to say good-bye and ran my fingers over the engraved names—Lance and Lynn and Vince—as if I could communicate with them in some kind of spiritual Braille. I wanted them to know that God, duty, honor, and country will always remain the noblest calling. Revisionist history by the elite dodgers who are trying to justify their actions cannot change that.
I have been a productive member of society since the day I left Vietnam. I am proud of what I did there, and I am especially proud of my friends—heroes who voluntarily, enthusiastically gave their all. They demonstrated no greater love to a nation who’s highbrow opinion makers are still trying to disavow them. May their names, indelibly engraved on that memorial wall, likewise be found in the Book of Life.
The Tampa Tribune
He was handsome, seemed pleasantly modest on TV and was considered a nice guy by mutual friends, yet young John Kennedy's ego led to the needless death of him and his family. Arrogance plus airplane minus caution equals foregone conclusion. In spite of advances in safety and avionics, the machine is still mercilessly unforgiving of foolhardy pilots who venture outside the envelope of their own limitations. Shakespeare's dictum, to know thyself, is still literally a matter of life and death in an airplane.
I think I am qualified to speak on this issue. I was a single seat jet fighter pilot in the USAF and I flew in combat on some of the inkiest nights in Southeast Asia, not knowing up from down aside from the visual information provided by some dimly glowing instruments. I have hyperventilated with fear and vertigo and multicolored tracers in my face. And I suspect that some of my friends died for the same reason John did. By the grace of God I did not. But a flight to Martha's Vineyard is not combat and the mission was unessential and for a rookie pilot the decision should have been a no-brainer.
In my civilian life as a private aviator I have lost count of the wealthy people I've known who bought expensive airplanes because they could and flew off into weather conditions beyond their capabilities, only to crash and die. The same personality that makes a successful businessman can lead to death in an airplane. Or, perhaps more relevant to the current case, people who are treated like gods start believing they are, throwing the caution of mere mortals to the winds. As we used to say in my fighter squadron, an elite culture not ordinarily given to humility, "There are old pilots and there are bold pilots but there are no old, bold pilots."
It is far from uncommon, when flying in conditions with no external visual references to three dimensions, as on a dark hazy night, to have the eyes reading the instruments, telling you that the plane is right side up and every other sense telling you the opposite. It's called vertigo. I have flown final approach to land in a fighter in nasty weather conditions feeling like I was hanging upside down in the harness. Only clenched teeth and a cast-iron self-discipline, born of intense training, assured a landing with the wheels on the bottom side.
Even civilian student pilots are taught how to recover the airplane from "unusual attitudes" strictly by use of the airplane instruments. It's training for just such an occurrence as John probably experienced. As such it's a critical item on the final check ride for a private pilot license, but there you know it's coming, the senses are prepared to be fooled and you have the instructor to save you from yourself. Flying in the real, dark night world it sneaks up on you. You can tumble the gyros in your inner ear by simply turning your head abruptly to talk to someone else in the cockpit, or by looking down in your lap to read a map. With no backup beyond your own capabilities, the stress factor can overpower the mind. I knew a prosperous doctor who experienced what John probably did, but he survived a wiser, humbled, truly blessed man. I watched as he parked the plane, walked into the airport operations office, threw the keys on the counter and said with a quavering voice, "Sell it." I suspect that if John had survived he would have done something similar. The terror of the last several seconds of life for the three souls in that cockpit had to be too horrible to contemplate.
My heart bleeds for the families. Untimely death is always the most tragic of catastrophes. Untimely, senseless death, self-inflicted by a foolish decision, is an enormous lifetime burden for friends and family who survive. To take innocent loved ones with you borders on unforgivable.
A nice guy made a ghastly mistake in judgment and paid for it with his life and the lives of his family. Now John's beatification by a celebrity-crazed press is winding down, but the legal battles have most likely only begun. Look for lawsuits against the instructor, the airplane manufacturer and maybe even between in-laws. That's the American way of dealing with blame in this Golden Age of Exoneration. And win, lose or draw, one man's failure becomes another man's fortune. May God have mercy on us all.
An abridged version ran in the Los Angeles Times
On the afternoon of November 12, 1942, Lieutenant (j.g.) "Jack" Bennett, just twenty-one months out of Annapolis and a veteran of the Pearl Harbor attack, stood amidst the awful din on the aft deck of the heavy cruiser, the USS San Francisco (CA-38) controlling the automatic (anti-aircraft) weapons fire—the same guns he commanded at Pearl Harbor. The heavy cruiser, at 186 yards long and 21 yards wide, the next biggest weapons platform after a battleship, was a plump broadside bulls-eye for twenty-one attacking Japanese torpedo bombers.
The San Francisco was the flagship—the commanding ship with Admiral Dan Callaghan aboard—of a small, weary task force now made up of five cruisers and eight destroyers. Like a dead duck falling into a blind filled with blazing guns, an enemy plane crashed into the San Francisco’s after superstructure thirty feet from Jack. Its wingtip flew through the air like a spinning razor blade, clipping his elbow and spinning him like a top. A major fire ensued with burned bodies and charred body parts scattered grotesquely around the gun platform. Twenty-one San Francisco crewmen died helping shoot down twenty Japanese planes.
The battered task force licked its wounds and wearily took its position to defend against the "Tokyo Express," a Japanese fleet that nightly shelled the Marines on Guadalcanal. Later that night, with his bloodied but unbroken left arm in a sling, Jack reported for duty on the bridge as Officer of the Deck. He overheard the distraught ship’s new skipper, Captain Cassin Young, conferring with Admiral Callaghan about the pending night battle against an alarmingly larger Japanese force steaming their way. It included two battleships, the fearsome scourge of the seas, one cruiser, and twelve destroyers enroute to bombard Henderson Field. Radar was new and rudimentary in those days, and only the U.S. had it, but it was good enough to identify the two big battleships out there in the dark to the northwest before the smaller ships even popped over the horizon and onto their cathode ray screens.
“But that is suicide, Sir,” Caption Young said.
“We have no choice, Captain,” replied Admiral Callaghan.
The Admiral looked toward Jack as he entered the bridge, smiled in recognition and greeted him. Callaghan was a basketball fan and Jack had been the player/coach of a winning team under his command stationed in Pearl Harbor in the months before the Japanese attack.
As they talked Captain Young noted Jack’s elbow was bleeding through his sling and ordered him below, proclaiming him incapacitated for duty. After putting up all the resistance a junior officer dared, Jack obeyed to the letter—he went below but he did not stay below. If this was a suicidal charge, he was determined not to drown in his bunk. He made one lap around his tiny room and reported to the Gunnery Officer to request a new battle station, sticking his head just far enough through the door to talk while keeping his sling hidden from view. He was assigned automatic weapons control aft on the fantail.
Just after midnight the task force passed through Sealark Channel in column formation and ran head-on into a surprised Japanese battle group, also in column formation with a smaller protective column on each side of the battleship column. The San Francisco led the charge right up through middle of Japanese battle group. Out of the darkness the enemy’s searchlights blinked on, pointed right between Jack’s eyes—the one-second warning that his ship was in the crosshairs of two of the greatest concentrations of firepower afloat. It was a broadside free-for-all slugfest in utter chaos at pointblank range for twenty-eight brawling behemoths in a sea made too small by surrounding islands.
The San Francisco’s three triple-mounted eight-inch gun turrets, sometimes firing in nearly opposite directions simultaneously, and assorted smaller weaponry were a poor match for the eight fourteen-inch guns of the two Japanese battleships. The Marines ashore stopped fighting to watch and listen in awe as star shells bursting overhead momentarily illuminated the ships like midday followed by pitch-blackness. The blinding cycle continued while multiple fiery red arcs of tracers crisscrossed the night sky and the ship vibrated like a tuning fork from the thunderous blast of its own guns.
The impact of enemy projectiles nearby spewed lethal white-hot shards of jagged metal through the air like sparks from a spinning grindstone, enveloping Jack but leaving him miraculously unscathed. Gunners in the turrets bled through their ears from the frightful cacophony and concussion of incoming and outgoing, leaving no remembrance of sounds a half-century later…only an indelible silent 3-D horror movie. Jack directed his gun batteries while tending to dead and wounded all about him. He saw a sailor’s legs protruding from under a pile of smoldering scrap metal, but when he tugged on them he found no torso attached. He knelt to give a wounded sailor a shot of morphine and was knocked flat by the blast of the San Francisco’s eight inch guns depressed so low they would have decapitated him had he still been standing. As he lay there stunned he saw a half-cantaloupe two feet from his eyes. When his vision cleared he realized it was the top half of a human head.
With his guns all wiped out Jack organized a crew of volunteers to fight a raging fire in the ship’s hanger. They drug a fire hose from outside gun turret # 3, that was still firing at the enemy, into the inferno where 400-pound depth charge bombs were in imminent danger of cooking off. Of all the indelible visual scenes vividly recalled by Jack, the most powerful sensual recollection that remained with him for life was the indescribably pungent odor of burning human flesh. But above it all was an awareness of an inner peace at ground zero of hell in a sea too small. It haunted him for 55 years thereafter.
When the shooting stopped all of Jack’s guns were out of commission and the San Francisco’s deck was a blazing junkyard with survivors frantically fighting fires. Eighty-six sailors perished on the deck alone, including a third of Jack’s gun crews.
With no more star shells bursting or searchlights sweeping the area, everything beyond the San Francisco’s gunwales was inky blackness. Without a visual reference Jack sensed the ship was sailing in lazy circles. He struggled to the bridge he had been ordered to leave a few hours earlier. Enroute he stumbled over a sailor tending to a man propped against the bulkhead breathing his last—Captain Cassin Young. The bridge was destroyed and the admiral and senior battle staff were dead. With Jack’s help Lieutenant Commander Bruce McCandless, also wounded, the lone survivor on the bridge, managed to jury rig a control system from the conning tower. A single sound powered telephone line connected them with the quartermaster at the wheel in the number four steering station, below the flooded marine compartment, the other three having been wiped out. With no compasses working Jack repeatedly shouted steering directions—“10 degrees right rudder…5 degrees left rudder,” to a quartermaster fighting to stay conscious at the wheel in the smoke-filled steering station.
With all radios out of commission a Morse code message was flashed to the cruiser Helena with a 5-cell flashlight, informing her to assume command of the decimated task force. McCandless then left Jack in charge and went to search for whoever had succeeded to command. He never returned the rest of the night.
Jack put the San Francisco into formation behind the relatively unscathed Helena. It was difficult keeping track of the Helena on a dark night through the small observation slits in the conning tower, so he stood just outside and called his orders back to Rogers, the phone man, who remained inside, who then repeated them to a groggy Quartermaster Higdon below at the wheel.
While he was squinting at the vague black shape ahead and adjusting course as necessary, Jack’s roommate, Dick Marquardt, shouted down from his superior vantage point in his battle station in Sky Forward, “You’re about to run aground on Malaita.” The Helena shape had merged with that island and when she changed course to the right, upon entering Indispensable Strait, the island masked it and Jack was unable to detect it, still “following” the island.
He instantly ordered full right rudder, the San Francisco swung to the right and disaster was averted. The cloying aroma of Guadalcanal’s bountiful gardenias proclaimed the benediction of their deliverance.
Dawn found ten ships at the bottom of the sound, one cruiser and four destroyers from each side, and 1800 American sailors, including two Admirals, were dead. A Japanese battleship lay dead in the water (to be sunk a few hours later by Navy aircraft), the other was damaged and the rest of the force withdrew. The enemy attack had been repulsed, but at a catastrophic cost.
Two providential circumstances explained the San Francisco’s survival. She had taken forty-five major caliber hits, including twelve fourteen-inch shells, and innumerable smaller hits, but they were all high explosive incendiary projectiles, not armor piercing, because the enemy force was prepared to bombard the Marines at Henderson Field. And she was still afloat, though barely recognizable, because she had sailed so close to the enemy battleships they could not depress their big guns low enough to put holes in her hull at the waterline. In fact some Japanese shells hit other Japanese ships on the opposite side of the American column.
Three battle-damaged cruisers and three destroyers, all that was left of the task force, limped for safe haven in the bosom of Espiritu Santo Island—Spanish for “Holy Spirit,” about 80 nautical miles east. A flat sea sparkled in the morning sun, seabirds swooped and dove as a thousand years before and prayers were offered as the bodies of brave men solemnly slid down a chute into a watery grave.
Jack was still in the conning tower as the San Francisco sailed in a defensive zigzag pattern against enemy subs when once again he witnessed the incredible hand of providence. An enemy submarine launched a spread of three torpedoes their way. Unlike the American torpedoes the Japanese torpedoes were normally extremely reliable. The heart-stopping telltale bubbly wake of one of them headed toward the San Francisco, but it was running erratically. It broached—popped to the surface—just off the San Francisco’s port bow, dove again under her keel, surfaced again on the starboard beam, then continued on to hit the light cruiser, Juneau, amidships, right in the ammunition storage area. In an explosion more violent than any Jack had witnessed at Pearl Harbor, he watched one of its intact twin five-inch gun turrets, with the crew still in it, ride the top of a massive mushrooming fireball. Scrap metal rained on the San Francisco, breaking both legs of a sailor on deck who had survived the night battle. The Juneau gun turret fell like a falling leaf, splashing into a debris-littered sea where only moments before 6,000 tons of armored might had floated.
A few weeks later the Medal of Honor was presented to four men (two posthumously) and the Navy Cross was presented to twenty-nine others (twenty-one posthumously), including Jack—an extraordinary number of our nation’s two highest honors for heroism in a single battle. In the providence of God it was a turning point in a global conflagration that saved our land of the free, and it also, in His amazing ways, was instrumental in saving the soul of a hero I am honored to call a friend, long after the battle ended.
John E. "Jack" Bennett, (Capt. US Navy, retired) is among the last men standing, both now and then, from what Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King called "…the most furious sea battle fought in history." Jack and his fellow sailors epitomize what his Sacramento boss in another era, Ronald Reagan, called "the formidable will and moral courage of free men that is America’s exclusive weapon." His story should be told as long as free men have breath.