Welcome to Wetterling’s Wordsmithing
This site updates irregularly, but I put up a new post at my blog every Sunday morning and sometimes through the week, when something is burning a hole in my soul:
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OVER THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH:
The Humbling Details
Citation to accompany the Distinguished Flying Cross:
"First Lieutenant Jerry D. Wetterling distinguished himself by heroism as an F-100 pilot flying close air support at the northwest end of the A Shau Valley, Republic of Vietnam on 21 July 1968. On that date, Lieutenant Wetterling diverted from a scheduled road interdiction mission to a location of active anti-aircraft guns. Although another aircraft had been shot down only moments before, Lieutenant Wetterling attacked these guns with complete disregard for his own personal safety. As a result two guns sites with several guns each were destroyed. The outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty displayed by Lieutenant Wetterling reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force."
Notwithstanding the boilerplate language of the citation, the reality was far from distinguished flying. Panic-stricken stick and rudder input that should have destroyed plane and pilot, every novice mistake in the books, and inexplicably suicidal snap decisions amid enveloping tracer fire were overridden by a gracious God for His glory and my good—my literal survival and everlasting gratitude. Like the cross where the Son of God, the real hero of human history, chose to die to save my soul, this pot metal Maltese imitation is a memorial to the Sovereign Grace of the Author and Finisher of my life, my faith and my eternal salvation. Soon enough I'll exchange it for a crown.
The humbling details:
July 21, 1968, was a magnificent Sunday morning for a baptism by fire. Below a cloudless blue sky a meandering, tan mullion of sand separated the lush green jungle of Vietnam from the emerald and sapphire stained glass of the South China Sea. Fire and brimstone were not a part of the spectacular scenery we beheld from our cruising altitude of 14,000 feet, but the equivalent was there. It lurked just over the horizon, loaded in the barrels of ten big Communist anti-aircraft guns awaiting our arrival.
I was a brand new fighter pilot in my first job out of college, flying the wing position in a two-ship flight of F-100 strike fighters, armed to the teeth with the weapons of war. "Gung-ho" did not adequately describe my supremely self-confident mind-set. I had busted my butt to finish first in my class at pilot training to qualify for a fighter assignment, then did it again to finish Top Gun at fighter pilot school. As a twenty-four-year-old country boy, patriotic and immortal, I was right where I wanted to be. To this day I believe the cause was just—the strategy was another matter. That beautiful morning I was sure I could never live long enough to grow tired of that business. If this sounds like hyperbole, then you've never danced the wild blue with a supersonic angel. But I had yet to confront a face-full of antiaircraft fire.
We arrived over the A Shau ("ah-shouw," rhymes with cow), a narrow, bucolic little valley still bathed in morning shadows, in the rugged mountains of northwest South Vietnam. Another flight of two F-100's was attacking a target high on the western ridgeline. The Forward Air Controller (the "FAC"), flying a small spotter plane, was directing the strike. We watched one of the F-100's dive on the target and drop his bombs. The target was shooting back. I could see the geysers of tracers from several 37mm anti-aircraft guns and the black puffs of their flak bursts. All the butterflies from all the football games I'd ever played began to congregate in my gut.
Just as the F-100 was pulling out of its dive, one of the North Vietnamese guns found its mark. The plane rolled upside down and dove straight into the ground. At the sight of an enormous fireball, and no parachute, there was a violent spasm in my solar plexus and I tasted my bile-soaked breakfast.
There was stunned silence on the radio, but I could hear my pulse thumping double-time in my ears. My tongue felt like an oversized cud of sawdust in a mouth as dry as the Mojave. I reached for my water flask in a leg pocket of my g-suit and struggled to release my oxygen mask to drink. I was hyperventilating so badly I choked on the water.
Finally the FAC stated the obvious. "Well, I guess there's no need to call in search and rescue on this one. Sorry about your wingman, Panther One-Zero Flight. I'll file a report from this end."
"Roger," said the Panther Flight leader. The self-confidence in his earlier radio voice had given way to the tones of a whipped pup.
The FAC then directed us to attack those guns. I thought I was hearing my own funeral sermon. There was never a more appropriate time for a prayer to God for His protection, but I recall no such plea. I don't believe my conscious brain was functioning; it was paralyzed with fear. My right hand felt as if it had five thumbs as I fumbled with the armament switches in the cockpit.
As we circled over the target, just out of range of the guns, their flak bursts formed a broken deck of dark clouds below us. We would have to pass through that airspace as we attacked the guns. My flight leader, a salty veteran of two wars, peeled out of our circular orbit, rolled belly up to the morning sun, and pointed his nose toward the target in a forty-five degree dive angle. There was a steely, torqued-jaw tone to his voice as he called in over the radio. Five seconds later, I moved the control stick over against my left knee and rolled in from a different direction.
My leader was barely visible among the black clouds of flak. The target, on the other hand, was clear from my angle—two circular anti-aircraft gun sites, with five guns in each, staggered on opposite sides of the snaking dirt road on the ridgeline. The guns in one of those sites rotated around toward me, and I was looking right down the gun barrels as I rocketed toward the ground. The circle of muzzle flashes sparkled away on the ground and in the same instant I was surrounded by tracers and flak bursts. My face and bullets the diameter of golfballs were closing on one another at over 1000 miles per hour. I was sure every breath would be my last. From somewhere in my system Amazing Grace, in the form of copious quantities of adrenaline, was being injected, allowing my hands and feet to function in spite of a brain shut down by fright.
In desperation, I punched the bomb release button just to unload my bombs and escape from that fire hose spewing lead death. I was neither aiming nor watching the instruments. I pulled the control stick hard against the back stop in an effort to recover from the dive, a ham-fisted flying technique that caused me to black out from the excessive G-forces.
When my vision returned I was mercifully headed back upward. The operator's manual says the wings of an F-100 fold up around your ears if you put over seven G's of stress on them. The gauge on my instrument panel read NINE. Then I noticed the bombs had not come off the airplane. I had messed up the switch settings. That first gross error was the reason the second gross error did not destroy the airplane and me with it—the weight of the bombs kept the wings from folding up.
Then I committed the most outrageously suicidal act of all. Rather than explain to my flight leader that I had screwed up, rather than take that badly overstressed piece of machinery straight home and gingerly put it on the ground, I said nothing and continued to attack the target. It was an out-of-body experience. I felt like my mind and eyes had departed the cockpit, retreating to a safe place where they could watch a slow motion movie of my plane as we attacked the target like two mad hornets. When our bombs were gone we strafed them with our 20mm guns until there were no more flak bursts in that Sunday morning sky.
I moved into loose formation on my leader's left wing and we dove for the valley floor to have a closer look at the fruits of our labor. Coming up the valley right on the deck, we pulled up into a climbing turn and popped over the ridgeline just above the treetops. The devastation was complete. The gun sites were a smoldering junkyard of twisted gun barrels, scrap iron, bomb craters and crimson human carnage.
The FAC reported an estimated 100 enemy soldiers KBA. "Killed by air" was the air combat scoring system in that grisly game of blasting souls into eternity.
It sounds grotesque, nearly three decades after the fact, but that flight home was just plain thrilling. The mid-day cumulus clouds had formed over the central highlands of South Vietnam. We played follow the leader like two larks flying through a forest of towering, puffy white clouds—in and out and up and down and over and around. The effects of the adrenaline had not even begun to wear off, and in a single-seat fighter no one else hears the whoops and hollers of ecstasy. The images of slaughter at A Shau, the terror of imminent doom that had paralyzed me, and the realization that by all odds I ought to be dead, were overwhelmed by the sheer rapture that comes from been shot at and missed.
We parked at the refueling area of the flight line and my crew chief and I inspected my airplane for battle damage. My flying suit was drenched and my boots squished like flooded waders, not from the tropical sun. Incredibly, there were no bullet holes, but many of the flush-mounted rivets that held the aluminum skin on the underside of the wings were all popped and hanging down a half-inch. The big steel main spars that hold the wings onto the fuselage had rivers of hairline cracks in them. The crew chief looked at me and his eyes told me what I already knew: There was no earthly explanation for why I wasn't splattered all over the A Shau Valley. My vocal cords froze up and walking became exceedingly difficult.
The Apostle Paul told the Ephesians, "It is by grace you have been saved ….." and surely it was by grace I was saved that sunny Sunday morning in the summer of '68.
I have a cross to commemorate that sanctifying Sunday morning at A Shau—a Distinguished Flying Cross. That's a misnomer. It was the opposite of distinguished flying. The citation mentions "heroism," but that is incorrect also. My terrified reaction under fire was sufficient to kill myself, but for the grace of God. He forever changed my world view that Sunday over the valley of the shadow of death, and after all these many years my cup still overflows.
Many nations use a cross in their medals for bravery. It's in honor of the most heroic act of love ever witnessed on this earth—the voluntary death of Jesus Christ on a cross. Since that day when I returned, by grace alone, from that war, that citation and medal have hung on my office wall somewhere in my house or office as a humbling reminder that God saved my life on that sunny Sunday morning in the summer of '68. But greater by far, it reminds me that His Son died there to save my soul.
Excerpt from Grace in the Growing Season: A Memoir, page 64-70
Fictionalized in SON OF THUNDER, Chapter 1