The story begins this way.
On April 24, 1968, the United States Navy aircraft carrier Constellation sailed out of Subic Bay, an American naval base located in the Republic of the Philippines. A few days later, the Constellation arrived off the coast of North Vietnam at a point in the Gulf of Tonkin identified by U. S. military planners as Yankee Station. Beginning on the first day of May, U. S. Navy strike teams began bombing raids against the North Vietnamese port of Haiphong, mostly flying Grumman A-6 Intruder bombers protected by F4 Phantom fighter-bombers
The F4s were built by McDonnell Aircraft in St. Louis, Missouri. They were regarded as the most capable and formidable aircraft of their kind throughout the Vietnam War. An F4 could carry an ordnance payload of 18,000 pounds, and was capable of flying 1,473 miles per hour, or about twice the speed of sound. The flight crew of a Phantom consisted of two officers: the pilot, who was the flight commander, and a flight officer, who was responsible for navigation, communications and target acquisition—in other words, weapons.
On May 4, 1968, the Constellation launched a strike team which consisted of sixteen Intruders protected by eight F4s which served as flak suppressors, and another eight F4s whose task was MIG-CAPs, or combat air patrol to ward off counterattacks from Russian-built MIG fighters flown by North Vietnamese pilots. Flying at altitudes ranging from Angel 9 to Angel 11 (9,000 to 11,000 feet), the team's mission was to destroy targets along the 20th parallel, the site of numerous oil storage facilities in North Vietnam. That country had been under repeated air attack by American warplanes since early 1965 as part of Operation Rolling Thunder, the code name for a campaign of continuous raids initiated, as some said, to "bomb North Vietnam back into the Stone Age" and bring about the end of the war.
The area designated for attack on May 4 had been under bombardment since shortly after the Tet Offensive that took place in January 1968. During the raid, the strike team encountered typically heavy resistance, including anti-aircraft gunfire and SAMs, or surface-to-air, missiles. During the raid on that day, two of the Phantoms were hit. One was able to make it back to friendly air space in South Vietnam before setting safely down at Da Nang Air Base. The other plane was too badly damaged to remain in the air. The crew, including the pilot and his "back seat," flight officer Ensign Gerald Taney, were forced to eject over North Vietnamese-held territory near the DMZ, or demilitarized zone, the border area between North and South Vietnam. The fate of the flight crew was not immediately known, so the official record initially listed both men as MIA, or missing in action.
My name is Connor Ward. The officer in command of the plane that went missing on that day, Lieutenant Commander Richard Ward, is my father.
The day after my father's plane was lost, I pitched two innings in relief in a ninth-grade junior varsity baseball game against Tokay Junior High, a conference rival from nearby Madera, California. It wasn't a particularly important game. Our team had a mediocre 7-6 record going in. Tokay was 5-8, so neither of us had a shot at the conference championship. Even so, it felt good to win the final game of the year, and better still that I had gotten a save to help nail down the victory.
After the game and the usual stop for ice cream, I hitched a ride home from Bobby Sachs, our shortstop, and his dad, who had showed up to watch the last few innings of the game. Bobby's dad was a fireman for the city of Fresno, the city where we lived, and since this was one of his off-days, he was able to come and watch us play.
"You looked pretty good out there today, Connor," Mr. Sachs said on the ride home. "You threw two solid innings of shutout ball. That'll show up huge in tomorrow's box score."
"The school newspaper doesn't print a box score, Dad," Bobby said. "Nobody cares about the JV games. We'll be lucky if anybody except the other guys on the team even knows we played."
"That sucks for you, Bobby," I said. "That means Vicky won't know you were a major standout with three hits and no errors. That is, unless, you go bragging to her, and I know you'd never do a thing like that."
I was teasing him a little with that. Bobby had a crush a mile wide on Vicky Esposito, the prettiest girl in our class, and I knew he'd be on the phone to her with a play-by-play retelling of his heroics as soon as he got home.
"Well," Mr. Sachs said as he pulled into our driveway, "even without making the front page of the newspaper, it's good to end the season with a winning record. Makes you look forward to next year when you guys will be playing for the varsity."
He was right. It did feel good, and I was hoping to make varsity next spring. And I knew I would barely be able to wait until Dad called so I could tell him how we did. But I had no way of knowing at the time how long it would be before I got that call.