A Novel by
© Copyright 2022 Greg Stout
All rights reserved.
No portion of this book may be reproduced in whole or in part, by any means whatsoever, except for passages excerpted for the purposes of review, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
For information, or to order additional copies, please contact:
Beacon Publishing Group
P.O. Box 41573 Charleston, S.C. 29423
Publisher’s catalog available by request.
Published in 2022. New York, NY 10001.
First Edition. Printed in the USA.
Readers familiar with the towns and landscape of both the Central Valley of California and south-central Kansas will recognize that I have taken more than a few liberties with the description and details of both. This was entirely intentional, to fit the requirements of the story. In one or two instances, I have used the names of real people, always being careful to represent them in a favorable light. This book, like Gideon’s Ghost, which preceded it, is strongly influenced by my tenure as a teacher for more than a decade, and is for that audience that this book is intended. In my experience, young adults are among the smartest and most perceptive people anywhere, capable of asking the best questions and recognizing honest answers when they hear them.
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.
After I thanked Mr. Sachs for the ride home and exchanged “see you tomorrows” with Bobby, I picked up the newspaper from the driveway, collected the mail from the mailbox and let myself into the house. My mother was in the kitchen getting dinner ready.
“How did your game go?” she called over running water in the kitchen sink.
“Great,” I said. I pitched the last two innings, struck out two and gave up one hit. We won 7-3.”
Mom gave me a smile. “No doubt the Dodgers and the Giants will be knocking at our door any day now.”
“Sure, they will. Maybe the Angels and the A’s, too, if they decide to stay in Oakland. All I need to do now is learn how to throw a curveball,” I said. “Did Dad call today?”
“No, but it’s already close to midnight where he is. If he flew a mission, we probably won’t hear from him until tomorrow.”
I put the mail down on the kitchen counter where Mom could look through it when her hands were free.
“Right, I keep forgetting about the time difference,” I said, and headed down the hall to grab a shower before supper.
Like my father, my mom, Madeline Ward, was a United States naval officer, a lieutenant commander and a medical doctor. She and Dad were based stateside at Lemoore Naval Air Station. We lived in a rented house just outside Fresno, California, not far from Lemoore NAS. I attended Huntington Junior High School, also located in Fresno. In another two weeks, my ninth-grade school year would be over and summer vacation would begin. In the fall I would be moving on to Central Valley High School. My plan was to go out for track in the fall and then baseball in the spring. I thought I had a pretty good chance to make both teams. I was pretty fast around the bases, and sometimes, if I wasn’t going to be pitching, the coach would put me in as a pinch-runner.
I had just finished toweling off and getting into jeans and a t-shirt when the doorbell rang.
“Could you get that, honey?” Mom said. “I’m up to my elbows in this meatloaf.”
When I opened the door, there were two naval officers, a man and a woman, waiting on the porch, dressed in their service dress blue, or SBD, uniforms. The man wore the insignia of a captain, with four gold stripes on his epaulets and an eagle insignia on his collar. The woman was a lieutenant commander, same as my mother, with three gold stripes and a gold cross on her collar. That made her a chaplain.
In the seconds after I opened the door and saw the two officers standing on the front porch, it was as if my heart had stopped beating and my lungs stopped working. I had seen officers like this before, at another home in our neighborhood where a Marine officer’s family lived. They were a notification detail. And they were about to give us some very bad news.
At the same moment I opened the door my mother looked out from the kitchen. She started to say, “Who is it, Con . . .,” and that was as far as she got before the bowl she was using to mix the meat and the other ingredients for the meat loaf fell from her hands and crashed into pieces on the kitchen floor.
“Several of the remaining flight crews in the air saw Lieutenant Commander Ward and Ensign Taney eject, so we know they didn’t go down with their aircraft.” The officer speaking had introduced himself as Captain Robert Reynolds. When a notification detail is dispatched, at least one of the officers is always senior to the officer or seaman who has been lost. The other officer, Lieutenant Commander Mariel Salazar, was assigned to the detail to handle any religious or spiritual issues that might arise during the notification.
Captain Reynolds continued, “At this point, we are calling Lieutenant Commander Ward missing in action. We don’t know if he and Ensign Taney were taken prisoner by North Vietnamese or Viet Cong forces, or if they managed to evade capture and find refuge in the countryside. For the moment, we’re operating on the assumption that both officers survived. We’ve already notified both the Swedish and the Swiss consulates in Hanoi as well as the Red Cross and asked their people to follow up to do whatever they can to determine whether either or both men have become prisoners of war.”
Captain Reynolds looked at Mom. “Do you have any questions so far?”
“How long?” she asked. Her voice was totally flat and emotionless, as if she were asking the most unimportant question anyone had ever posed.
“You mean until we know something more?” Captain Reynolds shook his head. “Doctor Ward, you know the situation. The North Vietnamese don’t abide by the Geneva Convention, and they don’t permit Red Cross visits to their prisoners of war, so it could be weeks or even months before we find out anything more. Maybe longer. For the moment, all we can do is hope for the best. I must tell you, though, that at the time the crew bailed out, they were over some very rugged and remote territory, so it’s anybody’s guess whether they’ll be able to sustain themselves long enough to get back to freedom, especially if either one of them was injured after they ejected. Plus, if they were captured, and we have no way of knowing if they were, it can take weeks or even months before they finally wind up in a secure camp.”
Mom and I both knew that already. There were plenty of families living near us who had lost pilots and ground troops in Vietnam. Marine infantrymen killed in combat were usually recovered by their brothers in arms, other soldiers who had gone into a firefight with them and then brought them back afterward. At the same time, it was not unusual for downed air crews to be rescued by recovery teams in low-flying helicopters within a day or two after being shot down, as long as they could remain hidden until help arrived. For the time being, at least, we had that hope.
Lieutenant Commander Salazar looked at me. “Connor? Your name is Connor, right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. In the military, officers on duty are always addressed as “sir” or “ma’am.” We were a Navy family and both my parents made sure that was a rule I always followed.
“Well, then,” she said, “I know this must all be a shock to you, but I’m thinking there must be a lot of questions you want to ask. We’ll try to answer them for you if we can.”
“Just one,” I said, struggling to keep my voice under control. “How do you know they aren’t dead? How do you know they weren’t killed the minute they hit the ground?”
“We don’t know that Connor,” she sighed. “At this point we don’t know anything for a fact except that your father’s plane was lost. I wish—Captain Reynolds and I both wish—we had something more conclusive we could tell you. For now, all we can do is hope for the best and wait until we get more information.”
The four of us sat in silence for a few minutes. Lieutenant Commander Salazar asked whether we would like her to offer a prayer. Mom said no, thank you, maybe another time. Then, when no more questions were forthcoming, Captain Reynolds stood up to leave. Lieutenant Commander Salazar followed.
“Doctor Ward, Connor, one of our support teams will be in touch with you tomorrow. They’ll go over other information and make sure you get whatever assistance you need until this is resolved. For now, let me just say that all the way up the chain of command, the United States Navy is one-hundred percent behind you, and that we are sorry to have to bring you this unhappy news.”
They both saluted my mother and me. And then they were gone, leaving us alone in a house that now seemed empty and lifeless.
Mom and I sat quietly for a few moments, each of us lost in our own thoughts, trying to make sense out of what we had just heard.
“Mom,” I said, but she seemed to be a million miles away.
She turned her head toward the kitchen. “I should go and clean up the mess I made in there. There’s glass all over the floor. I expect neighbors will begin showing up at the door before long, and I can’t have the kitchen looking this way. You know how word gets around when something like this happens.”
“Mom,” I said again, “please. Forget the glass for a minute. I’ll take care of it.”
She turned to look at me, and I could see her face was empty of all expression.
I said, “What if he’s dead? What if his ‘chute didn’t deploy, or what if the enemy found him as soon as he hit the ground?” I could feel the back of my neck getting hotter and tears forming in my eyes. “What if he landed in a tree and they shot him before he even had a chance to cut himself loose?”
Mom came over and sat down next to me. She pulled me close and hugged me for a long moment. Then she said, “It’s going to be all right. You’ll see. Search and rescue will probably retrieve Dad and Ensign Taney tomorrow. He’ll be back aboard the Constellation before you know it. Then after the medics check him out, we’ll fly over to the Philippines and have a reunion.”
Her words were brave, but the uncertainty in her voice told a different story, as though this was a speech she had been practicing for a long time, hoping she’d never have to use it.
An hour later, just as Mom had predicted, the doorbell rang. Neighbors, both civilian and military, who had heard what happened were coming so see how we were doing and to bring food and express their sympathies.
Before I opened the door to the first of them, Mom said, “I know this is scary right now, Connor, and I know exactly what you’re feeling inside. I feel it, too. And if you want to let it out, it’s okay to do that. But don’t do it in front of other people. We’re Navy, Connor. Remember that. We don’t cry or go all to pieces in public. We do our duty and keep our feelings inside, okay?”
“Okay,” I said, and went to the door to greet the neighbors. But I didn’t just want to cry. I wanted to scream.
Later that night, after the neighbors and friends had all finally gone home, Mom said, “Connor, do you think you’ll be okay by yourself for a while? I need to run back by the hospital for a few minutes and check on a couple of patients I’ve been keeping an eye on.”
“Sure,” I said, “Go ahead. I’ll be fine.” I knew there were no patients she needed to see. She just needed to be doing something to take her mind off the night’s events.
She was gone for about an hour, getting home just before midnight. I was awake in bed when she came in but decided not to bother her. After a while, I heard her in her bedroom, crying. I knew better than to ask her how she was, because it was important to her to keep a brave face. Like Dad, she was Navy, through and through.
Besides, I had stuff of my own to think about. Like how, if things didn’t turn out for my dad, if he didn’t survive the crash, or if he was killed by the enemy without being given a chance to surrender, what I was going to do to even the score?
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