John Nordin '60 sent me a copy of "My Secret War", by Richard S. Drury and marked the portions pertaining to John Flinn, John's Crawford classmate and Richard's wartime room mate. Above is the cover of Richard's book, a photo of John's damaged Skyraider, and a photo of John sticking his head through the hole in the wing.
JOHN FLINN SAT IN OUR ROOM listening to the radio. I was working on a model P-47 Thunderbolt, and he was smoking his pipe, watching.

"You really ought to smoke a pipe," he said. "With that blond mustache you'd look like something right from England. Here, I'll give you this one." He handed it to me along with a small tin of tobacco.

The aroma snaked from the can, carrying visions of old libraries and scenes from old movies, Sherlock Holmes and all that. We were soon sitting in swirls of smoke, the radio again blaring the numbers of the girls downtown. My P-47 was taking shape across a small plywood workboard.

"About time to hit the sack," John said, cleaning his pipe, turning off the radio, drawing the room into solitude. He slid into bed and put his head back on folded arms. "So you're keeping notes on all this for a book," he said.

"Yeah, I'm working at it, trying to record what we're doing, the real flying, what we think about it all, maybe trying to make some sense of it. There's no doubt that some of the greatest and most dangerous flying ever done is right here in the old A-1."

"Sounds good," he said. "Have anything I can read now?"

I tossed him some pages in a binder. "This is about all I have in any sort of readable form."

He opened the cover and began to read. I put the cap on the tube of glue and turned out the work lamp. I sat on the edge of my bunk about three feet away from John. He was turning the pages slowly, reading intently.

"I like what you have so far," he said, "and I know that once you get into the rescue business you'll have some real thrills to write about. You've had your share already, but wait until you hit the Trail in broad daylight! A rescue can be the wildest, most exciting thing you can imagine." He reached for the top of the dresser and picked up the little shoulder patch, which said SANDY ONE. "This rescue business is the best, most rewarding operation in the entire war. And if nothing else does, getting a man out makes sense. It's really great to actually pluck a guy from the enemy after he's been shot down. It's a great feeling; sensational!"

John explained something about the operation, which had been the subject of many stories, the gallantry and heroism of the rescue pilots held in the highest esteem. The rescue force was nicknamed the Sandys, and they sat on alert, flew rescue orbits daily, and went straight into the hell of any groundfire to rescue downed airmen. All this in one-hundred-and-fifty-mile-an-hour airplanes! Each A-l squadron selected its most experienced and competent pilots to serve in the force a few times each month. Every day there were six Sandy pilots on alert. Sandy One being the head man, on down the line through two other leads and wingmen. Every day the numbers changed so that through a three-day alert every lead would have moved up from Sandy Five to Three and finally to Sandy One. When any launch was in effect.Sandy One was the man to organize the tactics and proceed into the area first. Many battle-scarred airplanes attested to the ferocity of that sort of combat work.

John put the patch back on the dresser and went back to reading. I got into bed and wrote a quick letter. Finally John closed the binder and tossed it back over to me.

"Good stuff," he said, "but of course I don't like to read anything about death. You've got to laugh around here. You'll notice there's more laughter than anything else, except drinking. They kind of go together when someone's trying to kill you every day. You'd better laugh, or you'll end up crying. Your outlook changes when someone you know gets killed over here."

I thought about it for a minute. "That may be true, but I've always thought that although we may be sad for a while, we never have lost a friend if they are truly our friends. I mean, what is really the person never can die, if that makes any sense to you." I was into another area where my lack of experience allowed me great latitude in speculation, such as what the Air Force was all about when I was much younger, what the war was about before I was in it, and now, what death was really all about without ever having faced it when someone very close died.

John smiled. "Great words, and maybe you're right. No one I know about ever came back and told me what the truth of it really is. Houdini said he would, but I don't recall him showing up yet. It does appear awfully final when it happens. Anyway, I'm too short here to worry about it anymore. I've got about three months left to go, which includes an R and R to Hong Kong. And then again, I've been doing this a long time now, and you learn what to do after a while. And you can tell who's going to get it. The minute the new guys walk in you know which ones will survive and which will stay over forever. You get a feel for it."

"How about me?" I asked.

John turned out the light and said, "You'll make it."

John headed north the next morning, climbing into clean air where little dots of cumulus were punctuating the sky. He turned across the Mekong and disappeared into the miles of daylight. I went into the squadron building and sighed at the heap of papers which had to be typed and read and edited so as to increase the sensationalism of an already exciting existence. The office work was drab at best. I sat with the whir of the air conditioner, an hour to go before my own briefing time.

Ken Ohr, one of the squadron pilots, jerked to a halt outside the door. I looked up. He was in his flight suit, sweating, looking as if anguish had been permanently branded into his body. "John's down," he said, staring at me.

The words hit me like a bomb.

Neither of us moved.

"Did you hear me?" he asked. "John's been shot down at Muong Soui. No chute. No beeper." That meant no one had seen him get out and there was no emergency transmission from his survival radio. Ken turned and stomped off down the hall, and I followed, trying to believe that John was OK, that he would be rescued. We went to the command post but couldn't get any more information. Then it was time for my own briefing, and we were directed to Muong Soui, where the battle was raging savagely.

We headed north, winding through massive clouds, which had erected themselves along the path. It was a long forty-five-minute flight which lapsed, seemingly, into hours of reflection. Then we were there, under the clouds, near the abandoned airstrip, near John. Smoke filled the air and climbed into the cloud bases. The FAC circled below in an 0-1, keeping his distance from the groundfire. There was a small village below consisting of perhaps a dozen hooches.

"The NVA took over that village," the FAC said. "They've got the hooches loaded with ammo. Matter of fact, these are the guys that shot down one of your A-Is a little while ago." I searched the hills for a sign of the wreckage but couldn't see any. The ground was covered with splotches of black and small fires.

"Have at the area, and watch out for heavy groundfire," the FAC said, leaving us and going to observe from a distance.

"Let's make random passes," lead called out, "and let's cover each other. I'm in!" I moved the switches, flipped the arming toggles, and set the gunsight. As lead got halfway down his dive pass, I rolled in, the pipper a symbol of death tatooed in the gunsight. Tiny streams of red groundfire shot up but didn't seem significant. The hooches got larger and larger, my thumb rested on the release button, and when I reached the right point I pressed the button and pulled off. The napalm struck a hooch, which erupted like a volcano. Projectiles blasted from the area as the intense heat set off stored ammunition. Lead pounded another hooch with a five-hundred-pound bomb, and I saw a black-clad figure come flying from the trees like a rag doll, arms and legs spread like a child's pencil sketch of the human figure. It was the first time I had seen anything like it. Then we started strafing into the fires, setting off explosions which climbed back into the air with us. I armed all four guns and flew down through the fire and smoke, between the hooches, spraying 20mm, like water with a hose. The radio chatter was quick and abrupt. "Lead's in, watch that gun to the south; off, turning west." The FAC: "Great! They're all on fire now, every one of them! Hey! Watch that new gun position from the hilltop north!"

The air was churning with the heat of a dozen burning structures, the careening of unaimed ammunition, the smoke of powder and flesh. My tracers raced out ahead of me, the pinkish dots puncturing the rolling flames, sending wood and bamboo splintering up into the air around the aircraft. My oxygen mask was filled with my own sweat, and the cockpit was steaming hot. Then we finally ran out of ammunition, both aircraft maneuvering easily with the fresh, unladen agility. The clouds above had changed from white to dirty gray, and the ground looked like a bleeding open wound. I rolled the airplane over again and again trying to find John, but there were only fires and a hundred possible gravesites, each one sending up a thin stream of black smoke. The old airfield at Muong Soui was a shambles, with craters in the runway, the buildings crushed and burning, the ground open and stained. Our target was obliterated. There wasn't anything left but dark smudges on the earth where hooches once stood. It was about the same place where I had fought guns for the first time, where two pilots had bailed out, where I had tasted my first real battle. Now it had claimed John.

I joined the wingtip of lead's aircraft, still breathing heavily and still fired with the sights and sensations of the last few hours. I was wrenched by emotions, buried in thought, racked by the situation that had killed my roommate and fellow pilot. We climbed through the darkening clouds and found clear air at eleven thousand feet. The ground was finally obscured with cloud cover, which was refreshing, as if the ground were the war, the evil. The sun reddened in its descent, and the sky changed color with it. I broke off from formation long enough to make a long and easy barrel roll around the ball of red sun, making it an airman's salute to a lost buddy, a toast to John. Then the night came fast and clothed the earth and sky in hard black. Flooded rice paddies turned to mirrors in the moonlight, and there was a hint of approaching rain.

I walked into the room but left with a quick turn. I didn't want to be there yet. Rain came later, beating the dirt and me wooden buildings unmercifully, pounding every roof and hut. The main hooch wasn't full of the usual laughter. There was a determined silence and grim faces. I walked in the rain for a while, feeling bathed by leaving the day's perspiration and horror in me mud, the reddish brown slime that gurgled underfoot and covered my boots. And there was wind.

The flier's world was so different from that of the ground troops. When a pilot didn't come back, that was it. There was no mutilated body, no remains other than a small room of physical objects. The man just wasn't there anymore, as if vanished into intergalactic space, plucked from us and turned into invisibility. But our room was filled with conversations bouncing from every wall, from every object. My pipe rested on the desk; John had taken his with him. Once m a while I like to smoke it when things get slow, he had said. It puts a nice smell in the cockpit too. The can of tobacco rested under a wingtip of my model. The air conditioner kept spinning with the same clatter, and the spiders were weaving their webs above the door in the wet. Time didn't make any sense. I didn't know what day it was, nor was it of importance. What counted were my thoughts, my ideas of what was real and true and what I would think about John and that experience in the spectrum of living to come. I wondered what thoughts had devoured John in the last moments, but I realized they would be final secrets kept forever. For me, it was the first time that death had been so close, so violent, so hard hitting. It was the test for my thoughts. OK, buddy, I thought, you said something about what death is and is not, so let's see how you come out of this now. Great words, John had said. Death was there in the room with me and I was trying to fight it, knowing that what was really John couldn't die. I sat in the darkness on the edge of my bed. It rained all night.

A numb cloud of swirling haze covered my head as I walked from the room into the heat of another day. The hooch maids were already sorting out the laundry, polishing row after row of combat boots, and several airplanes filled the visible sky. It was morning, awful, hot, damp, noisy morning. Giggles came over carrying a load of underwear and socks.

"Where John?" she asked.

I didn't know what to say to her. She understood so little English. "John no come back," I tried in simple words.

She looked back, not making sense of me, frowning, then smiling. "No come back?" she repeated.

I nodded and walked off to the shower. When I came out she was still there.

"John never come back?" she asked.

I nodded again. How could I talk philosophy or say what I thought when we weren't even in the same language? Giggles sniffled and ran. I went inside the room and put on my flight suit returning to the walkway in a few minutes. It was a scathing-hot day. Giggles stood there staring at the small garden beside the hooch.

"John put flowers into ground long time ago, I help him. Now I look at flowers and see John."

How eloquent, I thought. "Yes," I said, "and I see John in the sky and in the airplanes and in the room."

She smiled and went off with the laundry, and I went to fly.

It wasn't long until the mission was behind and I was sitting alone in the officers' club, a plate of cold food pushed to one side, my hand holding an empty can of beer. Colonel Fallen walked in, saw me, and came over.

"Mind if I sit down for a minute?" he asked. He pulled the chair out and dropped into it. He too had flown that day. His silver-white hair picked up light like a magnet, covering his head like a glow. "I thought we ought to talk about John for a minute. He was a friend of mine too. I know how hard it hit you when he went down and I know how something like this can feel, but I wanted to say that we can't let it get to us. We have to take the good from those who leave us and not stay in the dumps. We have to keep going. John was a hell of a guy, and let's not forget it. His death wasn't the big thing—his life was." He looked down, jiggling the silverware.

"Yes, I know," I said. "I'll be just fine. Thank you."

"Good," he said, standing. We shook hands, and he walked off into the night. I went back to the empty room and to bed.

I took off the next day looking forward to a new sky, fresh clouds, the paean made by the sound and feel of the airplane. The experience was short-lived. Detached radio voices announced that another A-l had gone down. It was the Plaine des Jarres area again, and we turned north to help if possible. The new radio frequency was full of rescue talk, A-l pilots covering the area and the survivor just now coming up on the radio. It was Colonel Fallon! There was a pounding in my chest and I strained to hear every word, but the distance and other radio chatter made it difficult. As we came closer I knew it was a tense situation. We could hear small-arms fire over the survival radio when he talked. And then the excited words, "They're coming down the hill at me!" There was the sound of what we took to be his .38 Smith and Wesson, a minor instrument pitted against an army. Then he was hit, struggling to move away. He finally yelled, "They're here now. They're almost on me! Bomb my position and you'll get them! Bomb me!" And his words ended forever. The airplanes made every attempt to strafe and stop the advancing troops, but to no avail. There was finally silence as we all realized that another pilot, another man, had been plucked from us, taken from the sky. There was no more left to do. The groundfire ceased, and there was no longer a single trace of the valor which had existed on the surface moments past. Once again, a bunch of battle-worn planes and pilots turned homeward.

With both my roommate and Colonel Fallen lost in action, it was felt that I ought to have some time off. I was promptly ushered to Bangkok for CTO, compensatory time off. At the Don Muang terminal I hailed a taxi, which was difficult since a staggering number of drivers, promoters, pimps, and children versed in advanced pilferage swirled around me, making forward progress onerous at best. The driver changed the shape of my luggage, giving it the form of his Lilliputian car trunk. We screeched around the airport and finally settled on the main highway where serenity was broken only by occasional collisions, honking, fully applied brakes and accelerators, high-G-force lane changing, and other routine features of Bangkok existence.

We finally maneuvered down Petchburi Road, changed to Rajadamri Road, onto Rama 1 Road, and into the Siam Intercontinental Hotel. And then, with about one gallon of Singha beer, I sat by the pool trying to relax, to think about anything but the war and combat. But I couldn't do it. I kept wondering what was going on up there, how the battle was going, if anyone else had gone down. The man lying next to me said that the war was extraordinarily good for his business and he could now afford to visit places like Bangkok, that the war was a just and good thing also, against communism and all that. He later mentioned that he had managed to get his son into the personnel field in the States and that he wouldn't be going to Vietnam. I plunged into the pool to mentally cleanse myself, or at least to cool off from what I was thinking.

John's words kept me company.
"This rescue thing is the best, most rewarding operation in the entire war. It's really great to actually get someone out after he's been shot down. That's a great feeling."

Return to Colts Who Died in Vietnam Page

Return to 1960 Obituary Page