A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

May 2009

The Vietnam Memorial

          Most of the pilots who lost their lives in the Vietnam war were flying jet fighters or helicopters when they died.   There was a group known as forward air controllers (FAC’s) who flew the small observation planes that many general aviation pilots use today.   One of those aircraft is the Cessna L-19, a version of the original Cessna 305.   Designated the O-1 (observation) Bird Dog when put into service in Vietnam , many now serve as towplanes in glider operations.   Several L-19’s were refitted with larger engines and are now known as the Super Mountaineer.

      One hundred and twenty two O-1 pilots were lost in combat between 1963 and 1972. Politicians of the day said they were defending the world against Communism.   Somehow they involved the U.S. in a war in a tiny corner of the globe, and sent a generation of youth to fight it for them.   History shows the way it was handled was arguably a terrible mistake, and America ’s most unpopular military involvement.   Richard Nixon is quoted as saying he would not be the first U.S. president in history to lose a war.   Young Americans were sent 8,000 miles from home to fight for a cause so many failed to understand.

        Conditions were brutal in the Vietnam conflict, both in the air and on the ground.   FAC pilots were particularly vulnerable to enemy fire as they flew low and slow above the jungle, searching, observing, and directing attacks on NVA troop and gun positions.   I have flown the L-19 many hours, thankfully in peacetime, towing gliders in the mountains of British Columbia. It is a super-strong and powerful aircraft with the bare-bones, green military interior.   I’ve sat in the stiff seat and imagined the numerous radios and weapons controls that were once attached to all the holes drilled in the panel.   The side windows are set so that the cockpit is wider at the top than the bottom, allowing excellent downward visibility.   Everything about the plane is tough, from the landing gear to the heavy control stick, but at times no match for anti aircraft artillery and large caliber machine-gun fire.

          There is a permanent memorial for the soldiers and pilots killed or missing in action in Vietnam. It’s called the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, and is situated in Washington , D.C.Built in 1982, it makes no political statement about the war, rather it provides a place for reflection and for visitors to contemplate their own feelings.   Over 58,000 names are inscribed in the glossy, black granite. Those of us who have been termed ‘baby boomers’, are in the age group of Vietnam vets.   We lived through the ‘60’s and remember the war, mostly through radio and television news reports.   Back then, there were times when there was as much violence on the streets in American cities as there was in the jungles in southeast Asia.   Protesters let their feelings about the war be known on a daily basis.   For the most part, Canadians were not as close to it all, but over the years, I have developed an interest in the history and accounts of the experiences of the soldiers and pilots in that conflict.   Many veterans have written excellent biographies and graphic recollections of their experiences.   I read every book I can find.   Having flown over 200 hours in the L-19, it seems to bring about a closer understanding for me of what those FAC pilots had to work with.   Many times while in the air it crossed my mind just how thankful I was that nobody was shooting at me.

            I will probably never get to Washington , D.C. so will not see the Vietnam Wall.   However, there are replicas of it that are trucked around the country and temporarily set up in various locations so that folks like us can view them.   I was lucky enough to be in a southwest U.S. city in March of 2009 when the memorial was brought there.   As it is something I’ve often wanted to visit, I went down to the park to see just what it’s all about.   It is difficult to put into words the feelings and emotions felt by visitors when they see so many names and realize each one was a young, healthy and dedicated citizen.   Each name belongs to someone whose life was taken far too early, before any hope of reaching the potential they had.   They all died a brutal, terrifying death for a cause that was so unpopular at the time.

            Wars never seem to make much sense.   But as long as there are people who have different ideologies and the freedom to express them, there will be conflicts and violence.   The Vietnam war is for many reasons, a more personal one to me.    And standing beside the wall, reading all the names on it brought out feelings of sadness, made worse by seeing other visitors who searched for the names of loved ones killed in action.    If ever the opportunity comes along for me to fly the L-19 again, I’ll feel the presence of the ghosts of one hundred and twenty two pilots who lost their lives in the plane.

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