Random Thoughts

Memorial Day

 ... personal memories

by Jerry Norton

Another year for this solemn observance and my thoughts wander back to boyhood days in Melrose when a contingent of war veterans would visit us youngsters in the assembly hall of the old Franklin school.
 
The group would be composed of men and their auxiliary ladies from Civil War veteran, Commander Robinson, who was then over 90 years of age, wearing his GAR uniform, to Spanish-American and World War One vets. Although only a boy, I enjoyed this visit even more than the free ice cream cups (Hoodsies) and little American flags passed out to all the kids after the Memorial Day movie at the Melrose theater.

Several years ago another memory was triggered by reading a newspaper account of the recovery and identification of bodies of American aviators shot down over North Vietnam in 1966. One of these names jumped out at me bringing back very personal recollections of that conflict. My connection to that particular name had its origin in my service aboard the aircraft carrier USS Constellation.

During this period of time my ship and two other carriers, Ranger and Enterprise were operating out of code-named Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin off Vietnam. Our planes were attacking relatively easy military targets in North Vietnam in an attempt to interdict the flow of North Vietnamese supplies to the south. In the summer of 1966 it was determined necessary to hit heavily defended targets around Haiphong and Hanoi where oil and military supplies originated. This operation was code-named "Rolling Thunder".

My shipboard duties included supervision of ship's logs which were maintained on the navigation bridge. Information from these logs was sometimes needed by commanding officers of our embarked air wing squadrons, one of whom was a Commander Charles Peters.
This affable, tall gentleman had occasion to come to the bridge several times seeking information concerning his squadron of A-4 Sky Hawk attack planes. As mentioned, he was a big man and the planes he flew were single seat with small cockpits. I jokingly asked him how he fit in and he allowed as how, "It takes a little wiggling". We exchanged more pleasantries during his several visits and he seemed to be intrigued by my Boston accent.

He was on the bridge the night before "Rolling Thunder" commenced. The first flight the next day included his squadron of attack planes and another two of F-4 Phantom fighters. Looking down from the navigation bridge to the flight deck below as the planes were readying I always wondered what butterflies might be in the bellies of these brave men awaiting the roar of the catapult that blasted them off the carrier into harm's way.

Sadly, Commander Peters, along with several other of our fliers, did not return from that mission and he was declared MIA. We lost more of our planes and crews during that first year of these dangerous attacks, thanks to the more sophisticated missile defenses furnished the North Vietnamese by the Soviets.

Now back to that later newspaper article giving names of fallen Americans of that long-ago war.  I easily connected to his name as it gave his rank and his hometown of West Point, Nebraska which I had learned from our shipboard conversations. It brought back a flood of memories.

There are those who will question the necessity or even the morality of some of America's wars, but they should never take umbrage with the heroism and professionalism of those who fought them. The subject of this story is now at rest beneath the sod and sky of his native land and from one old navy man to another on this Memorial Day....Commander Peters, I salute you!

May 7, 2004


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