According to Greek mythology, a skilled artist and craftsman, Daedalus, along with his son, Icarus, had become imprisoned on the isle of Crete without hope of escape. Using his substantial intellect, Daedalus used wooden frames, wax, and various sized feathers to fabricate wings. After man’s first ‘preflight’, the two men took to the air, with a stern warning from Daedalus to his son not to fly too high because heat from the sun would melt the wax, nor too low, because sea foam may soak the feathers.
Winging over the islands of Samos, Delos, and Lebynthos, Icarus got a bit too cocky, or forgetful, and gleefully soared upward toward the sun. The sun’s heat melted the wax, the feathers fell off, and Icarus, so to speak, ‘stalled’ in midair. He plunged into the sea and drowned. Most parents can relate: kids just don’t listen.
There exists an organization called the Order of Daedalians. These men and women took to the air as American military aviators with many still on active duty. If you were or are an American military pilot, you qualify for membership. The worldwide network of Daedalian ‘flights’ support the military services and sponsor an ‘Awards and Scholarship Program’ to encourage patriotism, good character in our country’s youth, safety in flight, and integrity.
My invitation to attend the Order of Daedalians Ben T. Epps Flight 102 was tendered by Rockdale resident and Vietnam War Navy F-8 fighter pilot, John Laughter. The American Legion meeting hall in Smyrna held a hangar full of gifted military aviators, including two former POWs in Vietnam, a venue of veterans this columnist classifies as a ‘target rich environment.’ I felt like a mosquito in a nudist colony ... I didn’t know where to start.
Their personal stories will be presented in weeks and months to come, but in fairness to all the attendees please allow me the liberty to pen a wide range of open and sometimes ‘overheard’ narratives.
Only one WWII pilot was in attendance, yet what a pilot he was. A P-51 Mustang pilot, he completed his training at war’s end yet never flew in combat. Recalled to active duty during the Korean War, he trained on the legendary Mig-killer F-86 Sabre Jet but arrived in Korea too late to fly in combat. As they say, the 3rd time is a charmer. Colonel Homer T. Terry stayed on active duty and mastered the F-100, F-102, F-105, and the F-106. In Vietnam, Colonel Terry flew the F-105 Thunderchief, the “Thud” as it was affectionately called, on 125 combat missions.
Senator Bill Rial is not really a senator, but he looks like a senator, so the Daedalians call him Senator. Suave and handsome, the Senator exudes the self-confidence of an aviator. He flew the A-10 Thunderbolt, more commonly known as the “Warthog.” The Senator basically sat inside a 1,200 lb. titanium armored ‘bathtub’ that protected the aviator and his instruments while firing a 30mm rotary cannon capable of 3,900 rounds per minute with 80 percent of the rounds inside a 40ft target from 4,000 feet. Bill Rial serves as the Daedalians Public Relations specialist — of course he does; what else would you expect from a guy people call Senator?
I talked to a helicopter pilot that survived Vietnam. Another pilot spent his entire career behind the controls of mid-air refueling planes like the KC-135 Stratotanker and KC-10 Extender. Another aviator piloted many aircrafts but enlightened us with his experiences as part of the ‘forward team’ for Air Force One during the Carter Administration. He also flew the flimsy and highly vulnerable FACs (Forward Air Control) aircraft from ‘Naked Fanny’ (Nakhon Phanom), the same jungle airbase yours truly operated from for 18 months before traveling to Saigon for another year. Yet the story that pulled my heartstrings was the guest speaker’s presentation on the shoot down of a RB-47H Stratojet on July 1, 1960.
Yeah, I know, that was a long time ago, so why should a Cold War shoot down that’s over 55 years old be worthy of a newspaper story? Well, six Americans were aboard the Stratojet; four perished, two survived. A Soviet Mig fighter shot down our boys north of Murmansk in the Barents Sea, 50 miles from any coastline, friendly or hostile. Capt. John McKone, the navigator, and the pilot, Capt. Freeman Olmstead, survived the freezing waters of the Barents Sea for six hours before a Russian Trawler picked them up. The aircraft commander perished at sea and three Ravens (reconnaissance officers) went down in flames with the Stratojet.
McKone and Olmstead were taken to the dreaded Lubyanka prison in Moscow. Although not physically tortured, the two airmen were kept in solitary confinement and interrogated ruthlessly but would not confess to any wrongdoing that would justify the shoot down in International waters. The airmen nearly froze to death in prison; the tea they were sometimes served froze solid. One of the captives, Freeman Olmstead, read Moby Dick 13 times while in captivity and in later years he recited every chapter with ease.
The Soviets finally realized their injustice; gave the two officers a bar of soap and clean sheets, ceased the unrelenting interrogations and tried to change world opinion. But no trick or tactic could change the fact or justify the deaths of four American aviators. Ironically, if not sadly, prison guards asked the two flyboys to teach them the proper pronunciations for American curse words. The flyboys refused. After seven months of captivity, the Soviets finally released our two aviators.
In the 10 years between 1950 and 1960, approximately 75 Navy and Air Force personnel lost their lives in 10 separate incidents on routine and legitimate reconnaissance missions. On April 17, 1955, several Soviet Mig fighters pounced on a RB-47 in International airspace. The plane and its crew vanished from radar tracking and were never seen again. The so-called Cold War was anything but for the families and friends of airmen, sailors, or soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice in peacetime trying to keep the barbarians from the gate.
The cost of freedom doesn’t just apply to the precious souls lost in war. We owe a debt to the peacemakers, the men and women who protect and defend our way of life, our rule of law, our economy and our future in both war and peace.
Mostly taken for granted and unappreciated by the powers that be, it is up to us to at least say ‘thank you’ to the young men and women in uniform. And a simple ‘thank you’ to an old soldier sporting his service cap would be appreciated. Who knows, that sort of kindheartedness may earn you a few extra points with Saint Peter when you approach the Pearly Gates.
Past or present military pilots are invited to contact the Daedalians in Atlanta at flight102.com or contact the national website: daedalians.org.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.