Saturday, April 25, 2015

A Wing and a Prayer

Forty years ago this week, Major Buang Ly had an impossible problem.  He was an officer in the South Vietnamese Air Force, but his country was dying and it was far too late to fight. This was also the last possible day to escape to safety because the forces of North Vietnam were sweeping southward throughout the entire country.  

On April 29, 1975,  the country of South Vietnam was quite literally in the process of ceasing to exist.  All over the country, prominent members of the dying country were being arrested or killed by the communists taking over.  Even if the major could avoid that fate, he would be forced to live in an oppressive communist state where the best he could hope for would be a lengthy prison term in a reeducation camp.

And, of course, Major Buang had a family—a wife and five children.  His youngest child was barely 14 months and his oldest was only 6 years old—he certainly did not want to be separated from them.  Since he and his family were located on Con Son Island—located off the southeast coast of South Vietnam—there was still a very small amount of time in which to flee.

Major Buang seized the only chance he had available.  Taking his family to the nearby airfield, he loaded them into an impossibly small airplane, a tiny O-1 spotter plane.  Nicknamed the Bird Dog (the plane is supposed to fly low and slow while the pilot 'sniffs out' the enemy), this is the military version of the Cessna 170 civilian airplane popularly used for training pilots. 

The Bird Dog is slow (flying at only 90 knots), unarmed, and impossibly small (it only has two seats).  Even if he could take off with a full tank of gas, the plane's maximum range is just barely over 500 miles—much too short for the major to reach a friendly country.  And with seven people on board, the plane would be overweight, meaning the major could not take off with a full tank.

Even if he did manage to get the plane off the ground, and if he could manage to avoid the inevitable enemy ground fire, where could he go?

Major Buang Lee loaded his family into the plane.  What few possessions the family took with them fit into a single pillow case.  As the plane took off and slowly climbed to an altitude just barely above the treetops, the major had to weave and bank to avoid enemy small arms fire.

The Major headed his plane eastward, out to sea and away from land.  His plan was simply to hope for the best: He had to hope there was an American ship out there somewhere....And that he could be find it before he ran out of fuel....And that the ship he found would be an aircraft carrier, since his five small children would not survive the plane ditching at sea....And that he'd find a way to communicate with the carrier, since his radio was out....And that he could land the plane on an aircraft carrier—something he had never done before. 

As a matter of fact, the major had never even seen an aircraft carrier and it was highly unlikely that he'd be able to see one that day.  The weather was not good, with the ceiling down to 500 feet.  This meant that if the little plane climbed above that altitude, he would be in the clouds and wouldn't even be able to see the water directly below him.   But from only 500 feet up,  the misty clouds limited visibility to only five miles, making it almost impossible to find any ship.

Even if all those hopes were realized, the Cessna Bird Dog was not designed to land on an aircraft carrier.  No one had ever even attempted such a ridiculous thing.  Since the plane normally lands at 70 knots, even if it could touch down on the moving ship, what would stop it?

Far to the east, Captain Larry Chambers of the USS Midway was finishing up his mission.  Days earlier, he had been ordered to participate in Operation Frequent Wind, a last ditch effort to save as many Allied personnel as possible from South Vietnam before the country was overrun by the communists.  Half of the carrier's planes had departed for Subic Bay in the Philippines to make room for 10 large Sea Stallion helicopters.  All morning, the large helicopters had made trip after trip to the country.  Other helicopters, including several UH-1 Hueys had followed the larger choppers back to the ship.  In 19 hours, 81 helicopters had rescued nearly 6000 refugees.  As a result, the flight deck of the large ship was crowded with helicopters.

Somehow—against all odds—Major Buang did find an aircraft carrier he was seeking: the same USS Midway.

When the diminutive Bird Dog slowly approached the carrier with its landing light on, a helicopter was dispatched to ascertain the plane's intentions.  The pilot of the helicopter radioed back to the carrier that the plane held "at least four passengers."

Clearly, the plane was not attacking. 

Slowly, Major Buang circled the carrier.  Flying directly over the center of the ship, he tossed a handwritten note out the window, only to see it land in the sea.  As did the second note.  Finally, on his third attempt, the note landed of the flight deck and was taken to Captain Chambers.

"Can you move the helicopter to the other side, I can land on your runway, I can fly for one hour more, we have enough time to move. Please rescue me! Major Buang, wife and 5 child."

Both Major Buang and Captain Chambers also understand what the note did not say: with only one hour of fuel remaining, the small plane was too far from land to make a return.  The Bird Dog had to land somewhere.

Carrier landings are hard.  And a failed attempt would be hazardous to the crew of the ship.  Captain Chambers was in communication with the fleet admiral, who told the captain to not even attempt to land the Cessna.

Captain Chambers ordered all hands—regardless of rank—to help clear the flight deck.  Helicopters that could not be moved from the flight deck were simply pushed overboard.  An estimated $10 million of Hueys were simply pushed overboard.  In addition, the captain ordered the deck crew to remove the large landing cables stretched across the angled flight deck.

Finally, the captain ordered the Midway to turn into the wind and for engineering to increase speed to 25 knots.  Almost immediately, engineering reminded the captain that since the ship was engaged in helicopter recovery, half of the massive steam turbines were shut down.  With the remaining power plants, the ship could not generate enough power to reach 25 knots.

Captain Chambers ordered all power from the operating plants to be used for propulsion.  All other electrical needs for the ship were to be powered by the emergency diesel generators.  The Midway slowly moved into the 15 knot wind and slowly increased its speed until it was making 25 knots. 

Captain Chambers knew that if the pilot could slow down the Bird Dog's air speed almost to the plane's stall speed, the plane's relative speed to the ship would only be 15-20 knots.  While this was good, there were still problems.  First, a carrier deck is narrow, so the pilot would have to be perfectly lined up.  Second, the pilot would have to apply the landing gear brakes on the plane as soon as the plane touched the deck.  The most important problem, however, was that the stern of a moving carrier creates powerful downdrafts.  The captain knew this, but there was no way to communicate this problem to the Bird Dog's pilot.

When Major Buang made his approach, everything was perfect.  Captain Chambers later stated that if the Cessna had been equipped with an arresting hook, it would have been a perfect third wire landing.  In the picture to the right, the deck crew can clearly be seen waving its hands in the air in congratulations. 

Amazingly, Major Buang stopped the plane after a landing roll of roughly 200 feet.

The crew of the Midway quickly adopted the family and raised funds to help them get established in America.   Recently, Major Buang Ly and his family, now much larger, were reunited with  Admiral Larry Chambers (RET) at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida.  If you go there, you can see the only Cessna O-1 Bird Dog to ever land on an aircraft carrier.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

If We Had Only Known Him

Damn!  It's been almost 20 years!  While I remember the boys—What's-His-Name and The-Other-One—being smaller, I only have my wife's word as proof of when we made that trip.

Strange—while I'm a historian, my wife, The Doc, is....well, a doc.  This would lead you to believe that I would have some ability to remember dates, yet—for some reason—I have never had any idea when events in my own life have occurred.  Anything before lunch yesterday, is only a faint, dim memory.  In my own fuzzy way, I remember events by presidential terms.

I learned to read while Ike was on the golf course, I first noticed girls during the Kennedy years, I met The Doc (then The Pre-Doc) during Nixon's first term, I married her during Tricky Dick's second term (Don't Change Dicks in the Middle of a Screw—Vote For Nixon in '72!), and the boys were born during Reagan's tenure.

So, while The Doc remembers the exact date of the vacation, to me it is just vaguely Clintonian.  If you want an exact date, you'll have to check with The Doc.

The vacation was a canal boat trip through the Oxford countryside of England.  For a blissful week, my family motored through the beautiful countryside on a rented 53' canal boat—my first command!  If you go back about six years and  read the very first of what was originally intended to be only about a dozen blog posts, you will see that this nautical experience was far more successful than my first attempt at boating.

Truthfully, it wasn't that difficult a job—the canal boat was a large metal floating mobile home that at full throttle could achieve a stately (that's a nautical term meaning dead slow) four knots.  If we had raced a crippled hearse horse, we could have bragged that we came in second, while the poor nag was next-to-last.

At that pace, you could step off the boat, take a leisurely stroll down the tow path adjacent to the canal, admire the magnificent greenery, sit down and read for a while, and still have time to watch your boat slowly catch up with you.  Best of all, the only real physical labor could all be performed by my crew: the boys were assigned as deck hands and steersmen while The Doc was the Cabin Wench.

This is by far the best way to travel: you cook, eat, and sleep on the boat, and at the end of the day, you simply pull over to the bank, cut the engine, and go get another excellent English beer out of the fridge.  Better yet, tie up at one the countless historic pubs that were built along the canals to cater to the working men who earned their living on those canals and get several excellent English beers.

The countryside we traveled through was an endless magnificent park, featuring adjoining cricket fields, rugby fields, and stately homes.   The English people were so kind and friendly, that everywhere we went, we made instant friends.  I remember an enthusiastic—and highly inebriated—group of men who eagerly explained an ongoing cricket match to me.  It appears that several pints of stout are necessary to really understand this game.  I can remember making excited noises about "a wicked googly," and (from the reaction of my new friends) at the appropriate times, too.  The Doc swears I spent the rest of the day discussing drifters, bunsens, and bosies.  Alas, the effect was temporary; as the stout wore off, so did all understanding of the game.

Equally enjoyable, was meeting the people on the other boats on the canals.  Since the canals were usually too narrow and the boats too slow, rarely did you pass a boat traveling in the same direction.  For days at a time, you had the same floating neighbors, who quickly became friends.

It wasn't long before we made the acquaintance of the people in the 70' canal boat ahead of us.  A family of about our age with children roughly the same age as our boys, they were traveling with their elderly grandmother.  Our families quickly became rather close, occasionally sharing meals or an evening in a nearby pub.  You can imagine my surprise on one such night, when my new friend informed me that his grandmother had worked during World War II as one of the secretaries to General Montgomery.

Monty!  General Monty!  The only man in the war that General Patton wanted to fight almost as badly as he did the Germans.  In England, this was the great war hero who had defeated Rommel.  In America, he was seen as damn near as obstructionist as French General Charles de Gaulle.  No, I take that back—even the Germans cooperated with America more than General de Gaulle.

General Bernard Law Montgomery (after the war he was promoted to Field Marshall and made Viscount) was one of the most controversial leaders of the Second World War.  Brilliant, dedicated, and a gifted strategist, he was also tactless, arrogant, and completely devoid of any trace of diplomacy.  The only other man in the war that fit this description was General George Patton.  It is testament to the skill of General Eisenhower that he was able to keep these two eccentric geniuses from disengaging with the Germans and attacking each other.

I had to talk to this woman—she had actually met many of the famous men of the war that I had only encountered in books.  The next morning, I was sitting in the large front cabin of their boat—it was arranged as a cross between an observation room and a parlor—as I discussed the war years with her.  I remember vividly trying to summon up social graces few Texans have ever possessed as we drank tea and talked.  (What is the purpose of those silly little handles on tea cups?  No man can get his finger through the twisted foolish handle, and you end up gripping the damn thing as tight as a vise.  Were these handles actually designed to be as inefficient as possible?)

She had worked as a secretary for Montgomery only while he was stationed in England before D-Day, but this was sufficiently long enough to have gotten to know the man, meet most of the important generals of the war, and observe the way the American and British armies worked together.  I could have easily spent another week in England just talking to her.

This is not the place to talk about all of her memories or all the things I learned from her, but eventually, we did discuss at length the different ways Montgomery was portrayed in both the English and American press.  I can still picture this quite elderly and remarkably tiny woman sitting primly erect in her chair, a china saucer in her lap, and a delicate teacup in her hand.

She spoke at length about her duties, the people she worked with, and the excitement of feeling one's work was making a real contribution to the war.  I wish I had recorded our conversations, not only for the things I learned, but to have captured the way she spoke.  Every word was pronounced so crisply and so clearly, I had no doubts that as she spoke, she was reliving the events in her mind.  Today, in my own memory, I can still hear her final words to me at the end of the interview.

"You Americans did not like General Montgomery," she said as she stopped to sip her tea.  "But if you had only known him, as I did," she continued, stopping once again to sip her tea, "you would have loathed him."

Patton probably wasn't a pleasant cup of tea to be around, either.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Hedging Your Bet

It was dark by the time the gambler rode into El Paso, coming south out of New Mexico, skirting the southern badlands, and following the east bank of the Rio Grande.  By the time he stabled his horse, got a room at the Grand Central Hotel, and walked the three blocks to the Acme Saloon, he arrived later than he had intended tonow, it would be hard to find an open seat at a game.

Sure enough, he ended up having to wait for a seat to open in the only game.  To pass the time, he nursed a short beer, and played “Ship, Captain, Crew” (a dice game) with a stranger.  From where they stood at the end of the bar, he could keep an eye on the card game.

Poker dice was one of those games that the gambler was almost ashamed to be seen playing.  (His pappy had always said he would shoot the first of his sons he caught shooting dice!)  The problem was that, while poker was a game of skill, dice was a game of 'chance.'  Good gamblers don't believe in gambling.

As he took a sip of his beer, he idly asked the stranger what he did for a living—the man looked too well-dressed to be a rancher or a farmer, but he didn't have the manner of  a clerk or a merchant, either.  The question was just a way to be polite—most of his attention was focused on the poker game at the corner table.  He was hoping to learn how the men played before he had a chance to join the game and had to pay for the same knowledge. 

"I'm a lawyer," said the stranger.  "I practice law here in El Paso, but occasionally, I have business across the border in New Mexico.  Your roll.  I’ve got nine in cargo for a total of 24."

As the gambler reached for the dice, the room seemed to explode in sound and motion.  Everything seemed to happen almost at once, as the lawyer suddenly jerked to his left and someone yelled, "Hardin!" From the door, a shot rang out.  Then, the lawyer gasped and fell to the floor.

It took a long second for the gambler to take in what had happened.  The smoke-filled room was still, everyone was either staring at the lawyer lying face down on the sawdust covered floor or looking at the man standing just inside the swinging doors, his right arm extended into the bar, still holding his smoking Colt Single Action.

For a long count, everyone in the bar remained stock still, then it seemed to the gambler as if everyone was moving and yelling at once. 


"He shot Hardin!"

"He killed John Wesley Hardin!"

"Selman shot him!"

The gambler turned to the bartender and asked, "Was that really John Wesley Hardin?  Was I shooting dice with John Wesley Hardin?"

The bartender nodded his head.  "I thought you knew."

"He said he was a lawyer!  John Wesley Hardin is the most famous gunfighter in the west.  He's killed more men that Billy the Kid!"

Once again, the bartender nodded his head.  "Yes, but he ain't wanted for anything in Texas.  In Texas, he's a lawyer.  When he's short of money, then he crosses the border into New Mexico territory and hires his gun out.

By this time, the men of the bar were beginning to argue about whether Selman had shot Hardin in self-defense, or if it was murder.

It turned out that John Selman was an El Paso constable, and had a long standing feud with Hardin over a woman.  Earlier in the day, Hardin had announced that the next time he saw the constable, he was going to kill him.  Wisely, Selman had believed Hardin.  If the famous gunslinger said he was going to kill you, in all likelihood, you could start making plans for your dirt nap.

Selman had decided to act first, and went looking for Hardin.  Walking down the main street, he had checked into every bar, gambling den, and the other assorted playhouses that made up the red light district of the border town.  Finally, at the Acme Saloon, he had found his man.

The problem now, was that there were two opposing camps about how the shootout had occurred.  As more and more men began to push into the barhoping to catch a glimpse of the famous outlaw's bodyit seemed plain that half of the men were friends of Hardin, and demanded that Selman be hanged for murder.  Several of these men claimed that they had seen the constable shoot Hardin in the back as he yelled the outlaw's name.  According to them, Hardin had been shot before he had a chance to turn and face his assassin—a clear case of murder.

"Not so!" said the friends of the constable.  Selman had stood in the doorway, and yelled the outlaw's name.  Then, as Hardin had turned, he had begun to draw his gun, and Selman had beat him to the draw, shooting Hardin in the chestmaking this not only self-defense, but a clear case of public service.

The argument was beginning to get heated.  The men examined the body of Hardin, but found the bullet had passed all the way through the man's torso, leaving no clue as to which side it might have entered or exited.  The slain gunfighter's Smith & Wesson Model 1881 was found on the floor near the man, but had it fallen out of the holster when the outlaw fell or had he drawn the weapon and dropped it when he was shot?

The debate continued, well lubricated by a brisk business at the bar.  Finally, the bartender offered a suggestion:

"Hey!  This man's a stranger here, he didn't know either of these men," he said pointing at the gambler.  "And he was standing right beside Hardin.  He has to know what happened.  He was looking right at the man when the fight started."

The bar's patron's crowded around the gambler.  One large man, reached out and grabbed the gambler's arm.  "That's right, you were shooting dice with Hardin when he died.  What's your name, mister?"

"Bret Maverick," said the gambler.  "But, I'm just passing through El Paso.  I don't want to get involved in your argument."  Maverick tried to pull loose from the man, but the crowd seemed to push in even tightly around them.

"Don't give us any of that guff," said the man still holding the gambler's arm.  "We want to know what happened and you're going to tell us.  We have a right to know!"

When the large angry crowd murmured their agreement, Maverick realized he had a problem: No matter what he told this mob, about half of the men present were going to be angry with him.  (And as liquored up and hostile as they were, they were likely to take their anger out on him.)

Maverick smiled, reached into his pocket, and dropped two-bits on bar as ample payment for his short beer. 

"You're right, boys, I did see the whole fight.  And I'll be happy to tell you exactly what happened."  As Maverick said this, he gently pulled his arm loose from the grip of the larger man, carefully stepped over the lifeless form of the famous gunman, and moved slowly down the bar, away from the far corner. 

"I have to tell you, I had no idea that I was with John Wesley Hardin, but I have certainly heard of his reputation.  And while I had never met the constable here, before tonight, I think we all know what kind of man he is, too."

"Would you stop stalling," urged one of the men in the crowd.  "Was he shot in the chest or the back?"

"That's exactly what I'm about to tell you," said Maverick.  By now, he had made his way across the bar and was standing on the door sill, with his back to the swinging doors of the bar.

The whole bar stood still and waited for the verdict.

"If he was shot in chest," continued Maverick, "it was damn fine shooting.  And if he was shot in the back, it was damn fine judgement."

And with that, the gambler slipped out the door into the night and hurried away from the bar.

NOTE.  You will have to forgive me for playing fast and loose with the facts here.  John Wesley Hardin did meet his end in the Acme Saloon at the hands of Constable Selman.  Hardin was indeed shot while playing dice at the bar, and there is still debate about the fairness of the shooting.

At his trial, Selman claimed that Hardin had spotted Selman's reflection in the mirror over the bar and started to draw immediately, but from where the mirror was located, this seems unlikely.  In addition, Selman shot Hardin a total of four timesan unnecessary detail for our story, since all the number of shots proves was Selman's sincerity. 

While Selman wasn't hung, the jury wasbut only in the sense that they never reached a verdict.  On this technicality, John Selman was a free man.  In the end, perhaps Maverick's conclusion was correct.

I have no idea whether Bret Maverick was actually there or not.  He might have been, the newspaper accounts are a little fuzzy.  But since the famous gambler's birthday was this week, on April 7, I thought I would take the liberty of celebrating by writing a small tribute to him.  If you are going to buy him a cake, you will need 168 candles.  (His birthdate was revealed in Greenbacks Unlimited, which aired 3/13/1960.)

Saturday, April 4, 2015

…and Historians Repeat Each Other

President Obama is currently working on securing a nuclear arms agreement with Iran.  In many ways, the manner in which the negotiations are being conducted is reminiscent of President Wilson’s attempt to secure the Senate's ratification of a treaty at the end of the First World War.

Almost as soon as the war began, Wilson began formulating plans for a permanent peace.  This was, after all, “the war to end all wars.”

Wilson eventually called his peace plan the Fourteen Points.  Most of these points can be summarized by saying that the assorted countries of the world should stop behaving like assholes and simply leave each other alone—sort of a Golden Rule kind of thing.  (Such a simplistic plan would obviously never work.)  While Wilson passionately believed in all of the fourteen points, he believed that the most important was the creation of the League of Nations—a precursor to today’s United Nations.

To negotiate the Versailles Treaty, Wilson went to Paris—which in itself was a huge mistake.  Treaties should always be negotiated in neutral locations.  Since France had lost over 4% of its population and had more than twice that number wounded, Paris hardly qualified as neutral ground.

Wilson—the first sitting president to travel to Europe—took with him several fellow members of the Democratic Party and a host of academics—this was a double mistake.  (Including the  latter was foolish.  I’ve got nothing against academics—occasionally I’ve been accused of that crime myself—but the opinions of academics should be constrained to topics about which they know something: whining and filing bogus grievances.)  This mistake was bad, but even worse: Wilson failed to take with him a single senator from the Republican Party.

Anyone can negotiate a treaty, and even sign it.  I’d like to negotiate a treaty with President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico.  The Peña-Milliorn Beer Treaty would swap two cases of Budweiser for a single case of Tecate.  Ignoring the risk of Mexico's reigniting the Mexican-American War, this treaty would not become law until it was ratified by both governments, and here in the US, that means the Senate has to approve the treaty by a 2/3 vote. 

Obtaining bipartisan approval of legislation is why, today, when presidents travel, the official party on Air Force One always includes members of both political parties. 

Poor Wilson—in Paris he was simply outclassed.  European nations brought seasoned and highly cynical diplomats.  As French Premier Georges Clemenceau said, “God gave us ten commandments and we broke them.  Wilson gives us fourteen points.  We shall see.” 

Perhaps a more realistic appraisal was offered by the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George.  Referring to sitting at the conference between Wilson and Clemenceau, he said, “I was seated between Jesus Christ and Napoleon.”

By the time Wilson returned to Washington, about the only thing left intact of the fourteen points was the provision to establish the League of Nations.  Wilson had allowed the rest of the points to be eliminated one by one, but he stubbornly held on to the League, believing that whatever was wrong with the Versailles Treaty could later be repaired by the League of Nations.

This was a deeply flawed treaty, and the Senate was not at all happy with several provisions—including the League.  Many senators believed that by joining, the US would inevitably be drawn into future wars.  Republican Senator Lodge introduced 14 modifications to the treaty—all of which were refused by President Wilson.  The disagreement quickly turned bitter and neither party would modify its position in any way.  

The nation's foreign policy should always be a bipartisan cooperative effort, but both political parties behaved stupidly, turning the pending peace treaty into the major issue of the impending off year election.  When the Republicans won control of the Senate, this made acceptance of the treaty even more unlikely.

President Wilson decided to take the fight directly to the American people by conducting a grueling speaking tour around the nation where the he spoke from the back of a train car at every whistle stop and crossing as he journeyed across the nation.  In September of 1919, while speaking in Pueblo, Colorado, Wilson suffered a stroke and was forced to return to Washington and begin a long convalescence.

America never signed the Versailles Treaty, but officially ended the war with Germany in a separate treaty in 1921.  Nor did America ever join the League of Nations, and without our participation, it never became the powerful force for peace that Wilson had envisioned.  Wilson summed it up fairly well: “I can predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war if the nations of the world do not concert the method by which to prevent it.”

Woodrow Wilson died in 1924.  According to David Lloyd George, he was “as much a victim of the war as any soldier who died in the trenches.”

The current negotiation with Iran is not currently a bipartisan effort.  President Obama, like Wilson, is trying to negotiate an agreement that—sooner or later—will have to be reviewed by Congress.  It has been almost a hundred years since Wilson made his tragic mistake.   Obama can still correct his. (Or will it be a case of "Plus ça change, plus ça même chose."?)