Memorial Day Letter

Lieutenant Commander Norm Levy
Navy Fighter Squadron VF-111

Good morning, Norm.

It's Memorial Day, 7:29am Tonkin Gulf time.

Haven't talked with you in a while. The USS ORISKANY, that magnificent lady on which we went through hell together, has slipped away into the deep and now rests forever in silent waters off the Florida coast.

Seems like a good day to make contact. This is the 43rd year since I last saw you, sitting on the edge of your bunk in our room on ORISKANY. You remember . . . it was the 26th of October 1966.

We were on the midnight schedule. There was a solid wall of thunderstorms over the beach, with tops to 50,000 feet; but McNamara's Pentagon planners kept sending us on "critical" missions all night. At 4:00am, they finally ran out of trucks to bomb - in that downpour - and we got a little sleep.

The phone rang at seven; you were scheduled for the Alert Five. I had bagged a little more rack time than you, so I said I'd take it. I went to shave in the head around the elevator pit, the one near the flare locker.

The ordnance men were busy putting away the flares. They'd been taking them out and putting them back all night, as the missions were continually changed.

I finished shaving and started back to our room when the guy on the 1MC said: "This is a drill, this is a drill, FIRE, FIRE, FIRE!" I smelled smoke and looked back at the door that separated the pilot's quarters from the flare locker. Smoke was coming from underneath.

I ran the last few steps to our room and turned on the light. You sat up on the edge of your bunk. I shouted at you: "Norm, this is no drill. Let's get the hell out of here!"

I went down the passageway around the elevator pit, banging on the metal wall and shouting: "It's no drill. We're on fire! We're on fire!" I rounded the corner of that U-shaped passage as the flare locker exploded.

The tremendous concussion blew me out of the passageway and onto the hangar deck. A huge ball of fire was rolling across the top of the hangar bay.

Smoke pours from Hangar Deck #1 onboard USS ORISKANY (CV-34), during the fire which killed 44 of her officers and men.  Official Navy photograph.

You and forty-five other guys, mostly Air Wing pilots, didn't make it, Norm. I'm sorry.

Oh, God, I'm sorry! But we went home together: Norm Levy, a Jewish boy from Miami, and Dick Schaffert, a Lutheran cornhusker from Nebraska.

I rode in the economy class of that Flying Tigers 707, along with the few surviving pilots. You were in a flag-draped box in the cargo compartment.

The San Diego media had found out about the return of us "Baby Killers." Lindbergh Field was packed with scum enjoying the right to protest. The "right" you died for!

There was a bus, with our wives, waiting for us - there was a black hearse for you.

The protesters threw things at our bus and your hearse, not a policeman in sight. When we finally got off the airport, they chased us to Fort Rosecrans. Their obscene activities kept interrupting your graveside service, until your honor guard of three brave young Marines with rifles convinced them to stay back.

I watched the network news with my kids that night, Norm. Sorry, the only clips of our homecoming were the Baby Killer banners and bombs exploding in the South Vietnam jungle (Recall our operations were up North, against very heavily defended targets, where we were frequently knocked down and captured or killed). It was tough to explain to my four pre-teens.

You know the rest of the story. The protesting scum were the media's heroes. They became CEO's, who steal from our companies - lawyers, who prey off our misery - doctors, whom we can't afford - and elected politicians, who break the faith and the promises.

The only military recognized as "heroes" were the POW's. They finally came home, not because of some politician's expertise, but because there were those of us who kept going back over Hanoi, again and again.

Dodging the SAM's and the flak, attacking day and night, and keeping the pressure on - all by ourselves! Absolutely no support from anyone!

Many of us didn't come home, Norm. You know . . . the guys that are up there with you now. But it was our "un-mentioned" efforts that brought the POW's home. We kept the faith with them, and with you, Norm.

It never really ended. We seemed to go directly from combat into disabled retirement and poverty, ignored by those whose freedoms we insured by paying the very high premium. The only thing many of us have left is our memories, Norm, and we hold those dear!

We'll all be joining you shortly. Put in a good word for us with the Man. Ask Him to think of us as His peacemakers, as His children.

Have a restful Memorial Day, Fighter Pilot. You earned it.

Your Roomie,
Dick Schaffert

During McNamara and Johnson's Operation Rolling Thunder,

USS ORISKANY's Air Wing 16 suffered the highest loss rate
of all naval aviation units in the Vietnam conflict

We made three deployments and launched over 44,800 missions from Yankee Station.

We lost 86 of our assigned 64 combat aircraft (that's not a typo) and 72 of our assigned 78 Naval Aviators; 59 were killed and 13 were captured or missing in action.

The odds of a pilot surviving all three of those deployments were less than 30 percent.

Flying combat from carriers is, by nature, totally voluntary. The sustained courage and dedicated professionalism of Air Wing 16 air crews, demonstrated during and after Rolling Thunder, convinced President Nixon that an all volunteer military was a viable option. He canceled the draft in 1973.

Sadly, we early volunteers have yet to receive acknowledgment or appreciation from the millions of American parents whose sons and daughters have been exempt from conscription for the last 36 years because of our patriotic sacrifices.

I lost two wingmen and two roommates during Rolling Thunder.

Realizing their loss would likely be ignored or forgotten by "modern-day" America, I began writing an annual Memorial Day letter to the roommate whose Navy career had paralleled mine.

From 1967 to 1997, I simply burned the finished letters; Fighter Pilots describe a comrade's loss by using the term "smoked."

However, thanks to Mr. Bill Gates, I've been able to email the last dozen letters to friends and other patriots who value their memories of those who died for our country.

Having passed the actuarial age, this will be my last letter. It hasn't changed much.

The cold hard facts of Vietnam and America's "protest generation" remain unchanged and unfortunately unrecorded.

Very Respectfully,
Dr. Dick Schaffert
Captain USN (ret)

We'd like to express our gratitude to legendary naval aviator Dick Schaffert for granting us permission to publish his annual Memorial Day letter to his friend and fellow fighter pilot, LCDR Norm Levy. The two men joined the Sundowners of VF-111 late in 1965. Just a few weeks before perishing in the fire onboard USS ORISKANY, LCDR Levy had been shot down and rescued.

A little more than a year after the fire onboard ORISKANY, Dick Schaffert became a legend in naval aviation. In December 1967, Schaffert piloted his F-8C Crusader over North Vietnam, escorting an A-4 piloted by Lt(jg) Chuck Nelson on an Iron Hand mission.

The A-4 was preparing to attack a radar with one of its Shrike anti-radar missiles when Schaffert noticed two MiG-17s converging on the A-4. As Schaffert turned to engage, he suddenly noticed two more MiG-17s attacking him from out of the sun. Two MiG-21's would join the fight just long enough to launch 4 Atoll missiles towards Schaffert's F-8. Thankfully, they all went wide.

For 10 minutes, 45 seconds (an eternity in aerial dogfights, which usually averaged about 45 seconds), Schaffert out-maneuvered the MiGs, and earned his well-deserved place in naval aviation history without scoring a kill. Schaffert had fired his three Sidewinder missiles. The first should have been a kill, but failed to detonate due to a defective proximity fuze, the second went wide, and he didn't have time to see what happened to the third. The customary fourth Sidewinder had to be downloaded before takeoff, after failing its pre-flight check. Schaffert switched to guns, only to learn that both guns had jammed due to his high-speed maneuvering.

Thanks to his outstanding airmanship and the performance of an aircraft loved by those who flew her, Dick Schaffert out-maneuvered his experienced and determined adversaries and lived to tell the story of one Crusader vs. 6 MiGs. He landed onboard ORISKANY with 300 pounds of fuel remaining, not enough for another go-around. (If that fuel gauge reading was accurate, he had about 3 minutes of fuel remaining, as the F-8 burned around 100 pounds per minute in the landing pattern. A typical go-around would take 4-5 minutes.)

When You're Out of F-8s, You're Out of FightersWe're privileged to know a number of those great Crusader pilots, and they have remained close friends through the years, gathering often to remember and celebrate. There's just something about the bonds of brotherhood forged in combat that can't be replicated anywhere else.

The Crusader is known as "The Last of the Gunfighters." And the motto of F-8 pilots everywhere is,

"When you're out of F-8's,
you're out of fighters!"

These men, and those who served with them, are heroes who should be honored for their courage, their dedication, and their sacrifices, which enable us to enjoy today the freedoms they defended for us and others.

Please join us this Memorial Day in honoring and remembering all our fallen heroes, who sacrificed all their tomorrows so that you and I might enjoy ours.

Captain Schaffert was featured in "The Last Gunfighter" series on The History Channel, where you can see a thrilling video re-enactment of his famous dogfight:

Part 2:

Dick Schaffert flew 276 missions over North Vietnam and received 35 decorations, including three awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross. After serving in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and on the Ambassador's Country Team in the Philippines, he served as Director of Policy Studies at NATO Military Headquarters. He is currently a consultant for Eastern European law enforcement officials. His academic work, Media Coverage and Political Terrorists (Praeger: New York and London, 1992), was was recently cited by Harvard's JFK School of Government as a major book in the genre and is on the required reading list for Ph.D.'s at major universities. Schaffert reports he is honored that a copy of his book sits on the desk of Freddie Humphries, the FBI's Supervisory Agent on the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Tampa. Schaffert is also the author of several other books, including "Loyalty, Betrayal, and other Contact Sports," a fictionalized account of his post-Vietnam exploits, first published in 1999.


Read more about the F-8 Crusader in Vietnam.


Other Memorial Day reading:

Taking Chance.

We Are the Nation, a stirring and inspiring prayer written by departed friend and naval aviation legend CDR John "Bug" Roach, 1944-1991.

A memorial tribute to the father I never met, by Bill Knudsen.

The Pearl Harbor Memorial honors those who lost their lives on December 7, 1941, in the surprise Japanese attack on U.S. soil.

Before You Go, a musical tribute to The Greatest Generation, veterans of World War II. New versions pay tribute to other warriors.

Vietnam veterans are unique as the only group of combat veterans in the history of this great country who returned home to be reviled, vilified and abused rather than honored and appreciated. They are one of the most unjustly-maligned groups in American history. Learn some surprising truths about the war in Viet Nam and those who fought there. The media got it all wrong. Take a moment to share your Vietnam stories, post a tribute to a fellow service member or loved one who didn't make it home, or post your thanks to America's most under-appreciated veterans. Scroll down to the bottom of the page for the form.

It Is the Soldier

What Is A Veteran?

Take a moment to post your own message of thanks to our troops. You'll find the form at the bottom of the page.

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