It was a warm day in the summer of 1972 when my evening meal was interrupted by a phone call. I was a bachelor, living in a small, three-room apartment outside the gates of Fort Knox where I was serving as a troop commander. Anytime you are commanding troops and the phone rings, your first thought is one of dread that one of your soldiers has gotten himself in trouble or been in an accident. I was pleasantly relieved to hear my mother’s voice on the line. She shared the bad news with me right away. “Woody’s plane has been shot down over North Vietnam. It was a cloudy day, and no parachutes were seen by the accompanying aircraft. Woody is missing in action. Vernita wants you to call her.”
Ernest Sherwood Clark, who went by the name of “Woody”, was my closest friend. The same age, we had grown up together in the same neighborhood, and attended school together, often in the same class. We had been members of the same church and Boy Scout Troop. Upon graduation from high school, we both had gone to military academies, Woody attending the Air Force Academy and myself West Point.
While singing in the Academy glee club, Woody had met Vernita, a beautiful young lady from Everett, Washington. After graduation, they had married, and Woody had trained to be a navigator on reconnaissance aircraft. Shortly after I had returned from Vietnam, I had heard that Woody was being deployed to Thailand. It did not cause me much concern, seeming much safer than ground combat in Vietnam. What I did not appreciate was that from Thailand, Woody would be flying daily reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam.
I had only met Vernita once and did not know her well. My mother told me that she and their one-year-old daughter were temporarily living in my hometown near Woody’s parents. Grieving myself about likely having lost such a close friend, I was feeling very inadequate and uncertain about my phone call to her. I had learned from my own experience that war does not discriminate, it kills good people as well as bad. Furthermore, the term “missing in action” was used much too often in Vietnam to describe someone who was likely “killed-in-action.” I felt the best case for Woody would be that he somehow had made it safely to the ground, had been captured, and was facing an uncertain future in a Hanoi prisoner of war facility. After much thought, I decided that when I called Vernita I would be hopeful in suggesting that Woody was probably a prisoner of war and would eventually be coming home safely.
After I settled my emotions and collected my thoughts, I called Vernita. As expected, she was very emotional, and our first few minutes of conversation were interrupted by sobs and occasional periods of silence. She shared with me what few details the Air Force had provided her which were more encouraging than my mother’s report. The Air Force had evidence that two parachutes had opened and reached the ground, although they had not had any communication from either pilot or their locating beacons. Both factors suggested that they were either injured or had been immediately captured.
Before I had the opportunity to share my “hope speech” with Vernita, her own emotions took control of our call. “Woody is too smart to get killed or captured. He is too good a person for God to take from us. He is going to be coming home to me and our daughter.” I was concerned with her unrealistic optimism and worried that the outcome would be even more crushing for her than it needed to be. I tried to push back with “he probably was captured and will be a prisoner of war,” but she would have none of it. I finally gave-in with a simple “Ok” and let her have the only hope that was comforting to her. As I hung up the phone, I thought of the many families that surely prayed for the safe return of their loved one from Vietnam and had been disappointed. I could not help but feel that there would be disappointment here too, but I was wrong.
I would later learn that on the day Woody was shot down, he was serving as a navigator in an RF4 Phantom aircraft on his 108th combat mission. The aircraft was fifty miles north of the DMZ when it was hit by a surface-to-air missile. Both Woody and the pilot ejected and landed in the jungle without serious injury but separated by almost a mile. The pilot was quickly captured, but Woody would evade capture for seven days as North Vietnamese soldiers searched for him. On one occasion a soldier got within an arm’s reach but did not see him. On another, a sudden heavy downpour caused the search dogs on his trail to lose the scent and allowed him to slip away. After days of exhaustive movement with little food and water, Woody decided to take the risk of using his rescue beacon. An aircraft from his unit in Thailand, on its final day of searching for him, picked up his signal.
A daring and dangerous rescue was launched the next day. As a helicopter hovered and lowered its jungle penetrator to Woody, two escort aircraft laid down cannon fire to suppress the North Vietnamese soldiers engaging the helicopter with small arms and hand-held surface-to-air missiles. Woody was extracted safely, and all three aircraft returned to Thailand with no casualties. As Woody stepped off the helicopter, filthy and unshaven, he was handed a bouquet of roses by a young lady from the Red Cross. The Associated Press took a picture which would be on the front page of the Stars & Stripes the next day and later appear in many stateside publications. Woody’s successful evasion and rescue from North Vietnam would be one of few highlights for the American military during the final years of the Vietnam War.
Woody returned home to his family and was welcomed as a hero by his Air Force brothers. He would later be reunited with his pilot, who after three months of extensive interrogation, had been released from a Hanoi prisoner of war camp With a growing family, he resigned from the Air Force a few years later and joined the Air National Guard as an active-duty officer. He and I were both assigned to the Pentagon in 1985 and enjoyed bringing our families together and renewing our personal friendship. Woody and his family later move to Reno, Nevada, where he served as the National Guard Air Base Commander. In 1991 he led his unit’s deployment to Bahrain during Operation Desert Storm and flew 18 combat missions, one of the only pilots to fly combat missions in both Vietnam and Iraq. He retired in Reno shortly after. I did not see him for many years, until one day fate brought us back together again.
In January 2005 I lost my two business partners in a tragic plane crash during a time when our business, a supplier to the Department of Defense, was experiencing tremendous growth. The next year would be the most stressful and demanding of my life as I struggled with a grieving staff and monumental business challenges. In April I called Woody to discuss my situation and he invited me to come to Reno for a long weekend to go skiing. I flew out early on a Thursday morning and we headed straight to the ski slope.
I stayed at Woody’s home where I had the opportunity to renew my friendship with Vernita with whom I had always felt a special relationship because of that phone call. We never discussed that call, or what happened to Woody in Vietnam, preferring to keep these painful memories behind us. Sometimes, however when we were enjoying Woody’s company, our eyes would lock on each other and we would smile, bonded with the realization of how special these moments were. These visits were incredibly therapeutic for me, like rubbing a cool salve over a severe flesh burn. I would continue to visit during ski season for the next five years.
On my last visit in 2009, I felt the need to close this chapter of our lives. I did not know when I would see Woody again, and I wanted him to know about that phone call. I also wanted to hear Vernita’s side of the story. On my last day there, we retired to their den after supper and sat by the warm fire enjoying hot cider. In a quiet moment in our conversation, I looked at Vernita who was sitting across for me, and asked “Do you remember when I called you about Woody being shot down?” The room became deathly quiet, as Vernita and I stared into each other’s eyes and time seemed to stand still. Suddenly, Vernita’s eyes were flooded with tears as her head fell in her lap and she began sobbing. Tears filled my own eyes as her wave of pain hit me. The wound that Vietnam had inflicted on us had suddenly opened itself up forty years later. Woody walked over to Vernita’s chair, kneeled on one knee by her side and clasped her hands in his own. For the first time, he heard the story of that phone call and the faith that his young wife had in him that day. How nothing I could say would shake her confidence that he was coming home soon to her and their daughter.
My experience with Woody and Vernita that evening made me realize that some of the most painful wounds in war are inflicted upon family members and friends, more so than those of us serving in the war zone. In Vietnam, 58,148 Americans lost their lives, and 304,000 more were wounded, but these numbers pale to the suffering the war cost their loved ones at home.