The meaning of Memorial Day

Published 6:25 pm Tuesday, May 29, 2018

May 28 was Memorial Day in 2018. That day is set apart to remember and honor all military persons who have died while in service to the United States.

Ceremonies to honor those from Beaufort County who perished during the several wars our country has fought were held in Washington at Veterans Park. Each person who has died in military service was remembered by reading their name. Each person in attendance at the ceremony remembered with the utmost respect and honor those to whom honor was due. They gave their life so that freedom would be preserved for us. Most people do not understand that when people enter military service they pledge and swear that they will do all necessary to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, even to the point of dying for it.

I entered the United States Air Force on Aug. 7, 1960. After 13 months of pilot training, I flew four more years on missions that took me to 40 countries and several areas of military conflict. I flew missions into Viet Nam from 1962 to November 1965.

While at the May 28 Memorial Day ceremony, lots of memories rushed back. Memories of friends I flew with who were killed in the line of duty: Danny W., Val B., Bill C., John Z., John J., John B., Jack D., Homer M. They were friends who were close because we flew together and endured some difficult experiences together. It is impossible to forget them and events surrounding their life and death.

Twelve other pilots and navigators from my squadron were also killed, but the ones I set apart were close friends. As the memories of those come cascading back, I must mention something about them. After all, it is a Memorial Day, a time to remember who they were and what they did.

Danny W. was an instructor killed in a T-33 accident when the engine disintegrated just after lift-off. He ejected but was too low for his parachute to open. I had been assigned to fly that airplane, but our airplanes were re-assigned after I completed a pre-flight on it.

Val B. was from Boston and the first person appointed to the Air Force Academy class of 1959. He was appointed by personal recommendation of President Eisenhower. He was an excellent baseball player and was recruited and offered a contract by the Red Sox. He chose instead to enter the Academy and become an Air Force pilot. Events caused him to be washed back a year, so he graduated in the class of 1960. We shared the same instructor in pilot training. He was assigned to fly C-123s in Viet Nam and was shot down in Cambodia in 1964 while on a resupply mission for South Vietnamese troops. He was the first Air Force Academy graduate to die in combat. A statue of Val is erected at the entrance to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

Bill C. and I also shared the same pilot training instructor with Val B. After completing his commitment to the Air Force, Bill C. resigned and planned to fly for commercial airlines. His last mission in our squadron was on June 23, 1965. I was completing my duties in Squadron Operations on June 22. He came in my office and laughingly proclaimed, “Gil this is my swan song (Last Mission). Let’s fly to the far-east together and celebrate.” I agreed and put myself on flight orders for that mission. My squadron Commander made me stay in operations because my replacement was still out on a mission. I removed my name and put John Z. on in my place. On departure from El Toro MCAS in California at 2 a.m. on June 25, 1965, the airplane crashed, killing all 84 people on board.

John J. and I had shared the same instructor in Primary Pilot Training. After completing pilot training and combat crew training he was assigned to fly an F-102 in Iceland. An event that has not been completely identified and resolved caused him to crash on return to Keflavik.

John B. was aircraft commander on a mission from El Toro MCAS to Guantanamo on Oct. 22, 1962, during the Cuban crisis; co-pilot on that flight was Jack D. While landing at night under stressful conditions, the aircraft crashed, killing all on board. Jack D. and I had completed a pilot upgrade session together.

I reckon the ultimate ironic condition occurred with Homer M. He was a senior captain who had flown lots of hours and was assigned as a forward air controller in Viet Nam. While traveling from Saigon to his new station in northern South Viet Nam in the summer or 1964, his jeep hit a land mine, and he was killed.

While I have especially remembered these friends, others that I worked with also paid the ultimate to keep you and me safe. Since I left active duty in November 1965, others have also paid the price. I hope these comments on friends and what they experienced might assist in understanding and appreciating the brief lives of some.

I have only kept in contact with several of those I served with. In 2012, I traveled to New Jersey and met with an old friend who was in my squadron and his wife. He remained on active duty after I resigned in 1965. He got very animated while telling me about an approach into Da Nang one night in February 1966. On final approach he received ground fire that left numerous holes in his C-135. After landing, he flew it from Da Nang to Clark AB, Philippines. Finally we had a great conversation about his survival.

Also in September of 2012, my wife and I visited friends from Air Force days now living in Pennsylvania. John B. and I had completed pilot training together. He was assigned to fly F-105s and did several tours in Southeast Asia. He had ejected from one F-105. Between Sept. 26, 1965 and Nov. 24, 1965 he flew 90 missions from Takhli, Thailand, down Thud Ridge to Hanoi-Haiphong, through anti-aircraft fire and Sam missiles, to bomb North Viet Nam. After a conversation that involved the guts of those missions, we had some fun conversation.

It is about impossible for people who have not experienced those events to have even the smallest understanding of what those who died, as well as those who lived, did to ensure our freedom. I am concerned that our generation today may not understand the sacrifices that any culture has to pay sometimes to ensure that freedom.

Yes, it is Memorial Day. We should praise God for the freedom we experience because of those who preserved it for us.

Gil Alligood is a resident of Washington.