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Virginia Tolles

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Excerpts - Living on a Wing and a Prayer
By Virginia Tolles
Thursday, November 01, 2007

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Living on a Wing and a Prayer
Virginia Tolles
Copyright © 1994 by Virginia Tolles. All Rights Reserved.
The C-141 Starlifter made its maiden flight on December 17, 1963, between Lockheed-Georgia in Marietta and Warner-Robbins (now Robbins) AFB Georgia. The last C-141 StarLifter left active service with the United States Air Force on May 6, 2006.
Currently, the first C-141 is on display at the Air Mobility Command Museum at Dover AFB Delaware. The first of three C-141s that brought prisoners of war home from the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison camp is on display at Wright-Patterson AFB Ohio. It is known affectionately as the “Hanoi Taxi.”



17 February 1973

Travis AFB California


God bless America, land that I love

Stand beside her, and guide her...


The longest-held prisoner of war knelt on the tarmac and kissed the ground. He was on American soil. He was home. We all were home, some of us after only a year, some of us after nearly ten years. He had been a major when he was shot down over the demilitarized zone nine years earlier; now, he was a colonel. There were promotions for putting in time at the Hanoi Hilton.

Now, he asked everyone to sing “God Bless America.” We all sang along with him, even those of us still on board the grey-and-white C-141 Starlifter that had brought us home, and even those who had come to welcome us home. We all sang “God Bless America.” Most of us had tears in our eyes.

I was glad that no one could see me grab a corner of the pillow case on the litter, where I lay. They might have wondered whether I was glad to be home. Or so I thought at the time. Since then, I have come to realize that they would have understood. They were drying tears, too.

It finally was sinking in that I really was home. This was not a cruel trick by the North Vietnamese (the Vs, we had called them), soon to be exposed for what it was under a barrage of gunfire as they shot us dead in our tracks.

"Better get up," a voice said.

I looked up to see Aaron Rosenthal, once my instructor pilot, now, my escort officer.

"It's time?"

"Almost. They just called Andy Nowell's name."

Andy Nowell was the fifty-first pilot among the returnees in this sortie of returnees to be shot down and captured; I was the fifty-fourth. We were being presented in order of capture. A lot of the men with whom I had been incarcerated with were captured in 1965, it seemed. I was captured in September of 1968; therefore, I was near the end of the roll call aboard our plane.

Rosenthal offered me his hand and helped me to pull myself into a sitting position.

"We're at Travis?" I asked him.

"Yes. This is Travis."

I started to ask him if it was for real, but I decided not to. After all, our stop at Clark Air Base in the Philippines had been for real. So had our refueling stop at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. The guys at Clark had fed us steaks and scoops of every flavor of ice cream they could find to give us. That had been real enough. This was real, too.

"I know you told me," I said, "But I can't remember."


"Why did they paint our plane? The grey-and-white looks nice, but it looked just fine in its aluminum skin."

"Wear to the skin. Pitting and peeling. The paint helps to protect it," Rosenthal repeated patiently.

I nodded. Our plane, yes. Once upon a time—seemingly in another lifetime—I had flown the C-141 Starlifter. Rosenthal had taught me her finer points after I had finished my transition training. The C-141 had been fresh off the assembly line in those days, mid-1965. She had made her maiden flight a year-and-a-half earlier, on 17 December 1963, the thirtieth anniversary of the maiden flight of the DC-1, prototype and precursor of the DC-3/C-47. Now, she had brought me home from hell. She still was my plane. She still is.

"Robertson?" came a call from the doorway.


"Soon. They just called Anderman," replied the Loadmaster. I was unable to remember his name. It still escapes me.

As I arose, Rosenthal ran a comb through my hair, straightened my tie, and helped me into my coat. Yes, we were debarking in full uniform.

"You want to look sharp for your family," he reminded me.

"They're here? I thought I wasn't going to see them until we got to Keesler."

"I suppose they couldn't wait to see you!"

"Nor can I, but how do I act around a child?”

I had not had a son when I had left home to fly that last sortie. We had thought Courtney might be pregnant, but she had not had her appointment with the doctor, yet. All my random thoughts were pouring forth. I could not sort and sift in order to present myself as a mature adult. It seems odd now, but it does show the state I was in.

"Why don't you let him take the lead?" Aaron suggested.

I nodded, took the pair of crutches that the doctors at Clark had issued to me to give me more stability while walking, and made my way on rubbery legs toward the aft portside door through which I would debark. No, I had not injured my legs, although the beatings I had received had done my knees and shoulders no favors. Primarily, I was weak. I had weighed in at Clark Air Base at 97 pounds. There, I had been carried off the plane on a litter. Now, with several good meals inside of me, I was able to get about slowly under my own Adrenalin-powered steam.

Rosenthal followed closely behind, and at the door, he laid a reassuring hand upon my shoulder. As the reception committee called Dick Prindible's name, he stepped outside.

"Relax," Rosenthal told me. "Enjoy it. You're home."

I nodded. I had decided to check out Travis and that, if it were real, then I would believe it. I knew Travis. I had flown into and out of it more times than I could remember. No one could fake Travis on me.

As Prindible made his way down the receiving line, saluting to the top brass who had turned out to welcome us, I heard my name being called: Captain Charles Theron Robertson, Jr.

It was my turn. With Rosenthal's help, I stepped over the lower edge of the door and onto the top platform of the steps that would carry me down to the tarmac. After being in the dim light of the aircraft, the bright, California sunshine momentarily blinded me. I paused a moment to become accustomed to it, then started down the steps. Rosenthal stayed close by, just in case I needed his help. I did need his help on the steps. On the ground, however, I regained my balance and made my way down the receiving line, receiving warm greetings and salutes along the way.

As I saluted the final officer, I heard footsteps running across the tarmac. I dared not break form to look around. Still, a sense of fear arose within me. Was it friend or foe? Were the Vs rushing in to recapture me? But, no. I did not hear a group of feet, only a single pair, and they sounded like the footsteps of a young child.

When my salute was complete, I looked around. Sure enough, I found a very young boy standing beside me. He was dressed to the nines in white shirt, navy knee pants, tartan plaid suspenders, red knee socks, and black shoes. His right hand was extended to his forehead in a salute to the officers. Each saluted him. Then, he turned toward me and looked up, his face breaking into a huge grin. He raised his hand again and saluted me. I saluted him in return.

"Dad-dee!" he shouted.

My own response was to gape at him, overcome by the sight of this child who had called me Daddy. Yes, Daddy. He was my son! He had to be. I mean, he looked just like me!

Our salutes broken, he charged against my legs. Using the crutches for support, I knelt onto the ground and gazed upon him as I tried to comprehend that he was real, that all that was happening around me was real. I was home, and I had a son! A son!

"You're home! You've come home, Daddy!"

He threw his arms around my neck and planted a sloppy kiss on my face.

I gently stroked his soft hair and studied his beautiful, innocent face.

"You're my son," I heard myself whispering softly.

He nodded up and down vigorously as if to tell me that I was getting the general idea. I felt a gentle hand come to rest upon my shoulder and heard my wife's soft voice.

"Charlie, this is your daddy. Theron, this is your son, Charles Theron Robertson, III."

"He's so beautiful," I whispered as my gaze slowly traveled up to see my wife.

Again, relying on the crutches, I tried to lift myself to my feet. Actually, I wobbled and nearly fell. Courtney steadied me and helped me to stand up. She beamed upon me and allowed me to draw her into my arms and kiss her for a nice, long time.

"Daddy!" Charlie exclaimed. "We're in public, you know!"

Clearly, my son intended to see that a certain degree of decorum was maintained. I had to grin.

"Yes, son," I allowed. My eyes were upon my wife. Not having the first idea what to say to her, I did the only thing I could think to do: I wrapped my arm around her shoulders and continued to gaze upon her. And, as I did, words slowly began to come to me.

"You waited for me?"

She nodded. "Of course."

"Of course? As I recall, I could be totally dense sometimes."

She smiled. "Yes, but I like you that way."

"You do?"

She grinned and nodded.

This was too good to be true !

"Do you suppose we could get that on tape?" I asked.

She replied by playfully swatting at me. "No, Theron. I don't."

"Oh," I replied flatly. "Well, how about in writing?"

"You have it in writing."

"I do?"

"Yes. It's called a marriage license."

"Oh! That's what that's for, huh?"

"That's what that's for."

I nodded and glanced down at our son to find him watching us intently with nothing short of complete bewilderment on his face. Winking at him, I ruffled his hair, then bent to pick him up.

“Easy, now,” Courtney said as, yet again, I wobbled.

“I’m picking up my son!” I declared defiantly. I suppose I said it as much to give my body incentive as in reply to Courtney. When Charlie was settled within my arms, I told him, "Your mother and I carry on sometimes."

"That's what that is?"

"That's what that is."

"Oh, okay! If you say so!"

Something told me that my son was quite a young man.

"I hope you have a little affection left for the rest of us," I heard a very familiar voice declare.

Turning, I looked down to see my mother standing closely by my side. Handing Charlie to Courtney, I bent over her petite frame and gave her a secure hug.

"Mom," I said softly. "Are you okay?"

She beamed up at me. "Yes, Dear. I'm quite well."

She did not look well to me. Although she always had taken care of herself, she now appeared too thin. She still wore her hair in the bouffant style she had adopted in the early sixties, although it was clear that its dark color now required a bit of assistance. Some grey was starting to show at the roots. Yes, it would have to. Mom was in her mid-fifties, now. Too, there was a sadness in her eyes that not even the excitement of the moment could erase.

The past four-plus years had been hard on Mom. The Air Force had told her that her son had been killed; his body had not been recovered from that foreign soil. Now, as she stood with her arm around my waist, her fist gripped the fabric of my coat. She could not let go, nor could she take her tear-filled eyes off of me. I nodded to her to let her know that I understood and bent to place a gentle kiss upon her forehead.

With Mom were Courtney's parents, Clara and Branton duPerier. I greeted them, sharing a warm hug with Clara and a hearty handshake and firm pat on the back with Branton. Branton passed me his sunglasses. I suppose he felt a need to do something for me. I accepted them and put them on.

Absent was my own father, as painfully and noticeably as when I had looked out over the audience during school plays, hoping against hope to see him but never realizing my dream. What did I hope? That Dad would have come back in my absence to be reunited with my mother? Yes, I think a small part of me did.

"Is something wrong, Dear?" Mom asked.

"No, Mom. Everything's fine."

"Who are you looking for?"

I shook my head but said nothing. What was there to say, after all? Dad never would be there. He could not be there. He had not come home from his war.




Chapter Three


September 28, 1968


We were flying in high-altitude weather, that is, strong turbulence. Thunderstorms are common in Southeast Asia; we had flown through them before without mishap. This time, though, we were not so lucky. We were hit by lightning.

Even that usually is insignificant. Unless the strike is to a vital part, it almost always is inconsequential. In the air, the aircraft is not grounded, so lightning simply passes through it and continues on to the ground. This time, however, the turbulence twisted the fuselage just enough to pop the lock on the pressure door and to start the chain reaction. When the pressure door gave, we experienced a rapid decompression, which blew everything that was not tied down toward the open pressure door. The pressure door then blew back and up, damaging the fuselage skin; severing the control cables and hydraulic lines, which ran along the ceiling of the cabin; and destroying the outer, petal or clamshell, doors.

Even on the flight deck, where I was manning the controls of the Starlifter, the explosion was deafening. I had seen the bright flash of lightning and had felt its impact on the aircraft, even before I had heard the explosion. I knew the sound meant the rotating-hinge lock of the pressure door had been released. The tormented shrieks and groans of ripping metal that followed confirmed my worst fears.

"Captain! All hell's breaking loose back here!"

That urgent cry came from the loadmaster, Sgt Steve Howell, over the interphone and confirmed that the large, reinforced, riveted-aluminum pressure door was being torn from its ceiling-mounted hinges and was beginning to move backwards within the cabin. Howell's panic-stricken voice sounded at least an octave higher than normal as, in gasps and spurts, he outlined the situation.

"Howell, are you strapped in?" I asked him.

"By the grace of God!"

"Get on oxygen! Everyone get on oxygen!" I ordered.

"You're not listening, Captain!" Howell exploded. "Everything's flying out the back!"

"Howell, how long have you been in the airlift business?"

"Fifteen years, sir."

"Then, you should know what happens in a rapid decompression."

"Yes, sir. Everything that's not strapped or bolted down flies out the opening. At high altitudes, the ability to breathe becomes a problem."

"Exactly! So, you see, everything is behaving exactly the way it's supposed to. Now, calm down. We've got a few problems up here, too."

"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir." The embarrassed Howell hung up.

As the line went dead, I heard my flight engineer, Sgt Eric Richards, start with a systems appraisal.

"Number two hydraulic system's out," he reported.

"Drag from the open cabin must be slowing us down," co-pilot 1Lt Charlie Davies surmised.

We all were making such mumbled appraisals of our situation.

"We've got serious damage, I'd say. This buggy feels worse than driving a car whose power steering has gone out."

Indeed, the starboard listing of the aircraft told me that either control cables or hydraulic systems had been damaged, possibly both. As flight manifests, maps, and even our sunglasses flew past us and from the flight deck, the air became filled with a fine mist and devoid of the oxygen needed to allow us to breathe without oxygen masks.

When, at last, pressure had equalized and things had ceased to fly about, I activated the onboard phone and called back to Steve Howell to come forward. If we crashed, he would be safer up with us than beside the fuel-filled wings. Crash! I dared not allow myself to consider that possibility. I definitely was not going to mention it to Howell.

We had begun our descent at 22,000 feet (flight level 220, for you pilots out there) on a southerly course, direct into Da Nang, when the rapid decompression had occurred. At that angle, our course remained set. Hydraulics were gone that would have allowed us to make any change in direction. Still, we could not hope to be perfectly lined up with the runway. Sooner or later, adjustments would be needed. We had to find a way to overcome our disability.

"They teach us how to handle this in flight school?" Davies asked me.

"We'll fly by throttles," I told him.

"By throttles?"

"I read about it once. By decreasing power on the starboard engines, we can force the port engines to pull that side of the plane forward at a greater rate, allowing us to turn to the right. We do the opposite to turn left."

"We don't have much time."

"Not enough to sit here and figure out how much throttle to decrease. We'll have to wing this one."

"MAC 51227," came a voice over the radio. "Do you want to go wet feet to dump fuel?"

He meant did we want to go out over the ocean to dump all but the fuel we would need to land.

"Negative, Approach. We'll be doing good to get down at all like this." To my navigator, I added, "How far out are we?"

"Twelve miles."


"Flight Level 200 and descending." He meant we were at 20,000 feet.


"Too damned fast," Davies spat.

"Easy does it, Charlie." I caught a glimpse of my navigator, Juan Gomez. "Gomez, what's between here and there?"

"Your choice: Mountains, inland; ocean; or, in between, the bay."

"The bay! Men, don your lifejackets!"

"The bay?" Gomez gasped. "We're going down in Cam Ranh Bay?"

"Softer than a mountain," Richards reminded him.

"There may be hope, yet, gentlemen. Richards, what are our vital signs?"

Vital signs. It was not regulation, but it usually brought a chuckle from my crew. At this point, we needed anything, including humor, to keep our senses about us. When Eric had brought me up to date, I requested data from Juan.

"Seven miles out, flight level 115...," he began. He was cut off by a crackle and voice over the radio.

"MAC 51227, this is Approach Control. You're coming in too low. Repeat. You're coming in too low."

"Best we can do, Approach Control. Reduced lateral control."

"Where do you anticipate landing?"

"In the bay."

"Roger, MAC 51227." The last words we heard from approach control before the radio fell silent were "Alert Search and Rescue."

 We had cleared the mountains north of Cam Ranh Bay. The tree tops loomed close now. It would not be long. Our slightly arched decline was more visibly apparent now. No one was willing to bet whether we would land in the bay or nose-down on the bank just before we reached the bay. Nor was anyone willing to bet whether, even if we reached the bay, we would go in at an angle shallow enough to allow us to survive. From my vantage point, our angle of descent looked pretty darn steep. Our odds were miserable.

"Grab the controls, Davies. I'm going to need all the help I can get. Okay, everyone. Listen up. We're going to take it by the book. Upon contact, kill the engines, cut off fuel supply, and shut off all electrical. In other words, minimize the risk of fire. Got it?"

"Yes, sir!"

"Okay, Davies, here we go. Better we ditch far enough out where the water's deep enough to cushion our impact but shallow enough to keep us near the surface and shoreline."

Was there such a place? Only in my dreams, I feared.

"Right, sir!" Davies responded, even though he knew that neither he nor I had any control at that point over where we would impact. Still, if it made us or our passengers feel better to think we did...

Impact! Over the water's edge, as we had hoped. Our attitude was too steep for my taste, but I had no control over it. I could only hope the weight of the cargo in the cabin would level us off and keep the nose of the plane from going in the mud. We had to float if we hoped to survive. Not that the water was deep here. Was it deep enough to provide cushioning? I hoped so, but it did not feel like it. It felt like we were slamming into that mountain we had chosen to avoid.

"Engines off, electrical off, fuel lines closed," came Richards' rapid-fire report. So! We had been able to perform a few useful functions. The primary question now was whether they would be enough to make a difference.

"Hang on!"

The aircraft slid forward, edging sideways as the heavier aft portion moved more quickly forward than the lighter nose section. Metal creaked and groaned, then began to rip and tear with cries of pain that seemed almost human as the giant bird began to break apart. An explosion filled the air as one fuel tank blew. Then, another as its mate ruptured and caught fire. Would we slide forward and out of the way, or would a giant fireball rush forward to consume us all?

There was no time for me to consciously think of those things. They were mere hints of thoughts, fragments, sensations, electrical impulses for the brain to translate at a later time, when I tried to make sense of it all. For the time being, I was helpless to do anything but await my fate and the fates of my crew members.

When the plane finally stopped sliding and turning...when it came to a rest, I heard only eerie silence. Then, I heard moaning. It was coming from beside me, bringing me back to the present. I looked around to find it coming from Charlie Davies. Closer inspection revealed that the instrument panel had collapsed on the starboard side, pinning his legs beneath it. The steady drip, drip, drip of his blood onto what was left of the flight-deck floor told me that he needed help in a bad way. I had to help him!

Extracting myself from my own chair, I saw for the first time the extent of the damage. It was quite visible, for all of the plane aft of the flight deck had been ripped away. Instead of the rear bulkhead, I could see the wide-open spaces of the bay and, strewn about it, two more chunks of aircraft that once had been the cabin and the tail section.

So far, we were floating, the latrine area beneath us providing an air pocket. It could not last for long, though. If the rear wall of the flight deck was gone, then chances were the rear bulkhead of the latrine was gone, as well. We would sink soon. We had to get out!

The wings had broken away. The portside wing somehow had become rammed on end into the bottom of the bay, its two engines spewing fire like a pair of flamethrowers. The starboard wing appeared to have disintegrated completely, but then, we had come down on that side. The bay, itself, was afire, where enough aviation kerosene to have seen us back to Guam had spilled and now was floating atop the water. Another explosion filled the air, and number two engine erupted from its place in the bay and blew apart, its broken components flying in all directions.

We had to get out! Even if we did not sink, we would roast alive where we were. The burning fuel was creeping steadily in our direction. Not far to our starboard side was land; in fact, if my estimate was correct, we were so near the shore that possibly land was keeping us from sinking. Could it be that the better part of the flight deck was resting on land?

Immediately, I turned my attention to Charlie Davies. Our first-aid kit was gone, but I made do, tearing my tee shirt to make a pressure bandage to stop the dripping from Charlie's left leg and a tourniquet to stop the gusher from his right femoral artery. Howell and Richards turned their attention to Gomez, who was unconscious (I hoped!) on what was left of the bunk seat. Why it had not been ripped away, along with the rear wall, I could not begin to imagine.

As the flames began to crackle and roar at Gomez's head, Richards scooped him up and threw him over his shoulder with a cry.

"Let's go! Out!"

He had seen what I had not, that as the flames drew closer, they threatened to cut off our escape route. Even as I saw what was going on, Howell and Richards eased Gomez through what once had been the doorway to the cabin on the portside of the back wall and down into the water. The water was chest deep on Richards; that would make it little more than waist deep on me. That fact was confirmed as I followed with Davies over my shoulder.

We were making our way to dry land when Search and Rescue arrived. The helicopter! It hovered over us as we made our way, trying to protect us as best it could from VC sniper fire which had opened up in the area. We could hear it but could not see it.

The helicopter crew threw down four rope ladders. Howell and Richards started up with Gomez over Howell's shoulder. I had Davies over my shoulder, but I could not maneuver the ladder with him, so the rescue team lowered a basket for me to place him in. I secured Davies within the basket and waved for Search and Rescue to pull him up. An instant later, I was scurrying up another ladder.

That is when I took a hit. The last thing I remember is reeling backwards and going down as what appeared to be a dozen VCs ran forward and aimed their weapons down at me. I did the only thing I could: I raised my arms over my head, and I screamed.

"Easy, son. Easy, now. It's only a nightmare, just a bad dream."

No, it was no bad dream. It really happened...except it really happened four-and-a-half years before. As the soothing tones slowly penetrated my sleeping state, I came to realize that, once again, I had relived 'Nam.

"Wake up, son. You'll see that you're safe. You're in hospital in Mississippi."

Opening my eyes, I vaguely saw the man standing over me as I looked about. There was no water. No fire. No exploding aircraft. There was no helicopter speeding off into the distance. Most of all, there were not a dozen rifles aimed down at me.

Instead, I was in hospital at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. The room was bathed in semi-darkness; only a night light near the door offered illumination. One man stood over me, a man with a gentle expression, a man who appeared to be far more interested in living life than in ending it. He appeared to be in his late-fifties, and he seemed somehow vaguely familiar. Try as I might, however, I could not place him.

He smiled. "Hello, Theron. I'm your father."


Copyright © 1994 by Virginia Tolles. All rights reserved.


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