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Feasting on the Spoils
The Life and Times of Randy "Duke" Cunningham, History's Most Corrupt Congressman
By Seth Hettena
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2007 Seth Hettena
All rights reserved.
Feasting on the Spoils
1The DukeRonald McKeown was in a mood to celebrate. The handsome, square-jawed Navy lieutenant commander had just been picked for his first command, and it was the one he had been dreaming about. The message the thirty-four-year-old had picked up in the end of May in 1972 in the pilots' ready room on the aircraft carrier Midway was the answer to his prayers. He was headed to San Diego to take command of the newly commissioned U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School, better known by its code name, Top Gun. For a fighter pilot like McKeown, it meant training pilots for dogfighting, the thrill of air-to-air jet combat at five hundred miles per hour.McKeown could have been ordered up by central casting to play the part of a fighter pilot. A former Navy running back, he brimmed with confidence and bristled with intensity and a fierce competitivedrive. His boxing skills and pugnacious attitude earned him the nickname Mugs. McKeown grew up in the west Texas town of Ysleta, where he became a football star. Princeton, Harvard, and Dartmouth had all sent letters of acceptance, but the Naval Academy offered something the Ivy League schools didn't: the chance to play in the Army-Navy game, which, in the days before the advent of the Super Bowl, was the biggest football game in the world. In 1960, McKeown's third year at the academy, Navy was ranked third in the country and played in the Orange Bowl, and McKeown's teammate Joe Bellino won the Heisman Trophy.During that magical 1960 season, Navy played the University of Washington on the road. The team practiced at a naval air station in Seattle on a field next to a landing area, where three F-8 Cougars landed and rolled to a halt. The pilots got out, locked up their planes, and three women in convertibles drove up. Watching the scene, McKeown thought to himself there was a lot to be said for naval aviation. Football brought out McKeown's ultracompetitive nature, his hatred of losing, which fit the classic fighter-pilot profile. McKeown found that he loved to fly and loved dogfighting more. Even though his father wasn't a hunter and there were no guns in his household growing up, McKeown discovered that he excelled at air-to-air gunnery. He would hit the target 17 percent of the time, when 8 percent was considered excellent.Dogfighting had become something of a lost art after the Korean War. In Vietnam, Navy pilots fared poorly against the Soviet MiGs flown by the North Vietnamese. The Navy had lost one plane for every two Soviet-made MiGs they shot down over North Vietnam, the worst ratio in the history of American naval aviation. Top Gun began informally in 1969 in a trailer at Miramar with the goal of turning these trends around. The results had been impressive, and Navy pilots soon dominated the skies over Vietnam. The majority of Navy killswere made by pilots who had gone through Top Gun. Success bred success, and the Navy had established Top Gun as a formal command. McKeown was determined to make sure the school didn't disappear when the conflict in Vietnam did.Before he even got to San Diego, McKeown had heard through the Navy grapevine that one of the instructors under his command was Lt. Randy Cunningham, the first ace of the Vietnam War and the Navy's most celebrated pilot. Tall and physically imposing, Cunningham had a broad face, a flat nose, a Caesar haircut with a pair of long sideburns, and eyes that squinted when he smiled. If any in the Navy didn't know Cunningham and what he had done in Vietnam, they had probably been underwater for months on a nuclear submarine.On May 10, 1972, flying with Bill Driscoll in a two-man F-4 Phantom, Cunningham had shot down three enemy planes in the biggest air battle of the Vietnam War. On his way back to his carrier, the USS Constellation, Cunningham's plane was shot, but he somehow kept his burning aircraft rolling toward the coast until he and Driscoll were able to reach safe waters and avoid capture by the North Vietnamese. Cunningham's three kills that day brought his total for the war to five, which, under a tradition that dated back to World War I, conferred on him the exalted status of fighter ace and put him in the pantheon of fighter-pilot heroes.Until he became an ace, the thirty-year-old pilot from Shelbina, Missouri, had a so-so Navy career. He applied for augmentation to leave the reserves and join the ranks of regular, career officers on three separate occasions in 1971 and 1972, the last time ten days after his first MiG kill. He was turned down each time. "Lt. Cunningham was not a fast starter as a junior officer; however, his performance and overall potential to the Navy has continued to steadily improve," read one letter of recommendation. "Since his decision to request augmentation into the regular Navy there has been a very noticeable increasein overall performance as well as enthusiasm for Navy life." In Cunningham's copy of his military records he handwrote in the margin of this letter, "Sound like Navy trash me." But all was forgiven the moment he became the Navy's ace. Realizing that losing Cunningham would be a public relations disaster, the Navy made a rare at-sea appointment to the regular Navy and decided to send him home to capitalize on his publicity.The Navy plucked Cunningham and Driscoll out of Vietnam and sent them on a five-month publicity tour of the United States in the hopes of building support for an unpopular war. The two aviators visited New York, where they stayed in a suite at the Plaza Hotel, took in a Broadway show, and dined at the "21" Club, one of the city's most famous restaurants. They arrived in Washington, D.C., on May 18 for four weeks of closely scheduled public appearances, press conferences, and meetings with senior military and congressional leaders. The tour took them to Norfolk, Charleston, St. Louis, San Diego, Pensacola, Denver, Boston, and Jacksonville, and by the end of the tour, Cunningham and Driscoll made more than five hundred speeches. Adoring audiences heaped praise on them. "During those five months I received thousands of cards and letters lauding our efforts and accomplishments," Cunningham wrote in his 1984 memoir, Fox Two. "I found but one adverse note. There were no ticker tape parades, no large crowds gathered to honor us as they did the POWs, but I did appreciate the small civilian and military groups full of questions and appreciation." During a visit to his hometown of Shelbina, it seemed to Cunningham that all 2,000 residents turned out to cheer the local hero as he paraded through town in the back of an open convertible.Cunningham's new status sparked a good deal of jealousy in the ultracompetitive community of fighter pilots. After Cunningham's triple kill, McKeown had sent a message over to the Constellation: "Send Duke home. Give us a chance." Many pilots felt that given the sameopportunities Cunningham had had, they could have accomplished the same thing and also become an ace. The simple truth, however, is that no one else in the Navy did. Air-to-air combat was a lot scarier than many macho pilots wanted to admit. Cunningham was gifted in the cockpit. As a natural hunter he showed almost no fear, and he trained and practiced with the dedication of an Olympic athlete. There may have been better pilots than Cunningham, but few were more aggressive or better prepared.
While Cunningham was off touring the country in the fall of 1972, three Top Gun instructors who knew him well from Vietnam approached McKeown as he got settled in his office in Hangar Two at Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego. The pilots told McKeown to make sure he kept an eye on Cunningham, warning him that Cunningham had an oversize ego and tended to exaggerate. Some in the squadron believed that Cunningham had been shot down by a MiG pilot, not a surface-to-air missile as he claimed. "Well, I'm used to that," McKeown replied. "I've been around fighter pilots my whole life."McKeown already knew Cunningham from their first meeting years earlier. At the time, McKeown was briefing fighter squadrons in San Diego on the latest tactics for the Sparrow missile system. When he had finished, Cunningham asked McKeown if he had enough fuel left in his plane to take a few turns in the air. "What do you mean?" McKeown asked."I was just wondering if you want to go up in the air and do one-on-ones for grins," Cunningham asked."Sure," McKeown replied coolly.Someone in the squadron prodded Cunningham to ask McKeown if he was up to the challenge. "Yeah, you think you can hack me?" Cunningham asked."I don't think anybody's been born that can beat me," McKeown replied. "But go ahead."The two men got into two good mock dogfights, and to the amusement of others in the squadron listening in on the radio, Cunningham lost both.When Cunningham's publicity tour ended and he reported to Top Gun, it was apparent that his ego had grown even bigger than McKeown remembered. Pilots were supposed to have a healthy ego, a sense of confidence, maybe even the arrogance that there was none better. After all, a moment's indecision in the cockpit at supersonic speeds could be deadly. In the eyes of some of his fellow pilots, however, Cunningham had crossed the line of what was acceptable.Many pilots considered it in poor taste when Cunningham took to shamelessly promoting himself as a war hero. Even though his reputation usually preceded him, Cunningham introduced himself as "Randy Cunningham, the first MiG ace." He carried signed eight-by-ten, glossy photos of himself in a briefcase and had business cards printed up that read, "Have MiG, Will Travel." Several pilots recalled the ace doing commercials for a Datsun dealership, and many pilots winced when they opened the newspaper in August 1972 to find a photo of a grinning Cunningham showing off the new license plate on his Datsun, which read MIG ACE. He might as well have had the words NAVY HERO tattooed on his forehead.Still, for the students or "nuggets" at Top Gun, Cunningham was a living legend, the embodiment of what a pilot was supposed to be. Whatever he said, one former student recalled, was gospel. Fellow instructors, however, were not so impressed by Cunningham as a teacher. "He wasn't thinking about teaching kids, of telling them, 'The hell with who I am, let's work on you and make you the best fighter pilot you can be,'" said Gregg Southgate, a fellow instructor who had served with Cunningham in Vietnam. Cunningham's focus seemed tobe Cunningham, and he continued his self-promotion even when he had to cover the costs out of his own pocket.The public appearances, McKeown felt, were starting to affect Cunningham's performance at Top Gun; other pilots had to cover for him when he was out giving speeches. McKeown, who had shot down two MiGs himself, didn't believe that Cunningham's heroics in Vietnam excused him from his duties at Top Gun. Cunningham needed to improve in many areas. For one, his writing was atrocious. He seemed unable to write a simple declarative sentence. When McKeown filled out Cunningham's fitness report, he ranked him in the bottom third. Cunningham was upset. He believed that he deserved to be ranked number one.McKeown felt that in some ways Cunningham's poor performance wasn't the fault of the ace. The Navy had sent him around and around on publicity tours, and Cunningham hadn't matured as an officer. "As the Navy's sole MiG ace, Lt. Cunningham has inordinate demands made upon his private life and leisure time," McKeown wrote in his review. Still, McKeown felt he couldn't in good conscience give Cunningham high marks. He had a squadron full of talented officers, and he told Cunningham so. "Duke, these other guys can fly. Not only can they fly, but they can write and they can read," McKeown said.
For their actions on May 10, Cunningham and Driscoll were nominated for the Medal of Honor, the highest military honor in the United States. Usually awarded by the president, often posthumously, the medal honors members of the military who show extraordinary gallantry and bravery. Through the award process, the recommendation was downgraded to the Navy Cross, the service's second-highest honor. Cunningham was deeply upset. As the Navy's only ace in Vietnam, he believed he deserved the Medal of Honor and told his wife,Susan, that he couldn't understand why the Navy wouldn't give it to him. Shortly after his arrival at Top Gun, Cunningham tried to enlist McKeown's help and advice. He told McKeown he had been promised the Medal of Honor by an aide to Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, the chief of naval operations. McKeown told Cunningham that the Medal of Honor required concurrence from all the branches of the service, and the Army and the Air Force would be unlikely to sign off on it."Well, I'm planning on that money," Cunningham said.What money? What was Cunningham talking about? Cunningham explained that Medal of Honor winners do not have to pay taxes. McKeown couldn't fathom what Cunningham was saying. Even assuming that what Cunningham was saying was true, his tax savings would be minimal. He wasn't a millionaire who might actually save large amounts of money by avoiding taxes. At the time, Cunningham was earning $1,500 a month as a pilot."Well, I'm going to hold out for the Medal of Honor," he told McKeown."Duke, you don't hold out for the Medal of Honor," McKeown replied. "You die for the Medal of Honor."
Like McKeown, Cunningham had grown up in a small town. Born in Los Angeles on December 8, 1941, the day after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Randy spent his early years in Fresno, where his father, a fuel-truck driver, had saved up enough money to buy a service station. Randy was the older of two boys. His father, Randall, was a large, stern Oklahoma native. Cunningham's mother, Lela, was a loving, petite housewife who, as one person observed, couldn't have weighed more than eighty-five pounds soaking wet. Lela was originally from Alabama, but moved as a child with her family to Oklahoma, where she met her husband at a roller-skating rink in Shawnee. WhenOklahoma became a dust bowl in the 1930s, Lela's family moved to California and Randall hitchhiked across the country to be near her.When Randy was in the sixth grade, his father sold the gas station and moved the family to Shelbina, Missouri, a farm town of two thousand people. Cunningham's father, Randall P., ran a five-and-dime store there that was part of a family-owned chain. Shelbina, located in the middle of the country, was and remains the kind of town where no one locks the door, where everyone knows everybody else's business, and where pastors stress morals and ethics during Sunday church services while parishioners keep silent track of who failed to show. It was a patriotic place, where local sons and daughters serve in the military with pride, a town where the Pledge of Allegiance is said at local gatherings.The thirteen-year-old Californian found rural Missouri a tough adjustment. Randy was not happy about the move to a town he later described as "about as redneck as you can get." The move left him sullen and obstinate, smarting off around his father. Cunningham and his brother also got a rude welcome to town. The Cunningham brothers both had squinty eyes, and the local boys started calling them "Japs," an insult in a town that had not quite forgiven Japan for World War II. Louis Hawkins, who had sold the Cunninghams their two-story house, didn't tolerate prejudice and informed Sam, his eleven-year-old son, that he was going to start playing with the Cunningham boys. Sam Hawkins helped ease Randy into Shelbina. They both attended Shelbina Baptist Church and served in the same Boy Scout troop, and Sam introduced him to his circle of friends, which included Ronnie Cullers, who soon became Randy's best friend.Tall and slender, Cunningham lettered in basketball and was a crack swimmer, but high school football was the main attraction in town on Friday nights. Cunningham played tight end for Shelbina High under the direction of a fierce coach who would scream blood and guts and slam kids around. Cunningham didn't mind the occasional tussle.Missouri also inspired Cunningham's love of hunting, which would become a lifelong passion. He and his friends would pile into Cunningham's father's old station wagon, drive out to the Missouri countryside, and ask permission from area farmers to hunt quail and rabbits. Randy worked part-time at his father's store but preferred working outdoors for local farmers, heaving bales of hay into barn lofts for $1 an hour or a penny a bale. Cunningham could heave hundreds of bales a day in the hot sun, and he and his friends used the money at the movies, the local pool hall, and a popular spot called Teen Town, where Cunningham's father often chaperoned.Moving to a new town made Cunningham insecure, and he over-compensated by becoming a bully in high school. He picked on people who were much smaller than him, including his friend Sam Hawkins, who was about a foot shorter. "He was always hauling off and hitting me, and he thought that was funny," Hawkins recalled. The abuse continued until Randy's senior year, when Hawkins went through a growth spurt that put him near eye level with Cunningham. The bullying wasn't limited to Hawkins; others in Shelbina were subjected to Cunningham's abuse. Hawkins speculated that the bullying was likely a product of insecurity. Cunningham felt as if he didn't fit in and wanted to be well-liked. "Everybody has their nemesis, and you were mine," Hawkins told Cunningham years later. "When I saw you on The 700 Club and saw you'd been saved, I was the happiest guy."Cunningham dated an attractive cheerleader named Linda Parker during high school. "When I knew him, he was a good man," she said, but "he wasn't the love of my life." He was respectful, although on one occasion she did see Cunningham's anger directed at someone else. Cunningham was smitten with Parker. When another boy, Harley Kropf, showed interest in her, Cunningham threatened to "kick his tail" one night. In his senior year, Cunningham asked Parker's mother if he could give her a ring. Parker's mother said no, and when Cunningham went off to Northeast Missouri State Teacher's College inKirksville, about fifty miles away, Parker's mother said no to the relationship.After one year at the Teacher's College, Cunningham transferred to the University of Missouri. His grades improved and he got a graduate assistant position, responsible for teaching physical education, swimming, and political science. "At the university, he was as close to being a BMOC-a big man on campus-as anybody could be for a nonathlete," said Gary Dye, a classmate and fellow physical education major, who would go on to marry Linda Parker, Cunningham's high school sweetheart. "He was really good at drawing attention to himself." In addition, Cunningham struck Dye as a bright, serious student, actively involved in his political science class. When students would gather in the common area to watch Combat!, a 1960s TV drama about World War II, Cunningham always had his nose in a book. "When you're eighteen, nineteen years old, and you're good enough to get a scholarship at a major university, especially in two sports, and I was also offered a pro baseball contract, too, you know I had an ego, but I was still impressed with him," Dye said.Even though he wasn't particularly handsome, Randy's swagger was attractive to Susan Albrecht, a brunette freshman. In his senior year, the two started dating and fell deeply in love. A marriage was planned for the following year. Susan said she had second thoughts before the wedding, but the invitations had gone out and some presents had arrived and she chalked it up to bride's jitters. They were married on August 8, 1964, in St. Louis. Susan was disappointed when Randy, who had promised her a honeymoon in Lake Tahoe, took her to the Ozarks instead, where they stayed in the same hotel where Cunningham's best friend was attending a family reunion. After a few days the hotel needed the room they were in and the newlyweds moved into a bug-infested room. Randy went on to complete his master's degree in education at Missouri. Susan dropped out of school, earning money on campus jobs to support them.A chance meeting at the university pool landed Cunningham his first job. He was working as a lifeguard one day when a man named Don Watson walked up and introduced himself. Watson ran the swim program at Hinsdale High School in suburban Chicago, and he had stopped by to take a look at Missouri's aquatic facilities after dropping his daughter off at college in Louisiana. Watson's wife had noticed Cunningham and sent her husband over to talk to him. Watson was looking for a new assistant coach. He'd taken over the Hinsdale program two years earlier and was building the school into a swimming powerhouse. Cunningham struck Watson as a "country boy," somewhat naïve, but he had a nice personality and was easy to talk to. Watson thought he could train him and felt Cunningham might be a good fit for the opening at Hinsdale, so he helped Cunningham get the job.At Hinsdale, Cunningham coached freshmen and sophomore swimmers and was in charge of running evening practices and deciding the lineup for swim meets. An aggressive man, he would come up from behind and squeeze you on the neck. The gesture, Watson felt, was intended to remind you who was in charge. His writing and spelling were atrocious, but Watson found he could depend on Cunningham and never had any problems with him. Watson was fond of Cunningham's wife, Susan, and later helped the Cunninghams adopt their first child, Todd.
One day in 1966, during his third year at Hinsdale, Cunningham walked into Watson's office and announced he would be resigning his job to join the Navy. Watson, who had served in the Navy as an enlisted sailor, tried to talk him out of it, but Cunningham had already made up his mind. Worried about his math skills, he even got permission to sit in on an upper-level math class at the school to brush up before entering the Navy, Watson said.What prompted Cunningham to change careers was the death ofhis best friend, Ron Cullers, who had become a Marine lieutenant and was killed in July 1966 in Vietnam. Cullers and Cunningham had spent their high school years together, and Culler's house was like a second home to Cunningham. Later, Cullers was the best man at Cunningham's wedding to Susan in St. Louis. Cunningham's parents had called him to break the news that Cullers, then twenty-three, had died when his helicopter had been shot down by enemy fire in Quang Tri in South Vietnam. Cullers's death had deeply affected Cunningham, and his then wife, Susan, recalled seeing him visibly upset and crying; it was the first time he had had to deal with the loss of someone his own age. After Cullers's death, he decided to go to Vietnam "and make them pay for Ronnie's death."Unlike Cunningham, Cullers was well-liked and highly regarded in Shelbina. When Randy later had his victory parade through town, he acknowledged that many in the crowd didn't like him because of his bullying. "There's a lot of you standing out here today that wish I'd been the one that died instead of Ronnie," Cunningham said.Cunningham has made much of the fact that he volunteered. Susan recalled that Randy had a low draft number and decided that if he was going to serve, he wanted to do it on his own terms. He started taking flying lessons and found his calling. "It was almost like I had been born in an airplane. Or maybe like a concert pianist or prodigy who does well from the first time they touch the keys of a piano. I felt like part of my soul was in the airplane," Cunningham said without a trace of modesty.Cunningham began basic training in Pensacola, Florida, on July 16, 1967, and finished thirty-second in a class of ninety-nine. Like all young recruits, he faced Marine drill sergeants who broke him down and rebuilt him, an experience many pilots said was captured in the 1982 film An Officer and a Gentleman. His commander at advanced jet-training school in Texas described him as "a mature, talented officer who performed his duties as a student naval aviator in an outstanding manner."After his arrival in San Diego in 1968, one commander, Carl Wynn, noted some weaknesses. Cunningham had difficulty writing, Wynn wrote, he could be impulsive, and fast-changing situations could flummox him. Others wrote that he was "untiring" in the performance of his duties. By 1971, Cunningham enrolled in the Top Gun program just as it was getting started in the trailer at Miramar and impressed instructors with his passion, aggressiveness, and hunger to learn. He took his flying very, very seriously, studying the great aviators of World War I in his off-hours with an almost religious zeal. He was fond of quoting famed ace Manfred von Richthofen, the "Red Baron": "A fighter pilot patrols in the area allotted to him in any manner he sees fit. When he sees the enemy, he attacks and kills. Anything else is rubbish." Like von Richthofen, Cunningham was so dedicated to his craft, his hunger to be the best, that nothing else seemed to matter.He was a stickler for preparation. He recognized that when pilots approached each other at combined speeds of a thousand miles per hour, opportunities for a kill were fleeting. Pilots who weren't well prepared would miss out. Cunningham didn't make those mistakes. During each training mission, the switches in Cunningham's plane would all be set to strike should opportunity present itself. "People ask me why I became an ace, and the other guys didn't," Cunningham told one interviewer. "For one thing, I was very lucky; I had the chance. But when the chance came, I was prepared. It was a combination of Navy training and my own discipline." Before every mission, he rubbed a lucky rabbit's foot and told himself, "This is the one where I get a MiG."If it didn't involve flying or shooting down planes, however, Cunningham often wasn't interested. Instructor Jim Fox thought Cunningham made an average or below average officer. Cunningham didn't have time for the paperwork, fitness reports, and more mundane duties-von Richthofen's "rubbish" that came with the job and was crucial to advancement. Although the Navy instilled in its officersthe idea that they are officers first, aviators second, Cunningham had it backward. "My idea of a Navy officer," he conceded later, "was a shit-hot pilot who shot down airplanes, and to hell with the paperwork."He also had a hot temper and was, at times, in poor control of his emotions. During a cruise aboard the carrier USS America, Cunningham had walked off the ship in Hong Kong with stitches below his eye. Cunningham had been shaving and showering that morning in the room he shared with seven other junior officers when he and one of the smaller guys in the squadron got into an argument. Another officer had been sitting in his bunk, quietly listening, when he decided that he had heard enough. He leapt out of his rack and decked Cunningham square in the face. Cunningham went flying, then got to his feet, grabbed a golf club, and started chasing his assailant. Stark naked, both men tore through the corridors like a pair of hurdlers, leaping through passageways.Cunningham did not hide his disrespect for command. In his book, Fox Two, written while he was still a lieutenant, Cunningham stated that he didn't want anyone who outranked him for a wingman. Many of the senior officers, he wrote, just wanted to be sure to make it back, and Cunningham wanted to hunt MiGs. "Why let rank lead, when ability can do it better?" By his own admission, he once told Al Newman, his commander, that a decision of his to use centerline fuel tanks was "fucked up," a galling display of insubordination.On January 19, 1972, Cunningham proved himself to be more than just a big mouth. Cunningham and Driscoll had been assigned to protect a photo reconnaissance mission to an airfield in North Vietnam from attack by enemy MiGs. As their F-4 swooped over the Tha Quan Lang Airfield, the North Vietnamese launched a barrage of eighteen surface-to-air (SAM) missiles at Cunningham and his fellow pilots. "There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to describe what goes on inside a pilot's gut when he sees a SAM get airborne," he later wrote.Evading a SAM, which flew at more than three times the speed of sound, required Cunningham to wait until the last possible moment as the missile approached, then turn as hard as possible and hope the missile couldn't follow. The wait was agonizing. Panic rose in his throat. Finally, he pulled up into a bone-crushing eight-g turn and the missile exploded harmlessly below. As other missiles roared up at them, Cunningham dove down.Flying just above the treetops on the jungle floor, Cunningham spotted two MiG-21s. He locked onto one of the planes and squeezed off a Sidewinder missile, which missed as the pilot banked hard. But the MiG pilot had made a fatal mistake: he had turned too hard. That cost him precious airspeed, allowing Cunningham to lock in again and squeeze off a second Sidewinder that flew right up the MiG's tailpipe. The jet's tail came apart and the rest of the plane went into a violent, tumbling crash that ended in a fireball.For the first time in eighteen months, a MiG had been sighted and destroyed by an American fighter pilot. Back aboard his carrier, the USS Constellation, the crew greeted him in celebration. Commanders organized a small party and someone asked, "Duke, what was it like to kill another human being?" The question stopped Cunningham cold. "The words hit me full force, as if I were being knocked to the floor. I looked at my questioner, unable to reply. I turned and headed straight to my room feeling as if the whole world had blown up. Always thinking of myself as a hard-core professional, I had believed that such a question would never faze me."A sickening feeling dug at his stomach as he thought about watching the twisted machine carry another human to a horrible death. He made "excuses" for himself-"it was in the line of duty"-but he feared relating his feelings to anyone, even his friends. Cunningham turned to the ship's chaplain, telling him he had a "personal problem" he wished to discuss in confidence. "My mind was in turmoil as manyquestions poured out, questions that had to be answered, questions I had never let myself think about," Cunningham wrote in Fox Two.The next day, his commanding officer, Al Newman, summoned Cunningham and confronted him with what he'd told the chaplain: "Randy, how do you feel about combat flying now?" Furious at the chaplain's betrayal, Cunningham could nevertheless understand Newman's concern. Would Cunningham hesitate the next time? Cunningham assured his commander he would kill again, but he didn't relish the thought. "Before I left, I had the basic problem worked through. I knew I would be able to do the same thing again, but I didn't have to like it-the act of killing someone was never a pleasant experience for me. The after-effects remain with me to this day," he wrote.Newman sent Driscoll and Cunningham for a few days of R&R in the Philippines, and Cunningham received a Silver Star for his first kill. Still, it would have been impossible to miss the implication of his experience with the chaplain: revealing one's feelings was a sign of weakness.Cunningham had worked too hard and loved his job too much to give it up. Besides that, he was beginning to enjoy the attention that came with being a "MiG killer." Sometime after his first shootdown in 1972, he decided to change his call sign, which for years had been Yank, to Duke, the same nickname as his hero, the actor John Wayne. The nickname Yank, with its superpatriotic connotations, had been chosen for Cunningham and it seemed more fitting, but Duke was in keeping with Cunningham's newly emerging perception of himself as a larger-than-life hero. Cunningham and Driscoll returned to the skies, and on May 8, 1972, Cunningham scored his second kill of the war, sending a MiG-17 that crossed his path into a mountain.May 10, 1972, the day that changed Cunningham's life forever, began as any other. He awoke in his bunk on the Constellation and made his way up to the flight deck before breakfast. Dawn was breaking overthe Gulf of Tonkin, where other carriers were massing for an assault deep into North Vietnam, which had launched a major invasion of the south. The sun rose behind the low, wispy clouds hugging the Gulf of Tonkin. The crew was testing the ship's catapults, which roared and hissed steam.Sketched out in the Constellation's operations room was the day's mission. Cunningham was taking part in the second strike of the day against the Hai Duong Rail Yard, a marshaling area for supplies that lay halfway between the coast and Hanoi. The squadron could almost certainly expect to do battle. The North Vietnamese were sending every available aircraft to the vicinity of the Hai Duong Rail Yards, and U.S. intelligence could hear the radio traffic buzzing with activity. Cunningham began to grow anxious as he waited for his mission to begin. He walked back up to the flight deck to get some air. Another pilot, even more nervous, was vomiting over the side. Cunningham calmed himself by recalling a quote from George Bernard Shaw's play Major Barbara: "If a man cannot look evil in the face without illusion, he will never know what it really is or combat it effectively."Sure enough, a host of MiGs came raining down on them when Cunningham's thirty-two-plane strike force reached the target. Cunningham had never seen so many enemy planes in one place before. There were as many as twenty MiGs, two of which swooped down to attack Cunningham. Unlike Cunningham's F-4 Phantom, armed only with missiles, the MiGs had cannons on their noses, and both planes were blasting away. The muzzle flash jetted out the length of a football field. Cunningham turned hard into the path of the lead attack plane. The MiG couldn't follow and overshot him. Cunningham got behind the MiG and squeezed off a Sidewinder missile that blew his attacker to pieces.Cunningham pulled up and spotted eight MiGs circling in what's known as a defensive wheel. In the middle of the wheel were three U.S. Navy Phantoms. One, flown by Jim Fox and Dwight Timm, came roaring out of the circle, barely missing Cunningham, with threeMiGs in pursuit. Cunningham got in behind them and waited until he had a clear shot at one of the MiGs chasing Fox. Cunningham fired, scoring his second kill of the day.Fox's plane headed back for the coast and Cunningham decided to follow. On the way, Cunningham spotted a MiG-17 below them headed right for him. As the MiG opened fire, Cunningham pulled straight up into the sky and was surprised to see the enemy pilot following below him. At the top of the climb, the MiG fired again. Not willing to admit that he was being beaten, Cunningham told Driscoll, "That SOB is really lucky."It was more than just luck, however. Whatever Cunningham did, his adversary matched him maneuver for maneuver, and Cunningham barely escaped becoming a casualty himself. The two planes again raced skyward in the pure vertical, but this time Cunningham pulled the throttle to idle and hit the speed brakes. The MiG shot out ahead. Now Cunningham had the advantage and the enemy in his sights. The MiG pilot tried to flee by aiming his plane right at the ground. Cunningham followed and squeezed off another Sidewinder missile for his third kill of the day, his fifth of the war. The Navy had its first ace of Vietnam. "That's it, baby," Cunningham said. "I got five ... that's all I want. We're getting out of here!"A few miles out, something shook Cunningham's Phantom and a nauseating feeling crept into his stomach. He checked his instruments. Everything was normal. Cunningham fired his afterburners, pushing his plane close to the speed of sound, and hurrying back to the Constellation, waiting in the Gulf of Tonkin. Less than a minute later, his plane yawed violently to the left. His control gauges showed he had almost no hydraulic pressure, and with it, he had lost almost all control of his plane. His control stick was useless; it felt limp. Driscoll glanced behind and spotted fire on the left wing.Cunningham leveled off and glanced below. From the air, the wall-to-wall houses of North Vietnam reminded him of Los Angeles. If heejected here, he would almost certainly be taken prisoner to face torture and death. If he could hang on for a few minutes and reach the water about twenty miles away, they had a good chance of being rescued. Cunningham and Driscoll decided to stay in the plane as long as they could. The two had decided never to use the word eject until it was time to get out of the plane.The plane still had power in its rudders, and when the plane's nose rose again, Cunningham forced it down with his right rudder. When the plane leveled out, he cut power to his engines and hit the brakes to prevent the Phantom from going into a dive. For twenty miles, Cunningham kept the plane moving to the coast. Fire crept up the fuselage and smoke began to pour into the cockpit. An explosion ripped through the plane, but they were still over land so they hung on. The radio filled with the screams of Navy pilots urging them to eject as they watched the airplane burn.As they crossed the beach, another violent explosion shook the aircraft. This time, when the nose rose up, Cunningham couldn't force it back down and the plane went into a spin. Cunningham hadn't gotten the word eject out of his mouth when Driscoll pulled the ejection handle. Cunningham heard Driscoll's seat fire, and after a split second that seemed to last an eternity, the rocket motor below Cunningham's seat fired and spat him into the sky at twelve thousand feet.Massive g-forces crushed him in his seat as he rose several hundred feet in the air. His damaged fighter jet tumbled beneath him toward North Vietnam. Then, the rocket beneath his seat burned out and his seat fell away from him. Noise faded to the sound of the wind. Cunningham began to plummet, headfirst. He had never parachuted before. He was beginning to wonder if something was wrong when his orange and white parachute blew open with a sharp jolt that sent a wave of pain through his back. The lush delta of North Vietnam's Red River Valley lay below. Was he headed for land? Cunningham saw two enemy patrol boats cruising up the Red River toward his position.A few hundred feet away, Driscoll drifted down in his own chute. Driscoll watched their F-4 fall back to earth. Burning badly, it fluttered in the sky like a falling leaf, then exploded. Later, reporters asked Driscoll what was going through his mind as he drifted down in his parachute. He told them, "My thoughts were perhaps I had made an incorrect decision in leaving the Army Reserve in Boston."The Red River rose up beneath Cunningham and he plopped face-first into the warm, muddy water. He noticed something bobbing in the water next to him. It was a corpse, dead several days, of a North Vietnamese man. Driscoll spotted schools of sea snakes. Haiphong Harbor was three miles away. Big Mother 62 and Big Mother 65, two huge U.S. Marine Sea King helicopters, were on their way to the rescue.Once aboard, Cunningham passed a note up to the cockpit asking them to contact the USS Constellation and verify his three kills. "It dawned on us that we had a celebrity aboard," the pilot of Big Mother 65 later recalled.A crowd gathered on the deck of the USS Constellation as a Marine helicopter ferried him back aboard. It seemed to Cunningham as if the entire crew of five thousand were waiting to greet him. He made his way through the crowd. Gregg Southgate, a fellow F-4 pilot, pulled Cunningham aside. Southgate had realized that Cunningham's triple kill was one of the biggest events of the war. Lots of people, Southgate thought, would be interested in Cunningham's story. There were opportunities for a book, TV appearances, possibly even a movie. "Randy, if you think about this real hard, there's a real possibility of making some money off of this," Southgate said. If Cunningham wanted to leave the Navy, Southgate would be his agent. Cunningham just laughed.
The Navy arranged a special ceremony for Cunningham in the fall of 1972. Navy Secretary John Warner was visiting Miramar to commission two new squadrons that would be flying the brand-newF-14 Tomcat, and during the ceremony, Warner would present Cunningham and Driscoll with their Navy Crosses. The day before the ceremony, McKeown was in the Top Gun ready room talking with other instructors when Cunningham and Driscoll walked in and asked to speak with him. In front of other officers, Cunningham stated that he and Driscoll had decided not to accept the Navy Cross at the ceremony.McKeown smiled and said, "I'm sorry, Duke. I could have sworn you said you're not going to accept the Navy Cross."McKeown told Cunningham and Driscoll to follow him into his office, and he left the door open so the other instructors could hear the message he was about to deliver loud and clear.McKeown told the two men they didn't need to sit down. "I'm going to give you about twenty seconds' worth of lecture, and then I'm going to throw your asses out of my office. Starting in about twenty seconds from now, you guys are going to get out of here and you're going to go get your hair cut. You're going to go get your blues pressed and make sure your gold braid is nice and shiny and your shoes are shined. Tomorrow, you're going to be resplendent in your blues while a grateful nation heaps its praise on two of its heroes. Anything less than that and I guarantee I'll rip your tits off. Now get the hell out of my office."The next day, Cunningham and Driscoll received their awards, as ordered.
To McKeown, Cunningham seemed like an odd duck. Cunningham didn't go for the alcohol-fueled camaraderie with other pilots. He preferred to be off by himself hunting or riding dirt bikes with his friends. When he did show up at the Officers' Club, Cunningham sipped Courvoisier stingers, a blend of cognac and crème de menthe. Cunningham seemed to think it made him seem sophisticated; McKeowntold him to order something else. He was taking good Courvoisier and obliterating the taste of it by adding sweet mint juice in it. "Everyone thinks you're an idiot," he said.The more McKeown got to know him, the stranger Cunningham seemed. McKeown saw in Cunningham enormous insecurity, which was best exemplified in his tendency to embroider his own legend. Cunningham told audiences that during his last of three engagements on the day he became an ace, he had faced Vietnam's top fighter pilot, the legendary Colonel Tomb or Toon. McKeown and other pilots didn't believe a word of it; Colonel Tomb was a wartime myth, a view confirmed later by aviation historians who searched in vain for any record of Tomb. Asked how he knew of Colonel Tomb, Cunningham replied that the answer was classified, and it remained a secret long after the war had ended.The truth didn't get in the way of Cunningham's telling of the story, which became a practiced part of his stock speech. His fanciful recounting found its way into his book, Fox Two, where he referred to his North Vietnamese adversary by the pejorative Gomer. "As I looked back over my ejection seat I got the surprise of my life: there was the MiG, canopy to canopy with me, barely 300 feet away! I could see a Gomer leather helmet, Gomer goggles, Gomer scarf ... and his intent Gomer expression. I began to feel numb. My stomach grabbed at me in knots. There was no fear in this guy's eyes as we zoomed some 8,000 feet straight up." Audiences loved to hear about his duel to the death with Colonel Tomb, the thrilling, but heavily exaggerated, climax to his heroic tale.Later, McKeown learned that Cunningham claimed to have shot down MiGs during classified missions with the Israeli Air Force in the Bekáa Valley of Lebanon, a story that Cunningham continued to tell years later to other members of Congress. True, Cunningham had worked with Israeli pilots and had visited Israel, but the notion that he flew with them on combat missions was pure fantasy. To McKeown,Cunningham's exaggerations were the hallmark of an enormously insecure man. Cunningham was the ace, the elite among the elite, and what he had done many pilots would consider the crowning moment of their aviation career. But if the story could be tweaked just a bit, Cunningham couldn't help himself. The joke among pilots became that Cunningham was like the man with the nine-inch penis who brags that his dick is fourteen inches long.
Top Gun's new executive officer, Jack Ensch, arrived at the school in January 1974 after a harrowing experience in Vietnam. Ensch, who was in the backseat when McKeown shot down two MiGs, had later been shot down himself when his plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile in August 1972. During ejection, Ensch's left hand was badly mangled and both elbows were dislocated, leaving his forearms pushed up halfway up the inside of each upper arm. Ensch landed in a rice paddy and ended up in a twelve-by-twelve room at the Hanoi Hilton, the infamous prison in North Vietnam. For the next three days, he was interrogated around the clock. He refused to answer questions and was essentially told that he would receive no medical attention unless he talked. He grew delirious as he watched his arms lose circulation and felt his life slipping away. Finally, he decided to answer a few questions, which seemed to satisfy his captors. He was taken from his cell, blindfolded, and strapped to a table. A "doctor" amputated his thumb without anesthesia, then sat him in a chair, put a foot on his chest, and yanked his arms back into position. He was released in March 1973. His Navy buddies gave him a new nickname, Fingers.A week or so after his arrival at Top Gun, Ensch had his first encounter with Cunningham, who came into his office and asked for his help. McKeown was making another of his trips back to Washington to brief Congress on Top Gun and its needs. Cunningham hadn't been invited along, but he told Ensch he needed to go."I've got to get back there and check on my Medal of Honor. I was supposed to get a Medal of Honor," Cunningham said. "All I got is the Navy Cross.""Randy, what do you mean?" Ensch said."Well, it's not fair that I only have a Navy Cross and other people have Navy Crosses, too, and they don't have five MiGs."Ensch bit his tongue. How stupid could Cunningham be? Ensch was one of the "other people" who had been awarded a Navy Cross, and he wore it with pride. Ensch tried a diplomatic approach, explaining to Cunningham that he had set the standard for a Navy Cross. Because of Cunningham's triple kill, shooting down more than one MiG in a single engagement became a prerequisite for a Navy Cross.Later, Ensch repeated this conversation to McKeown, who replied that he definitely wasn't going to take Cunningham to Washington with him again. McKeown had already brought him once, and Cunningham had proved to be an embarrassment. He had brought along a suitcase filled with photos of himself signed "Randy Cunningham, first MiG ace" and passed them to secretaries at the Pentagon and passengers on the plane.
A short while later, Jack Ready took over as head of Top Gun after McKeown left to take a job at the Pentagon. Like McKeown, Ready also didn't rank Cunningham number one in the squadron, which only enraged Cunningham even more. One weekend, Cunningham used a key given to all instructors to enter Ready's offices. He read through the fitness reports of his fellow officers and compared himself. He realized he was ranked at the bottom of the pack. When Ready returned to work, Cunningham confronted him. He asked Ready why he hadn't been ranked number one, then cited the names of others who had been ranked higher than him."How do you know that?" Ready asked."Well, I came in here and looked at your records," Cunningham said.Ready was livid. He and Ensch discussed bringing Cunningham before a court-martial or an administrative hearing known as a captain's mast, which would effectively have quashed any hope for career advancement. A court-martial conviction would have ended Cunningham's career. Ready took his request for punishment forward to his superiors, but the chain of command decided not to bring down the career of the Navy's Vietnam ace. In the end, Ready sat Cunningham down in his office and gave him a verbal reprimand. "He was a MiG ace at the time," Ready said. "He had a lot of respect from people who didn't know him deeply, and I didn't want to make a big issue of that."Becoming an ace had saved Cunningham's career once before, and now it saved him again. There would be no record in his personnel file to let future commanders know that he had entered his commander's office without permission and examined other pilots' private performance assessments. The Navy was apparently willing to apply a different standard for its ace.In some ways, Cunningham was a product of the Navy's special treatment of him. The Navy essentially condoned Cunningham's bad behavior, and this only fueled his sense of invulnerability, that he could do no wrong. He was becoming a man who felt, not incorrectly, that the rules did not apply to him.When journalist Gregory L. Vistica revealed this episode in 1995, Cunningham flew into a rage and instructed his staff to get Ensch on the phone. Cunningham angrily told him that the incident had never happened."Randy," Ensch replied calmly, "you and I both know it happened.""Well, it's not true," Cunningham insisted.FEASTING ON THE SPOILS. Copyright © 2007 by Seth Hettena. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Excerpted from Feasting on the Spoils by Seth Hettena. Copyright © 2007 Seth Hettena. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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