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Author and former Air America pilot Allen Cates cuts through the myths and subterfuge surrounding this elite stealth Air Force used by the United States to fight a secret ...
Author and former Air America pilot Allen Cates cuts through the myths and subterfuge surrounding this elite stealth Air Force used by the United States to fight a secret war in Honor Denied. The culmination of Cates's years as a pilot and his in-depth research into Air America's murky past, this intense study follows his escape from rural, small-town America to the US Marines, as well as his time as an officer and pilot flying combat operations in Vietnam and rescue missions for Air America.
Peppering the narrative with vivid personal details, Cates describes the background and purpose of this unique organization and then discloses the startling casualties-both those killed in action and those wounded and injured with permanent disability. He shines the light on their cause, long hidden from the general public, and reveals how these brave men and women were denied recognition and benefits by those who knew the truth, including the US President, secretaries of state and defense, and even the director of the CIA.
Proud, yet never boastful, Honor Denied tells a story that needs to be told-and heard.
The word truth can have a variety of meanings. The Bible says, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen." Kind of hard to argue with that, and truth often falls into the same slot—the interpretation varies widely. For example, saints and sinners alike have used the Bible to corroborate their arguments about what truth is. So it seems to me that truth is often based on who says it, and how naive people are about the subject.
Regardless, in the summer of 1960, standing on the dirt road that led to my parents' house in Southwest Missouri, I found myself staring truth in the face. It was an enlightening experience, but not particularly pleasant. I was nineteen years old, with no property, making a dollar five an hour plucking chickens at the local chicken plant. I could sense that my welcome at home was worn out. It was time for me to move on, but I wasn't sure where to go or how to get there.
At the same time, the world was changing rapidly. Suburbs were springing up all over the country, and America was discovering McDonald's, fast cars, television, and credit cards. A different kind of music by Bill Haley and the Comets and Elvis Presley had replaced those like "Don't Sit under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else but Me." On their way out were the 1950s, which had created a heady atmosphere of good life and prosperity, or so they said. Maybe that was true, but I think it depended on who you were, and where you were.
In the fifties, supposedly, people spent more money because they earned more, but that might have been an illusion. Maybe they spent more because it was easier to borrow and assume more debt.
Also in the fifties, Eisenhower dominated the White House. He was elected the first time because he was a high-ranking general, famed for his leadership in the Normandy invasion that led to the end of the war in Europe. He represented security and trust to Americans weary of the carnage and deprivation of World War II, so no one was really surprised when he was elected for a second term.
Meanwhile, there was a war in Korea that most people didn't really want to think about. I won't say that our country was looking the other way, but Americans were tired of war. Nearly thirty-four thousand Americans died over there, and the total casualty count (military and civilian), was about 2.8 million, counting North Korea, South Korea, China, and the troops of the United Nations. It was called the forgotten war, and when it ended in 1954, the American people spent the balance of the decade looking to get ahead.
Though forgotten, the Korean War was not devoid of strife and controversy. If it served no other purpose, the conflict brought Communism with all of its ugliness to public attention. We began to hear stories about captured American soldiers being tortured and forced to make false confessions against their country. Needless to say, these ugly tales were discouraging. They contradicted the way that most Americans chose to view their fighting men.
People like Senator Joe McCarthy took advantage of the situation. McCarthy used his extreme version of patriotism to cast doubt on anyone who dared to disagree with him. Careers were ended, reputations were damaged, and characters were tarnished. McCarthy called his version of things the truth, but he couldn't prove it. Luckily for him, the fear of Communist subversion had become so powerful that he didn't have to prove anything. All he had to do was make sensational accusations; the frenzy of public opinion did the rest.
Beyond all of the fear-mongering and political posturing, Communism was a very real threat. Like the atomic bomb, it was a specter that hung over the heads of everyone in America. Bomb shelters and fallout shelters were created, and school children were drilled in the proper procedures to use in case of nuclear attack. Perhaps subterfuge and disinformation had also been used in World War II, but they were taken to new levels in the late fifties and sixties.
Eventually, however, the steady hand of Eisenhower calmed the nerves of the American public. The man on the street began to breathe a little easier again. After all, we were here, and Communism was over there somewhere. Eisenhower was able to shut down McCarthy, and most Americans were placated. But the damage wrought by McCarthy's half-truths and misinformation could not be completely undone.
President Eisenhower wanted America and the rest of the world to believe in peaceful coexistence, but that desire did not blind him to reality. He saw the encroachment of Communism in the Pacific Rim as a future threat to Australia, New Zealand, and—eventually—America.
All the while, the average American was barbequing in the backyard, cruising the streets in '57 Chevys, sipping Cherry Cokes, and listening to "Silhouettes on the Shades." All of that might have been good for America, but it certainly wasn't going to stop what was happening in Southeast Asia.
Eisenhower had learned the unpleasant lessons taught by Senator McCarthy. He had seen what the unbridled fear of Communism could do to this country. And maybe that's why he decided to take a secretive approach to attacking the Communist threat. If so, he may have been correct. Secrecy might have been the proper course of action for America at that particular time. I don't know, and I don't think I have the right to judge. I just know it happened: America embarked on a secret war, and the people who fought it were nameless and faceless.
Secrecy works well when everything is going according to plan, but problems with this tactic become obvious when things go wrong. Patriotic soldiers like Francis Gary Powers (who was shot down in a U2 spy plane over Russia) and Allen Pope (who was shot down in a B-26 in Indonesia) were characterized as mercenaries and soldiers of fortune. Their association with the American military was denied. They were criticized vehemently, and some went so far as to suggest that these brave men should have committed suicide before allowing their country to be embarrassed.
Like many Americans, I tend to believe what I read. I can also be affected physically by the act of reading. I get cold when I read about snow, and I get hungry when I read about food. So when the newspapers proclaimed back then that everything was fine in the world, I had no reason to doubt them. I sincerely believed that everyone everywhere was at peace. Yet somewhere, on the other side of the world, people were fighting for their lives in a place that few Americans had even heard of.
You would think I would have been more cognizant, because I had lived in many places before my parents settled in Noel, Missouri. I was young, of course, but I had experiences that went well beyond typical small-town life. My family had lived on a large air force base, where people trained for war daily. I had grown up intermixing with people of varied backgrounds. I was probably equipped to understand world events more than the average small-town kid my age. I just wasn't paying attention.
In those days, Noel had a population of about twelve hundred, and that number is just about the same today. But living in a small town doesn't make you ignorant. The citizens of Noel were uninformed, perhaps, but probably no more so than the rest of the country. America was being sheltered, and most of us liked it. I really don't think it made any difference whether you were raised in the city or on a farm.
Like most small towns, Noel did have its problems, though. The town had limited cultural activities, and jobs for high school graduates were scarce. For most people, escape was the only option.
Dad was raised in McDonald County, where Noel is located. It's probably the poorest county in Missouri, and it was poorer still during the Depression.
Dad joined the army air corps in 1935, and he met my mom in the state of Washington, where I was born at Fort Lewis. A year later, we moved to Spokane, and my brother was born.
Next, Dad was transferred to Clovis, New Mexico, and then Colorado Springs, Colorado, where my sister was born. We traveled a lot, but Dad never forgot that his roots were in Noel. His mother continued to live in a two-room house on Hall Ridge Road, just outside of Noel, and we went there as often as Dad could get leave.
I attended early grade school at Noel, the same school my Dad had attended, and Dorothy Davis was one of my teachers. She was obviously well qualified and later became the school principal, but I remember her as being—for lack of a better word—stern. However, Mom considered no-nonsense a more appropriate characterization, and she made it clear that she appreciated Ms. Davis's dedication to her job and to the students she shepherded. Dorothy's maiden name was Rousselot. Her father had been the Noel postmaster at one time. Her brother, Robert, had been raised on Hall Ridge Road too, but I didn't learn anything about him until many years later.
Robert was in his eighties when we actually met at his cattle ranch in Oklahoma. I truly enjoyed his company and that of his lovely wife, Ann. Robert and I talked often, mostly by phone, and I visited him and Ann at their home when I was in the area. He was gruff, but pleasantly so, and he ran his ranch with an iron fist. His boys, one of whom is now a state congressman, called him "Boss."
Robert had graduated from Noel almost twenty years before I had. He had wanted to be a doctor, but the war hindered that idea. Instead, Robert joined the Marines and distinguished himself as a pilot with the Flying Tigers. After the war, he went to work for an airline company in China called Civil Air Transport.
People who knew him later told me that Robert was a "tough man," meaning that he was no-nonsense, like his sister, and professionally dedicated as well. Robert was elevated to vice president of operations for CAT, Inc., the company that purchased 40 percent of Civil Air Transport. Later, in 1959, CAT, Inc. was renamed Air America. Robert left the company in 1963.
Sometime after that, Robert retired to his ranch. Later, when he was inducted into the Oklahoma Aviation Hall of Fame, there was almost no mention of Air America or what it had all been about.
* * *
Dad wanted desperately to be in the war, but only about 10 to 20 percent of those in the military actually see combat. The majority are support personnel. Of course, no fighting man can operate without support personnel, yet saying that to those who wanted to be in action was like saying they were lucky to be playing golf at all, when what they really wanted was to break eighty.
There seems to be a common belief that people who have been in combat are reluctant to talk about their experiences. That's not quite correct. That is, I don't think combat veterans intentionally refuse to discuss it. Rather, the problem is that when you get ready to talk about it, the words to describe the experiences don't readily come to mind. No one wants to come off sounding like they personally did something extraordinary; because the truth is most just did the job they were trained for, but no one wants to belittle the effort either. And while you're groping painfully for the right words, someone invariably says, "Well, he really doesn't want to talk about it." At that point, anything you want to say would sound foolish.
What was there to say anyway? You never really had time to sit around and discuss how you were going to act in a firefight. There was no time for contemplation when you were lifting wounded out of a landing zone under fire. You acted on instinct, derived from hard training, and then it was over almost as fast as it began. Owning a small business when short on capital and knowing your next paycheck would come from the next sale might bring you closer to Jesus than any armed conflict—you've got more time to brood over things, that's for certain.
Also, contrary to popular opinion, I don't think war makes you a better man. You are what you are, and war will not change that. It might show you what kind of man you are, however, and you may not like what you see.
At any rate, somehow, I think Dad knew that Noel was the place for him to fight his battles. He was just looking for his opportunity.
As luck would have it, the Noel postmaster retired, and Mom and Dad campaigned for the position. It was highly contested and understandably so, because the position was appointed by the president in those days, and the appointment was for life. There was no doubt that Dad was qualified. Twenty-five years in a supervisory position with the air force had prepared him for the task, and he was selected for the appointment. For the first time in more than two decades, he was where he belonged. Now it was time to find where I belonged. At the time, I didn't realize it was going to take almost as long as my Dad.
* * *
Several people I knew spent their entire careers at the chicken plant, moving from the line to various supervisory positions. That didn't feel like an option for me. I didn't yet know what I wanted out of life, but it wasn't the chicken plant.
There were other kids my age whose parents owned businesses or farms. They were able to carry on with the family trade. My choices were limited.
I was contemplating all of this on that hot July afternoon in 1960 as I stood in the dirt road that led to my parents' house. The legendary prosperity of the 1950s had not managed to find its way to Noel, Missouri. If it couldn't find its way to me, maybe I'd have to go in search of it myself.
On impulse, I asked for the keys to the car. Without saying where I was going, I drove to Joplin, forty-six miles away. The military recruiting offices were all in one location, and it was lunchtime when I arrived.
All of the recruiters were gone, except for a marine staff sergeant doing some paperwork at his desk. The sign on the wall said, "The Marines Build Men." That sounded good enough for me. I walked on in.
After introducing myself, I asked the sergeant if I could leave for boot camp right away. He told me that I could depart right after the July Fourth holiday.
I had a choice of boot camps, and I decided on San Diego instead of Parris Island. No reason really. I had never been to either, but California sounded warmer.
Mom had tears in her eyes when I told her. Dad was smiling. He'd been there before.
I was inducted on the sixth of July, and I headed to California on my first jet ride with Continental Airlines. This was the first time I had ever done something on my own. I was thrilled and looking forward to the experience.
After that, I came back to Noel for visits, but I never went home again. My home was now somewhere else, and it always would be.
The Making Of A Marine
I started out as a private in the rear ranks. It is difficult to explain why anyone would like boot camp, but the truth is I did enjoy it. I was handy with my fists when the need arose, but I was a skinny kid and I needed some muscle tone. I liked the rigor of learning a trade, albeit fighting, and I quickly put on weight in the right places.
There were some shocks, however.
Foul language had not been allowed in our home, and it wasn't prevalent in my circle of friends at school. So it set me back on my heels the first time I heard a drill instructor utter venomous words and threats that I couldn't begin to contemplate and, quite frankly, seemed humanly impossible, but definitely got my attention.
You had to have experienced boot camp to understand Buddy Hackett's comedy routine included admonition to mothers whose sons were now performing private bathroom duties in public. The commodes in the head (what the US Navy and Marine Corps call the bathroom) stood about twenty or so in a row, with no stalls and no toilet seats. When we were instructed to make a "head call" in the morning, twenty guys would sit down at one time and do their business. A person who liked his privacy found it difficult at first, but soon you got used to it.
I discovered that liberals and conservatives were about evenly matched in the corps, and later found bravery in battle had nothing whatsoever to do with political affiliation or belief. Each side would argue heatedly, but when it came to the matter at hand, all of that was forgotten.
Excerpted from HONOR DENIED by ALLEN CATES Copyright © 2011 by Allen Cates. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted July 11, 2012
Posted October 23, 2012
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