The final score of men lost during our WestPac ops: eight aircrew killed in action, six missing in action (shot down and not recovered) and one man killed in a hangar bay accident. (Even with rigorous safety precautions strictly enforced, a carrier flight deck and hangar deck are among the most dangerous work environments anywhere.) The MIAs included our Air Wing Commander, Commander (later Vice Admiral) James Stockdale, who spent several years as a prisoner of war in North Viet Nam and was one of the bona fide heroes of that ordeal. He later ran for Vice President on the ticket with Ross Perot and was ridiculed by ignorant people who grossly misjudged the man.
The most ironic of pilot deaths was that of Air Force Major R. G. Bell. He was aboard ORISKANY as a member of Air Wing 16, flying an F-8 Crusader jet fighter as an exchange pilot. It was common practice to have a few Air Force pilots fly with Navy squadrons and a few Navy pilots with Air Force squadrons for cross-training in the other service’s aircraft. Major Bell had flown several combat missions from ORISKANY without coming to harm. One day he had to land at Bien Hoa Air Base in South Viet Nam for some reason. As he walked from his plane, a crowd of Air Force personnel gathered to look over the unfamiliar Navy plane. Suddenly a bomb “cooked off” (exploded when it wasn’t supposed to) on an Air Force plane parked nearby, setting off other bombs. Major Bell and several of theAir Force men were killed.
The luckiest pilot on ORISKANY that year was LT(jg) Robert Adams, another F-8 flier. He was shot down by North Vietnamese AA fire and recovered by a rescue helicopter — not once, but twice. After his second recovery from enemy soil he was rotated back to the states, presumably on the basis that he had used up more luck than anyone could expect. I had gotten to know him pretty well and was glad he got out with his skin intact. He was a good guy.
On the other side of the scorecard: ORISKANY’s embarked Air Wing 16 earned two Navy Crosses (second only to the Medal of Honor), five Silver Stars, seven Purple Hearts (for being wounded in action), 56 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 120 Navy Commendation Medals and 929 Air Medals. And these awards must be considered in light of the reality that the Navy is the most conservative of all the U. S. services when it comes to awarding citations.
When we returned to North Island a press release was sent out to all the media by the public information office of the Commander Naval Air Forces, Pacific Fleet, heralding the many and outstanding accomplishments of ORISKANY and Air Wing 16. As fate would have it, there had been a major space program event that week and it pushed ORISKANY right off the media’s radar. Only our families knew or cared what we had done or that we had returned. But, once again, c’est la guerre.