By Robert Wilkes, Special to The Jewish Sound
May 10, 1972. A sky swarming with Navy jets approaching the North Vietnamese coast at 15,000 feet. I’m the wingman on the right of the lead A-6. A division of F-4 Phantom fighters prepares to race forward and attack anti-aircraft sites. Other Phantoms weave high above, our combat air patrol.
As the coastline nears, black and orange clouds of large-caliber flak begin to explode around us. We’re flying into the Red River Valley between Hanoi and Haiphong. They’re ready for us.
The air wing commander radios “Batter up.” Inside the cockpit my bombardier toggles the master arm switch. Our ordnance is armed and ready. “Play ball!” comes over the radio. We nose over at full throttle and begin the attack.
Looped into the laces of my boot is a dog tag: Robert Wilkes, USN, 757064, Jewish. The world’s only Jewish carrier pilot is flying into the biggest air battle of the Vietnam War.
I never imagined I would be the only Jewish carrier pilot in Vietnam, but as far as I know, I am. I never met another. I was 21 and just out of college when I reported for training. Although my engineering degree shielded me from the draft, I volunteered. There was no way I could sit by in some engineering job while others fought for my country. I still feel the same way.
Intense military training seems nonsensical and bewildering. It wasn’t until years later that I came to understand it. It’s an ancient art and they know what they’re doing. They take you apart mentally and physically and put you back together again.
I reported to Indoctrination Battalion, Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Florida, and into the tender embrace of a battle-hardened Marine drill instructor, or “DI.” No one had ever screamed in my face like that before. Every move I made was wrong. He gave us no time to eat, little sleep, and ran us ragged every step of the way.
DIs are told to separate the wheat from the chaff. If you’re not determined to succeed or die trying, you won’t make it. By the third day, I had to put my face down in the plate to eat because my arms were so weak I couldn’t lift a fork.
By the 11th day two classmates had dropped out of “Indoc.” The rest of us put on officer’s khaki uniforms and the collar anchors of midshipmen. The worst was over. I reported to Battalion 3, Aviation Officer Candidate School for military training and ground school.
We’re “feet dry” now, over land, and the missile warning light is flashing. A Soviet SA5 missile the size of a telephone pole is heading up toward our flight at Mach 5. My cockpit indicators tell me its guidance radar is locked onto my A-6. I roll to 90 degrees and pull hard. The missile shoots behind my tail and continues into the sky.
As our first Sunday in Battalion 3 approached, a lieutenant told us the routine: Protestants march to church at 0730; Catholics at 0900.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said. What do the Jews do? I could tell he had never been asked that question before. There was no rabbi on base and no Jewish services.
“Well,” he said, “You’ll have to go into town.”
I had no money, no car, no idea how to get to town, and I would need special permission to leave the base. I decided to march with the Catholics because they got more sleep.
It wasn’t a synagogue, but I liked it. In church there were gentle, soothing voices and sympathetic people who cared about young men soon to go to war. I sat up in the choir loft and never went down for communion. At 21 I was a respectable tenor. I loved to sing the Navy Hymn, “Eternal Father Strong to Save.” I was a soloist for “Ave Maria.”
During the attack on the railroad yard, something strange happened. All at once, the anti-aircraft fire stopped. Enemy gunners stopped shooting because they didn’t want to hit their own planes. A flight of 20 MIGs attacked the strike force. An American aircraft nearby had a MIG on his tail, its nose guns blazing.
After two years of flight training, I joined the fleet as an A-6 pilot based in Oceana, Virginia. A Navy pilot’s call sign is not his to choose. It is hung on you by your mates. I told them I was Jewish and they dubbed me “Abie,” simple as that. I knew my nickname was derogatory, many of them were, but I chaffed at having my Judaism chided.
After a swirl of events I was reassigned to a new squadron based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. It was a new start. I told no one I was Jewish until I was out of danger of being tagged with another derogatory Jewish call sign. I was a proud A-6 attack pilot assigned to VA-165, Carrier Air Wing 9, serving aboard USS Constellation (CVA-64) and part of Task Force 77. We joined the ship in San Diego and sailed for Vietnam.
Although we could carry missiles, my A-6 had no forward-firing ordnance. Having delivered my bomb load, my mission was over and I was now a sitting duck, an American flag waiting to be painted on the side of a MIG. I dove down to the rooftops and headed for the Gulf of Tonkin.
Our fighters engaged the MIGs in a wild air battle. My shipmate, Randy Cunningham, flying an F-4 with four sidewinder heat-seeking missiles, downed three MIGs and then was shot down himself. He managed to steer his crippled Phantom toward the water before ejecting. He was picked up close to shore by Marine helicopters from the USS Coral Sea. He had become the first ace of the Vietnam War, much to the chagrin of the Air Force. At the end of a long day, we lost three jets to MIGs or ground fire. Our fighters and fighters that joined the battle from other carriers and from the Air Force downed ten North Vietnamese MIGs that day.
My story has a coda.Cunningham, who hailed from San Diego, was indeed a great fighter pilot. The mission that day was his last in Vietnam. Military leaders apparently decided it would be harmful to the war effort for him to be shot down and killed or captured. He was shipped home to train new fighter pilots. He later became a congressman, or rather, an infamous congressman. Sadly, his career in politics ended badly.
American Jewish mothers in my day thought joining the military to fly was a cockamamie idea. I know mine did, but I’m very proud of my service. Until another Jewish pilot appears, I claim the distinction. We may be over-represented in Congress and among Nobel Prize winners, but I was the only Jewish Navy carrier pilot in the Vietnam War.
Robert Wilkes lives in Bellevue.