Monday, January 25, 2016

Corpsman chronicles VII: Not a bar fight

A few weeks ago I wrote about a series of events that in retrospect seem to have been pinned to a single incident -- a bar fight.

From my perspective those events make for an amusing story. At the same time they are a touchstone to an important lesson about growing up and becoming a man.

Life is filled with events and touchstones and lessons. Not all of them are amusing.


In the heart of the Great Dismal Swamp, a rusting pile of scrap metal waited patiently in the gloom at the center of a clearing. It was a cold and damp December night, moonless and pitch black under a thick mid level overcast. It was quiet in the clearing; not even a touch of breeze to rustle swamp oak leaves still stubbornly clinging to their branches. The denizens of the swamp were in for the night, huddled against the chill air and waiting patiently for the warming rays of the morning sun to arrive.
Dare County Range, North Carolina.

The swamp was silent. Then, noise. From the south came the muted roar of jet engines, first swelling in volume, then fading slowly away. Thirty seconds later came a faint hissing from above, followed immediately by a thud and a sharp crack as something solid and metallic slammed into the rotting junk pile. A painfully bright light flared, sending hard, skittering shadows across the clearing and illuminating a thick clot of white smoke. The smoke hovered silently for a few moments, then began to slump and ooze down into the jumbled scrap as the marking charge consumed itself and guttered out. Cooling metal creaked and pinged, creaked and pinged, creaked and pinged, then went silent.

Miles away, over the southeast horizon, the source of the jet noise and pyrotechnics swam through an ocean of inky black nighttime air. It was a Grumman A-6E Intruder, the navy's premier carrier based bomber.
A-6E Intruder from VA-65 near NAS Oceana.

The two man crew of the intruder were practicing loft bombing, a method of delivering special weapons. What the Brits called "Buckets of Sunshine". Instead of lofting actual B-61's or B-83's, though, the jet and crew were flinging Blue Death through the night sky.

As the Intruder turned back in toward the target, the Bombardier/Navigator, seated to the right and slightly behind the pilot, had his face buried in the radar hood, tracking the radar reflection from the pile of junk. His hands danced effortlessly across the bombing system controls, refining and tuning the image on his scope and sending target information and steering commands to the pilot's display.

At the initial point (IP) the jet was at 500 feet and 500 knots. The B/N kept the system locked on target while the pilot followed computer generated steering cues. At the appropriate moment the system called for a four g climb and the big jet clawed for the heavens. As the Intruder reached the calculated climb angle and altitude the system kicked off a single MK-76. While the bomb arced toward the target, the pilot continued his pull, came over the top at somewhere north of 10,000 feet, and with the nose pointed steeply back toward the ground, rolled the jet upright. As the altimeter spun down he shallowed the dive to meet an altitude of 500 feet and scorched over the unseen swamp with 560 knots on the clock.

Over a 40 minute period the jet and crew made seven identical passes.

The eighth pass was different.


My pager went off just after 2300, dragging me out of the early stages of REM sleep. On this December night the message was for a SAR roll out.

The station Search and Rescue duty crew stood a 24 hour watch, 0800-0800. During the day we were more or less in an alert-30 status, with a requirement to launch within 30 minutes of being called. At zero-eight we'd muster, turn over with the previous day's crew, and DTA the aircraft. We'd fly at least once during the day, and quite often more than once. We'd do local training flights, dedicated SAR training flights, and quite a bit of logistics. We also did drone recovery. 

At night we generally rolled back to an alert-60 status. The duty crew could go home at night, so long as home was on base. Those living off base could get a temporary overnight room in the BOQ or BEQ or crash on a cot at the SAR hangar.

The duty SAR corpsman had the option of sleeping at the clinic, about a mile away from the hangar. Medical had showers and comfortable racks, so I usually crashed there.

I was out of the rack and into boots and flight suit almost before the pager message finished. I went left out the door, then right, then left, left again, and into the emergency room proper. The two corpsmen on desk watch had been doing late-evening touch and goes but came fully awake as I charged onto the scene.

"Roll-out, fellas" I barked, "let's go!"

Twenty seconds later we blasted out of the parking lot in the duty 1969 Jeep cracker-box field ambulance, made a right onto Tomcat Boulevard, and charged through the front gate, emergency lights flashing.

Two minutes later I was in the SAR hangar paraloft, skinning into my wet suit with the assistance of a liberal dose of talcum powder. It was December and cold out so wet suits or dry suits were mandatory. I grabbed my LPA/SV2 and helmet bag and stepped next door to Maintenance Control as the rest of the crew rolled in.

We briefed quickly, manned the Sea King, and fired up. We were wheels up and driving south within about 25 minutes of my pager going off.

Airborne and en-route, the news was grim. An Intruder had been working the nuclear bull at Navy Dare, then gone off the air after making its final pass. The range tower crew had observed a fireball southeast of the target, on the run-in line. A single ejection seat beeper was transmitting, but there had been no communication with the crew.

We flew south out of Oceana in a cold and empty December sky, down an imaginary line between Sigma and Sandbridge, and out over Back Bay. Calm and flat, the water below was inky black and seemed to suck light from the air. It was a moonless night with a mid-level clag layer, and out in the sticks it was darker than the inside of a cow. Moments later a glad Yuletide glow erupted from Knotts Island, at that time and place the lone spark of humanity in the lightless void beneath.

We bent our course a little to the east, crossing Currituck Sound and the Outer Banks just north of Corolla, with stately old Currituck Beach lighthouse standing sentry to our left. A gentle starboard turn and we steadied up just seaward of the surf line, paralleling the beach and heading just a smidge east of due south, bucketing along at 110 knots, 1,800 feet above the restless Atlantic.

Within a few minutes the lights of Kill Devil Hills and Manteo lined up, the base of a flattened triangle with Nags Head at the apex, and we came right towards Stumpy Point and onto the range.

From my perch at the aft station I had a reasonable view of the Dare Complex. There were more lights than usual at the range tower and I could see vehicle lights slowly worming their way along the scarce roadways available, heading for a splash of yellowish fire. Our DF cuts on the seat beeper pointed toward the fire too, so that's where we headed.

As we came to a hover and slowly moved toward the fire I opened the aft door and took a close look. It was night, overcast, and very dark, and we were hovering over the Great Dismal Swamp, so as you can imagine, it was hard to make out a lot of detail. There was a fire, but not much of one, burning the reddish-orange color of jet fuel, probably consuming the last dregs of JP-5 from smashed fuel cells. The fire appeared to be burning in a crater, but it was hard to tell.

The spot light came on, revealing a lot more detail where the photons fell, but tending to wash out the rest of the view. As the spot played over the crater and moved into the trees, it illuminated the ghostly presence of a parachute, fouled in twisted branches about 100 feet from the crater. Not that there had been much doubt, but the parachute firmly identified this as the crash site.

The Intruder had come down on the fringes of the range proper, in an area which hadn't been logged for many years. The trees were taller than on the rest of the range, and packed more closely together.

"Whaddya think, crew?," asked the HAC over the ICS.

The seat beeper indicated an ejection, and we had a chute in sight, but no communication with either of the Intruder's crew. There could be a badly injured aviator in there under the snarled nylon, so there was really nothing for it but to put the swimmer on the ground. 

The crew chief pointed toward a small clearing at 2 o'clock, and I nodded my approval. As the big helo sidled over toward the clearing, I strapped on my aid bag and checked my flashlight. Good to go. The crew chief rigged the rescue strop to the hook and paid out enough slack so that I could shrug into it. I stepped to the door, checked the fittings and gave the cable a good jerk, and stepped out into the night sky.

Down the hook I went, turning slowly as the cable paid out. I landed firmly, facing mostly north, my back to the burning crater. I thumbed the strop out, keeping the cable fitting away from my body until it touched the earth and grounded the considerable static charge produced by rotor blades flailing through air.

I stepped out of the strop, blinked an "okay" with my Pelican light, and turned around. Above me the Sea King dipped her nose and moved ponderously away. The spotlight winked out and I paused for a few moments to let my vision adjust to the gloomy darkness.

Looking around, the scene was one of utter devastation. It was immediately clear that the jet had come straight down. There was just one big crater, about 60 or 70 feet in diameter. It was hard to tell how deep it was, even with the flashlight, but it seemed to go a long way down. The margins of the crater were scrunched up muck and earth, here and there emitting wisps of smoke or steam. The crater appeared to be empty, but there were little bits and pieces of smashed and mangled aircraft all over the place.

And there was the smell.

There is always a powerful smell at a crash site. We humans are said to be visual creatures, with weak noses compared to other animals. Weak noses or not, we're olfactory creatures too, and the smell identified the reality of what had happened here far better than jumbled details my eyes could pick out as the flashlight played across the scene.

Crash sites all smell pretty much the same. Burned kerosene and hydraulic fluid, acrid, thick, eye-stinging. Burned and shattered metal, brassy and caustic. Burned and smashed soil, earthy and singed, sour like the smell of a doused campfire.

And not uncommonly, the smell of Death. People come apart in plane crashes, and my nose told me that had happened here. Nothing else smells like a disintegrated human. Coppery, bloody, visceral.

I began to circumnavigate the crater, carefully, flashlight showing the way. I'd taken only a few steps when I found a wallet laying on the ground. One of the card windows yielded a name, which was familiar and called up a face. The other card window revealed a family portrait. Wife. Kids.

I fished out the ID card and stuffed it in my chest pocket, then placed the wallet back where I'd found it. I moved on.

On the back side of the crater I began to pick my way through tangled brush and closely spaced trees toward the parachute I'd seen from the helo. Something caught my eye, a familiar object in an unsettlingly strange context.

It was a hand. A left hand, palm up and very slightly clenched, neatly cleaved at the wrist, bloodless and intact. Gold wedding band on the ring finger, slightly flattened.

In general, you leave stuff where you find it at a crash site, until the mishap investigators complete a detailed site survey and map the debris field. This includes all the "stuff" that was previously walking, talking, living human being. As a trained mishap investigator, I knew this. And I knew that I'd be back here in a few hours, putting my training to use as part of the investigation.

I pulled a small plastic-lined paper sack (a barf-bag, actually) from my aid bag, carefully placed the hand inside, and stowed it in the chest pocket of my flight suit where it joined the ID card I'd picked up earlier. Where the hand had come to rest I placed a plastic wrapped medium field dressing as a marker.

The hand had fingers, and the fingers had fingerprints, as well as a wedding band. These things had forensic value and could aid in identifying the victim, so recovering the hand made some modicum of sense. It could have waited, though. A couple of hours would have made no difference.

Something in me couldn't leave the hand in the swamp on a cold and empty December night. I moved on toward the parachute.

As I neared the place where chute and risers were tangled in tree branches, I stumbled over the B/N's radar hood. The flashlight revealed more debris; steam gauges, shattered bits of circuit breakers and instrument panel switches, cockpit lighting fixtures. Off to one side was a torn ejection seat parachute container. Near the base of the tree was a smashed seat pan. PCL littered the ground, scattered everywhere like confetti.

I looked back at the seat pan and the base of the tree, trying to wrap my mind around what I was seeing. It took a few moments, but finally enough mental gears made enough turns and what had been an oddly shaped jumble became the twisted torso of a man. No arms, no legs, no head. The torso still wore the torso portion of a flight suit, held firmly in place by the parachute harness, from which risers led to shroud lines and nylon twisted in the low-hanging branches above. The tangled chute hadn't come down from above, it had been blasted up from the base of the tree. By peering closely I could just make out the lettering on the sodden name tag on the flight suit; the wings and call sign made it a match for the ID card now resting in my chest pocket. This was, or had been, the B/N.

Lights bobbing in the gloom on the other side of the clearing caught my attention. I called out and made my way through the debris to meet the ground team from the range. As I neared the two men my flashlight beam caused a bloom of light to appear in the underbrush. Reflective tape from a flight helmet. The helmet was slightly smudged on one side but otherwise completely intact. The clear visor was down, oxygen mask still fixed in place, chin strap still snapped. It was empty though.

As I met up with the ground team I pulled my helmet off so I could hear what they had to say. I knew one of the fellows slightly, a local Dare County civilian named Mort who'd been a very helpful liaison when we'd been working up a new C-SAR syllabus. The grim look on his face didn't promise a happy report.

"Hey Doc," he said, "there's a body -- well, what's left of a body -- over there by the road." he motioned toward a path through the trees. The other fellow was talking on a hand-held, comming with both the range tower and the Sea King overhead.

"There's one back there, too," I said. "Let's see what ya got."

What they'd discovered was another headless torso, very slightly more intact than the other one, but naked, with no flight suit or harness to hide the pale ugliness of a death caused by high velocity traumatic disarticulation.

Two torsos made a body count of two, accounting for both crewmen, and put paid to the ephemeral, tiny hope for a less than completely awful outcome. I looked at my watch and saw that it wasn't yet 12:30 a.m. Zero-zero-twenty-something. I'd been asleep 90 minutes earlier. I'd been on the ground here only about 10 minutes. It seemed a lot longer.

Rescue adrenaline began to flee from my system and a great weariness began to set in. An imaginary scene began to play unbidden in my mind. A woman, sitting at a dimly lit kitchen table, glancing at a clock, then at the telephone. Wondering whether she should call the squadron or wait a bit longer. On the heels of that scene, another. Dark blue sedans coasting silently into the driveways of two homes.

I tried to halt the emotional plunge I was taking, tried to power through the anguish of disaster. I'd done it often enough before, and it had always been so easy. Just bear down, be professional, execute the mission.

This time it was hard, and I felt like I was only barely hanging on. With a great deal of surprise and no little terror I realized I was on the verge of weeping. Something told me that if I let those taps open I'd have a very hard time closing them.

Another part of me understood what was happening. It had come time to pay the piper. I'd thought I was tough enough to push all the tragedies I'd witnessed away forever. I wasn't.

I bore down and refocused. Within a few moments I was back in control. Pretty much. But a lot had changed in only a few minutes, and I realized that I was no longer the same fellow who had come down the hook.

Back to work.

The three of us stepped up out of the swamp, onto the road, and moved 100 yards west to a place where the trees retreated and offered up a clearing. I handed over the ID card and the bagged hand; the range crew would maintain control of and responsibility for the mishap site until formally relieved by the mishap team in a few hours.

I shook hands with Mort as the other fellow talked to the helo. I lit off my strobe and held it aloft while the big Sea King turned inbound. As the helo's spotlight came on I killed the strobe and stowed it, pulled on my helmet, and watched the rescue strop appear from the darkness. In moments I was up the hook and back aboard, the hatch was secured, and we were moving off into the somber darkness of a tragic night sky.

I strapped in and Zippoed a Camel to life. I felt a part of my heart tear loose and escape with the exhaled smoke. The crew chief handed me a canteen and I absentmindedly drained it. I must have been parched, but I felt no thirst, and no relief after drinking. I couldn't figure out what to do with the empty canteen and shifted it back and forth from hand to hand until the crew chief gently took it away from me.

A-6E's from VA-34 fly a missing man formation over Normandy, June, 1994.


  1. I remember being at a fire in a mobile home from the 1960's, with expanded urea foam insulation. A little old lady escaped,but went back in after something. All that remained when I arrived, were two frame rails, and a smell horribly like pork roast, which I have problems smelling 20+ years later. I was first on scene at a cycle crash involving a drunk, who rode his bike into a brand new barbed wire fence, that veg-a-maticed him. Some things one is just as happy to leave to Fire Rescue to deal with. But you remember.

    1. Thanks Scott. You're right, you do remember.

    2. Good thing us small town boys are tough, isn't it?

    3. Wood smoke, doused with water does it for me. Same smell from the Pentagon on that September day, from the Navy Op center... years pass, the details become fuzzy, but every now and then something snaps it back into sharp relief.
      And you remember...
      W/r, SJS

    4. @Scott, for certain values of tough... :)

    5. @SJS, "snaps it back into sharp relief." You nailed it. Thanks.

  2. I didn't know those two men, but I know men (and now women) just like them. While reading that I pictured the folks I know who crew the gray jets...

    Jesus but it's dusty in here this morning.

    1. Just over 30 years ago. The little kids who lost their fathers that night are grown now, with kids of their own. Freedom isn't free, and the cost is measured in more than dollars and tombstones.

  3. One of my old Pave Low buddies, Paul, had a younger brother who was a diver in the Navy back in the 1990s. That poor bastard had to do the initial dive down to what was left of TWA 800 after it crashed (or was knocked down, depending on who you talk to) near NYC. He said it was awful, the cabin was packed full of dead people in various poses, even the shape of one woman holding her baby. He said it still gave him nightmares every now and then (he was telling me this in 1999, a few years after the crash. Working Rescue as a swimmer, diver or PJ is pretty rough stuff, almost as bad (or even equally bad) as intense ground combat. I knew a lot of PJs that said the combat stuff was easier to handle, in some ways, than the peace-time rescue missions they did.....

    1. That must have been unspeakably awful. The bad stuff I saw happened almost exclusively to active duty folks. Very grateful I never had to deal with shattered kids.

  4. My own experience was with the aftermath of a Willie Fudd doing a backflip off the fantail of the Ticonderoga.
    It wasn't nearly as visceral but the remnants that didn't sink were dark reminders of the business we were in.

  5. A man who had been first in at Tenerife once advised us to never rush to a plane wreck. Everything that assaults the senses will linger for the rest of your lives. I don't know if it was good advise but I never had to put it into practice.

  6. We never know how much we can handle, til we almost can't.
    Do you think it makes a difference in your ability to function in these curcumstances if you are raised in the country? I do, but that is just me.

    1. I've thought about that a good bit, and I agree with you. I think country kids and folks spend more time in nature, dealing with nature's reality, than most.

  7. I was one of the first on the scene of a mid-air that claimed 5 of my best friends. The sight of one of them laying face down next to the pilot's seat that I had hundreds of hours in will never leave me. Sometimes we have to pay the bill for our life in the sky.

    1. When I was a kid reading the stories of famous and heroic military aviators, I noted that many of them said something along the lines of "I couldn't believe they were paying me to have this much fun." I had the same feeling when I began flying. But there's no free lunch. The price can be steep. It's okay though. It's all part of the deal.