As part of our unit on the Vietnam War we looked at some award-winning photographs. read some poetry and talked about the history and the policy surrounding the war.
In the class, the image “napalm girl” was presented by Dr. Suzanne Scanlon, an art historian at the Rhode Island School of Design.
I remembered these photographs from the 70s. The photograph was taken by Nick UT and won a Pulitzer Prize. The photographer took the young girl to an American Hospital where her wounds were treated, and she survived.
Concurrently, the devastation affecting the civilians in the Ukraine, today, triggered some old memories.
My once forgotten memory of napalm goes back to 1966. I was young intelligence officer for a fighter squadron on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam. My commanding officer thought I would be a better Intelligence officer if I flew on some missions in the back seat of the F4. My Memory of napalm came from one of these missions.
The scheduling officer came to me and said, Ernie, I have a flight today that doesn’t require a Flight officer in the back seat. Would you like a little airborne liberty? I quickly said yes. That meant I could take a flight in the backseat of an F4 and get off the ship for a couple of hours by flying a combat mission over South Vietnam and then returning to the ship. I was still young enough that and every new experience, no matter how dangerous, was worth doing. This would be like any other “joy ride” I had experienced. Two hours before the flight was scheduled to take off, I went to the ready room for the flight briefing. The mission was to fly over South Vietnam, check in with an army airborne spotter in a small plane, and drop canisters of napalm on a target designated by the spotter.
The time came to go up on the flight deck with John, the pilot, and find our assigned aircraft. The plane captain directed us to the aircraft with the side number 104. I walked around the airplane with the pilot as he did his pre-flight check. The plane captain released the ladder and I climbed up and got into the back ejection seat. The plane captain helped me get strap in which consisted of strapping the bottom of the seat to the harness I was wearing and then bringing the over the shoulder restraints down to the center of the lap belt and fastening. I then plugged my helmet into the communications port and was immediately able to hear the flightdeck boss and the operations officer. John, the pilot, did a radio check with me and asked if I was ready to go.
Planes were already leaving the flight deck. We taxied to our position at the catapult and the deck crew got us hooked up to the catapult. At this time communications with the flight deck personnel were with hand signals. John ran the two engines up to full power, went into afterburner and signaled that we were ready to launch. The aircraft was sent down the catapult for about 3 seconds reaching a speed of 165mph. It became airborne.
We climbed to 25,000 feet and headed for rendezvous with the airborne spotter in South Vietnam. at the scheduled time John called for Birddog 36 and notified him that we were overhead. Our call sign was Eggshell 104 and in about 10 minutes we heard Eggshell 104 I will mark your target now with a smoke. We saw the smoke land and the spotter said that it was a good target and cleared us to drop. Because we were dropping napalm it had to be in a low altitude drop so we quickly came down from 25,000 feet two about 1200 feet and started the run in to the drop site with the smoke still visible. We were wings level and suddenly, I felt the aircraft jump up a little bit as the canisters were released. John added power and we immediately started climbing, he broke left which allowed us to look over our shoulders and see the flames and smoke from the canisters that we had dropped.
We went back up to 25,000 feet for our trip back to the aircraft carrier. John checked in with the ship and we had a scheduled slot for landing. We lined up for final. We touched down and the hook caught one of the four wires and we came to a complete stop. I quickly changed into my uniform and went to the intelligence center to resume my real job. My immediate recollection of the flight was “that was fun”.
For a class taught by Jonas Halley we were assigned a poem entitled “Song of Napalm” by Bruce Weigl, which he dedicated to his wife.
….Outside my wild plans and after the hard rain
I turned my back on the old curses. I believed
They swung finally away from me …
But still the branches are wire
And thunder is the pounding mortar,
Still I close my eyes and see the girl
Running from her village, napalm
Stuck to her dress like jelly,
Her hands reaching for the no one
Who waits in waves of heat before her.
I mention this poem because I had not really thought about the effect of napalm on non-combatants or the soldier on the ground who was being exposed to these horrific scenes. The description of “napalm girl” in the poem as well as the photo have caused me to reflect on my participation in the dropping of napalm. My uninformed view in 1966 has been changed significantly through my lessons learned by being a member of the PVCI class in Humanities.