Official trailer for the new PBS documentary series, ‘The Vietnam War’ a film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
The latest documentary by filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick has brought much attention to the Vietnam War, including the precursors to the large-scale American intervention there. One of these involved naval aviation in World War II.
By January 1945, Allied forces had fought their way across the Pacific to the point where attacks could be made against the Japanese in the Far East, one location being French Indochina (later called Vietnam).
That month, U.S. Navy aircraft carriers launched strikes against targets there. The ships were under the command of Vice Adm. John S. McCain, whose 8-year old grandson would later experience a defining point in his life in the same region. Among the carriers was Ticonderoga, one of the ships destined to launch aircraft in response to the Tonkin Gulf incident in August 1964.
The naval aircraft targeted Saigon, the experiences of two aviators capturing the intensity of the enemy defenses. Attacking a merchant ship, Lt. Robert L. Thiene’s F6F Hellcat was hit by a 37mm shell, its fuse cap penetrating the cockpit and striking the young aviator in the head. Fracturing his skull, the metal came to rest next to his brain. The airplane immediately went into a spin from an altitude of 7,000 feet, from which Thiene was able to recover despite his vision being impaired.
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He recovered from a second spin and was flying around aimlessly off the coast when his division leader positioned his F6F on Thiene’s wing. With the wounded aviator sniffing an ammonia vial to remain conscious, the pair flew a distance of 260 miles to the carrier Yorktown (CV 10), on which Thiene successfully landed before being rushed to sick bay, where the fuse cap was removed from his head.
Meanwhile, as he strafed Ton Son Nhut Airport, later a major American air base during the Vietnam War, Lt. j.g. Blake Moranville took a 20mm round in the engine of his F6F Hellcat and made a forced landing in a rice paddy. Taken prisoner by the Vichy French, he was initially held in Saigon. Then, fearing the Japanese would discover him, the French captors sent him and other captured U.S. aviators north to a French Foreign Legion outpost on the outskirts of Hanoi.
As the Japanese turned against the Vichy French, the men joined Legionnaires trekking through the jungle to Dien Bien Phu, from which the Americans were eventually evacuated by an Army Air Forces C-47 on March 28, 1945, just two days before Japanese forces arrived.
Over the course of 75 days, Moranville visited places that would become familiar as the French fought to maintain control of Vietnam and America engaged in its extended war there.
The signing of the surrender ending World War II in September 1945, ended naval aviation’s first chapter in French Indochina. Half a world away, on the streets of Annapolis, Naval Academy midshipmen participated in a parade celebrating the event. Among them were members of the Class of 1947, which included one midshipman from Abingdon, Illinois, and another from Mobile, Alabama. Both were destined to play signature roles when naval aviation again flew into harm’s way over Southeast Asia, from the first combat strikes to the final homecoming from a torturous captivity. Yet, that lay in future.
For the moment James Stockdale and Jeremiah Denton joined the rest of the world celebrating the coming of peace.
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