By lex, on March 1st, 2007
It’s funny how the memory well can run dry, and then something comes along and primes the pump and there’s one story after another waiting to spill out of you. This one, like yesterday’s, is not my own, but told to me by the man to whom it happened. Another Marine captain, an instructor in the TA-4J training squadron in Meridian, Mississippi. Had a livid scar across his eyebrow, a white line that ran from atop his brow half way to his right ear.
I often wondered how he got it. One day, without prompting, he told me.
It was a night bombing hop out of Cubi Point Naval Air Station, south of Olongapo in the Philippines. He was dash-2 on a dark and drizzling night – a night maybe, where wisdom might have called for discretion as the better part of valor, but that was not our culture in those days. We didn’t scrub for darkness, and we didn’t scrub for weather if there was any way around it. Only non-hacks cancelled. They were Marine attack pilots. They were going flying.
It was a ten-second separation take-off, and he watched through the bulletproof glass in front of him as the taillight of his lead faded into the muggy darkness. Having waited the allotted time, he ran his engine up to mil, released the brakes and felt the familiar kick of the A-4F “SuperFox” engine behind him. Dark enough to be on and off the gauges on the go, backing up the runway edge lights as they flashed by with his AJB-3 gyro-compass. The little bomber’s nose got light at 120 knots, and at computed lift off speed he hauled back on the stick. Reluctantly, the heavy jet rotated to a take-off attitude, and up came the flaps as he transitioned to level flight above the harbor. After a moment to climb and gain some airspeed on course, he turned hard left to avoid mountainous terrain a mile or two ahead.
In the turn he strained over his left shoulder to re-acquire his lead’s tail light in the gloom, finally finding it, nearer than he had anticipated. He focused with all of his energy on setting the light in the proper quadrant of his forward glare shield, trying his best to be a good wingman and make a safe rendezvous. The sight picture looked strange – the lead’s tail light seemed to grow far too quickly, and – alarmed – he pulled the throttle back to idle and extended the speed brakes in anticipation of an under-run. Still the light loomed ever closer, and he wrapped the jet up in a hard, belly-up turn, trying to shred airspeed as best he could – trying to avoid a collision. The last thing he distinctly recalled hearing before he struck the water’s surface at a 150 knots was the wheedling cry of the radar altimeter – which, given his intended altitude, didn’t make any sense.
There was a single bright flash of pain, and then down came the darkness like a falling curtain, and the darkness lasted an indeterminate time.
When he awoke, it was in slow stages and he felt pain in several places. He did not know where he was or how he had come to be there, only that he was heavily seated in a cramped space and restrained around the shoulders and hips. Something warm flowed across his face while a cool wetness rose around his legs, climbing to mid thigh. The snoring sound of his oxygen mask was loud in his ears, but louder still was the voice of Ray, his roommate, “It’s time to wake up, Mark. It’s time to go.”
“Tired,” he tried to reply through thickened lips, adding, “hurts.”
“I know, but you’ve got to try, you’ve got to get up, we’ve got to go,” and now he felt his roommate shaking him, slapping him around and he raised his arms in protest even as he came more fully awake and aware of his surroundings.
He was seated in the cockpit of his A-4F SuperFox, at the bottom of Subic Bay. He had cracked his head against the eight-day clock on impact – the light he had been attempting to rendezvous on was not his lead’s tail light but instead a navigational buoy in the harbor – the warmth across his face was blood, one of his legs was broken and the fingers of his left hand were smashed. The pain washed over him with panic following close behind – the water around his legs was rising. For a moment he considered pulling the ejection handle, even reached up for it, but his roommate shouted at him, “NO!” and he realized that Ray was right. The canopy would never clear under the water pressure, if he didn’t break his neck when he slammed into it, he’d burn to death when the seat’s rocket motor initiated in the enclosed cockpit.
“The knife. Use your K-bar,” Ray said in a conversational voice, and for the first time Mark felt a moment of scratching doubt at how his roommate had come to be with him in the cramped cockpit of a single-seat attack jet that was underwater.
He pushed these thoughts aside and retrieved the rugged Marine knife from its position on his survival vest, turning it end over to hammer against his canopy above him, to break it so that he could swim away and even as he started to strike at it with all his desperate strength he heard Ray’s voice as if in a receding whisper, “Your harness. Release your harness first,” and he admitted that to be a good idea. He released the Koch fittings that had restrained him in the seat and even as the water rose around his chest he hammered at the Plexiglas above him with everything he had and there was a hole! And water rushed through like a spigot and it was cold but he kept on hammering until the canopy gave way in chunks and the spigot became a torrent pressing down on him and he felt Ray pulling him roughly up by the shoulders – he’d come back! – felt Ray pull him out of the cockpit, cutting his left arm on the Plexiglas as he came out and Mark felt a flash of resentment at this new assault but then he was rising up through the black water, his life preserver automatically inflating as the salt water hit his FLU-8P actuators and he was trying to remember to keep exhaling as he ascended, keep exhaling because you didn’t want to hold the pressurized air in and cause an embolism, not after all that.
When he got to the surface, the IP told me, Ray was gone. Which only made sense, he said, staring me in the eye as if daring me to question him, or begging me to explain it because, he said, even if somehow the laws of physical space and probability had been overcome, his roommate had died in a fiery crash off-target during a practice bombing mission the week before.
That was the story he told me. Other Marine instructors verified that this had been the only story he had ever told, and that the outer details were undoubtedly true – he had become disoriented during a rendezvous on a filthy night, and flown into the water. His roommate, with whom he had been particularly close, even by the standards of the service, had indeed died the week before.
“But what about the roommate, down in the cockpit,” I asked. “Do you believe any of that’s true?”
They grimaced a bit, exchanged glances and shook their heads a little, before finally replying, “He thinks it is.”