Last week the nation mourned John McCain, honoring him for service as Navy pilot, shot down on a bombing mission over Vietnam, held captive in the ‘Hanoi Hilton” for five years, later representing Arizona in the Senate for more than three decades, twice running for president.
St. George Island resident Gordon Hunter’s political career has not been nearly so illustrious or long-lived.
A decade ago, in his only bid for public office, Hunter missed a run-off for the Milton, Georgia city council by two dozen votes, and that was the end of it. He was too busy flying for Delta Airlines and managing the family’s Christmas tree farm to remain in politics.
But on Oct. 26, 1967, the two men shared something very much in common.
Each piloted an A-4 bomber off of the U.S.S. Oriskany, part of attack squadron VA-163, assigned to target a thermal power plant in downtown Hanoi.
Hunter completed his assignment without incident. But McCain’s plane was hit, he broke both arms and his right knee on ejection, was fished out of Truc Bach Lake and then imprisoned for five years by the North Vietnamese.
“Hanoi was well-protected, we knew it would be in a hot, dangerous situation,” Hunter said, in a Labor Day morning interview. “The idea would be to take out to take out the electrical plant, a huge electrical plant that supplied the city.
“I was too intense doing my job to worry about anybody else,” he said. “But I knew there was a lot of stuff going down. I heard on the radio there were a lot of people being hit.
“(After we returned) we learned we lost McCain. That’s when we knew we lost some guys,” Hunter said.
Now 75 and retired, living on St. George Island and active with the advisory board for the Apalachicola airport, Hunter’s road to that fateful mission more than 50 years ago was far different than McCain, son and grandson of four-star Navy admirals, all graduates of Annapolis.
In contrast to that Navy pedigree, Hunter earned his commission after attending UCLA on a Navy ROTC scholarship, the son of a man who lacked a college education, a "great and supportive father" who worked as a warehouse materials supervisor for Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation.
Born in San Jose, California, he grew up in Saratoga in the Santa Clara Valley, graduating in 1960 from Los Gatos High School. "I just always wanted to be around ships and so forth, always interested in the sea," said Hunter, whose middle name Waterman no doubt foreshadowed that ambition.
After college graduation in 1964, Hunter went to aviation training at Naval Air Station Pensacola, and earned his wings in June 1966, adept at flying the A4 Skyhawk, a small, single-engine, single-pilot attack plane, designed to nimbly drop bombs.
The need to replenish pilots meant Lt. junior grade Hunter would check in to the carrier Oriskany in Oct. 1966, stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin.
He had completed but two flights aboard the ship when on the morning of Oct. 26, he was on the flight deck, slated for a third, to be the first one out.
In the forward flare locker, the Navy later determined, a seaman had accidentally ignited a flare, and in panic, threw it into a weapons locker where flares were stored, rather than over the side of the ship. The resulting explosion and fire raced through five decks, killing 44 men, many of them veteran combat pilots who had flown raids but a few hours earlier.
“My roommates in the junior office bunk room, they were killed in their sleep,” dying from asphyxiation from the white phosphorus smoke, Hunter said. “I had escaped certain death.”
The Oriskany returned to San Diego for repairs, and by June 1967 was back off the coast of Vietnam, where Hunter reassumed his missions with his fellow “Saints,” nickname for his squadron. A pair of jets would fly road reconnaissance, gathering photographic evidence of traffic coming down highways from the North, and then Hunter and his fellow pilots would destroy bridges, trucks, trains, whatever was shipping supplies to replenish Viet Cong forces in the South.
It was exactly one year to the date of the Oriskany fire that the now-famous Alpha strike took place, a formation of 20 bombers assisted by fighter planes.
Hunter had been busy with his daily bombing runs, a junior officer in a close-knit squadron of Saints. “We had a lot of good junior officers, pretty brave guys who knew their way around and were pretty good. We were the young guys being trained under their wings. All of us junior guys becoming seasoned attack pilots ,” he said.
“We would fly probably one a day, and maybe considered a spare for others,” Hunter said. “The ship would be out on the line on station and then we would go back to port in Philippines or to Japan for R and R (rest and relaxation) and then come back on station.”
McCain was new to the Oriskany crew, after his A-4 Skyhawk had been struck by a Zuni missile while aboard the U.S. S. Forrestal, triggered by an electrical surge on another aircraft. Fuel from a leaking tank caught fire, creating a blaze that burned for hours, killing 134, injuring 161, and destroying 21 aircraft, the worst carrier fire since World War II.
Rumors have long persisted that McCain helped trigger the blaze by shooting flames out of his tail exhaust to try to startle the pilot behind him.
“That wouldn’t be true,” Hunter said. “The A4 did not have an afterburner. Only fighter aircraft had that.”
Still, McCain’s reputation preceded him when he was assigned to attack squadron VA-163.
“I knew who he was because he had a reputation in the training,” Hunter said. “He had a reputation for being a ‘screamer,’ a loud guy heavily critical of people flying. Most people did not care for John McCain and his personality.
“He was a screw off at the Naval Academy,” he said, not bringing up the fact McCain had been near dead last in his class. “He was not well-liked and respected. That was just his personality at that time.”
The attack was scheduled for around noon, and the 90-minute mission took off as planned after an early lunch of pork chops.
Hunter’s biggest challenge would be to avoid missiles, crude by today’s high-tech standards, or anti-aircraft fire, 50 mm or 57 mm bullets from heavy machine guns that could tear into a cockpit and wreak havoc.
Wailing sounds, triggered by electrical equipment on the jets that could intercept the missile’s radar beams, alerted pilots of their presence, and prompted them to “jink,” maneuvering the aircraft to dodge them.
“They were almost like flying telephone poles. You could avoid them for the most part if you could see them,” Hunter said.
He also relied on a newly introduced “Walleye” device, the first of what they called “smart bombs,” a television guided bomb where the pilot relied on a screen inside the cockpit where he could lock on the crosshairs, and punch off the glide bomb towards its target.
Following the mission. Hunter went back to work, eventually completing 180 combat missions, before returning to the states to become an instructional pilot. Following active duty, he joined the reserves, and moved to California and then Georgia, where he flew for Delta Airlines for three decades.
His nearest brush with catastrophe had come on Dec. 12, 1967, when his aircraft was hit by ground fire in the vicinity of Ninh Binh, when a bullet entered the port side of the cockpit and lodged in the instrument panel.
He regularly attends squadron reunions, and plans to be at the upcoming 90th birthday party in Demopolis, Alabama, for his skipper Bryan Compton, who went on to become the first commander of the USS Nimitz.
McCain did not attend squadron reunions. “He was new to the squadron, he didn’t have an opportunity to establish personal relations,” said Hunter. “I am sure that his prison experience tempered and humbled him in a great way. I am sure he came out of captivity a completely different man. He was cocky and brash and he came back humbled.
“All of us respected him in his service to the government,” he said. “I think we all have respect for his political career.”