On Oct. 26, 1967, Capt. Ed Davidson was flying an F-4 Phantom II and patrolling for North Vietnamese fighter planes while his U.S. Navy aviator colleagues in ground attack planes bombed targets near Hanoi under heavy missile fire.
Davidson, now a well-known Florida Keys environmentalist, dive shop owner and former school board member, was also flying a weather reconnaissance mission to determine the conditions near Hanoi ahead of a strike force of fighter and attack planes from the aircraft carrier Constellation.
“Two strike groups from other carriers, Coral Sea and Oriskany, were also in advance of our strike group, all heading for a target a few miles of Hanoi itself,” Davidson wrote in his self-published book, “The Warrior’s Burden and the Hoof Prints of Butterflies; Letters from South-East Armageddon.”
The book contains transcripts of audio recordings of many of Davidson’s 202 combat flights over Vietnam, including the day the future senator from Arizona, John McCain, was shot down. McCain died this month, four days shy of his 82nd birthday.
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As on many of Davidson’s sorties, he was greeted with a heavy volley of surface to air missile, or SAM, fire that day as he and the roughly 150 other air crews made their way to attack the Van Dien national vehicle storage and repair depot located at the southern end of Hanoi. Davidson said the flak was so thick ahead of his plane from the exploding missile warheads that he at first thought he was flying into black storm clouds.
But then he saw two planes that arrived ahead of him go down.
“There were two airplanes on fire, and the first one hasn’t hit the ground yet,” Davidson said in an interview this week. “And, we’re just going in.”
Then another plane, an A-4 Skyhawk that was flying next to Davidson’s Phantom, was hit too. The Skyhawk went across the nose of his plane “on fire and shedding parts,” Davidson wrote.
The pilot, who managed to eject from the crippled plane, was McCain, Arizona’s longtime Republican senator who died Aug. 25 after a battle with brain cancer.
At the time, Davidson did not know the pilot was McCain, whose father was then a three-star admiral who would eventually be placed in command of the Navy’s Pacific fleet — a fact the Navy was trying hard to keep from the enemy, Davidson said.
“No one identified John on the strike frequency tactical radio channels as the pilot who had been shot down, lest the entire North Vietnamese army should be sent looking for him if he managed to initially evade capture,” Davidson wrote. “But, alas, he had gone down in an urban area and been quickly taken prisoner.”
McCain spent the next five years being tortured, isolated and receiving little to poor medical treatment at the Hoa Lo Prison, which became better known by the POWs stuck there as the “Hanoi Hilton.” When the North Vietnamese learned who McCain’s father was, they offered him early release for propaganda purposes. But the younger McCain famously refused unless everyone else at the prison was released first.
Davidson and the other pilots did not immediately know McCain had been captured. Davidson and another F-4 pilot refueled their planes in mid-air and circled the crash site waiting for a U.S. Sikorsky HH-3E rescue helicopter to arrive. But the rescue operation was called off before the chopper could get there.
Davidson wrote that his plane and the other Phantom “remained in the vicinity of the McCain crash site while being tracked continuously by multiple SAM sites until the rescue effort was abandoned.”
Davidson, now 78, moved to the Keys after his Vietnam service to instruct younger fighter pilots at Naval Air Station Key West. While there, he befriended other Vietnam veterans who were undergoing special operations scuba diving training. He started scuba diving and now runs a dive shop/scuba bed and breakfast in Marathon, Discount Divers.
Looking back, not just at that mission, but the others Davidson flew over North Vietnam, as well as his total of 297 aircraft carrier landings, he said he’s surprised he’s still around and “workin’ on 100.”
“I’m just amazed any of us got out alive,” he said.
To obtain a copy of The Warrior’s Burden, call 305-393-0747 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.