Category Archives: Heroes

But he’ll remember with advantages What feats he did that day

This is pretty cool.

A significant number of the actors from HBO’s “Band of Brothers” did this a couple of years back, 20 years after the release of the series. But I didn’t see it until now.

I wish I’d seen it on D-Day itself, but hey, the Battle of Normandy was still far from won on June 7. So I pass it on, and hope you enjoy. Curahee!

It starts with “Captain Winters,” but you’ll recognize a number of the guys. Quite a few are Brits, which works well with Shakespeare, as they don’t have to put on American accents. But there are some Yanks as well — “Malarkey” and yes, the incomparable “George Luz.” (Actually, Luz should have done it as an impersonation of Major Horton.)

One or two of the guys look too young to have played soldiers two decades earlier. But on the whole, you see graybeards who seem ready to play the “old man” part of the “Henry V” speech:

He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’

Of course, the real old men, the ones with real scars to show, are all gone now. At least, all the ones whose portrayers in the series had speaking parts. (Unless you know of someone I don’t know about.) To them truly should go the honor.

But I also honor everyone involved in this series. And I’m glad quite a few of the real guys were still alive to see the tribute, and be a part of it.

I think this is James Madio, who played Frank Perconte. Isn’t it?

Here we are now, in a world without Chuck Yeager

2560px-Chuck_Yeager

There’s a blog post I’ve been meaning to write in recent days expressing my great disappointment with the Disney+ TV series, “The Right Stuff.” It is a strange, flat, uninviting and even depressing retelling of the tale of the seven Mercury astronauts. That’s it, just the astronauts. Nothing about the context in which they came into being. Nothing about the culture of test pilots that produced them, and set the standard they wanted to live up to.

No Chuck Yeager. How can you name a series after that concept Tom Wolfe introduced into our popular lexicon, and leave Chuck Yeager out of it?

Chuck was the embodiment of the Right Stuff, and the whole world — the world of pilots, at least, knew it. Early in Wolfe’s book, he wrote about the way airline pilots act and talk — their matter-of-factness, their lollygaggin’ lack of concern about potential problems in flight (“I believe it’s that little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right…”), their folksy accents — and traced it all to back to the influence that one man had upon the world of aviation, that man being Yeager. They all wanted to fly like him, they all wanted to be him, and failing that, they would at least sound like him.

Because he not only had the right stuff, he was the right stuff.

What, exactly, was this “ineffable quality” of which Wolfe wrote?

… well, it obviously involved bravery. But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life. . .any fool could do that. . . . No, the idea. . .seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment–and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day. . . . There was a seemingly infinite series of tests. . .a dizzy progression of steps and ledges. . .a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even–ultimately, God willing, one day–that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself….

And at the top of the top of that ol’ pyramid was Yeager.

It’s not just about breaking the sound barrier. Yeager was just the ultimate pilot’s pilot. Yes, he was a natural stick-and-rudder man, and the wonderful movie version of Wolfe’s book back in the ’80s captured that and played it for all it was worth, but he also thoroughly understood the machine he flew on a fundamental level. He wasn’t an engineer — he had his friend Jack Ridley, and others, for that — but he was a guy whose reports the engineers liked to read, because he knew what they needed to be told.

And yes, he was a hero, long before breaking that demon that lived in the thin air. A fighter pilot was considered an ace when he’d shot down five enemy planes. Yeager did that in one day. He shot down Me-109s and Focke-Wulf 190s, and even one of those jets the Nazis built. He had sort of a superpower: With his unaided eyes, he could see the enemy coming 50 miles away. But mainly, he outflew and outfought them. Not that he was invulnerable. He got shot down behind German lines, but escaped back to England. That meant he had to go home — he knew things that could endanger the underground if he were shot down again and captured. But he bucked it all the way up to Ike, and Ike let him stay and keep fighting.

He hadn’t been to college, and wasn’t an officer when he started flying in the war. But he broke that barrier, too — he was a captain when he flew the X-1 into history, and his repeatedly demonstrated skill, courage and dedication took him all the way to the rank of brigadier general.

And now he’s gone, and we won’t see his like. As bad as it is to have a TV show called “The Right Stuff” without Yeager in it, now we all have to live in a world that doesn’t have him. Man is mortal, and bound to end up this way. But Yeager packed an awful lot of awesome stuff into the 97 years before that….

Jack Van Loan, a hero and a friend

Jack Van Loan, seated, at the dedication of his statue in Five Points in 2016.

Jack Van Loan, seated, at the dedication of his statue in Five Points in 2016.

I first heard the sad news last night, after my daughter saw a mention on social media, from a mutual acquaintance. Now, The State has confirmed it: My friend Jack Van Loan passed away over the weekend.

I guess I should have seen this coming. Early last year, sometime before I joined the Smith campaign, I’d had a conversation in which Jack, who normally identified as Republican, told me how he was fully on board in supporting James for governor. But then, months later when I called to ask him to participate in a presser we were doing with other veterans, I learned that his health wasn’t up to it.

So I knew the years were catching up on him.

I’m just so sorry to see it. I’m going to note his passing by rerunning this column from January 2008, about his and his friend John McCain’s experiences at the Hanoi Hilton. I wrote about Jack on other occasions as well, such as this piece showing him playing a king-making role in local politics as the unofficial “mayor of Five Points,” but I think Jack would most want to be remembered for this one. It’s the thing that looms largest in my memory of him, anyway:

What it was really like at the ‘Hanoi Hilton’

By BRAD WARTHEN
Editorial Page Editor
ON MAY 20, 1967, Air Force pilot Jack Van Loan was shot down over North Vietnam. His parachute carried him to Earth well enough, but he landed all wrong.
“I hit the ground, and I slid, and I hit a tree,” he said. This provided an opportunity for his captors at the prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton.”
“My knee was kind of screwed up and they … any time they found you with some problems, then they would, they would bear down on the problems,” he said. “I mean, they worked on my knee pretty good … and, you know, just torturing me.”
In October of Jack’s first year in Hanoi, a new prisoner came in, a naval aviator named John McCain. He was in really bad shape. He had ejected over Hanoi, and had landed in a lake right in the middle of the city. He suffered two broken arms and a broken leg ejecting. He nearly drowned in the lake before a mob pulled him out, and then set upon him. They spat on him, kicked him and stripped his clothes off. Then they crushed his shoulder with a rifle butt, and bayoneted him in his left foot and his groin.
That gave the enemy something to “bear down on.” Lt. Cmdr. McCain would be strung up tight by his unhealed arms, hog-tied and left that way for the night.
“John was no different than anyone else, except that he was so badly hurt,” said Jack. “He was really badly, badly hurt.”
Jack and I got to talking about all this when he called me Wednesday morning, outraged over a story that had appeared in that morning’s paper, headlined “McCain’s war record attacked.” A flier put out by an anti-McCain group was claiming the candidate had given up military information in return for medical treatment as a POW in Vietnam.
This was the kind of thing the McCain campaign had been watching out for. The Arizona senator came into South Carolina off a New Hampshire win back in 2000, but lost to George W. Bush after voters received anonymous phone calls telling particularly nasty lies about his private life. So the campaign has been on hair-trigger alert in these last days before the 2008 primary on Saturday.
Jack, a retired colonel whom I’ve had the privilege of knowing for more than a decade, believes his old comrade would make the best president “because of all the stressful situations that he’s been under, and the way he’s responded.” But he had called me about something more important than that. It was a matter of honor.
Jack was incredulous: “To say that John would ask for medical treatment in return for military information is just preposterous. He turned down an opportunity to go home early, and that was right in front of all of us.”
“I mean, he was yelling it. I couldn’t repeat the language he used, and I wouldn’t repeat the language he used, but boy, it was really something. I turned to my cellmate … who heard it all also loud and clear; I said, ‘My God, they’re gonna kill him for that.’”
The North Vietnamese by this time had stopped the torture — even taken McCain to the hospital, which almost certainly saved his life — and now they wanted just one thing: They wanted him to agree to go home, ahead of other prisoners. They saw in him an opportunity for a propaganda coup, because of something they’d figured out about him.
“They found out rather quick that John’s father was (Admiral) John Sidney McCain II,” who was soon to be named commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, Jack said. “And they came in and said, ‘Your father big man, and blah-blah-blah,’ and John gave ’em name, rank and serial number and date of birth.”
But McCain refused to accept early release, and Jack says he never acknowledged that his Dad was CINCPAC.
Jack tries hard to help people who weren’t there understand what it was like. He gave a speech right after he finally was freed and went home. His father, a community college president in Oregon and “a consummate public speaker,” told him “That was the best talk I’ve ever heard you give.”
But, his father added: “‘They didn’t believe you.’
“It just stopped me cold. ‘What do you mean, they didn’t believe me?’ He said, ‘They didn’t understand what you were talking about; you’ve got to learn to relate to them.’”
“And I’ve worked hard on that,” he told me. “But it’s hard as hell…. You might be talking to an audience of two or three hundred people; there might be one or two guys that spent a night in a drunk tank. Trying to tell ‘em what solitary confinement is all about, most people … they don’t even relate to it.”
Jack went home in the second large group of POWs to be freed in connection with the Paris Peace Talks, on March 4, 1973. “I was in for 70 months. Seven-zero — seventy months.” Doctors told him that if he lived long enough, he’d have trouble with that knee. He eventually got orthoscopic surgery right here in Columbia, where he is an active community leader — the current president of the Columbia Rotary.
John McCain, who to this day is unable to raise his hands above his head — an aide has to comb his hair for him before campaign appearances — was released in the third group. He could have gone home long, long before that, but he wasn’t going to let his country or his comrades down.
The reason Jack called me Wednesday was to make sure I knew that.

Jack Van Loan, campaigning for his friend John McCain back in 2007.

Jack Van Loan, campaigning for his friend John McCain back in 2007.