Out of the MIST
Vietnam pilots reunite in Lake Oswego
When they shared a barracks, the highlight of the week was the annual Wednesday Party, ironically named for an ironic group of young men who had little in common before the Vietnam War other than their nerve.
But when they meet again, roughly 40 years later, the high point of their three-day reunion is to dine under the wing of a camouflage-painted F-100 jet fighter. As guests of the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, they savor filet mignon and grilled salmon and asparagus.
Since the war, the parties have changed.
Once part of a squad of classified fighter pilots known as the MISTYs, this group used to dine on powdered eggs from the 'Chow Hole,' initially at the Phu Cat Air Base in Vietnam. But since then, they have gone on to uncommon levels of achievement, garnering national and international prestige, some as political advisers, others as world-record setters and career military men. Rations are a thing of the past.
For their reunion this week, they gather first at the Lake Oswego home of Gen. Merrill 'Tony' McPeak, a former MISTY pilot and squadron leader who later served as Air Force Chief of Staff under the first Bush Administration. He is now one of a close group of advisers to Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama, advising Obama on military matters.
A cocktail party at McPeak's riverside condominium in Old Town is the first meeting of the MISTYs Sunday. In the days that follow, the weather cooperates, a mostly sunny 80 degrees, for golfing and a handful of sight-seeing tours.
The group of 35 settles at the Lakeshore Inn on Oswego Lake and flows in and out of Room 43, a courtesy rendezvous suite. As their itinerary clicks forward, they wear a path past the sunning ducks on the rocks of Lakewood Bay.
And at first glance, the group of self-described 'old guys' looks like typical vacationers. Waiting on their chartered bus for a winery tour on Monday, they gather on South State Street in the standard retiree fashions of smart shoes and witty T-shirts. They tote cocktails and books or brochures. And the humor, the nicknames, the unmistakable hallmarks of old friendship are in the air.
But a closer look shows there is something else to be seen. That straight posture of military men. The wire-rimmed, smooth sunglasses of aviators. The stubbornly concealed war injuries. Shirt logos: MISTY.
The name is an unofficial one. MISTY was the radio call sign used by pilots who were part of a squadron known as the 'The Commado Sabre Operation' during the Vietnam War.
Begun June 15, 1967, their work was initially classified. The missions came after President Lyndon Johnson approved the bombing of North Vietnam and were a response to efforts by the North Vietnamese to move massive amounts of men and material south during the war. At the time, U.S. forces numbered more than 200,000 in South Vietnam. With two pilots to a plane, the MISTYs' objective was to disrupt supplies and equipment on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main supply route between North and South Vietnam.
While in the air, MISTY pilots looked for trucks, bulldozers, bridges, boats and weapons, all things that often were hidden below daily changing camouflage. On their missions, the pilots flew low and fast, outrunning the gunners on the floor of the trail. Flying at speeds as fast as 600 miles an hour, they would 'jink' or swing the planes every three to five seconds, fast enough to outrun the flight of a 37mm round from the trail. From the second seat, the passenger pilot would man maps and radios, then called in air strikes from the Air Force and Navy as the first pilot marked targets.
The MISTYs' selection for their job was hardly random. Though all were volunteers, they were rigorously screened for ability and thought to be the best talent from every fighter squadron of the air forces at the time of the Vietnam War.
'All fighter pilots have a saying: Speed is life. In this case, high speed is life,' said McPeak. 'Air combat is kind of a unique activity. It's a skill. You have to start with a certain amount of talent. Then you have to have a lot of training. Then at the end, the ability to fight in the air is still unevenly distributed.'
Asked about the skills of the MISTYs, McPeak smirks. If you're planning an air fight for Sunday, he said, I have your pilots.
Days before the reunion, McPeak meets for a cup of coffee to talk about his guests. Asked to describe their early days, he leans on an elbow.
'Most of them were barely socialized as fighter pilots. They would be a failure in polite company,' he said.
But something has changed since.
Of the group of 35 MISTYs in Lake Os-wego, 'Half a dozen or so have achieved some kind of celebrity,' said McPeak. 'That's probably a bigger percent than you would expect in such a small group.'
On the guest list?
Gen. Ronald Fogleman, McPeak's successor as the Air Force Chief of Staff; Maj. Gen. Don Sheppard, former head of the Air National Guard and also an author and CNN commentator; and Lt. Dick Rutan, who set multiple international flying records, including one for flying a plane around the world on a single tank of gas.
Also on the guest list is McPeak's Republican counterpart in Col. George 'Bud' Day, a Medal of Honor winner who has spent the last few months granting an estimated 40 interviews about his prisoner of war experiences with Republican Presidential Nominee John McCain.
Of the original 157 MISTY pilots, there is one Medal of Honor winner in Day, two astronauts, six general officers and one Collier Trophy winner.
To explain that kind of success, Rutan points back to the barracks.
'We flew long, hazardous missions and it was all volunteer so the people who naturally migrated to that kind of thing had the same kind of character to apply to what they would achieve in later years,' he said.
'After it was over, I was never so proud to be a part of anything ... to be associated with people that were that brave,' he said.
For some MISTYs, the path from bravery to achievement is an obvious one.
McPeak, a former squadron leader, says his zero-casualty record while at the helm of the MISTYs helped propel his military career to the highest office of the Air Force.
And Day, who is believed to be the most decorated living war veteran with approximately 70 medals, became famous as the only man ever to escape the North Vietnamese after being shot down on a MISTY mission Aug. 26, 1967.
Day was the commander of the MISTYs at the time and was captured as a prisoner of war after ejecting from a plane crippled by ground fire. With a broken arm and back and eye injuries, he escaped his captors and crossed back into South Vietnam. He was later re-captured and remained a prisoner of war until February 1973. In the interim, he shared a cell with then-Navy Lt. Comm. John S. McCain III and has actively campaigned with McCain since.
Outside the Lakeshore Inn in Lake Oswego, Day strikes an odd pose aside McPeak, who says his personal relationship with Barack Obama sold him on the merits of the presidential candidate.
While Day helps McCain gauge the mood of American voters, McPeak advises Obama on military issues. The two veterans have stood on opposite sides of the nation's political divide for years, and in 2004 cast opposing viewpoints in the Swift Boat Veterans debate.
In 2008, they have an ear of the nation's next president between them, but Day shrugs off any notion that their political views would ever break the ties he and McPeak share as MISTY veterans.
'Tony's got a little different view on it,' said Day. 'That's America. What makes politics and horse races is a difference of opinion.'
For others in the MISTY group, their lives of accomplishment are not as clearly traced to their war years.
'One of the reasons is the guys stayed with the military a long time,' said Don Sheppard, author of the books 'MISTY' and 'Bury us Upside Down,' a chronicle of MISTY tours.
The other reason, said Sheppard, is personality.
MISTYs were high-energy people, he said. 'And a high energy person tends to achieve and move up in any organization.'
Also among the MISTY ranks, though not on the Lake Oswego trip, are astronauts Roy Bridges and Lacy Veach. The late Roger Winblade, who retired as NASA's Chief of the General Aviation Division, was also a MISTY. And so was P.J. White, founder of Sandia Airways in New Mexico.
Of all the former MISTYS, eight were killed in action and three are unaccounted for later in life. The rest led lives as doctors, engineers, teachers and lawyers. Several are high-ranking corporate officials or chief executive officers in their own companies.
There is also an international jewelry importer, an oil exploration executive and a coffee farmer in Panama. There's even an evangelical preacher by the name of Charlie 'Whispering' Smith.
Many MISTYs became commercial airline pilots or flew private jets. Almost all still fly.
This reunion of former flyers is just practice, jokes one MISTY in the queue for the winery tour. It's a joke common to the MISTYs, who now meet every year or two but refer to the early reunions, before their first squadron leader Day returned as a prisoner of war, as 'practice reunions.' There is no official reunion count.
As time goes by, Sheppard said, things get less and less official.
'The stories get better, the gunfire gets thicker … The older I get the worse our memories get, so we get into more arguments. You get guys who were on the same mission and they can't remember who was in the front seat and who was in the back.'
But they still remember who they were in a rough war that cost 58,000 American lives. And amid the jokes and the cocktails and the revelry in Lake Oswego, they remember who their friends were.