aircraft than SA-7 Grails, the shoulder-launched missiles which

explained the hard deck rule. Sharpshooter’s op plan called for a

rendezvous with one of Jefferson’s KA-6D tankers north of Bangkok for

refueling, after which they were to proceed to the area north of Chiang

Mai. Two of Jefferson’s Tomcats were already flying cover for That

aircraft, though they’d been ordered to stay out of any actual combat.

It was thought that the mere presence of American carrier aircraft would

reassure the Thais of U.S. commitment to their ally.

So far, everything had gone smoothly since the first patrol had been

launched at 0600 that morning.

“Copy, Homeplate,” Tombstone said. “We’ll be good.”

“Uh … Commander?” Dixie’s voice was harsh over the ICS. “We’re

getting some kind of radar sweep. Intermittent like.”

Tombstone could hear the pulse over his headset, a deep-throated twang

like the plucked string on a bass, repeated every few seconds. “Search

radar,” he said. “Probably the airport at Phu Quoc.”

“Jeez, that’s creepy.”

“No big deal, Dixie.” He looked through the canopy to the right. The

coastline of Vietnam lay a hundred miles in that direction, lost in

clouds and distance. He could see a smear to the northeast which might

be Cambodia’s Koh Tang Islands. Vietnam. He thought of his father,

shot down in a raid over Hanoi. “They’re keeping an eye on us, that’s


“Yessir.” He heard the hiss of his RIO’s rapid breathing over the

intercom. “I guess this stuff is old hat to you, huh, Mr. Magruder? I

mean, after Wonsan and all.”

Tombstone wasn’t sure how to answer. Dixon was a newbie. He’d come

aboard at Yokosuka, Jefferson’s last port of call, only three months

earlier, one of the nuggets flown into Japan to replace the men lost

during the raid into North Korea. He was eager, brash, and excited by

the prospect of flying backseat for Tombstone Magruder, but at times the

youngster’s hero worship could be a bit much.

Hero. The word tasted sour. He’d never wanted it applied to him, never

asked for all the fuss.

Matthew Magruder had seen nothing particularly heroic about his actions

over Korea three months before. They’d just … happened. He’d led the

Combat Air Patrol which covered Navy helos ferrying the crew of a U.S.

intelligence ship captured by North Korea to safety. There’d been a

ferocious dogfight with North Korean MiG-21s. During the turning and

burning in the skies above Wonsan, Tombstone’s Tomcat had been hit, his

RIO badly wounded.

Refusing to eject and lose his backseater, he’d somehow limped back to

the Jefferson on one faltering engine, sliding the crippled F-14 into a

flight deck barricade in a shower of sparks.

For Tombstone, there’d been no heroism at the time, no question of

bravery … only a job to be done and his determination not to drop his

unconscious RIO into the gray seas off Wonsan.

The medal they’d given him was a pretty thing, a gold Maltese cross set

against a sunburst with the image of a sailing ship in the center. The

ribbon was dark blue, bisected by a single vertical white stripe. The

commendation that went with it declared that Lieutenant Commander

Matthew Magruder had, during the period from 26 September to,30

September of that year, “distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism

in military operations against an armed enemy.” It went on to mention

his six combat kills and the rescue of the wounded Naval Flight Officer

in his aircraft.

The Navy Cross was the highest decoration possible short of the

Congressional Medal of Honor, and the CMH was awarded only for actions

against a nation actually at war with the United States. The Wonsan

strike had not been part of a war, not in the traditional sense; it was

typical instead of this new era of international politics, when nations

threatened and maneuvered, when ships and aircraft clashed … but when

the victories were won or lost by politicians.

Men were wounded or killed for the sake of those victories, though, just

as in a real war. That was the tragedy, one which no medal could


He pushed the thought from his mind. Tombstone decided that his father

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Categories: Keith Douglass