January 25, 2019

All of them blessed and enriched my life.  The first one also saved it.

Bob Hoover

Bob Hoover (1922-2016), “one of the greatest pilots ever to have lived,” was the chief bob hoovertest pilot at North American Aviation during the development of the F-100. As the first aircraft to fly faster than the speed of sound, it had some new “widow-maker” characteristics that Hoover sorted out. One was its inability to come out of a spin. Most planes spin if you sufficiently mishandle them, but there is a remedy for recovery, but not the F-100, as Hoover concluded after several really wild test hops. So he discovered a way to recognize the onset of a spin and the antidote to stop it before it developed further. He came to our F-100 class at Cannon AFB, NM, in 1968 and taught us that procedure, then we adjourned to the bar and heard flying stories that, coming from any other living soul we would have called fairy tales. (I’ve cleaned up the language a bit.) He was a plane whisperer—he could make any plane do supernatural things, as millions of people worldwide witnessed when he flew his yellow P-51 and Shrike Commander at airshows. I got to reconnect with Bob at Oshkosh, the nation’s largest airshow, in 2000, when we shared the speakers stage (think of me like the aspiring nobody that opens for a Willie Nelson show) and thank him again for teaching me the Hoover solution, and bear witness to the fact that it works wonderfully. I never lost a beat in the battle. Not incidentally, I also relearned that no matter how intense the fight one must always fly the airplane… And I thanked him on behalf of my children, who but for him would never have been born. A “pilot’s pilot.” 

Mark Berent

This week’s tactics confab (coffee and war stories) was with Mark Berent, age 87 and cimg6048he still doesn’t drool in his coffee. In fact I’d bet he could still do a Cuban eight in his F-4E or F-100 and not spill a drop. Mark had a Vietnam tour in F-100’s, then went back to the war a few years later in an F-4E, the most advanced fighter then in the inventory.  He commanded the Wolf FAC Squadron, the follow-on to the Misty FAC’s with a much improved loss rate from enemy AAA fire. “Papa Wolf” was his call sign.  Then he retired and wrote 5 New York Times bestselling novels about that air war. Other than that and running the Marine Corps Marathon the first time when most of us are reaching for the rocking chair, his life has been unremarkable…  Mark’s been a great friend, benefactor and inspiration to me for many years! Get his first bestseller in ebook free at Amazon: Rolling Thunder

Robert L. Scott

Bob Scott (1908-2006) was a double Ace (13 kills) in WW II flying a (single seat) P-40 cimg5729with the Flying Tigers in China.  He would have been a triple ace but for solid cloud layers below that kept anyone from actually seeing a few other falling out-of-control-on-fire Japanese planes hit the ground, a requirement for a counter. He retired a Brigadier General and spent most of his retirement as a highly successful fundraiser for the Georgia Museum of Aviation, now the second largest AF museum in the country.  I got invited to speak at a fundraiser there honoring Bob Scott, then a gregarious 90 years old, and we became friends.  He wrote a best-seller, God is My Co-Pilot, which was made into a very popular movie in 1945. The above  picture with a signed copy of his book in my hand and mine in his, was taken in front of his P-40 at the museum, not far from where an F-100 that I flew in combat resides. I have good cause to believe that Bob Scott is dancing the wild blue with his Maker now, and, notwithstanding the title of his book, he now knows God was his Pilot-In-Command.

Bud Day

I met Medal of Honor winner Bud Day (1925-2013), “the most highly decorated bud day_1987military officer since General Douglas MacArthur,” when I got invited to speak at a Misty FAC reunion in Colorado Springs in ‘98. He was the commander of the unit, flying F-100’s, when he was shot down and captured.  Bud spent 5 years and 7 months in the infamous Hanoi Hilton as a POW, where he escaped captivity and nearly made it back to friendly forces—they were in sight when the enemy recaptured him and made his life even more of a hell-on-earth, but gained him the MOH.  He returned home and finished out his AF career, then retired and went to law school, became a lawyer and spent the rest of his life fighting for military veterans’ benefits promised but never paid to vets by our government, of which all vets owe him a huge debt. In my speech to the Misty FAC’s, among whom were two Air Force generals, Don Shepperd and AF Chief of Staff Ronald Fogleman, I said I was honored to be invited to the greatest concentration of heroes ever assembled in one room since Bud Day dined alone in his cell at the Hanoi Hilton. The whole room applauded. Bud was the first one up to the podium when I was through, extending his humble hand and saying, “God bless your heart!” Would that mine were as big and brave as his.  

    What a blessing it has been to have lived and flown in an era with such fighter pilot icons, three of them in the same supersonic angel as I, and to have our contrails cross and become friends. Thank you, Lord.

jdf100 angled and tiger shot



January 19, 2019

Foz and I had our monthly tactics confab (coffee and war stories) yesterday. Exactly half-a-century ago and half-a-world away, on the shore of the south China Sea, we were hot stuff fighter jocks living our dreams—the best the US military aviation training program could turn out.  Badass, as the current cool talkers like to say SOT-for-homepage-Xmas-11.jpgwithout knowledge! I flew on his wing and literally trusted him with my life through some of the darkest nights and double dog doo weather we’ve seen before or since. Our joint ventures saved many American mothers’ sons from violent death while visiting same upon the enemy. Not least, we survived to tell about it. I was flying his wing and took this picture of him—Bob Fosnot—leading us home at dawn from one tough scramble off the alert pad. He may not fit your fighter pilot image now, but that night he was lean and mean and hirsute, the conditions were nightmarish, and we were kickin’ butt—100 or so grateful Special Forces grunts survived to celebrate that same spectacular sunup.

The contrast between life then and now is so stark the mind spins. Today we’re just two doddering old toads drooling in our coffee cups, laughing ourselves silly, and struggling to understand a world we don’t recognize. But we’re still here on the preferred side of the grass and loving it, and grateful to God for every minute of our uncommon lives and loves, and living proof that Grace is truly Amazing.


tigershot for ag web (2)Fuzzy-tiger-shot-small.jpg

*Son of Thunder is a novel based on my experience in the 309th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 31st Tactical Fighter Wing, Tuy Hoa AB, Republic of Vietnam from June 1968 to May 1969. It is historical fiction, and as such the places and names and world events are non-fiction and the plot is fiction. Most of the flying experiences were mine with varying degrees of embellishment, and some were made up of whole cloth.

I came across a blurb from a blog I wrote a few years ago that still seems to be a pretty good thumbnail of the American fighter pilot culture in combat in the mid-20th century.  “At Dusty’s Pub, the junior officers’ hangout on the beach of the South China Sea, where humility was an unknown attribute, we never credited our killed-by-air and busted enemy asset tallies to anything other than superior skill and cunning, and in a single-seat jet no one else would know what panic and pandemonium may have taken place in that mini-mobile office in the heat of battle. Now, well into codgerhood, Foz and I readily agreed it was by God’s grace alone that we survived not only the best the enemy could throw at us, but also our own adrenaline addiction.  Nothing fed that addiction like laying napalm down at 50 feet above the ground and 400 knots, walking 20-millimeter exploding bullets through an enemy force coming through the concertina wire of a friendly base camp, or jinking in the crosshairs of enemy AAA. Gen. Robert E. Lee was a kindred spirit in this regard: ‘It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.’”

As I mentioned earlier, the contrast between life then and now is so stark the mind spins.

Over the Valley of the Shadow of Death

July 21, 2018

Fifty years ago today, on a sanctifying Sunday morning in the summer of ’68:





“First Lieutenant Jerry D. Wetterling distinguished himself by heroism as an F-100 pilot flying close air support at the northwest end of the A Shau Valley, Republic of Vietnam on 21 July 1968.  On that date, Lieutenant Wetterling diverted from a scheduled road interdiction mission to a location of active anti-aircraft guns. Although another aircraft had been shot down only moments before, Lieutenant Wetterling attacked these guns with complete disregard for his own personal safety. As a result two guns sites with several guns each were destroyed. The outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty displayed by Lieutenant Wetterling reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”

Notwithstanding the boilerplate language of the citation, the reality was far from distinguished flying. Panic-stricken stick and rudder input that should have destroyed plane and pilot, every novice mistake in the books, and inexplicably suicidal snap decisions amid enveloping tracer fire were overridden by a gracious God for His glory and my good—my literal survival and everlasting gratitude. Like the cross where the Son of God, the real hero of human history, chose to die to save my soul, this pot metal Maltese imitation is a memorial to the Sovereign Grace of the Author and Finisher of my life, my faith and my eternal salvation. Soon enough I’ll exchange it for a crown.  

The humbling details:

July 21, 1968, was a magnificent Sunday morning for a baptism by fire.  Below a cloudless blue sky a meandering, tan mullion of sand separated the lush green jungle of Vietnam from the emerald and sapphire stained glass of the South China Sea. Fire and brimstone were not a part of the spectacular scenery we beheld from our cruising altitude of 14,000 feet, but the equivalent was there. It lurked just over the horizon, loaded in the barrels of ten big Communist anti-aircraft guns awaiting our arrival.

I was a brand new fighter pilot in my first job out of college, flying the wing position in a two-ship flight of F-100 strike fighters, armed to the teeth with the weapons of war. “Gung-ho” did not adequately describe my supremely self-confident mind-set. I had busted my butt to finish first in my class at pilot training to qualify for a fighter assignment, then did it again to finish Top Gun at fighter pilot school. As a twenty-four-year-old country boy, patriotic and immortal, I was right where I wanted to be. To this day I believe the cause was just—the strategy was another matter. That beautiful morning I was sure I could never live long enough to grow tired of that business. If this sounds like hyperbole, then you’ve never danced the wild blue with a supersonic angel. But I had yet to confront a face-full of antiaircraft fire. 

We arrived over the A Shau (“ah-shouw,” rhymes with cow), a narrow, bucolic little valley still bathed in morning shadows, in the rugged mountains of northwest South Vietnam. Another flight of two F-100’s was attacking a target high on the western ridgeline. The Forward Air Controller (the “FAC”), flying a small spotter plane, was directing the strike. We watched one of the F-100’s dive on the target and drop his bombs. The target was shooting back. I could see the geysers of tracers from several 37mm anti-aircraft guns and the black puffs of their flak bursts. All the butterflies from all the football games I’d ever played began to congregate in my gut.

Just as the F-100 was pulling out of its dive, one of the North Vietnamese guns found its mark. The plane rolled upside down and dove straight into the ground. At the sight of an enormous fireball, and no parachute, there was a violent spasm in my solar plexus and I tasted my bile-soaked breakfast.

There was stunned silence on the radio, but I could hear my pulse thumping double-time in my ears.  My tongue felt like an oversized cud of sawdust in a mouth as dry as the Mojave. I reached for my water flask in a leg pocket of my g-suit and struggled to release my oxygen mask to drink. I was hyperventilating so badly I choked on the water.             

Finally the FAC stated the obvious. “Well, I guess there’s no need to call in search and rescue on this one. Sorry about your wingman, Panther One-Zero Flight. I’ll file a report from this end.”

“Roger,” said the Panther Flight leader. The self-confidence in his earlier radio voice had given way to the tones of a whipped pup.

The FAC then directed us to attack those guns. I thought I was hearing my own funeral sermon. There was never a more appropriate time for a prayer to God for His protection, but I recall no such plea. I don’t believe my conscious brain was functioning; it was paralyzed with fear. My right hand felt as if it had five thumbs as I fumbled with the armament switches in the cockpit.

As we circled over the target, just out of range of the guns, their flak bursts formed a broken deck of dark clouds below us. We would have to pass through that airspace as we attacked the guns. My flight leader, a salty veteran of two wars, peeled out of our circular orbit, rolled belly up to the morning sun, and pointed his nose toward the target in a forty-five degree dive angle. There was a steely, torqued-jaw tone to his voice as he called in over the radio. Five seconds later, I moved the control stick over against my left knee and rolled in from a different direction.

My leader was barely visible among the black clouds of flak. The target, on the other hand, was clear from my angle—two circular anti-aircraft gun sites, with five guns in each, staggered on opposite sides of the snaking dirt road on the ridgeline. The guns in one of those sites rotated around toward me, and I was looking right down the gun barrels as I rocketed toward the ground. The circle of muzzle flashes sparkled away on the ground and in the same instant I was surrounded by tracers and flak bursts. My face and bullets the diameter of golfballs were closing on one another at over 1000 miles per hour. I was sure every breath would be my last. From somewhere in my system Amazing Grace, in the form of copious quantities of adrenaline, was being injected, allowing my hands and feet to function in spite of a brain shut down by fright.

In desperation, I punched the bomb release button just to unload my bombs and escape from that fire hose spewing lead death. I was neither aiming nor watching the instruments. I pulled the control stick hard against the back stop in an effort to recover from the dive, a ham-fisted flying technique that caused me to black out from the excessive G-forces.

When my vision returned I was mercifully headed back upward. The operator’s manual says the wings of an F-100 fold up around your ears if you put over seven G’s of stress on them. The gauge on my instrument panel read NINE. Then I noticed the bombs had not come off the airplane. I had messed up the switch settings. That first gross error was the reason the second gross error did not destroy the airplane and me with it—the weight of the bombs kept the wings from folding up.

Then I committed the most outrageously suicidal act of all. Rather than explain to my flight leader that I had screwed up, rather than take that badly overstressed piece of machinery straight home and gingerly put it on the ground, I said nothing and continued to attack the target. It was an out-of-body experience. I felt like my mind and eyes had departed the cockpit, retreating to a safe place where they could watch a slow motion movie of my plane as we attacked the target like two mad hornets. When our bombs were gone we strafed them with our 20mm guns until there were no more flak bursts in that Sunday morning sky.  

I moved into loose formation on my leader’s left wing and we dove for the valley floor to have a closer look at the fruits of our labor. Coming up the valley right on the deck, we pulled up into a climbing turn and popped over the ridgeline just above the treetops. The devastation was complete. The gun sites were a smoldering junkyard of twisted gun barrels, scrap iron, bomb craters and crimson human carnage.

The FAC reported an estimated 100 enemy soldiers KBA.  “Killed by air” was the air combat scoring system in that grisly game of blasting souls into eternity.

It sounds grotesque, nearly three decades after the fact, but that flight home was just plain thrilling. The mid-day cumulus clouds had formed over the central highlands of South Vietnam. We played follow the leader like two larks flying through a forest of towering, puffy white clouds—in and out and up and down and over and around. The effects of the adrenaline had not even begun to wear off, and in a single-seat fighter no one else hears the whoops and hollers of ecstasy. The images of slaughter at A Shau, the terror of imminent doom that had paralyzed me, and the realization that by all odds I ought to be dead, were overwhelmed by the sheer rapture that comes from been shot at and missed.

We parked at the refueling area of the flight line and my crew chief and I inspected my airplane for battle damage. My flying suit was drenched and my boots squished like flooded waders, not from the tropical sun. Incredibly, there were no bullet holes, but many of the flush-mounted rivets that held the aluminum skin on the underside of the wings were all popped and hanging down a half-inch. The big steel main spars that hold the wings onto the fuselage had rivers of hairline cracks in them. The crew chief looked at me and his eyes told me what I already knew:  There was no earthly explanation for why I wasn’t splattered all over the A Shau Valley. My vocal cords froze up and walking became exceedingly difficult.   The Apostle Paul told the Ephesians, “It is by grace you have been saved …..” and surely it was by grace I was saved that sunny Sunday morning in the summer of ’68.

I have a cross to commemorate that sanctifying Sunday morning at A Shau—a Distinguished Flying Cross. That’s a misnomer. It was the opposite of distinguished flying. The citation mentions “heroism,” but that is incorrect also. My terrified reaction under fire was sufficient to kill myself, but for the grace of God. He forever changed my world view that Sunday over the valley of the shadow of death, and after all these many years my cup still overflows.  

Many nations use a cross in their medals for bravery. It’s in honor of the most heroic act of love ever witnessed on this earth—the voluntary death of Jesus Christ on a cross. Since that day when I returned, by grace alone, from that war, that citation and medal have hung on my office wall somewhere in my house or office as a humbling reminder that God saved my life on that sunny Sunday morning in the summer of ’68. But greater by far, it reminds me that His Son died there to save my soul.

Excerpt from Grace in the Growing Season: A Memoir, page 64-70 






June 15, 2018
Dad at the gate great pic

Wendell Wetterling and Mickey and the farmhouse where JDW spent the first 18 years of his life.


Dad’s been gone for 37 years now, but the passage of time has only intensified my love and gratitude for him and the worldview he bequeathed me.  The Lord knows I miss him.

He tilled Illinois soil all his allotted days, first with horses and then with tractors.  I was the oldest of two sons he taught how to milk a cow, plow a straight furrow and other agrarian arts which we got to practice far more than we preferred.  Around the breakfast table he instructed all four of his offspring in the straight and narrow way as he read from the Bible.  In my worldly wanderings those God-fearing, heartland roots that grew from the seed he planted and tended have served me exceedingly well.  No greater love hath any Dad.

Dad Jeff and JerryTo this day, when I smell cheap cigar smoke, I catch myself looking around for him.  In my mind’s eye I see him sitting on the metal seat of a steel-wheeled corn planter, leather reins in leathered hands and jaw clamped on a cigar, staring at the north end of two southbound draft horses named Jeff and Jerry.  I never had the nerve to ask, but I’m pretty sure the latter horse was my namesake.

Dad bought Emerson cigars by the box for six cents apiece and got more mileage out of them than any man I know.  He lit one end with a wooden match, drawn smartly across the back thigh of his bib overalls, and chewed on the other, working his way toward the middle from both ends.  On some occasions he worked from back to front only, never lighting the cigar but making it last all day.

Often he’d forget to drag on it and the fire would go out.  It was in my experimental years at the university that I came to appreciate the courage required to suck on a dead cigar.

When rainy days precluded fieldwork, I rode to town with Dad in a ’51 Chevy pick-up.  With the windows rolled up, cigar smoke filled the cab.  I don’t recall what I thought was in that village of 800 souls that was worth a five-mile ride in a rolling smokehouse.  And I’ve never understand why rolled up dead tobacco leaves smell so good in the box and so awful on fire.  Cigars are high fashion now, but I never got addicted and for that I’m also grateful to Dad.

On Sundays he left the cigar resting on a beam above the back porch (it was rarely allowed in the house, alive or dead) and drove the family to church.  While Mom’s angelic soprano voice rang out from the choir loft Dad shepherded four small squirming sinners in a hard oak pew.  As Psalm 100:1 directs, he, too, made a joyful though dissonant noise unto the Lord with his uninhibited monotone.

In pre-TV days—prior to age ten—I often spent evenings lying on the linoleum floor drawing pictures behind Dad’s overstuffed rocker as he read his Prairie Farmer, Capper’s Weekly and other farm magazines.  The same floor lamp that illumined Dad’s reading shined on my artwork.   My pencil sketches of magazine pictures or portraits were sufficiently recognizable to prompt my parents to spend scarce cash on special drawing paper and pencils.  The paper was coarse and thick and the lead soft, allowing so many more erasures than regular paper before wearing thru—the line had to be just right, in my eyes, or I erased it. As I recall noses got erased more than anything else and maybe that’s why I never pursued art.

But what sticks most in my mind is the sense of well-being, of security, of contentment those evenings on the floor behind Dad’s easy chair.  I recall no conversation.  Dad was never big on extended conversation with his offspring—that was Mom’s department.  He was just there and he loved me and I knew it and that was enough.  Add Mother to that scene, standing at her ironing board in the middle of the room, humming hymns as she worked, and it sounds like a fairy tale today.  Such domestic tranquility is a rare thing in this twenty-first century world of fatherless homes, absurd sitcoms blaring on TV and non-stop activity outside the home.  The sad results are our overcrowded prisons, overmedicated neurotic citizenry, and rage-as-acceptable-behavior.

Dad was a recycler long before it was environmentally correct. In the unheated “back room” off the kitchen, where he changed into and out of his work clothes and boots, there was a separate wooden cigar box for loose change, receipts, nuts, bolts, flat washers, lock washers and assorted nails–stuff that came out of his overall pockets before they went into the laundry. An old rusty horse tank just outside the barn door held baling wire that had been removed from hay bales through the winter as the cows were fed. A Midwestern farm in the fifties could not function without baling wire and its multitudinous manifestations. Dad could fix more things with a pair of pliers and baling wire than I can with a whole toolbox full of mechanically marvelous tools. The lower pant leg pocket of his overalls always contained a pair of pliers. Out in the shop a wooden keg held bent nails awaiting straightening on rainy days. The coal shed held corncobs for kindling in a separate bin.  And of course used livestock bedding from the barn made the corn grow, the logistics of which was my all-time least favorite job on the farm.

Pain was an everyday part of Dad’s life, a burden I relate to more with each passing year.  He was a passenger in an auto accident in his college days.  Though he was the only one who could walk away from it, he suffered from a bad back the rest of his life.  He wore a brace from his neck to the base of his tailbone and made weekly visits to the local chiropractor.  With all the hard physical labor of farming in those days it was a high price to pay for a career he loved.

He paid the same price to show his boys how much he loved them and to encourage their love of sports.  Brother John and I would beg him to bat us flies on summer evenings when he came in from work exhausted.  He could hit the ball so high and far it seemed like it took forever for it to come down as we danced around in the pasture underneath it with our gloves over our heads.  Every swing of the bat produced a yelp of pain, but we never felt sorry for him.  We thought all dads sounded like that when they hit the ball.  And I am sure when he watched us play our Pony League games that he thought it was all worthwhile.

While Dad was a sports nut, he was a world-class football fanatic, and he was in his glory when my brother and I played halfback and quarterback on the same high school team. He and Mom never missed a game, home or away, regardless of the state of the corn harvest. As a non-verbal communicator, high praise from Dad was silence, but it was golden silence—I could feel the vibes. When he disagreed with my play calling, or if we lost the game, he always found his voice, and would be waiting up for me, no matter how late I stayed out after the game. The fact that he played in the interior line at the University of Iowa, back when real men still didn’t wear helmets did not hinder his quarterbacking critique. Playing well enough to please Dad, and avoid that late night criticism, was my goal. I succeeded more often than I failed.

Dad was an avid fisherman and hunter and that, too, rubbed off on his sons.  Sometimes we fished from the banks of the Mississippi River with cane poles and earthworms for bait, dug up from behind the barn where the recycled lumber pile kept the soil cool and moist.  We munched on Velveeta cheese and Saltine cracker sandwiches as we anxiously waited for the bobber to disappear into the muddy water.  Anxiety turned to boredom in a hurry if the catfish weren’t biting.  Only a mature died-in-the-wool fisherman can stare at a bobber that floats undisturbed all day and still call it fun.  Other times we took our old outboard motor-driven boat and set out yards of trotlines with hundreds of hooks in the Mississippi River just before dark, then motored down river to Uncle Ed’s hunting and fishing cabin on Big Island.  Uncle Ed fixed us a feast and the men talked and laughed long into the night while the cousins played at the dock and in the woods till the “skeeters” drove us inside.  If the adolescent anticipation of the fish catch in the morning was not sufficient to preclude sleep, the high-pitched zing of skeeters, the chorus of katydids and the million voice Mississippi River frog choir, complete with the glorious bullfrog bass section, combined with the moon shining in my face through the bunkroom window made sleep impossible.

At first light in the eastern sky we shoved off to run the lines, that is to haul in the trotlines and our catch.  Both putting out the lines and bringing them in and taking fish off the hooks were a spectator sport for small boys, who were segregated for their own safety in the bow of the boat.  Hundreds of hooks and yards of line and jumping catfish thumping an irregular cadence on the wooden hull in a small moving boat was a dangerous sport only the men could indulge in.  But my Dad made it look easy from my perch, and in all my worldly wanderings, predawn on a placid Mississippi River on a summer morning has been the gold standard for measuring tranquility.

My fondest memory of life on the river with Father was not so tranquil.  It was an October dawn enroute to our duck blind in that same old wooden boat, as old as the ark, laboriously driven by a 25-horsepower Evinrude outboard.  The cold penetrated all the layers of clothes, inducing an involuntary reciprocal motion in my lower jaw and turning my cheeks to parchment.  Overhead, V’s of Mallards raced us down the river.  A gray forest of denuded elms, oaks and willows huddled at the riverbanks and on scattered islands.  The eastern sky was an abstract painting of broad orange and yellow and white horizontal brush strokes by the Divine Artist on a powder blue canvas.

In the stern, Dad clutched the steering arm of the outboard with the ever-present dead cigar angled out of a grinning, ruddy face.  His eyes sparkled below devilish eyebrows as the frigid rushing air drove tears back toward the flapping ear tabs of his hunter’s cap.

Baby brother, with his red nose dripping and a brown stocking cap pulled down to his pupils, sat shivering in the bow, facing aft.  He was drawn into the fetal position by an arctic bow spray of muddy water.  If he was enjoying himself it was not apparent.

The roar of the outboard made conversation impossible, but none was necessary—Dad was big on silence.  It just couldn’t get any better than that.  Perhaps you have to be a duck hunter to understand.

On a late winter morning in ’81, having spent ninety-nine percent of his life within twenty miles of the farmhouse where he was born, Dad stepped out the back door of the house and into eternity.  I think he was with the Lord before his face hit the snowdrift.  One day, when my race is run, I’ll join him in glory…and if cigars are allowed in heaven, they’ll be the sweetest incense.

Excerpt from Grace in the Growing Season: A Memoir


May 18, 2017

F100 takeoff painting Ferris

The happiest homecoming in my life to date began with a boot in the butt at dawn, as I engaged the afterburner on takeoff roll, fortyeight years ago today. It was the first leg of a semi-circumnavigation of the globe from Tuy Hoa Air Base, South Vietnam, to Albuquerque, New Mexico. After an adrenaline-drenched year serving as a bullseye for enemy weapons systems while wreaking death and destruction on them, I was going home. The NM Air National Guard, also flying F-100’s from Tuy Hoa, and also due to return home with all planes (33), was short a pilot. They invited me to fill the slot. Jubilation! I turned in my boarding pass for the cattle-car air charter flight home, the standard way warriors came home from that war, and joined the preflight briefing with the “Taco’s.”

F-100s inflight refueling

“Mother hen and chicks” was a limited analogy—chickens can’t fly—but it was an apt description of that massive formation of 33 fighters escorted by three KC-135 aerial refueling tankers who joined us over the South China Sea. I’ve forgotten the number of aerial refuelings enroute, but there were many. The strategy was to always have enough fuel on board to make the nearest runway, should you not be able to take on more fuel for some reason (more later). With runways few and far between in the Pacific, that meant staying pretty close to full at all times—so lots of top-offs. Our overnight stops enroute were Anderson AFB, Guam, and Hickam AFB, Hawaii.

The mother hens were another advantage for us—they did all the navigation. That left the fighter F-100 refueling probepilots with nothing more challenging to do than fly loose formation on their assigned tanker and take turns refueling.  While it is one of the testier aspects of the business, especially for our method—“probe and drogue”— God was smiling on us and the air was silky smooth in a blinding blue sky, and we were all plenty proficient at it after numerous combat refuelings. That left nothing more to do but fly the plane. The unreliable autopilot had been disconnected years earlier, and trimming up an F-100 to fly hands-off was an impossibility.  In the beginning trying to keep the wings level was like trying to balance on top of a rubber ball, but it was second nature by this time.

Radio discipline got a little relaxed out there in the middle of nowhere. While no one got chatty, there were intermittent ribald quips found wickedly humorous only by a surviving combat veteran who was going home. And there was an occasional big barrel roll around the mother hen by some over-bored fighter pilot. It had the ancillary benefit of exciting the committee that was driving the tanker out of their languor—poor guys flew right side up their whole careers. The whole gaggle must have been a wondrous sight to any remote Pacific island native who might have seen us pass over 25,000 feet above him.

After a sleepless night in Guam, so excited that even the “stop” pills could not induce sleep (and the “go” pills for the long legs enroute were completely superfluous), we taxied out at dawn, behind a half-dozen B-52’s launching on their bombing missions to Vietnam. With their combined 48 jet engines, 12 of our tankers’ engines and our 33, no one on the entire island could have slept in that morning.  The B-52 behemoths, heavily laden with internal and external bombs, needed every bit of the 2.5 miles of concrete to get airborne. We were taking off to the east and the rising sun was perched on the eastern horizon just to the right of the end of the runway, which stopped at a high cliff’s edge falling away to the ocean far below. More than one B-52 went out of sight after takeoff, then slowly came back up into view far out to sea.

It was all downhill from Guam to a tumultuous hometown welcome in Albuquerque, with perfect weather and seemingly endless hours with nothing else in our field of vision but 360 degrees of ocean-meets-sky. I would learn just how lonesome that can be five months later.

It was on a homecoming Atlantic crossing from my new duty station at Madrid’s Torrejon Air Base to Myrtle Beach, SC, with only one other F-100. It was a ten-plus hour flight with the middle portion of the route unescorted by a tanker. Three F-100’s began that journey with the tanker, but during one of our earlier refuelings one pilot bent his probe trying to poke the flailing drogue in some rough Atlantic weather. He was forced to divert into the Azores for a dicey landing in a nasty storm. The tanker returned to Madrid somewhere west of the Azores and we pressed on toward our rendezvous with the stateside tanker over Bermuda. As he parted company with us in a sweeping U-turn, the Madrid tanker forecast clear skies ahead and gave us a magnetic heading on our “whisky compass”—think Lindbergh’s method—to hold for the next two hours in order to find Bermuda. In those days our primary navigation equipment (TACAN) used a line-of-sight signal from ground stations, so in the middle of the ocean the homing needle on my nav gauge slowly turned round and round, searching in vain. With no mother hen to cozy up to, when all I saw was empty sea and vacant sky and time seemed to stand still and that solitary jet engine made ominous sounds I’d never heard over land, that homeless homing needle served as a compelling prayer call for traveling mercies to our Sovereign God.

At last the homing needle found a home—12 o’clock sharp! Then, at the appointed time, such a sweet sight, Bermuda materialized under the nose, but the tanker was late arriving from the states. We orbited above the island, enjoying a God’s-eye-view of its beaches, hoping the tanker would not show in time and we’d get to overnight in Bermuda. Just as we approached minimum fuel he arrived. Our jets assuaged their voracious thirst and we flew on his wing, periodically slurping JP-4, on to Myrtle Beach for a happy landing with nose in the air at a jaunty angle. It was ample amazing grace for one weary unworthy for one day.

My friend and fellow F-100 pilot, Dick Rutan, the first man to fly nonstop unrefueled around the world in the propeller-driven Voyager (now in the Smithsonian)—a nine-day flight—said of his experience: Boy, there’s a lot of water in the world! I concur, and God was gracious to us both—neither got wet.

A lifetime of goodness and mercy later my bucket list is down to the dregs, but there remains one more homecoming crossing. John Bunyan says it will be wet, dark, and deep, but I fear no evil.  I have a warranty from the highest level of authority that I will arrive a sanctified soldier on the other shore in the happiest/humblest landing and superbly glorious welcome to the most magnificent metropolis. “Night will be no more …, the city has no need of sun …, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” No more sea, nor death nor sorrow nor pain. Home, “forever and ever,” in the mansions of the Lord. (Revelation 21-22)

 Pics: 1.) The painting of F-100’s on takeoff by Keith Ferris is a work in progress.  Limited edition prints may be ordered at supersabresociety.com  2.) F-100 refueling from a KC-135 while the wingman awaits his turn, enroute to the target on an “out-country” mission in Vietnam. Photo by jdw. 3.) Probe and drogue. The view out the right side of the cockpit during aerial refueling, somewhere west of Guam. Photo by jdw.


February 23, 2017

We are nose-to-nose, well inside the normal space humans give one another when conversing, for both auditory and visual reasons.  Her sweet watery eyes are focused intently on mine as I look up while reading. I feel like she’s perusing the fine print in my soul through my pupils. “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” One misshaped arthritic hand cups an ear as she strains to hear my loud recitation of Scripture. Her amorphous 97-year-old body resides in a wheel chair, draped in a knit shawl and lap blanket, and her grey head is bent low over the card table adjacent to her bed in the small living room that is her 24/7 venue. “If anyone serves me he must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

I sit in a folding chair at the table corner nearest her, my knees touching her wheelchair and my feet warmed by her friendly long-haired cat. To the right-front of her on the card table are stacked her Bible and devotional books and two magnifying glasses with a diameter of fifty-cent pieces, taped together to double the magnification, with which she reads her books. I ask if I can try them, and she acquiesces. By putting my eye within an inch of the magnifiers, themselves an inch above a book page, I can indeed read…one word at time. And that is the way she reads entire books. Each visit she sends me off with another book she has finished. I agree to read it myself and add it to the church library when done. You see, her mind is undiminished by the aging process. Though her outer self is wasting away, her inner self is being renewed day-by-day (2 Cor. 4:16). A widow of a longtime church elder, her story-telling of a life well-lived for the glory of God is lucid and enlightening, and her witness to her faith in our Lord and Savior is heart-melting.

When it is time to go, we pray.  I put my hand on top of hers on the table, and she stacks her other hand, permanently fist-shaped, on top of mine. This time we both pray aloud the Lord’s Prayer. “…for thine is the kingdom and the power and glory forever, Amen.” I arise, bend over and hug her, kiss her forehead and walk the few steps to the door as she profusely thanks me for coming.  I close the door behind me and pray, through tears, O Lord, what a blessing to spend these moments with your saint on the threshold of glory.  I ponder what a joy it will be to see her perfected body and wonderful spirit in heaven as I drive to my next appointment, a comely smiling saint with Alzheimer’s.

Somewhere in this fallen world there are a few old fighter pilots still living who may read this and exclaim incredulously, “What? Wetterling? Minister to shut-ins? No way!” To them I say, I am living proof there is hope for you, too, brothers. Our God works in mysterious and glorious ways, to my great joy.


A Preposterous Proposition

February 11, 2017


First, I’m asking you to believe that something came from nothing; moreover, that everything you see, feel, hear, taste and touch came from nothing, and the force that made it something was a word spoken by an invisible self-existent personal being. He is infinitely, eternally, unchangeably powerful, as is every attribute of his essence—his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. He reveals himself as God in the Bible, the book written under his inspiration that contains all that he has chosen to reveal about himself. Every detail of this proposition is beyond the power of reason to accept—a preposterous proposition.

It gets even more so. Secondly, everything was perfect until it shortly went bad, and it went bad because the devil in the guise of a talking snake convinced a lady, the very first one created, to eat a forbidden apple. Seriously. A lousy apple, you say, but it was the only prohibition, and a minor one at that, laid on a paradisiacal existence. As such it was an act of rebellion, an egregious crime against the crown rights of her Creator. God was not happy…he was really not happy. He booted her and her husband, a partner in the crime, from the best digs creation has ever known, and they and all created stuff began to die. All the couple’s progeny, you and I among them, has been born disobedient and destined for death to this day.

Thirdly, but the fix is in. God the Son became a man. I forgot to tell you something: God is three persons…in one person… (don’t ask…), and the one called the Son became a human named Jesus while simultaneously remaining God. I know, I know… suspend your disbelief and stick with me here. He’s infinitely smart and equally powerful, remember. He solved the problem of disobedience by allowing himself to be murdered in the most hideous way the mind of man could conceive. He took the full brunt of God the Father’s wrath in the place of the real disobedient culprits: Us! And then—if you have not already done so, sit down now—he rose from the dead! And, fourthly, he promised…God said that he did all this because he so loved the world, and if you will believe him he’ll guarantee you can spend eternity with him (John 3:16) in bliss beyond what your mind can conceive… as if you could conceive any portion of this story by natural reason.

Now here is a statement your spinning mind will finally agree with: It is impossible to believe this story. Impossible…unless…unless that same angry God, who made everything from nothing, works another miracle, this one in your heart, and opens your eyes to this truth. In Jesus’ own words, “No one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). A spiritual rebirth! Then he inclines your will to believe it. “…for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). And “no one can say that Jesus is Lord but by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3) And then—I’m telling you from personal life-changing experience—some of his promises and proclamations will become as plain as the nose on your face and some, like the mind-blowing concept of the Trinity, will be joyfully accepted on unwavering faith in the Son of God who loved you so much he died horribly to ransom you from eternity in hell. And that vision and trust is the product of the third person of the Trinity, the Spirit who has taken up residence in you. Scandalous! Preposterous!

If you are offended, dear reader, you are not the first. The “offense of the Gospel” is a 2000-year-old cliché. But if we meet again in the queue at Judgment Day, I could not bear to hear your hopeless cry, “Why didn’t you tell me?” Please ponder this: It’s only a preposterous proposition in our pea brains, wherein resides what Luther called “that old demon reason.” This proposition comes from the infinite intelligence of the Omnipotent God of the universe. It is his plan, his story, and his thoughts, which are as far above ours as the heavens are above the earth (Isaiah 55:8). “…the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). In other words, he is neither able nor willing to be able to be wise in the things of God. Faith comes not in one’s own power. It must be divinely conferred. Hence the absolute necessity of that spiritual rebirth of John 3:3.  

So would you ask God to work that miracle in your heart and open your eyes to reality? Pray that God the Holy Spirit would dwell in you and give you the gift of faith in Him and His story. Do it now. Please do it now, my friend. You do not want to die with God angry at you. Forever is a long time to hurt and weep and gnash your teeth. Alternatively, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).


Honor Code Crash and Burn

January 13, 2017


Fifty-four years after the fact this is still a hard story to tell. A shocking incident of self-discovery that occurred recently was like God talking, telling me that it was time to dislodge the stigma of an early career crash-and-burn that has haunted me all these years. In hindsight, it has God’s fingerprints all over it.

With visions of dancing the wild blue in a jet fighter, I joined the United States Air Force Academy Class of ’66 in the summer of ’62, at its magnificent campus at the eastern foot of the Rampart Range just north of Colorado Springs, CO. I arrived after a year of college (the University of Illinois and AFROTC), honored and excited beyond belief at having made the grade. Those emotions were immediately and jarringly buried by the intensity of daily, minute-by-minute survival as a “doolie,” the equivalent of a West Point plebe.

Doolie summer in those days was like Marine Corps boot camp, near as I can tell from Marine friends. At that it was nothing like what U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee went thru at West Point in the pre-Civil War era. What in my time was called hazing was SOP—standard operating procedure—when those iconic generals were plebes. I am told that today it’s a picnic by my class’s standards, to say nothing of the generals.

When classes began in the fall the physical aspects of doolie summer abated just enough to squeeze in an academic load that would have today’s college snowflakes crowding the cry rooms and demanding more coloring books.  By my lights I was excelling. I never once “fell out” of a marathon formation run through the mountains in Colorado’s thin air, in combat boots with M-1 rifle at port arms, even when, after the first few miles, its weight exceeded my body weight. I never once walked a punishment tour, similar to what the soldiers do at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, for some infraction of rules that only the military considers cardinal sin, and my classroom grades were excellent. At Christmas we were not allowed to leave campus, but our tormentors, the upperclassmen, did. It was the first respite since early summer and it was wonderful—heaven on earth.

Come second semester, we no longer had to eat three meals a day while sitting at attention, out on the front few inches of our chairs with back ramrod straight, head up and eyes locked on the center of our plates, and speaking only when spoken to, usually in drill sergeant tones and content. One more semester and life would get good again.

Second semester the ranks were shuffled among each flight and I got a new element and assistant element leader immediately above me in my chain of command. Early on I got singled out, for reasons I will never know, by the assistant element leader for “special instruction.” After all I’d been through I did not think the system could throw anything at me that I could not handle. I was wrong. The routine I remember most clearly was the order from him to appear in the hallway outside the door of my room, a nearly impossible few minutes after reveille, with bed made to inspection specs, in uniform with rifle, and stand at attention for a zealous, meticulous inspection. A most unhandsome, pock-marked face breathed all over mine as he scowled in creative pejorative terms and grilled me on memory work, both standard and some ad hoc stuff. Failure to regurgitate the information precisely, or the slightest imperfection in the arrangement of my attire, real or imagined, led to push-ups and other physical feats. The element leader was sometimes also in attendance, about half as tall but equally in disdain for the sorry specimen of a doolie standing rock rigid before them. None of this treatment in general was new to doolie life, except for the relentless time-consuming intensity of it during the school year, and their ability to find and exploit the chinks in my armor.

I had run out of minutes in the day and began to fail those character building tests, till finally I cracked. A question was asked—I don’t recall what it was—but I lied to avoid further “corrective action.” The cadet honor code, the bedrock of Academy life, states, “We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.” My violation of the honor code weighed heavily on my conscience, keeping me awake at night. Finally I was driven by my tormented soul to turn myself in for a violation of the honor code to which I subscribed with all my heart.

I sat in a straight chair in front of a panel of my judges, the Academy’s senior Air Force officers and senior cadets and was grilled most respectfully.  I was not allowed to (nor did I care to) be present when witnesses were called, including my element leader and his assistant. Also called to testify was my staff sponsor, an assigned mentor and surrogate parent.  Lt. Col. Hilda R. Echols was chief nurse at the USAFA hospital. Her face was horribly scarred from an oxygen tank explosion in WW II, and she was military bearing personified, but she loved the Lord and had a heart as big as the Rampart Range. Her home near the hospital was my only refuge on rare occasions when we were allowed to visit our sponsors. She testified before the tribunal and then came into the waiting room where I sat alone and we had a long soul-baring discussion. I remember only one sentence she spoke, and I can close my eyes and see her saying it now. It has preserved me untold times since, when life was tough and I was ready to throw in the towel. She said, “I told them that Jerry Wetterling was not a quitter.” She believed in me more than I believed in me at that point. I so look forward to seeing that saint with her perfected face in heaven.

Bottom line, I left the Academy, under terms unknown to me. I have not a single piece of paper in my possession that officially declares the verdict, but I assume it was in line with my confession. In my mind, to this day, I was guilty. My element leader and assistant leader were forced to leave. I can only guess their verdicts.

When I returned to the farm in western Illinois in the spring of ‘63, a broken young man, I could not give my father an explanation that made any sense to him. He took me into town, to the office of our State Representative, the man who guided us through the bureaucratic maze necessary to get into a service academy. They called some official at USAFA and talked at length over a phone and an extension, and I could not hear the other side of the conversation.

On our drive in the pickup back to the farm, not a word was exchanged between my dad and me. We walked into the house together and Mom met us with a questioning look at Dad. Dad took off his cap, scratched his head with the same hand that held the cap, the way farmers do, and said, “Jerry came home because he wanted to.” He, too, knew me better than I knew me. I am indeed a master of self-delusion, the mark of a sinner, and even now I’m questioning myself as I write, as to how much of this is objective truth and how much is shaded toward self-aggrandizing and/or blame sharing. Is the fog of my memory a result of my advancing codgerhood or the same old sinful preservation of pride?

Through that long spring and summer back on the farm I thought I’d left for good, my dream to be a fighter pilot, now a pipe dream at worst, seriously jeopardized at best, was undiminished. I went back to the University of Illinois that fall and applied for the advanced AFROTC program.  Miracle of miracles, I was accepted.  Uncle Sam would never have approved a USAFA dropout for advanced ROTC without reading the official report of my leaving. That told me that whatever it said, I was still considered Air Force officer material, or at least was worth giving a second chance, and could pursue my dream. After a painful healing hiatus in the desert of despair and self-recrimination, I was a born again fighter pilot wannabe!

God was gracious indeed to this recovering USAFA failure. I rose to the top of the AFROTC ranks—after my Academy experience I certainly had an advantage. I graduated with a regular commission in the USAF, the same kind of commission as if I had graduated from USAFA, but a rare thing in ROTC.  I rejoined my Academy classmates at USAF pilot training, and with perhaps more motivation than most, I finished first in a class of fifty-six, essential to getting a fighter assignment, and realized my dream. At F-100 training, in a class of twenty-four new pilots who all finished at or very near the top of their class, I graduated Top Gun, went off to war in Vietnam and my fighter pilot life was all I ever dreamed it could be.

There’s one more very important part to this story. When God in His providence sent me back to the University of Illinois, He put the most beautiful, wonderful woman in the world in my life through the ROTC program. A freshman, she wasn’t there my first time around, and she’s been my wife for over fifty years now. The saddest story in my life has had the happiest ending I could imagine, and it’s still playing out. And the best is yet to come.


And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).


April 17, 2016

From the cover of The Intake, the magazine of the Super Sabre Society

Forty-seven years ago this morning I sat alone, bleary-eyed, slouched despondently in a reeking, salt-ringed flight suit on the homebuilt sundeck/roof of Dusty’s Pub on the beach of the South China Sea. A missing man formation of four F-100’s flew low overhead headed out to sea. Number 2 pulled up out of the formation, aimed for heaven … and broke the floodgates in my eyes.  

A few hours earlier, just after midnight, I had led the memorialized missing man, my friend and wingman, Robert “Vince” Willett, to his death in a gunfight on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. A lifetime later, sorrow is still an inadequate word.

I’ve written and spoken about that night in multiple venues, and prayed for Vince’s traumatized family, including a twice-widowed wife (both fighter pilots) and two stepsons. I’ve even fictionalized that combat sortie in a novel entitled, Son of Thunder, (second edition, in paperback and ebook). Sometimes truth can best be communicated in fiction format. It serves as a shield for a fragile ego, allowing the writer to bare his soul under the guise of a tall tale. And, not least, he can put what’s on his heart into the mind and mouth of the protagonist and communicate things he’d never have the nerve to say otherwise. Now I’ve discovered that with codgerhood comes the courage to speak your mind—I have so little left to lose and maybe even something to gain for His kingdom, if God is willing. So, on this sad 47th anniversary, I’ve ditched the shield on the novel’s version of that fateful night, admitting it is indeed my scarred soul laid bare. It conveys the cry of a broken and contrite heart better than anything I’ve been able to write, fiction or non-fiction, on a subject so personal and tragic. And further I confess that the protagonist’s (John) dialogue and interior monologues in this abridged excerpt represent my thoughts and feelings that night. Some of the flying scenes in SOT actually happened, with varying degrees of embellishment. This is one of them, with less literary license than most. The fictional “Vic” is based on Vince, and from the first long-hand draft 27 years ago, when my sentences finally became coherent on the subject, I have striven to honor him. The book is dedicated to him. The unvarnished truth is a brave American patriot stood up in the midst of national turmoil and said, “Here am I. Send me,” and made the ultimate sacrifice. Greater love hath no man …



Vince Willett and crew chief, Robert Smith

Tuy Hoa Air Base, Republic of Vietnam, April, 1969. On Vic’s first night mission to Steel Tiger as a married man, John laid out his philosophy of night air combat against the big guns. It was the same old philosophy, but delivered with more fervor.

“Vic, I want you to know that if we get shot at tonight, and we probably will, I’m going to shoot back, whether it’s 50 caliber or 57 millimeter. You know the Rules of Engagement leave the decision up to the flight leader. Our primary mission is to stop the trucks, but if everyone goes home when the shooting starts, whose going to stop the trucks?  Somebody has to care. I think the politicians who got us into this are no longer trying to win this war, but I am. Duty and honor still mean something to me, even if the leaders of my country have abandoned theirs.”

“You’re absolutely right, sir,” Vic replied with a smile. John knew Vic used that “sir” business only when he thought John’s intensity was getting out of hand. John chose to ignore the signal.

“This is serious stuff, Vic. That’s not confetti they’re throwing up out there, and I’m going to fly right down the gun barrels if that’s what it takes to destroy them. You can watch me or you can follow me. It’s your choice and I won’t hold it against you either way and I am very serious. Copy?”

“Copy. I’ll fly your wing  anywhere, brother.” This time Vic was serious….

The mission scheduled on the frag order from Seventh Air Force that night was the usual—truck patrol. Their call sign was Dusty Seven One Flight. The rendezvous with the FAC—in a C-130 with a Starlight Scope—was over Saravane after an outbound aerial refueling over Pleiku. Northbound at twelve thousand feet, 50 miles south of the rendezvous, they switched to the C‑130’s radio frequency.

“Blind Bat One, this is Dusty Seven One. We’re a flight of two Fox‑100s carrying six seven-hundred-fifty pound bombs, two CBU‑24’s, sixteen hundred rounds of twenty mike mike.”

“Roger, Dusty Seven One Flight, this is Blind Bat One. Copy your munitions. We’ve got a truck convoy moving south below us. The Scope is showing about a dozen trucks. In thirty seconds we’ll be dropping two white phosphorous logs.” He gave Dusty Flight the target weather and terrain information. It was a road on a steep mountainside. Blind Bat concluded with what was becoming the standard warning, “We’ve had heavy ground fire the last few nights.”

“Roger, Blind Bat,” John answered. “Dusty Flight, set ‘em up hot. Bomb single. Arm nose tail.”

“Twoop,” replied Vic.

“Okay, Dusty Flight, the two white phosphorus logs are on the ground burning,” Blind Bat called. “Let’s call the line they form north‑south and the distance between the logs one hundred meters. Put your first bomb fifty meters east of the south log. We’ll be holding off to the west between eight and ten thousand feet.”

John rolled in from the south at fourteen thousand feet, high and close to the target again for a steep dive angle.

“Dusty Seven One’s in.”

Vic answered with the click of his mike button.

The night was as black as the inside of a cow. A high overcast obliterated all stars. John could not tell where the earth ended and the heavens began. Aside from the burning white phosphorus flares on the ground, there was no refer­ence outside the cockpit to tell up from down.

He pickled off the first bomb at his best guess of fifty meters east of the south log, and then hauled back hard on the control stick. As the attitude indicator on the instrument panel showed the nose of his aircraft coming up through the hor­izon, he eased off the back pressure on the control stick. He banked left, continued climbing, and looked back over his left shoulder to survey the damages. It wasn’t a bull’s-eye, but it was close enough. The shrapnel pattern from the seven-hundred-fifty-pound iron bomb penetrated the fuel tank of the lead truck and flames flared up like a freshly lit match. Within seconds the flames engulfed its load of mortar shells and the truck began to cook like a popcorn popper with the lid off. The light from the burning truck illuminated the mountainside, revealing a dozen trucks nearly bumper‑to-bu­mper.

Vic rolled in on the last truck he could see. “Two’s in from the north.”

“Roger,” John answered.

It was impossible for John to see Vic because they were running lights out and he pulled out of his dive above the dome of illumination formed by the burn­ing truck, but there was no mistaking where his bomb hit.

“That was a bull’s-eye on the number ten truck, Dusty Seven Two. You Dusty guys are all right,” called Blind Bat.

Once they had bottled up the convoy, it was a midnight massacre. There was no place on the steep mountainside for the trucks to pull off and find cover, and their bombs had effectively barricaded the road fore and aft.

John’s second pass blew the third truck in line off the road. It cartwheeled down the mountainside in an avalanche of fire and explosions. Vic and John dropped a total of three bombs each in the cool, professional style of the executioner. Since they saw no ground fire, John decided to save the CBU-24 just in case somebody decided to shoot back.

“Blind Bat, Dusty Flight would like to make a few twenty mike mike passes and hold a Hammer apiece in reserve,” John announced.

“You’re cleared for the strafing runs, Dusty Flight.”

“Copy, Blind Bat. Lead is in from the north.”

Vic and John ravaged those trucks like two starving jackals working over a bloat­ed rhino carcass. John counted eight of them burning or destroyed.

A glance at the fuel gauges told John the party was about nearly over. “We’ve got enough fuel for two more passes, Dusty Flight,” he called.

Coming off the next strafing pass it finally happened. A geyser of red, orange and yellow tracers erupted about a half mile to the east, pointed in John’s direction, and he was bracketed. The airspace on all sides of John was filled with multi-colored tracers, but before he could initiate an evasive maneuver the air was clear and dark again.

“Dusty Seven One, this is Blind Bat. You can pack it in if you want. You’ve done a night’s work here.”

John’s first attempt to respond to Blind Bat produced thumb pressure on the mike button, but no simultaneous vibration of the vocal cords. Two deep breaths later the cords came un­stuck.

“If it’s all right with you, Blind Bat, we’ve got just the weapon for those guns, and enough fuel for one more pass. I think I know where that triple A was coming from.”

“Well, the ROE says it’s your call, Dusty Flight,” Blind Bat replied.

“Some of us still think this war is worth winning, Blind Bat.” It was the first insubordinate comment John had ever made over the radio in his Air Force career.

The AAA had come from somewhere in the blackness to the east of the target, but John had only a rough idea. He hoped that if he rolled in and pointed the nose in that general direc­tion they’d shoot again, and he might be able to see the muzzle flashes.

“Dusty Seven Two, I’m not showing any radar tracking us. Are you?” John called.

“Two, negative.” If Vic was scared, nothing in his voice betray­ed him. If married life had rearranged his priorities, John couldn’t tell it. With no radar tracking, those guns could only be shooting in the blind.

Sure enough, as soon as John pointed the nose toward the ground, he got a face-full of Christmas tree lights streaking by the canopy, but he no longer flinched at such distractions. He aimed at the middle of that circle of muzzle flash­es, pickled away The Hammer, and began the dive recovery.

The bomblets hit the ground in a slightly oval circle. The shooting stopped. There was nothing but black ink on the ground where before there was a circle of deadly fireflies.

“Dusty Seven One, where to?” Vic called.

“Same place as mine, Two. Let’s give them a double dose.” John was sure there was nothing but bloody carnage left at that gun site.

“Roger,” Vic responded, in that perfect bored‑to‑death tone of voice, the one they all worked so hard to perfect.

John couldn’t tell if it was the same site that he had hit, or another one, but the geyser erupted out of that ink bottle again, right in the vicinity of where Vic should have been.

Again Vic’s bomb hit the bull’s-eye. The circle of bomblets perfectly super‑imposed the ring of muzzle flashes. A second after the bomb hit the ground there was an enormous mushroom shaped fireball right at the edge of the circle of death. It momentarily lit up the mountaintop like noonday.

I’ve got the best wingman in all of Southeast Asia, John thought to himself. “Bull’s-eye, Two,” he crowed.

“Fantastic shooting, Dusty Seven Two. Looks like you got their ammo supply with that one,” Blind Bat shouted.

“Dusty Seven One Flight, let’s head home…. Dusty Seven Two, this is Seven One…” John called.


“Dusty Seven One, this is Blind Bat. I’m afraid that fireball was your wing man.”

“Roger …” The fighter pilot cool was completely drained from John’s voice.

“Dusty Seven One, I know you’re bingo fuel. You’d best head home. You can be mighty proud. That’s the finest piece of work I’ve ever seen, and this is my second war. We’ll hang around as long as we can and see what we can see. We’ll make a decision on whether to launch Search-and-Rescue tonight or in the morning. Thing is, we can’t get a good look from where we are and I’m not inclined to get any closer. We’re a much fatter, slower target than you are.”

“Roger, Blind Bat. There’s no way he could have ejected successfully,” John answered.

“Good night, Dusty. We’ll forward your bombing results and notify headquarters. So sorry. We love ya.”

“Thanks, Blind Bat. Dusty Seven One out.” John’s voice trailed off.

“Dusty Seven Two, this is Blind Bat…Dusty Seven Two, this is Blind Bat. How do you read ..?  Dusty Seven Two, this is Blind Bat on guard. Come in, please …” Blind Bat’s re­peated calls to Vic were met with silence—deathly silence.

One’s a very lonely number three hundred miles from home at twenty thousand feet on the blackest night in all eternity. John had a vague realization of fuel gauges reading alarmingly low and of fear that he’d flame out prior to touchdown. Pretty critical stuff, but tonight it didn’t seem very important. Life didn’t seem very important to John, because life had ceased for Vic …

*     *     *

Vince rubbing

 To this day not a trace of Vince or his F-100 has been found, despite Search and Rescue’s immediate efforts and years of searching by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. MIA torments the family so much more than KIA.

As for me, God has made Himself known to me in His Word, and my trust and consolation rest securely in His providence, which explains why, for reasons known only to Him, I survived that night and Vince did not. And when Satan tempts me to despair with taunts like, “But it was your fault, it was your decision,” I cling to the same promise God made to the Apostle Paul. When Paul thrice prayed for relief from a hard go, God answered, My grace is sufficient for you …*. It is sufficient for this unworthy sinner, too. Divine grace and my grateful heart are inseparable forever.

RIP, Vince. I hope and pray we meet again where no eye has seen, nor ear heard nor the human heart conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him, ** in the mansions of the Lord.

*   2 Corinthians 12:9         **   1 Corinthians 2:9




March 26, 2016


Silent Saturday, 2016.  This holy week millions of people commemorate the last chapter of the central event of history, the most amazing act of love the world will ever witness—the Passion of Jesus Christ.  On Good Friday we gratefully honor the crucifixion of Christ, God’s son, who intentionally suffered and died as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of his people.  He died as our substitute because, since the fall of Adam, we are all inherently incapable of meeting God’s requirements of holiness and righteousness, or even caring about them of our own volition.  According to a plan designed in detail in the throne room of God before time began, a sinless Christ, our Savior, was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities…and with his stripes we are healed, as Isaiah prophesied 700 years in advance.  And because Jesus rose from the dead on Easter, all who have faith in him and his work on our behalf can look forward with certainty to a similar great resurrection morning—though he die, yet shall he live forever, by Christ’s own promise. This is indeed the Gospel, so simple it is mind-boggling, the best “good news” that could ever enter the mind of man.

A key participant in this drama was a man named Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ disciples, who betrayed the best friend he could ever have.  Judas, a sinner not unlike you and me, turned his back on eternal bliss for cold, unsatisfying, transitory cash; Judas, a master of self-delusion, as is everyman, convinced himself the wrong thing was the right thing to do; Judas, an impatient, egocentric man, just like the rest of us, forsook waiting on the Lord and took matters into his own hands.

We do not know all the details and we can only surmise the thoughts that ran through Judas’ mind, so I have taken what is known from the biblical record and filled in the blanks with my imagination based on a lifetime of Bible study.  I cannot know the heart of another, especially a traitor like Judas, but sometimes I think I know the heart of this sinner saved by grace, and I confess I am appalled.  My thoughts are sinful almost all the time, and when my words and deeds are not, my motives are. And I know that, absent the sustaining grace, the utterly unmerited favor of God who loves me beyond my comprehension, I could have been Judas.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who witnessed more evil than most, said,

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Christ on the cross provides the only solution to this universal dilemma.  Ponder these truths and examine your own heart as you read the anguished last words of Judas Iscariot.

Let’s suppose that network news existed in first century Palestine and a TV reporter was in Jerusalem to cover Passover, the highest of Jewish holy days. The scene is the Garden of Gethsemane, outside the city’s eastern wall on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, just 24 hours after Jesus’ was arrested there. The camera is rolling and the reporter is saying:

“Jesus of Nazareth, controversial itinerant preacher, alleged miracle worker and nemesis of the Jewish religious authorities, was crucified just west of the city walls today.  Coincidentally, he died at the same time that Jews were sacrificing their paschal lambs on the great temple’s altar, a centuries old ritual.  The man who, according to eyewitnesses, last night led authorities to Jesus of Nazareth right here where I am standing, was one of his closest twelve associates, a man named Judas Iscariot.  According to those who knew him best, none of whom were willing to talk to this reporter on the record, the betrayer was an enigmatic sort, a mixture of altruism and selfishness, loyalty and deceit, patriotism and self-centeredness.  Candidly, the impression this reporter got was that he was a pretty typical person….”

Something stage left, off camera, catches the reporter’s attention.  A dejected, disheveled looking man, deep in thought with a coil of rope in his left hand, is wandering aimlessly through the garden.

“I believe that is…yes it is.”  The reporter realized with excitement that he had the news scoop of the ratings season and quit reading his prepared script.

“Cameraman, if you could pan to my left, here he is now.  Judas Iscariot!”

The man looked up, startled at the sound of his name.

“Judas, you look like a man with a tormented soul…and for good reason, I hear.  Here’s your chance to justify your traitorous act before the world.  Speak to us.”  He walked over to the man and held the microphone to his face while the man stared back angrily.

“Speak…you want me to speak?  No matter what I say you’ve already condemned me. You’re a sorry sounding sinner with that holier-than-thou tone of voice.  Who gave you the right to judge me?

“Judas, the world is watching.  You’ll never get a better chance than this to justify yourself.”

Judas looked down at the ground, took a deep breath as he pondered his options, then dropped his rope and wrung his hands.  He began in a pleading voice full of self-pity.

“Do you know what it is to long for recognition?  For acceptance?  Do you know that awful, lonesome feeling of an outsider?  You know, in my whole life no one ever said to me, ‘Judas, it’s good to see you.’  I wanted so badly to be somebody special.  Am I so strange?  Haven’t you had longings like that?  I bet you didn’t get where you are without them.  With me it became an obsession.  I’d pay any price…any price whatsoever.”  He paused and took another deep, quavering breath as he rubbed his bewhiskered face with both hands.

“Listen to my story.  I’m not asking for forgiveness.  I’m beyond forgiveness.  Let my life be a warning.  There is not a viewer out there who is not capable of doing the same terrible thing I did.” As he talked he shook a pointed finger right into the camera, then stopped, dropped his hand to his side like a dead weight and looked up into the branches of the olive trees.  With another uncomfortable pause, he resumed.

“It all began so well.  I was born in Kerioth, in Judea.  Home of God’s chosen people, home of this holy city, home of almighty God’s magnificent temple.  I alone was a true Israeli—the rest of the disciples were from Galilee.  Galilee…whose only claim to fame is that nothing good ever came from there.  And I was the only one of the bunch who had a resume worthy of the job.  That’s why Jesus made me treasurer.”  With that he threw his shoulders back and thrust out his chest.

“Like all Jewish parents, mine were so happy at the birth of a baby boy.  My father proudly announced that my name would be Judas.  That means ‘praised of God.’ Did you know that? Judas, praised of God.” A smile briefly crossed his countenance as he stared into space over the head of the interviewer.

“I was raised like all Judean boys.  I was taught to fear God and to await the promised deliverer.  That’s what attracted me to Jesus the first time I saw him.  He had that aura of authority.  I heard him on several occasions and he stirred me like no teacher ever had.  Then that amazing day came when he delivered that sermon just up the slope here on the Mount of Olives.  Wow!  I was sure that the kingdom he kept talking about was the promised kingdom we’d all been waiting for. At the close of his sermon I stood there starry eyed…transfixed.  And he came right up to me, looked deep into my eyes and said, ‘Judas, follow me.’  And I did!  He was irresistible.

“Jesus chose me.”  He looked incredulous at the thought, but his tone of voice was prideful.  “He chose me, along with a  few others…and I had the purest, noblest intentions when I shouldered my knapsack that day.

“‘Why would he chose me,’ you ask?  Why would he chose you?  Judas pondered it himself for a few seconds, then continued.

“In those early days we were such great pals.  We hung on every word that came out of his mouth.  Then, out of his presence we were always trying to guess when his revolution would begin.

“‘How to explain the change?’  I…I don’t know if I can.  It was a gradual thing.  You know we lived like vagabonds and paupers, and somehow greed and self-centeredness just crept in.  With the passage of time…what an awful lifestyle…and no move on his part to declare his kingship of Israel, I just grew more and more disenchanted. As treasurer I found myself filching coins, telling myself I’d pay them back…but somehow never did.  Jesus saw the change in me.  He warned me.  ‘Judas, beware of covetousness.  A man’s life is not measured by the things he has, Judas.  There is nothing hid that shall not be known, Judas.’

“But as terrible as my greed was, it was nothing compared to my desire for recognition.  I hungered for that more than I hungered for food.  And yet people laughed at us, called us names, chased us out of town.  I had given up everything for Jesus and they made me feel like the scum of the earth.  And the folks we hung out with—down-and-outers, lepers, cripples….  Poverty-stricken hordes dogged us day and night.  And when we complained to Jesus about it he always said, ‘My job is to do the will of my father.’  How can you argue with that?”  Judas stared at the reporter as if he were looking for agreement.  He pressed on with increased intensity.

“Well, finally I got up my nerve to make my move.  You see…I figured that if he really was the Messiah, then his legions of angels would protect him from anything.  And if he was not who he claimed to be, well…then…he deserved to be exposed, and the man doing the exposing would be proclaimed throughout the land.  Judas Iscariot!  I would be somebody!  I didn’t do it for the money—thirty pieces of silver, the price of a slave …?   Are you kidding?

“So I set it all up with the Sanhedrin for his arrest, then joined the others in the upper room for the Passover Meal.  I was so nervous….  I had never done anything like that before.  While the meal was being served Jesus did the most demeaning thing imaginable: he washed our feet.  You know in our part of the world showing the sole of your foot to another person is the most insulting thing you can do to him.  Servants wash feet,” he shouted indignantly.

“When he was done he said, ‘All of you are not clean.’  I knew who he was talking about.  He added, ‘One of you will betray me.’  Just like all the rest, I said, Is it I, Lord?  I might have fooled the others but I didn’t fool Jesus.  My heart was beating so hard I feared everyone could hear it.  So when he leaned toward me and said, ‘Do it quickly,’ I got out of there.  The man was reading every thought in my head.

“Well…you know the rest of the story.  Jesus allowed himself to be condemned in a trial that was the biggest travesty of justice Israel has ever seen.  Then he let them kill him in the most hideous way they knew how.  They scourged him—ripped the flesh off his bones till he was unrecognizable and nearly dead—and then crucified him…and he went like a lamb to the slaughter…and I knew…I had made a big mistake.”  Tears were running down his cheeks into his beard.

“Jesus was forever preaching about repentance and forgiveness…and I know I have sinned and need to get down on my knees and repent…but I cannot bring myself to do it.  I have betrayed innocent blood—I have killed the Son of the Most High God.  I can’t forgive myself.  How can I ask anyone else to forgive me?  I threw the cash back in their faces but my guilt…and my despair have consumed me…and I can’t stand it any longer.” Judas was almost incoherent now.  He buried his face in hands and great choking sobs were broadcast to the world.  He turned his back on the camera for a moment, then slowly turned around, stared straight into the camera and said in a composed, resigned voice, “I deserve no common decency.  Don’t mark my grave.  They’ll just dig me up and hang me again….

“Hmmph.  I have my recognition now.  The world will never forget my name.  But if we meet again where I am going, you are in big trouble sinners, and you will share my pain and my agony for all eternity.  Fall on your knees and repent…while there is still time.  You know not the day nor the hour.”

Judas picked up his coil of rope, studied it a moment, then turned and resolutely walked off through the trees.

“Well, there you have it, folks.  Back to you in the studio, Augustus.”

The Bible states that Judas hanged himself outside the city in a field called Akeldama, the Field of Blood.  To this day when you go to Jerusalem they will show you where he obstinately took his own life rather than ask a merciful God for forgiveness.

This holy week consider the sins of Judas, and where he spends eternity, and remember that Christ died for the sins of those who believe in his life, death and resurrection and are sincerely repentant.  There is no sin so great that Almighty God cannot forgive a truly contrite heart but for the asking, nor will the smallest unconfessed sin in thought, word or deed be overlooked by the Gatekeeper of Heaven. And human effort will never be perfect enough to earn admittance to the perfection of heaven.  Faith alone in Christ’s amazing act of love alone is our boarding pass to eternal glory with him.  Blessed is he whose…sins are covered.

The night before he was crucified, Jesus stated simply and unequivocally, I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me. His disciple, Peter, who frightfully denied knowing Jesus the night he was arrested, a few weeks later declared to the same authorities who crucified Christ, with a boldness that astounded them: …there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.

Renowned eighteenth century hymn writer, Isaac Watts, penned the best possible response to this exalted Easter passion.  May it be your response this holy week:

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul, my life, my all.




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