Many tasks within the military are mundane, repetitious, and boring – no matter what branch of service. This Navy sailor found his way onto the USS Enterprise during the Vietnam War and witnessed an extraordinary event that all on the ship hoped to glimpse. It turned out to be his best day in the Navy. Find out what happened by reading/listening to his story.

By Bob McElroy

I was just 19 years old. The Vietnam War was going fast and furious. The draft was imminent, so I took a four-year hitch in the Navy. I thought a boat sounded better than a foxhole. During boot camp, they ask about your preferences for training and your job. After a visit home, I got my second choice and headed for Naval Air Station Memphis, a training base, to learn the intricacies of becoming a jet engine mechanic.

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After five months, they designated me as an instructor, and they sent me to Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, VA. Not bad duty. I spent just over a year instructing new guys to become Plane Captains on the A6A Intruder. It’s a job where you are a Jack of all trades and a Master of None. You check the planes for their readiness to fly, and if you find any problems, you call in the experts, of which there were many. This plane was an all-weather, carrier-based, subsonic bomber. A movie made about it in the 90s, called Flight of the Intruder – you can still see it on Netflix. The Navy and the Marine Corps operated it.

After just over a year, I heard stories about carrier life and wanted to go on a cruise other than the training carrier USS Lexington in Pensacola. After I put in for a transfer to a sea-going squadron, it took the Navy only three weeks to assign me to Attack Squadron 35, onboard the USS Enterprise (the Big E), leaving Alameda Naval Station in Oakland on Jan. 2, 1968. This was arguably one of the busiest times in the Vietnam War.

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On the way to the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam, we stopped in the Sea of Japan because of the North Koreans taking our ship, the USS Pueblo. After a couple of weeks of threatening them, we proceeded to Vietnam.

There were a lot of memories of the eight months I spent on this ship, some better than others. When you have planes flying in combat and being targeted, you lose some to anti-aircraft and missiles. And, because of the very nature of landing planes on ships, it’s a dangerous endeavor. We lost our squadron CO and Navigator the third day we were on the line. At the end of the cruise, my squadron only had half of our original complement of 16 airplanes. And some of our crews were in the Hanoi Hilton for the next few years. So, when something good happens, we really take it to heart.

This particular May day was a beautiful, clear day. You could see forever. The Air Boss up in the bridge controls all flight activity on the ship, and planes are taking off and landing in the pattern. So, when he announced that a certain young lieutenant had just won a dogfight with an enemy MIG and requested permission to do a Victory Flyby, we were all excited. The Air Boss mentioned that the plane – an F4 Phantom with two big engines and afterburners – would approach the ship from Aft, and if we wanted to watch, he would be here in about 5 minutes. Over 5000 men were working on that ship, and I would bet that all but those down in the bowels of the ship were going to do their best to get to a spot where they could see it. It was an unusual request and even more weird that they cleared the pattern and let him do it amid flight ops.

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I can see the curvature of the earth at about 18 miles from the flight deck and saw a tiny speck just coming over the horizon. And it got to us quickly, just over the surface of the water. He was roaring, and when he got just amidship on the port side, he pulled back on his stick and hit the afterburners and twirled straight up in the air till he was a speck again. I thought of a boy with a big toy. When he came around and landed, we gave him a rock-star reception, and we all felt as though we had been in that cockpit with him. And that is my best memory of my time in the Navy.

Bob McElroy

This story originally appeared on the website: Together We Served. Here’s the direct link to the March 2022 issue of their magazine and links if you want to join their group:


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