One of the biggest selling points of the dorm camping experience is the legendary breakfast buffet at the Blackhawk Commons dining hall on the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh campus. AirVenture dorm campers swear by it. This morning I arose early because my body is still on EDT. I rolled out of bed, hit the elevator and set a course for the Blackhawk. I knew something was amiss when I saw a single fellow dorm camper peering at the locked door. Apparently he and I missed the memo. Breakfast dining at the Blackhawk does not start until Monday.
Both of us were in need of breakfast and both of us were members of the AirVenture Happy to Be Here Club, so we threw in together. His name is Barry Turner. He lives in Memphis with his sweet wife and is retired from a sales career with DAP, the people who make the caulk for your windows and doors.
Barry stated that Perkins had a good breakfast. I had a rental car. We were both hungry. A plan quickly formed. In the car, Barry mentioned that he was a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. Given his white hair, I inquired whether he had ever taken a Southeast Asian vacation as a guest of the government of the United States. He had.
Barry enlisted in the Corps after being drafted in 1964. He celebrated his 19th birthday at Paris Island. After basic training, the Corps determined that Barry had an aptitude for aviation ordinance, so he went to a school for that. Months later, he received an all expense paid trip to Chu Lai, Vietnam, where he armed A4 Skyhawks and later F-4 Phantoms for their combat missions.
Wanting to actually fly, Barry volunteered for the crew that flew FR4Ds (DC6s left over from World War II) on night flare illumination missions. They would fly over infantrymen pinned down on the ground and under attack and would light up the sky with one million candle power flares. Each flare was fused in the plane and then hand tossed out the open door of the RF4D. They had scores of boxes of flares. Each box held 10. A single flare had enough flammable magnesium in it to incinerate the whole aircraft if it were hit by AAA or a lucky tracer round.
One night Barry and rest of his crew was summoned to a remote Marine air base under attack. Khe Sanh. It was one of the most epic battles in the history of the United States Marine Corps. The Khe Sanh base was attacked by over 30,000 North Vietnamese regulars. Parts of the base were overrun and the entire Marine contingent was in grave danger of annihilation. Barry saw the whole thing peering out the open door of his RF4D in a 140 knot slipstream. He remembers that the entire base and battlefield was on fire. Ordinance flew from both sides of the battle line and his flares illuminated Viet Cong breaching the fence. Night after night, Barry and his crew mates flew into the firestorm, giving the grunts on the ground a visual of their attackers. Thanks to countless acts of determination and heroism from air crews, infantrymen and artillery men, Khe Sanh survived.
If the Marine Corps hymn had been written in 1970, the line “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli” would have included the wires of Khe Sanh. It was that great a chapter in Marine Corps History. Barry Turner saw the whole thing from directly overhead, risking his life so that those on the ground could see what was coming after them. I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast in Perkins, but I will never forget meeting this particular fellow AirVenture camper. Semper Fi Barry.