For more than 15 years, I’ve been creating events on the USS Midway Museum that bring awareness and honor to our military veterans and those who still serve in uniform. However, nothing I’ve ever done was as emotional and memorable for me as my experience as a guardian for a group of Vietnam War veterans on the most recent Honor Flight to Washington D.C.
Honor Flight San Diego is a non-profit organization that flies military veterans to the nation’s capital to visit the memorials devoted to their service and sacrifice. This Honor Flight was dedicated to 85 former members of Navy Helicopter Attack Squadron 3 (HAL-3), nicknamed the Seawolves.
HAL-3 was an all-volunteer squadron that supported naval special warfare operations and the mobile riverine forces during the Vietnam War. It was very dangerous duty. Forty-four Seawolves sacrificed their lives in service to their country.
I had the privilege of escorting three former Seawolves helicopter pilots on this incredible journey – Bill Martin, Al Bacanskas, and Dick White.
In one jam-packed day, we visited Arlington National Cemetery, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and many other memorials. The trip was loaded with special moments, many laughs, war stories and lots of tears.
I was fascinated to learn the Seawolves were the Navy’s most decorated Vietnam War squadron. They flew high-risk combat missions using hand-me-down UH-1 “Huey” helicopters from the Army.
Obtaining intelligence on the enemy was vital for the Seawolves. Bill Martin, now 91, was an amateur magician and had a unique way of gathering this critical information. He carried a folding magic table, collapsible top hat, and a bag of tricks in his helicopter. By performing magic for local villagers, he gained their trust. This allowed his crew to mingle with the villagers and pick up valuable intelligence on Viet Cong (VC) activity in the area.
The VC eventually found out about Bill’s shows and put a bounty on his head. On one occasion, he was suddenly grabbed by two men who tied him up. Fortunately, Bill had studied escape techniques in a Houdini book, and was able to get out of the ropes.
Life after Vietnam offered many Seawolves unique opportunities. For Al Bacanskas, it took him to Iran, where he found himself teaching Prince Shahriar Shafiq of the Iranian Imperial Navy how to fly helicopters. When the Navy initially asked Al if he would go, he said, “Where’s Iran?”
Al, who spent a year in Tehran, actually outranked the prince, who was only a captain in the Iranian Navy. During a training flight one day, the prince asked Al to fly over a river that was full of alligators. The prince pulled out his machine gun taking aim at the alligators. Al said he couldn’t see the damage, but he didn’t think the prince hit any of his targets.
Although claiming to be a simpler man, Dick White’s military career was also full of adventure. He started as an electronic tech radar specialist and later became a pilot logging more than 1,200 flight hours. Dick also served on an ice breaker in Siberia. “You can’t buy those experiences,” he told me. “From the age of 17, the things I’ve seen, places I’ve been, I have no regrets and I’d do it all over again.”
It saddens me that these incredible patriots fought for our freedoms, yet were vilified when they returned from Vietnam. I look at Bill, Al and Dick and admire their continued faith and love for our country, and am inspired by their stories, camaraderie, and humor.
I’m so thankful to Honor Flight for finally making it right for these men. They finally got the hero’s homecoming they deserved.
It was an overwhelming moment to return to San Diego alongside the Seawolves, and see the cheering crowd of grateful American men, women, and children giving them the recognition they should have received decades ago. This was a much-needed healing trip for the Seawolves and certainly a life-changing experience for me.
Vietnam War veterans interested in participating in future Honor Flights can visit honorflightsandiego.org.