An A-6 Intruder from Attack Squadron 115 (VA-115) was returning to the USS Midway from a night low-level bombing mission over North Vietnam in late October 1972. The approach was normal with standard corrections made for being slightly high on the glide slope.
As the Intruder contacted the flight deck, the axle of the plane’s starboard landing gear sheared off becoming a missile flying along the deck while the now damaged A-6 hurled forward crashing into a number of parked aircraft near the carrier’s bow. The carnage was horrific – four dead, including the Intruder’s bomber/navigator, and dozens more seriously injured.
Wounded flight-deck crewmembers, several with significant trauma injuries, were immediately brought to a makeshift triage area set up on the mess deck near Midway’s sick bay. Coordinating the life-saving mass-casualty event was Midway’s senior medical officer and flight surgeon, Lt. Cmdr. Don Vance.
“It was kind of surreal,” recalled Don, who was prioritizing those he felt needed surgery. “There were lots of leg injuries. The crew were brought below deck in the weapon’s elevator. We worked to get their bleeding stopped. Fortunately, we had practiced this, and everybody knew what they needed to do and they did their jobs.”
Don had been commissioned several years earlier as an Ensign in the Naval Reserves just prior to starting medical school in 1966. He had joined the Navy at the insistence of his brother, Benjamin, who had been stationed on Midway in the late 1950s as an electronics’ technician. His father-in-law, Keith Henderson, was also a former Midway sailor serving previously as a gunner’s mate on the carrier.
In 1969, as a third-year medical student at the University of Arkansas, Don was put on active duty and promoted to lieutenant. After receiving his Doctor of Medicine degree the following year, he conducted follow-on medical training at the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute in Pensacola, Fla. and was designated a Navy flight surgeon in March 1972. It wasn’t long before he was bound for Midway.
Midway’s commanding officer at the time, Capt. Bill Harris, was not thrilled with having a Navy lieutenant and recently blessed flight surgeon as his new senior medical officer.
“It was not appreciated by the CO and he initially delegated the ship’s surgeon to be senior medical officer although he was not a flight surgeon,” recalled Don.
It was until later in 1972, following Midway’s change of command while on Dixie Station off the coast of Vietnam that summer, that Don was promoted to lieutenant commander and assumed the senior medical officer position.
“Eventually, after several months and a change of command I was promoted and finished my tour on the longest cruise in Midway’s history and the next to last carrier deployments of the Vietnam War,” said Don, a Kansas native.
Instead of returning with Midway to its new homeport of Yokosuka, Japan, Don decided to join the crew of the USS Constellation (CV-64) as it was just starting its combat deployment to Vietnam. During his back-to-back war cruises, Don also supported a military medical clinic in South Vietnam.
“I arranged to fly into Da Nang several times to assist a small Navy medical unit there that did not have a physician at that time,” said Don.
Having earned his private pilot license as a sophomore in medical school, Don ensured flying was more than just something in the written part of his flight surgeon job description.
“I enjoyed being allowed to fly with the A-6 squadrons during air-to-air refueling operations as well as with the A-3D crews on several electronic countermeasures missions,” said Don, who would later receive an Air Force Air Medal for his participation in an at-sea emergency helicopter rescue in 1974.
Following his Vietnam tours, Don continued his military medical career both on active duty and in the naval reserves for the next 30 years at multiple Navy hospitals and with several aviation squadrons, eventually retiring as a captain in 2003.
Don also had a full and diverse civilian medical career with his own family practice and as an emergency room physician with Scripps Hospital and a senior medical examiner with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Fifty years after his initial tour on Midway, Don returned to where he first cut his teeth as a flight surgeon in the fleet when he became volunteer on the USS Midway Museum.
“I have always wanted to volunteer,” said Don, who even visited the ship soon after its arrival in San Diego to become a museum. “Unfortunately, due to my work, I didn’t have the time to volunteer until I was more retired.”
Although he has only recently started volunteering for museum’s safety department, Don is thrilled to once again be part of Midway’s crew.
“It’s hard to explain fully, but I’m so proud of the Midway,” said Don, who already has more than 50 volunteer hours under his belt. “They did such a great job turning it into a museum. She’s an incredible ship and it’s good to be back on board.”
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