RETIRING HERO

A PILOT'S TURBULENT JOURNEY
The Columbus Dispatch, 7/1/04
Forwarded by CPO Don Harribine USN (Ret)

FAIRBORN, Ohio — When Maj. Gen. Edward Mechenbier attempted to raise his arms to still the cascade of applause saluting his 44 years in the military, many in the audience may not have noticed that he couldn't lift his elbows to shoulder level. Having spent hours with his hands bound behind him and suspended by his arms above the floor of the “Hanoi Hilton,” his shoulders had been dislocated so frequently that they afforded him just enough mobility to return a salute.

“I don't know how I kept it from the doctors,” he confided, referring to the flight surgeons whose stamp of approval he needed to continue flying planes. But retiring as the last remaining active-duty Vietnam POW and — at age 62 — the oldest military pilot yet flying, he had no more secrets to keep.

His final hours at the controls of a C-141 Starlifter had taken him to Hanoi two days after Memorial Day to bring home a pair of American-flag-draped aluminum cases holding the remains of two soldiers thought to have been Mechenbier's comrades in arms during the Vietnam War.

“That was the single most-emotional thing I've done in over 44 years,” he said yesterday from the hangar auditorium at the U.S. Air Force Museum, near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The emotional freight of the plane he piloted away from Hanoi was not simply the caskets in the cargo hold. Thirty-one years ago, when he was released after six years as a POW, he was brought to freedom from Hanoi on the very airplane he piloted a month ago to pick up the MIA remains.

When his F-4C Phantom fighter jet was shot down over the Vu Chu rail yards outside Hanoi in 1967, he parachuted toward a group of locals taking potshots at his descending, sitting-duck form. The bullets missed, but his back was broken.

Forbidden to converse with fellow POWs, he developed an elaborate set of hand signals to communicate. Pressed by his captors about the digital semaphores, he said, he convinced the guards that an upraised middle finger was an expression of salutation and friendship. When a group of anti-war activists arrived from the United States, Mechenbier recalled with a wry smile, “That's how the guards greeted them.”

To stave off insanity after rules on inmate conversation were slightly relaxed, he taught his buddies German. Then, like some odd precursor to a jailed Martha Stewart, he schooled them in the art of wine selection and the proper steps for hosting a formal dinner. They argued about the best wine to serve with coq au vin while they were dining on rotten pumpkin and turnip tops.

Brushing aside the easy temptation to talk about bravery at his farewell fete, he mentioned only that — during a stint in the Ohio Air National Guard — he had managed to keep Ohio safe from West Virginia, Indiana and Michigan. He joked of his retirement, “When you're getting run out of town on a rail, get in front and make it look like a parade.”

Turning his gaze to his wife, Jerri, and the couple's four children — three of them orphans adopted from Vietnam, Thailand and Korea — he said, “I owe each and every one of you a big chunk of my heart.” Of the retirement that officially begins this morning, he said, “I don't plan to be a Wal-Mart greeter. But generals and commanders don't do very much.”

Deflecting praise as though it were a left hook and appearing a little befuddled by all the arm-pumping congratulations and platitudes tendered in goodbye notes from both President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, he looked like a man who would rather be anywhere but in the limelight.

It brought to mind a quote from author/historian Bruce Catton on the aging Civil War heroes he had met as a youth: All that was real had taken place when they were young; everything after had simply been a process of waiting for death, which didn't frighten them much…. They had seen it inflicted in the worst possible way on boys who hadn't bargained on it, and they had enough old-fashioned religion to believe without question that when they passed over they would simply be rejoining men and ways of living they had known long ago.