Written by: Kendra Clapp Olguín | Photos by: Tyler Way
After going through the maze within the USS Yorktown’s office area, up and down a few ladders, and ducking through a couple of short doorways, we settled into a cozy little conference room tucked away behind the Patriots Point staff offices. Patriots Point Museum lives within the USS Yorktown, a Essex-class aircraft carrier built during WWII that, in the 1970s, eventually made its home in Charleston, South Carolina, and became a museum. Since then, its harbor also became the home to a fleet of national historic landmark ships, a Cold War Memorial, and the only Vietnam experience exhibit in the US. Aboard the ship is an official Medal of Honor Museum created by the Patriots Point Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Overall, Patriots Point strives to “preserve the living history of our nation’s bravest men and women while telling their stories in honorable, educational, and engaging ways,” a mission statement that strongly resonates with [HAS HEART]’s.
Robert Williams, AKA Bob or “Willard,” a retired Navy pilot, is a volunteer at Patriots Point. Across from him sat Andrew Barton, a Charleston-based graphic designer introduced to us by a Patriots Point staff member. A little apprehensive about participating as the South Carolina designer, we met Andrew earlier in the week to share the mission of HAS HEART in person. Now, days later, he arranged his assortment of sketchpads, markers, and other materials he brought with him on the conference table. Tyler and I looked at each other, relieved and thankful to see how he was committing to the project, willing to be in a room full of strangers, ready to work.
My eyes shifted over to Bob who had also come prepared. Stacked neatly on top one another, he looked down at his flight books he had brought from his service during the Vietnam War. With slightly worn edges, the books were still in impeccable condition. As everyone settled into their spots, Bob began to thumb through the pages.
After a brief introduction from Tyler and recap of the project schedule, Andrew took lead of the conversation.
“So, if you don’t mind, I’d love to hear how you got into the military and what year that was? How did it all begin?” he asked.
“When I was a junior in high school, a husband of a relative of my mother’s, he was a Marine pilot and I got to talking with him about flying. He said the best way to do it was through the Navy ROTC program because they paid your books, tuition, gave you $50 a month, so and and so forth. Then you would get your commission. So, I applied as a junior and as a senior I went to Iowa State on the ROTC scholarship. I say I was academically redshirted,” Bob laughed. “It took me five years to get through college. I tried to screw it up but I graduated and in the interim my senior year. Then you go through the flight and documentation program and the Navy gives you 35 hours of flight time to see if you can do it.”
“Learning to fly, your senior year of college?” Andrew asked.
“Yes, sir. I got my license in 35 hours and that meant I was qualified to go to flight training. I went right into the Navy and did well. I started out in Pensacola and then got my choice to go to the jet pipeline.”
“Why did you choose that?”
Bob shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “To feel the wind in my hair, to go fast.” This was our first encounter with Bob’s inexplicable passion for flying, a loss of words he shares with many pilots. “Normally it took about eighteen months to get through flight training. I stayed over the holidays in 1964. Everybody was going on leave and I kept flying so I got out in about fifteen-and-a-half months. At the end, you get your dream key, your choice of aircraft. I had the grades to choose whatever I wanted and I wanted a fighter,” Bob says in reference to fighter jets. “But there were none available. I wanted [to fly] F-8’s and F-4’s and put an A-6 as my third choice. The A-6 was a new airplane and they thought it was complicated. It was considered a second-tour aircraft.”
“Second-tour meaning they only put really experienced pilots in this one?” Andrew asked.
“Yes,” Bob responded. “I ended up getting the A-6, which was probably a Godsend. It really was complicated but it did a heck of a job and it carried me through a lot.”
“It’s not considered a fighter jet, though?”
“It’s called an attack. Now they do multipurpose [airplanes].”
“So, it was mostly for bombing?”
“Yes, air-ground,” Bob clarified for Andrew. “We had no guns. The airplane was designed to drop bombs and it did a good job of that.”
Bob’s first tour in the Navy was in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1966, during the Vietnam War. He was aboard the West Coast’s aircraft carrier, the “Constellation,” also referred affectionately as “Connie.”
“How long did your tour in ’66 last?” Andrew asked while jotting down notes.
“It lasted about six months,” Bob responded. He pauses for a moment before opening his flight book to find the specific dates. “We flew our first combat mission on June 15th, 1966.” He flips through the pages with his eyes continuing to scan. “And we flew our last one on the 18th of November, 1966.”
Thorough and prepared with his flight books, Bob recalled the details of his service with ease. His passion for flying conveyed itself in his continuous listings of airplane names and nicknames, statistics, dates, and flying terminology, yet he hadn’t articulated the emotion behind his experience. After sharing the logistics and explanation of why A-6’s generally flew missions at night, Bob paused and stared at the wall ahead of him, memories racing back to him.
“I once was asked how I felt dropping bombs on people,” he started. The rest of us remained silent, appreciative that he had brought up what we were all wondering. “I had never been asked that question. I said that I didn’t know. I never thought of it. It’s a detachment. You saw a target as a target, a building, those types of things.”
It seems like such an emotional effort, to separate oneself from the act of bombing cities, buildings, people… but the thing about detachment is that it is more about focusing on something else rather than ignoring what you’re detaching yourself from. Every ounce of Bob’s passion for flying simultaneously served as an ounce of dispassion toward bombing or fighting. Complexly intertwined, one couldn’t exist without the other. If you wanted to be a pilot in the 1960s, serving in the military was the way you became one.
“Most people would rather not be there, but they are doing what they are told to, what their job and profession is. No one wants peace more than the person fighting the war,” Bob continued.
“No one wants peace more
than the person fighting the war.”
-Bob “Willard” Williams
It is important to note that Bob is not and was not bitter about his circumstances in the Navy. Like many, he cherished the memories he made in the military, particularly ones involving the individuals he worked with.
“It was a very close group of people. We played a game called ‘bet your ass’ and we did, literally and figuratively,” Bob said, grinning.
After his first tour and some time off, Bob’s second tour on the Forrestal began in June of 1967, leaving from Norfolk, Virginia, and eventually arriving to the Gulf of Tonkin on July 25th.
Just four days of missions had passed when the infamous Forrestal Fire occurred on the morning of July 29th, 1967. An electrical power surge caused a “Zuni” rocket to fire across the flight deck and strike the fuel tank of an A-4 Skyhawk waiting to launch.
The fuel spilled across the deck and was ignited by burning rocket propellant. The blaze was strengthened by the 37 MPH winds blowing across the flight deck and the exhaust of jets waiting to launch. In the chaos, a 1,000 pound AN-M65 bomb fell from an A-4 Skyhawk into the burning fuel and after an unsuccessful attempt to extinguish and prevent the protective bomb casing from melting. The bomb split open and detonated, killing many working to combat the fire as well as pilots trying to escape their aircraft. The detonation showered the deck with bomb and aircraft shrapnel and blew an enormous hole in the deck. Burning fuel seeped through, setting the sleeping compartments below aflame. With the fire continuing to grow, all seven F-4s ignited, their bombs, missiles, and rockets began to explode, and their burning fuel poured everywhere.
The fight to control the fire proved to be a difficult task. Nearby destroyers [ships] aided the Forrestal crews to suppress the flight deck fire by the late morning, but the firefighting crews on the ship combatted fires below the deck for the rest of the day. Ultimately, the fire killed 134 men and injured 161 others.
Among the survivors was Bob.
“It was an anomaly. Normally, when you’re carrying rocket pods, they wouldn’t plug them in until you went around the ship’s cat (catapult) and pointed forward. They decided, however, to speed things up. In their check-backs, when shifting over from external power to the aircraft power, there was a short in the circuit and it accidentally fired his rocket across the deck, which in itself is bad enough. Then you got 20 knots of wind over the deck and it hit a fuel tank. All that stuff was going on at the same time,” Bob explained.
“Where were you at the time when this rocket was flying across the deck?” Andrew asked.
Bob pointed to a photograph of an aerial shot of the USS Forrestal with letters and numbers across the image, identifying each plane on deck. “I came across this airplane here and went across over there. I was in F11 right up here.”
“In one of the planes?”
“Yes,” he responded. “I was getting ready to launch. I saw a lot of activity and people moving around in my rearview mirror. I looked back and I could see fire and smoke. I ended up having a hole blown in my wing and fuel was coming out.”
Andrew nodded, I’m sure trying to imagine himself in the situation. “So it did reach you?”
“Yes,” Bob confirmed. “So, I shut it down, got out, and carried a guy down to the sick bay.”
“Did that turn out to be the most traumatic event during your whole experience serving, then? An accident on your own ship as opposed to enemy fire?”
“Yes, I suppose it was the most traumatic thing in the war for me. I’m sure I went into shock because I was in my zone preparing to launch. All of a sudden, I’m shifted into another threat that I wasn’t prepared for.”
It is an understatement to say that feeling unprepared does not sit well with service members. The military trains you to be ready for anything that may come your way, including potential crises, but the Forrestal Fire was on an entirely different level of trauma that was impossible to prepare for. An electrical anomaly during a routine process, not enemy attacks, had forever altered American history.
While the ship was being worked on for a month, Bob found himself in the Philippines with the option to return home.
“After the fire, the trauma, the drama, and all that stuff, we got back to the Philippines and anybody that had enough money, they could take leave and hitchhike back to base or wherever. They could go ahead and take leave and go back to the states,” he said. “Well, I had a six-month-old daughter so I headed home, picked up my wife and daughter, and drove back to Iowa. I was out on the farm one day and I came in at noon. In the interim, I knew there had been a mission where there was a strike and out of four A-6s, three of them had gotten shot down. So when I came in for lunch, my wife and my mother were kind of pale. They said that the Assistant Chief of Police called and said to call this number in DC immediately. I told them to pour me a drink.”
Bob dialed the phone number and a Navy Captain from the Combat Placement desk answered and began explaining what Bob already knew, that the Navy recently suffered losses and were in immediate need of experienced combat cruises to replace them.
“Well, Captain, I guess that means you need me,” Bob responded.
Understanding the difficult situation Bob was volunteering to walk into, the Captain asked if there was anything Bob wanted.
“I said that I would like enough time to take my family back to Virginia Beach, which I did, that I wanted this to count as my second tour, and when it was completed, that I would go back as a LSO instructor in the A-6 rag. He said ‘OK’ and I said ‘Darn, I should have asked for more,’” Bob laughed.
When asked by Andrew how he felt at that moment, Bob responded, “You don’t say no. It was also an opportunity.”
Bob flipped through another flight book while explaining that he got aboard the “Connie” near Atsugi, Japan, went to Hong Kong, and eventually made his way to the Gulf of Tonkin to fly missions above Vietnam for three months to complete his second tour.
“I got back to the A-6 rag on the 12th of December, 1967,” Bob stated, a sense of relief and belonging hanging onto his words.
As a Landing Signal Officer (LSO), Bob instructed young pilots, communicating over the radio with them to ensure safe landings aboard the aircraft carrier. Understanding the intricacies of landing on a moving ship and the anxiety behind the difficult task, Bob walked them through the challenge.
“Depending on what the guy needed, a kick in the butt or a stroke on the back, you’re trying to get them to do what they need to do to bring them around. So you challenge them, tell them the truth, and encourage them to do something,” Bob explained. “I’m being very philosophical and I’m not sure if I’m making a whole lot of sense.”
At this point I understood that it wasn’t easy for Bob to explain his personal emotions within his intimate relationship with flying. Sensing him begin to back off, I continued for him.
“I think ‘challenge’ is definitely a word you use in terms of why you love flying,” I stated.
“Because it’s never the same,” he quickly jumped back in. “It’s always different. There is always something a little different in what is happening.”
“I like that,” Andrew chimed in. “How can we distill that down to something pithy? I like ‘challenges’ but why do you like the challenge? What’s a way to say that, but catchy?”
“It’s the reward of accomplishment,” Bob responded. “I just can’t explain it. I just love it. It never gets out of your blood. It’s something there that makes you feel good.”
Andrew continued to push the brainstorming session. He looked to his many sketches of planes he looked up on his computer while Bob had been talking. He began to ask Bob about the actual process of a plane landing on an aircraft carrier.
“You had a picture of coming in to land the plane and you said that you don’t aim at the deck you-“
“You aim it where the angle meets the straight and that’s called the ‘crotch,’” Bob said.
“Great. So… you aim at the crotch,” Andrew responded, smiling and shaking his head in disbelief.
Everyone in the room laughed.
“But you’re aiming for where the ship will be,” Andrew continued. “I like that as a metaphor for chasing a goal or challenge.”
“That’s the technique,” Bob verified.
Before calling it a day for Day 01, Bob gave us a personal tour of the USS Yorktown, ending the tour on the deck. Although Bob had been talking all day about how much he loved flying, the tour managed to make his passion more apparent. Combinations of letters and numbers flew from of his mouth as he pointed to each airplane we walked past. Completely unfamiliar with aviation lingo, I couldn’t keep up. Yet, his excitement was infectious, especially as we stood on the sunny deck, the chilly December air blowing against our faces.
The next day, Andrew presented Bob with the sketches he had worked on the previous night. Going off the three ideas the pair had gravitated toward the day before, he taped sheets upon sheets of paper in three distinct groups: “No one wants peace more than the person fighting the war,” “Fated to fly,” and “Chase the challenge.”
“I see this design having an aerial focus,” Andrew said while pointing to his A-6 sketches. Bob smiled in appreciation of the beautiful hand drawn depictions of the aircraft that carried him through the best and worst moments of his first two tours. It had driven his innate need to fly, gave him an aerial view of Vietnam and the war, a view that motivated his deep desire for peace, and it taught him the lifelong lesson of not shying away from difficulty, but instead, courageously taking on the challenges life throws at you.
The group continued discussing the concepts, agreeing that the aviation aesthetic fit more in line with the ideas of “Chase the challenges” and “Fated to fly.” With it down to two concepts, we bantered through design possibilities and scenarios.
Eventually, the conversation died down.
“‘Chase the challenge’ is more inclusive,” Bob stated, almost like an announcement. Andrew nodded, understanding Bob’s desire to appeal to Veterans and civilians alike, pilot or non-pilot.
The remaining portion of the second project day was spent fleshing out details Bob and Andrew wanted to include within the design. Pulling inspiration from the flight books that Bob meticulously documented his flights on and the colors from the mascot of the Navy’s Attack Squadron 65 (VA-65), The World Famous Fighting Tigers that Bob was a part of, Andrew chose the colors of an orange-red with forest green. The playful combination matched Bob’s charismatic and humorous nature.
To further accentuate Bob’s advice of chasing the challenges, to always continue moving forward, and love of flying, Andrew accentuated the text with movement lines and depicted the A-6 flying through the letters of “CHASE.” The aircraft is pointed upward, signaling the strength and positivity that will yield from acts of endurance and encouragement.
Bit by bit, as Bob and Andrew bounced ideas back and forth, their design began to take form. Of course, it would be finalized in the coming weeks with Andrew sitting down at his computer and designing every last detail as graphic designers do, yet their sketch that was sitting on the conference table looked full of life already. Bob leaned back, grinning as he had been for most of the project. His calm demeanor juxtaposed Andrew’s anxiousness.
Similar to most designers we work with, Andrew was feeling the pressure to depict someone’s life or story into a graphic. When you add the evident appreciation Andrew had for the military and its service members, that pressure grows. Yet, time would be his friend throughout the finalization of the design. I could imagine him mulling over his computer the next several weeks, critiquing each pixel on his screen. At that point, my gratefulness came to the forefront of my thoughts.
I looked around at the individuals we had gotten to know in just two quick days. Bob, a boy in farmland Iowa, enamored with airplanes and flying, had participated in and survived one of the most conflicted moments in the United States’ history: the Vietnam War. A father, LSO instructor, commercial pilot, and now volunteer at Patriots Point, he had endured so much. Bob being Bob, didn’t see it like that. It was what it was. He wasn’t focused on the past, but instead, the future, to the challenges ahead.