Battle Hymn of the Red River Rats
Copyright © 1970 Dick Jonas. All rights reserved.
The Red River rolls down out of China about 160 miles northwest of North Vietnam's capital city. It flows southeastward right through the middle of Hanoi, then continues another 80 miles to the Gulf of Tonkin.
Ho Chi Minh's most heavily defended assets were located north of the Red River. While you could get your butt shot down most anywhere in Vietnam, North or South, the odds of sucking up the 'golden BB' were best up north of the Red. We who flew up there refer to ourselves as "River Rats." In the late nineteen-sixties we institutionalized this august brotherhood by forming the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association. Members include aviators from the Air Force, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Army. Phantom jocks, Thud jocks; those who flew the A-6 Intruder, the A-4 Skyhawk, the F-8 Crusader-any U. S. military flyer who ever crossed the river in anger.
Now, having fought north of the Red is requisite only to charter membership. Today's younger River Rats won their spurs by striking targets north of the Tigris.
The thing I remember first about this song is that it was penned on a scrap of paper while airborne, enroute to Wichita, Kansas. McConnell Air Force Base was Thud country in 1969. Those guys hosted the first stateside practice reunion of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association.
The idea of a River Rat Reunion originated in Thailand in the mid-sixties during the early stages of the war. The purpose was to get together and exchange ideas about how best to fight the air war over North Vietnam. Aw hell, who am I trying to kid? The purpose was to get together, drink copious quantities of rot-gut and make fools of ourselves.
We called them 'practice reunions,' because we felt we could not have a real reunion until the war had been won and our buddies languishing in North Vietnam's POW camps could participate. So, every annual meeting, both overseas and stateside, was billed as a 'practice reunion.'
. . . Until 1973. . .
While we had not won, a smart politician by the name of Kissinger had persuaded the North Vietnamese to return the American POWs. So, in the spring of 1973, after more than a half-dozen yearly dress rehearsals, the Rats staged the first real reunion in Las Vegas.
It was in the Convention Center and everybody who was anybody was there, with the returned POWs as guests of honor. Many of the stars from the hotels down on the Strip interrupted their routines to come over and put on a somewhat impromptu welcome home performance.
The caterers had set the tables with yellow cloth napkins. At some point in the evening's festivities someone began tying these yellow napkins together. I think eventually, just about all the hundreds of napkins in the place were tied together in one very long, unbroken chain. One resourceful jock even climbed up into the overhead metal support maze and strung those things from floor-to-ceiling-to-floor and back again.
Like most fighter jocks, sometimes I'm a little slow on the uptake. I don't think I really picked up on the full import of this strange phenomenon until Desert Storm, nearly 20 years later.
The stories. You would not have believed the stories.
But then again, maybe you would.
If fighter pilots had no hands, they would be unable to communicate with the outside world. Check the o'club stag bar during any random Friday Happy Hour.
There they are, fresh from the training wars, having once again made the skies of America safe for democracy-with videotape, the peacetime substitute for gunpowder. They smell bad. Their faces look funny; there are age lines where no age lines should be, put there by oxygen masks. They are loud. GOD are they loud! The place smells like a brewery. The air is blue with cigarette smoke. They are all dressed exactly the same; they look like abominable snowmen in coats colored nomex green. And they are all talking-with their hands! The left hand is the enemy; the right hand is 'me.' Even for the lefties.
On the older guys, the thumbs droop, made that way permanently by too many hand-waving g's from too many lies told in too many stag bars to too many green, dumbshitlieutenants.
If you watch closely, and if you have had enough to drink, you just might see the 'me' hand rotate completely through 360 degrees about the longitudinal axis protruding from the wrist as the perfect barrel roll attack is executed for all to see.
This, followed by the left hand-the enemy-plunging to the floor completely engulfed in flames, trailing black smoke laced with the pungent odor of cordite.
They talk this way everywhere and all the time: in the flight briefing; in the debriefing; when tap-dancing their way through the mine field of a commander's ass-chewing; at the dinner table; after dinner when reading bed-time stories to their kids; in bed, when they talk in their sleep; in bed, when executing maneuvers yet to be seen in air combat; in church.
They don't learn it in the classroom, nor in the air. They learn it in the stag bar from the old farts with the droopy thumbs.
For the intrepid warriors of the sky, the dangers of air combat training hold no more than a philosophical difference from those of a hot, shooting battle with real bullets.
"FOX TWO!! KILL!! . . . ON THE F-4, LEFT HAND TURN, TWENTY THOUSAND, REVEILLE PEAK!!"
"Lieutenant Micklefritz, today you got morted (a strange bastardization of the King's English which means the poor sap would have died had it all been real) four times. We'll remfly this one tomorrow!" It would have been but little different had the adventure been staged over the enemy's heartland and the poor lieutenant were now just an ". . . upended glass on the table. . ." Either tale will be told and re-told with equal fervor wherever and whenever sky warriors meet.
A fighter pilot's second love, right behind aviating itself, is congregating with his peers and talking about aviating. They meet at happy hour. They gather at each other's houses for parties. They have reunions until they are old and wrinkled and encumbered with wheel chairs and portable oxygen bottles.
And always, it's the same.
". . . There I was, seventeen thousand feet, flat on my back, the flak so thick you could walk on it. . ."
But then, before the evening is concluded, and when it is late, and they at last have located the center of their individual souls, in a rare silence someone will raise a glass, and for a brief moment they will all be one again, the here and now reunited with there and then.
Listen carefully. You may hear names whispered which, though now written in stone, once blazed heroic trails of glory across a war-torn sky.
Click here to visit the Red River Valley Fighter Pilot's Association Home Page.