His name was Sherman Edward Flanagan, Jr. a practicing lawyer from Westminister, MD. But in our squadron, the 355th Tactical Fighter Squadron, Phu Cat Air Base, Republic of Vietnam, we usually called him “Sherm.” Most of us were flying one or two combat missions a day and sometimes at night, so there was no time for formalities.
But wait. If Sherm was a lawyer in MD, why was he there in the first place? As the saying goes, it’s complicated. In the summer of 1968, over half the pilots in the 355th, including me, were volunteers from two Air National Guard(ANG) squadrons (Washington DC and Atlantic, NJ), that were called to active duty during the Pueblo Crisis. Why did we volunteer to go to Vietnam? For one thing, we believed to a man that it was the right thing to do, and for another, each volunteer that arrived vastly increased the experience level of the squadron, and hence, the survivability of the younger pilots whom we then trained and led by example.
In the summer of 1969, it was time to go home. All the volunteer pilots, plus the ANG maintenance personnel sent to support us returned to their units to be released from active duty. There were the obligatory parades, medals given and citations read, and then we were given over to an indifferent, sometimes hostile civilian community. It was as if our Vietnam experience never happened.
One person was not with us when we came home in 1969. He did not return to his family until some 38 years later when the wreckage was found and his remains were positively identified. No one in the squadron knew exactly what happened that tragic day in the summer of 1968 but the following presents a credible scenario:
“A Super Sabre and its pilot was lost during a mission to destroy an anti-aircraft gun position on the South Vietnamese-Laos border, in the hill country 25 miles southwest of Hue. LtCol Flanagan was making his first strafing pass from 3000 feet when his aircraft was hit by ground fire and dived into the ground near the target. The pilot may have been wounded by the anti-aircraft fire as he did not eject. LtCol Flanagan was a member of the District of Columbia ANG who had volunteered for service with the 355th.”Hobson’s “Vietnam Air Losses”
It is estimated that 58,000 US servicemen died during the Vietnam War, and another 300,00 were wounded. From that perspective, the loss of only one pilot in our squadron does not seem significant. But every warrior knows that one life lost is one too many. That’s why every year on Memorial Day I think about Sherm, make the sign of the cross, and pray for his soul. And then, if my children or grandchildren are not listening, I will also say “And one more thing, save me a place at the bar for happy hour when I get there. OK?”
Rest in peace Sherm Flanagan, and thank you for making the ultimate sacrifice for our country!