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04/17/13 — What happened on Jan. 20, 1972 ...

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What happened on Jan. 20, 1972 ...

By Kenneth Fine
Published in The Wall That Heals on April 17, 2013 4:14 PM

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News-Argus/TROY HERRING

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. John Stiles tells his story Tuesday evening at Wayne Community College. Stiles' F-4 was shot down in 1972 and he avoided capture.

He only had six seconds.

Six seconds to eject from an F-4 Phantom that was upside down and spinning out of control.

So when John Stiles asked his pilot, Bob Mock, if he should bail, he was taken aback when his comrade told him to bide his time.

"Well I don't know, to this day, what he did, but somehow, the airplane righted," Stiles said.

But the two Air Force officers were still in trouble.

Their aircraft was in a flat spin.

"So he says, 'Go ahead and eject,'" Stiles said.

Moments later, Mock was on his way into the jungle.

But his navigator wasn't so lucky.

The negative g-force had prevented him from pulling his ejection lever.

So it wasn't until his F-4 hit the treeline, that he separated from the cockpit -- and even then, "I'm going down as fast in the airplane as the rocket seat is firing me forward, so consequently, I'm not going anywhere," Stiles said.

He would ultimately find himself hanging, by his parachute, above a ball of fire.

"The aircraft landed right down off my left side, burning and blowing up, and I'm engulfed in smoke and fire," he said. "I pretty quickly recognized that hanging from this parachute ... with a burning airplane below me ... is probably not a good place to stick around."

*

Stiles told his story to a crowd of hundreds inside Wayne Community College's Moffatt Auditorium Tuesday evening in conjunction with the Wall That Heals' arrival in Wayne County.

He talked about the moment, as a young boy, when he decided to join the military.

"We were watching the Thunderbirds ... and I remember sitting up on top of the bleachers ... and the announcer said, 'If you look straight ahead, you'll see one coming straight at us and if you look down the runway to the left, there's another one coming,'" he said. "And just about the time they were about to pass, we almost got blown off the bleachers by the one that came up behind us. It was then that I knew I wanted to be a fighter pilot."

And he told those in attendance about graduating navigator school -- how he spent his first few months at war flying reconnaissance missions "low-level in the rocks, using radar to navigate"; how his job was to take pictures of targets that would later be attacked by his comrades.

But those who turned out to hear Stiles speak showed up to hear a tale of survival.

They wanted to know just what happened Jan. 20, 1972.

Stiles didn't disappoint.

*

A young aviator is hovering, thanks to his parachute, over a smoldering crash site.

His latest combat sortie had gone terribly wrong.

"My pilot and I were tasked to go out on a mission where we were going out and looking for ... what we thought was going to be an SA-2 surface-to-air radar guided missile -- a portable missile system," Stiles said. "So we took off that morning, flew up and hit a tanker, refueled ... and then we descended down into the target area.

"Sure enough, on our first run, we saw what looked like a radar-guided missile system. They were just pulling off the road."

But Stiles didn't get the picture he was hoping for.

So Mock went back for another pass.

"We maneuvered off and up to the north and I did some calculations ... and we flew back, in a different direction, across the same place we thought they were," Stiles said.

Again, they came up empty.

"But we weren't about to let this opportunity go to waste," Stiles said. "So we're going real fast, but we don't want to lose the visual on our target area, so we pulled up. Then, we were gonna come back down."

Their F-4 now upside down, the young Air Force officers see that the missile system was surrounded by "quite a few" 37-mm, twin-barrel, guns.

"They were all pointing at us and they were all shooting at us. The bullets were about a foot long," Stiles said. "All of a sudden, the airplane was slammed sideways and we find ourselves upside down in a flat spin."

*

Stiles would, eventually, lower himself out of the trees.

"One of our training things was as soon as you are in a crisis situation, think about it, take a drink of water, relax and plan out what you're gonna do," he said. "But all of a sudden, (the jet) starts to cook off -- huge explosions; fire shooting toward where I was sitting -- so I didn't have time to think about anything else but getting away from there."

There was only one problem.

"The jungle I was in was ... so thick ... I couldn't stand up," Stiles said. "As a matter of fact, I couldn't even crawl on my knees. I had to go on my belly to get through the jungle."

So it took nearly two hours for him to get far enough up the hill to find a decent place to hide.

Luckily, he had a handheld radio -- and so did Mock -- so he used the time to plan out a survival strategy.

Mock, they decided, would attempt to reach one of the American aircraft flying overhead.

"But that morning in the briefing ... we were told that the ... bad guy Laotians had captured two radio beacons that would go off and tell you that a crew had gone down. So if you hear it, ignore it," Stiles said. "So even though there were planes flying around overhead, nobody would respond to us."

It would be four more hours before friendly forces would answer Mock's calls for help.

And when they, at last, responded, they told the crew that two Air America helicopters would stage the rescue -- that they need only wait another hour, one Stiles characterized as the longest of his life.

*

Stiles is describing the moments leading up to his rescue when a familiar voice comes over the loudspeakers projecting out into the auditorium.

He turns around and jumps to his feet when he sees the man who pulled him out of the jungle 41 years ago walking toward him.

Bob Noble's hand was the one that reached down and pulled the Air Force navigator away from nearly certain demise.

And Tuesday night, in front of a packed house, the two, again embraced.

Marilyn Thomas wiped tears from her eyes when she described what was going through her mind when Noble walked out onto that stage.

"I'm so glad I came out tonight," she said. "It warmed my heart. It really did.

"You know, this country turned its back on our vets when they came to home from Vietnam. I'm just so glad men like them had each other. You could really feel the love up there between them.

Ms. Thomas, again, broke down.

"I just hope all our Vietnam boys have someone like that in their lives. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it."