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A Pilot’s Story

A Pilot’s Story

Military History

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
– John 15:13

Through our work, our family has the great privilege of getting to know elders in our community, and to hear stories from their lives. We’ve had the opportunity to care for and get to know veterans of World War II, including a soldier who fought at Bastogne with General Patton’s army; a woman who as a teen was part of the Polish resistance in the Warsaw ghettos; the daughter of Irish immigrants who met Helen Keller while serving in the foreign service in Egypt in 1952; an Auschwitz survivor, who survived ten concentration camps; and others.

 

One of our clients and friends, John Eilertson, was a captain and pilot in Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 in Vietnam from 1964-65.

John flew hundreds of missions during his time in Vietnam, transporting wounded soldiers, Marines, and South Vietnamese civilian and military to medical facilities; supporting Marine patrols on the ground; evacuating American and Vietnamese wounded, as well as Vietnamese refugees; resupplying marines in the field; search and rescue missions; and combat operations.

He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for a mission he flew on July 12, 1965, helping rescue a reconnaissance Marine patrol that had found itself, while on a scouting mission about 30 miles west of the American Airbase in Da Nang, suddenly surrounded by 50–100 Viet Cong soldiers.

Later, years after the war, John, a Catholic, traveled with his first wife Edie to Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, the 13th century saint. There he happened to meet a retired Marine Colonel who had been a good friend of the patrol leader, Frank Reasoner (see tribute below), who died that day in 1965 – the only casualty. For John, in the holy city of Assisi, this fortuitous meeting brought something full circle. “It was unique,” he says. “It was almost like a God-given meeting with somebody who knew him.”

Here is John’s story, as told to Cassidy & Kate:

Edie and I went to Assisi and were staying overnight in a hotel just outside of the city. We were going out for dinner and while I was waiting for Edie downstairs in the lobby, this gentleman came in and we got to talking. It turns out he’s a retired Marine Colonel who had been Regimental Commander of a regiment at Camp Pendleton [the Marine Corps Base about 50 miles south of Newport.]

We got to talking and he found out that I’d been a Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam in 1965. And it turns out that I got a Distinguished Flying Cross for helping rescue a 30-man patrol that had been surrounded by the North Vietnamese about 30 miles southwest of Da Nang.

Their company commander was shot and killed, and they had a lot of wounded and they put out a call for withdrawal from the field.

It was the middle of the night and I was in my quarters at the airbase and they told me I had to go to the operational tent. We got a real quick briefing and went right out there to try and rescue our guys in the field. It was pitch black. One of those nights that was just absolutely pitch black. No moon or stars or anything.

We cranked up two helicopters. I was flying the second helicopter.

Bill Barber, who was an old war office chief, who had served in World War II and Korea and had a lot of flying experience, he was leading in the first helicopter, and we went roaring out there.

The reconnaissance patrol had lit a mag flare that was really bright. Bill called in on the radio and went roaring in and the North Vietnamese just opened up, firing at us. They had three machine gun positions set up around the patrol. You could see the green tracers from their bullets triangulating and lighting up the darkness. They couldn’t see us because we flew without any lights on, but they could hear us approaching and would fire at sound.

Bill went in and landed, and his crew hauled in as many Marines as they could, about ten, I think. Then he called out over the radio and quickly took off again.

Then I went roaring in on the position that I had seen in the black and the darkness.

There was no light at all. I had to just hover over the position, as best I could, and used a really sparring approach into it.

I lucked out and came out pretty close to where Bill had taken off from.

There were trees on both sides, so you had to be really careful landing. It was pitch black. I went roaring in and landed.

I took on a large number of people. I forget exactly how many now, but apparently I landed pretty close to the large body of them and hauled out the most. There were a lot of wounded. I told my crew chief: Get as many as you can. They came pouring on; and that left three left in the zone: a company commander, one other marine, and a dog. (The Marines had a dog with them on patrol. This was fairly common, John said. “If you had a sniper, you’d send the dog in. We’d take them into the field.”)

Our helicopter was so heavy, the last three couldn’t get on.

There happened to be a reconnaissance helicopter from our squadron that was out that night on a separate mission, and which happened to have on board a battalion commander. He heard our mission over the radio and, as luck would have it, gave them the order to fly in and support us. I told my copilot, as we were hovering above the landing zone: Quickly turn on our lights and turn them off; give them a flash of lights in the zone, so that they could spot us and come in. And that was enough for them to be able to get in and get those last three guys.

I made a roaring exit out of there so as not to hit any trees. And we made it out okay.

It all happened fast. It’s scary but you have to do the best you can. And when I went out, I did a sharp turn to stay clear of the trees. There were some tall trees, bordering fields.

It turns out that that company commander who lost his life, Frank Reasoner, was a senior first lieutenant and was a good friend of this gentleman I was talking to in Assisi. It was unique. It was almost like I was having a God-given meeting with somebody who knew him.

They had lived, as a matter of fact, in a house almost across the street from each other at Camp Pendleton. I couldn’t believe it! Here he was waiting for his wife to have dinner. And so we all had dinner together that night. Almost like it was a miracle.

Remembering 1st Lt. Frank Reasoner

1st Lt. Frank Reasoner, one of the patrol’s leaders and a graduate of West Point, was killed during the attack, having thrown himself into the line of fire to save the life of a fellow wounded Marine.

Prior to his death, Reasoner showed tremendous bravery and selflessness, initially single-handedly taking on Viet Cong fire – despite the fact that they were surrounded by three machine gun positions and some 100 Vietnamese fighters – to try and allow his men the space to retreat to a safer position.

He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor – the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor during the war. The Marines also renamed the third reconnaissance base in Da Nang “Camp Reasoner.” “The hand-lettered sign near the gates of Camp Reasoner read: ‘First Lieutenant Reasoner sacrificed his life to save one of his wounded Marines. Greater Love Hath No Man.'” (Wikipedia). The Navy frigate the USS Reasoner was also named in his honor.

He was undoubtedly an example of selflessness; of not hesitating to put the lives of others before one’s own; and was beloved among his men. He was only 27 years old when he died, leaving behind a young wife and a baby boy back home.

“Although I wasn’t yet two years old when he died,” says his son Michael, “I can think of no better legacy for a father to leave his son than the one he left me.” Frank would have been 82 this year.

John and his second wife, Natalie

John and Ninta, one of our caregivers.

The Basilica of St. Francis in the sacred Italian city of Assisi.

A gunner’s view from a HU-34 Sikorsky in Vietnam in 1965. HU-34 was the helicopter John, and all marine pilots, flew during the war. Each mission included an aircraft commander, or pilot – John’s role; co-pilot; crew chief, and gunner.

Did You Know Walt Whitman Served as a Nurse during the Civil War?

Did You Know Walt Whitman Served as a Nurse during the Civil War?

Walt Whitman (1819–1892) was born May 31, 1819 into a working-class family in Long Island, New York. He worked throughout his life as a teacher and in the publishing and printing trades. Whitman also served as a nurse during the American Civil War, 1861–1865, which he said, offered him “the greatest privilege and satisfaction . . . and, of course, the most profound lesson of my life.”

He tended to tens of thousands of wounded Union and Confederate soldiers, nursing them, helping them write letters, bringing gifts.

“It was during this period [1861, the first year of the Civil War]that Whitman first encountered casualties of the war that was already lasting far longer than anyone had anticipated. He began visiting wounded soldiers who were moved to New York hospitals, and he wrote about them in a series called ‘City Photographs’ that he published in the New York Leader in 1862.

“Whitman had in fact been visiting Broadway Hospital for several years, comforting injured stage drivers and ferryboat workers (serious injuries in the chaotic transportation industry in New York at the time were common). While he was enamoured with the idea of having literary figures as friends, Whitman’s true preference for companions had always been and would continue to be working class men, especially those who worked on the omnibuses and the ferries (“all my ferry friends,” as he called them), where he enjoyed the endless rhythms of movement, the open road, the back-and-forth journeys, with good companions. He reveled in the energy and pleasure of travel instead of worrying about destinations: “I cross’d and recross’d, merely for pleasure,” he wrote of his trips on the ferry. He remembered fondly the “immense qualities, largely animal” of the colorful omnibus drivers, whom he said he enjoyed “for comradeship, and sometimes affection” as he would ride “the whole length of Broadway,” listening to the stories of the driver and conductor, or “declaiming some stormy passage” from one of his favorite Shakespeare plays.

“So his hospital visits began with a kind of obligation of friendship to the injured transportation workers, and, as the Civil War began taking its toll, wounded soldiers joined the transportation workers on Whitman’s frequent rounds. These soldiers came from all over the country, and their reminiscences of home taught Whitman about the breadth and diversity of the growing nation. He developed an idiosyncratic style of informal personal nursing, writing down stories the patients told him, giving them small gifts, writing letters for them, holding them, comforting them, and kissing them. His purpose, he wrote, was “just to help cheer and change a little the monotony of their sickness and confinement,” though he found that their effect on him was every bit as rewarding as his on them, for the wounded and maimed young men aroused in him “friendly interest and sympathy,” and he said some of “the most agreeable evenings of my life” were spent in hospitals.

“By 1861, his New York hospital visits had prepared him for the draining ordeal he was about to face when he went to Washington, D.C., where he would nurse thousands of injured soldiers in the makeshift hospitals there. Whitman once said that, had he not become a writer, he would have become a doctor, and at Broadway Hospital he developed close friendships with many of the physicians, even occasionally assisting them in surgery. His fascination with the body, so evident in his poetry, was intricately bound to his attraction to medicine and to the hospitals, where he learned to face bodily disfigurations and gained the ability to see beyond wounds and illness to the human personalities that persisted through the pain and humiliation. It was a skill he would need in abundance over the next three years as he began yet another career.” From “Walt Whitman” by Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price

In 1855 Whitman published the collection of poems Leaves of Grass, which the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson called “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed.” Whitman continued to rewrite, refine, and republish Leaves until his death in Camden, New Jersey, March 26, 1892.

I have always loved Whitman’s poem, “Miracles.”

 

“Miracles” by Walt Whitman

Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the
water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night
with any one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer
forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so
quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.

To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle.

 


Coral Tree In-home Care provide caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 250 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
Shortbread and Brawn

Shortbread and Brawn

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Mr Mac with his nine grandchildren.

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Young Donald.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My father-in-law liked to read, eat sweets and drink whisky. Most of all he liked to make money. He had an unconscious habit of shaking coins in his hand–a reminder? My mother-in-law used to call him moneybags but that was after they were divorced. Mr. Mac as I used to call him, followed his mother’s maxim, “If money is the root of all evil, give me more of the root.”

He did focus on that golden root perhaps so tenaciously because his Scottish parents not only had little fortune but because his mother taught him the value of frugality. Whenever he had finished his whisky bottle, he poured a little water in, swirled it around and sloshed his glass with the last wee dram. Despite his collection of first-class free airplane socks, he continued to wear old socks with holes. He would drive his luxurious Jaguar like an army jeep across potholed farm roads and with his unbothered spaniel Sandy riding in the boot. Although careful by nature, Mr. Mac was incredibly generous, never tight-fisted. When I arrived in Cape Town newly married, he gave me his Mercedes sports car without a second thought.

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Setting off for the Garden Route from Cape Town to Durban and Julia’s wedding in 1978. Mr. Mac, Lizzie, and me.

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At Twickenham.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On his South African farm he taught me to fly fish for trout. On our way back to the white house he invariably proclaimed, “You’ll sleep well tonight,” his platitude for the reliable result of country air mixed with a drink or two. By bedtime we were as “dim as a Toc H lamp,” one of his Christian Science mother’s expressions he kept for the slow-witted. Some wonderful times were evenings with Mr. Mac and his veteran friends on the farm recounting war exploits. Mr. Mac loved telling of his parachuting into Yugoslavia with his volume of Shakespeare and silk pajamas. His first night on the ground, he took his boots off to sleep, a mistake he never made again.

After the war, Yugoslavia stayed with him. He kept up with his Slovenian bodyguard, Carlo and his family. He introduced his own family to them and Yugoslavia with many trips there. He also taught me about the SOE in the Second World War. He read everything he could about the war besides donating to an historian his own diaries from his SOE activities in the Balkans. He loved fact and I loved fiction but the war reading he introduced to me, the SOE activities such as “Ill Met by Moonlight” by Billy Moss, read like fiction they were so exciting and dramatic–all the more extraordinary, being real and true.

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Mac’s SOE: Chiddy, Thornton, McKenzie and himself at center.

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Donald, center, in the mountains of Macedonia during World War II.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The war was an important part of his life. In London he was a member of the Special Forces Club in Knightsbridge where he would meet some of his cronies such as Peter Kemp and Reg Hibbert. He always stayed there when in London. He told me about a memorable lunch, noon to five, in Rome with Peter Kemp who had fought for Franco in the Spanish Civil War and had Franco decorations he would flaunt to the Albanian Partisans, many of whom had fought in the International Brigade and this would infuriate them. The politics of the Balkans during the Second World War is confusing, yet in a word it was anti-German. What is clear from my father-in-law was his love of the people there and the courtly hospitality shown the soldiers in those remote mountains where a visitor would be fed first before family and where strict codes of personal honour prevailed.

Central to Mr. Mac’s heart was his love of Scotland, his birthright. When he was able, he bought a house in Scotland and lived at Kindrochet part of the year. Through his generosity and open-door invitations to Kindrochet, many people have discovered Scotland’s inner beauty, “annihilating all that’s made to a green thought in a green shade.” (Marvell)

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Donald, Catherine MacKinnon Macdonald, Catriona

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Kindrochet

 

 

 

 

 

When his son was capped for Scotland in rugby, Mr. Mac couldn’t have been more elated. He accompanied me to all the matches from London to Paris, Dublin, Cardiff and Edinburgh. We never forgot our flasks (for the nerves). Once in Edinburgh, we inadvertantly ended up in the same hotel, the Braid’s Hill, as the team and had to watch our step as the players were meant to be secluded before games. If we passed them in the lobby, we just kept walking and then laughed about it later over a drink. After his son’s first match for Scotland against England, Mr. Mac escorted me to the London ball (there was always one following each International). He left the taxi running as he walked me to meet his son and got so involved talking to all of the players that he forgot about the taxi altogether–over a hundred pounds later!

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Donald, to the left.

Rugby ran through Mr. Mac’s life as his sons excelled at the sport. Besides two Internationals, all three of his sons are blues, having played for Oxford against Cambridge. My first encounter with rugby and Mr. Mac was at Oxford and the Varsity match, Oxford vs. Cambridge. On a baltic first Tuesday in December, we met in the mud of Twickenham’s carpark. From the back of the boot of his silver blue Rolls, we drank pre-game champagne and picnic’d on Fortnum & Mason delicacies, not to mention Melton Mowbray pork pies and other delicacies from Harrod’s food hall.

We had a first-class time, first-class being one of his favorite epithets. Further down the road in his Rolls, Mr. Mac gave his youngest son, Coll and me a tour of central Scotland’s fog. Literally, that’s all we saw besides chimney smoke beckoning us to a pub’s lunchtime pink gin, his preferred lunchtime tipple.

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Mr. Mac, Coll, Julia at Varsity match pre-game.

Mr. Mac’s parents were from Iona and Mull. We ferried the clear waters to Iona to see what was left of the original croft and to read the gravestone in the Cathedral Cemetery acknowledging the nine Macdonald sons born there. Mr. Mac’s mother, Catherine MacKinnon, was from Mull and on her deathbed said, “I am looking up Loch Scridain to Ben More.” It’s interesting that her final view was toward the Munro, Ben More, rather than the opposite view, equally wonderful across the loch and the Atlantic to the Isle of Staffa. She often said, “When I was young I was so strong and so happy I could skip from Bunessan to Pennyghael and back.”

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Donald & Catriona

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Aonghais at Iona Abbey

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From “The Blessing of the Ship,” Iona, 1887.

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“Machir,” Macdonald family croft on Iona in background.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was she who took her two children, Donald and Catriona, from Liverpool to live in Durban, the South African port where the children might see more of their seafaring father, Dugald. Donald or Mr. Mac was fifteen and began work in Durban to help support the family, finishing his education at night school. He worked hard and enjoyed well. Education ranked highly with him. He paid for his children and some of his grandchildren to go to the best private schools and universities.

Kippers for breakfast, oysters and champagne for brunch, I imagine he’s bringing in the gloaming to the sound of the silvery Tay and salmon running, a dram of the Famous Grouse on his left and a bucket of Quality Street within reach to his right, not having to get up in the night to find it in the dark.

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Mr. Mac, man of business, at 3 Green Street, Cape Town.

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With Kate and Inney.

 


Coral Tree In-home Care provide caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 250 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
The Frogman, a Prince

The Frogman, a Prince

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Cassidy’s father Jack Kniest, who served as a US frogman during World War II, probably in Burma, in the early 1940s.

My dad lost a lot. When he was two years old he lost his father who died from complications from being gassed in the trenches during the Great War. He lost his mother next, who had to go to work to support her two sons. Jack was angry at her, not understanding her lack of alternative. He lost his only brother during the next war, World War II. His brother was shot down over the Pacific. He lost his first son, Ward, when Ward was only twenty-four from a car accident. He lost my mother’s money when his then-partner killed himself, having ventured his own and my parent’s fortune and lost them. My father trusted him and my mother trusted my father. She never blamed my father. My father never blamed his partner. He never complained.

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Jack (right) and fellow frogman (left).

My father learned early on to appreciate the moment, to enjoy when he could, to live each moment to the hilt. When all seemed lost again and he was in his fifties, he returned to California, the place he had learned to love when he was in training at Camp Pendleton with the Marines.

Jack was a great swimmer, something he developed having had polio as a child. He became a diving instructor in the Marines before he joined the OSS during the war. He swam to and attached limpet mines to enemy ships in the Pacific before escaping, hoping to be picked up by his own ship.

They were called Frogmen, with feet in rubber fins and only their skinny swimming trunks belted with underwater bombs. They had no diving equipment but an airtight mask with a breathing device. With bulging eyes and big rubber feet, these brave frogmen jumped off the side of their ship into shark-infested and enemy-fired waves to clear the sea roads for beach landings.  He also told me about hiding from the enemy by climbing palm trees in Burma. Jack always kept his rosary in his pocket.

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How so many who loved Jack remember him: settled in his chair, with  a book, a highball and a pack of Pall Mall unfiltereds.

Every evening when he came home from the bank, he made a highball, slipped off his shoes and settled into his chair to read. I used to try his New Yorker but could never get past the Talk of the Town. I couldn’t understand it at all. What did that have to do with our town, Sedalia, Missouri? My trusting dad knew I would figure it out eventually.

Jack was so handsome he didn’t have to talk much, but he expected correct grammar during every conversation. His prepossessing smile demanded one in return, making him a natural charmer and cheerer–a true gentleman, a winsome prince: my dad, the Frogman.


Coral Tree In-home Care provide caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 250 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.