On The Line 6.4

by Steve on November 19, 2009

Back to 6.3

Once daylight arrived the entire area was searched again.  Mac couldn’t have gone in far from where the plane hit.  The jet sank about twenty minutes after it hit and the sonobouy used to mark the impact would be subjected to the same current and wind drift as any floating wreckage, raft, or body.  Even so the search area was continually expanded to account for elapsed time.  There was little hope of finding Mac alive after having been in the water for such a long period.  Plus it wasn’t as if they had hundreds of square miles of ocean to search, they had a defined area.  If he was floating they would have spotted him.  If he had managed to deploy his raft they couldn’t miss him.  He had a survival radio and a strobe; if he was alive he would have used one or both.  After another cycle of helo ops and ten straight hours of searching the same patch of ocean the SAR effort was called off.  The destroyer had dispatched a small boat after sighting something in the water which turned out to be Mac’s parachute but that was all that was recovered.  Lost at sea, presumed dead.  LT Bill McKenzie of Tacoma, Washington, was gone.

There was no flying for the rest of the day.  The ship was quiet, or at least as quiet as an aircraft carrier underway can be.  The ship’s chaplain scheduled and organized a memorial service that was held on the flight deck as the sun set toward the horizon.  The entire air wing turned out plus many of the ship’s company.  Ted, however, was forced to watch his friend’s memorial service on the closed circuit TV from a bed in sick bay.  The Flight Surgeon was still unsure as to the extent of the damage to Ted’s spinal column and had threatened him with sedation if he attempted to move.  Ted was in too much pain to argue the point but was distraught over the thought of missing Mac’s service.  CDR Hart knew that Ted needed the memorial service in order to start healing so he offered a suggestion: he would read a eulogy on Ted’s behalf.  Ted couldn’t write it so he dictated it to his skipper.  CDR Hart sat next to Ted’s bed for over an hour writing down every word and when he was finished all he could manage was, “Mac’s parents need a copy of this.”

The Chaplain opened with a prayer, followed by the Captain and CAG.   When the CAG finished his remarks, CDR Hart got up and faced his squadron, his ship, and his Navy.  “I made a promise before we left that I would bring every one of you home with me.  I failed.  Sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way no matter what we do or how hard we try.  This evening we are gathered to honor the life and memory of a fallen shipmate, Lieutenant William McKenzie.  I can think of no more appropriate way to honor him than through the words of his friend who manned up for that last ride, LT Gordon:

“Mac was the one that made us all laugh whether we wanted to or not..  He always looked at things with a positive attitude.  When the rest of us were bitching about something he always had an alternative view that made us feel like maybe we had missed the point.  You couldn’t help but like the guy, Mac’s personality was infectious.  He was always there to help in whatever manner he could.  Mac was not perfect, none of us are, but he continually pushed to improve his skills as an officer, a warrior, and an aviator.  The enlisted troops, even the crusty old chiefs, respected him and that meant the world to Mac.  His people would do anything for him and not because they were ordered to do it but because they were motivated and they knew he cared about them.  He took our profession seriously.  His demeanor gave the impression that he was a bit of a clown but underneath that playful, joking exterior was the heart and soul of a patriot.  Mac loved his country and serving in her Navy gave him great satisfaction.  He told me one time that he felt like he had found his calling, his home –  the Navy fulfilled him in a way that was totally unexpected.  He found honor and purpose in serving his country – things that he didn’t even realize had been missing from his life.  Mac had drive.  As goofy and likeable as he was, above all he was a dedicated professional.  A true warrior in the sense that he believed skill and technology represented a deterrence to the evil in the world.  As if his performance, or lack thereof, could tip the scales in favor of freedom.  He earned every qualification as soon as he was eligible for it.  He wasn’t the most gifted pilot behind the boat but he worked hard at it.  He did nothing wrong that last night we launched together –  the jet betrayed us.  There was nothing Mac could have done to save that plane but he was trying right up to the second his seat shot up the rails.  We all acknowledge this is a dangerous business we’re in and  Mac knew the risks as well as anyone but he accepted them as part of the job.

We’ve lost a dear friend and a fellow warrior – may we honor his life by never forgetting him.”

CDR Hart folded the paper and gazed out over the gently rolling sea temporarily lost in the memory of a young man that had been his responsibility.  He had lost friends and even squadronmates before but this was the first loss under his command.  The weight of responsibility on top of the grief was immense, far greater than he would have guessed.  He would have to write the dreaded letter home, a task that all Commanders hoped to avoid.

He regrouped and stared his squadron, his people, in the eye. “For some of you this is a first, for others another name added to a list of those lost at sea.  It’s a tragic loss amplified by the fact that the root cause was a chronic yet unidentified tendency of our jet to induce an abrupt and uncommanded lateral hardover.  It doesn’t happen often but when it does the results are usually catastrophic.  Be ready for it.  Brief it.  There’s a thousand ways to get yourself killed on this ship.  I want all of you to look out for each other and keep everyone safe.  I don’t want to write anymore letters on this cruise.”

The Chaplain took the podium again and led the assembled men and women in the singing of the Navy Hymn.  Their voices carried out over the rolling sea as the sun started its dip below the distant horizon:

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

Lord, guard and guide the men who fly
Through the great spaces in the sky.
Be with them always in the air,
In darkening storms or sunlight fair;
Oh, hear us when we lift our prayer,
For those in peril in the air!

Mac was gone.

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{ 1 comment }

Bob Geis November 28, 2009 at 8:42

Hey Steve,

Happy Thanksgiving. Great chapter. Extremely well written. All is well here. Sorry to here about the shop. What’s next?

I just found out I screened for major command, not a CAG, not a commodore, but a Base. Don’t know where yet. I’m hoping for NAS Oceana, but could literally be anywhere in the world. The available bases are Oceana, North Island, Jax, Mayport, Lemoore, Whidbey, Guam, Sig, Souda bay, Gitmo, Diego Garcia. Should find out this week or next. Any trips to the VA area in your future?

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