When my mom and I arrived at CP Restaurant on Mariner’s Mile last Saturday to have lunch with her friend, Lt. Col. (Ret.) Vernon “Doc” Wagner, M.D., little did we know the stories he would share over fried rice and house favorite chicken.
Fifty-five years ago, Mom and Doc rode the bus together to Glendale Union Academy. They reconnected some years ago at one of their class reunions. Over the years my mom had mentioned Doc’s decorated career as a Captain and Flight Surgeon in the Air Force, but little did I know the action he had seen in both Vietnam and the Gulf War, including a harrowing tale of saving a badly injured pilot on a dark September night in 1968 from a rugged rainforest somewhere in the vicinity of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
I sat captivated, a fork full of Mu Shu paused in mid air, as Doc told a story nothing short of Hollywood’s best attempt at an intense, nail-biting Vietnam war saga. And just like every great movie plot, I couldn’t believe how the story ended.
As Doc tells it, early in his career he was the Medical Officer on Duty (MOD) the moonless night his crash phone rang in the 8th TFW Hospital at Ubon. On the other end a voice shouted “Phantom Down!” The report was that an F-4 had disappeared into the trees with two pilots on board. Doc dashed out and boarded one of the two rescue helicopters waiting.
They spotted a partially deployed parachute draped over a canopy of trees and figured someone must be attached. The helicopter set Doc on the ground as close as possible, but the forest was pitch black, so he began following paddy dikes towards the trees. With his adrenaline pumping double-time, he soon heard his fellow crewmate yell to him and Doc made a beeline for the medic’s voice. As he stepped in to another rice paddy, he sank and had to swim through the muddy waters to reach them.
The medic had found 1st Lt. Peter Nash, who had survived the crash but just barely. The ejection system was damaged as the jet hit trees and Nash was ejected through the glass canopy, crushing his helmet down around his shoulders. His parachute did not fully open and he had plummeted in to the thick forest. He suffered 17 broken bones including a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula in his right leg, a broken left ankle, a shattered hip, three pelvic fractures, four broken ribs, a broken left shoulder, fractured vertebrae and a collapsed lung among other injuries.
Doc was shocked to see that the sickening fractures to the pilot’s legs were causing his feet to be turned backwards and his labored breathing was of great concern. Doc immediately administered morphine, but it was simply too dark to do much more for the pilot. He knew had to get him out of the jungle as soon as possible.
Doc and the medic loaded Nash onto a litter and started back through the slippery mud to the helicopter sitting 100 meters away. They loaded him on the chopper and Doc stayed to locate the wreckage and hopefully find the other pilot.
Eventually they did, and sadly, it was too late. Doc spent the night in the forest until they could retrieve the pilot’s remains trapped in the jet which was submerged nose first in water. “The whole incident shook me up pretty good,” said Doc. “It was my first rescue and the first time I’d ever had to put anyone in a body bag.”
Thankfully, 1st Lt. Nash recovered from his injuries and went on to become a flight surgeon like Doc. Because of his experience surviving the crash, he decided to become a specialist in mishap investigations.
After helping evacuate Nash from the jungle, Doc never saw or talked to him again. Until fate took a hand.
Fast forward 10 years after the crash to a global medicine course being held at Brooks Air Force Base. As Doc sipped coffee between lectures, he looked over and saw an officer with pilot wings with a physician’s badge. His nametag read “Nash”.
Doc walked up to Nash and asked “Is your first name Pete?”
“Yeah,” replied Nash.
With a big smile, Doc went to shake his hand. “Man, you look a hell of a lot better than the last time I saw you.”