Variations of them spread throughout the office of John Anderson’s office. Paintings behind the desk. Various models in and on top of his office cabinet. Mixed in are awards he received from his time in the armed services and to the community, but one theme remains abundantly clear in Anderson’s office—fighter planes. Any visitor would not have any hesitation in assuming the current financial adviser was once a Vietnam pilot. A tougher assumption to make would be to know that this veteran was a couple of close calls away from never being in College Station at all.
While Anderson’s primary job pertained to reconnaissance, it in no way prevented him from the dangers of flying in Vietnam, a lesson he would learn his first time in flight.
“You don’t see things too well when you first get over there, your eyes have to get adjusted and trained to what you’re looking for,” Anderson said, referring to his co-pilot, Larry Dokes, noticing a movement from a large bush. When Anderson did a wing over around the area, he did notice any unusual activity except for a clattering noise from inside his aircraft.
“I didn’t know what it was. I went back around the bush and heard it again. I thought, ‘There’s nothing wrong with the aircraft,’ all the gauges were normal.”
Wing over after wing over passed. No activity, just the clatter. Being new to the skies, Anderson began to believe his co-pilot may have been up to some mischief.
“I thought, ‘He’s pulling a trick on a new guy and making some noise back there.’”
When Anderson looked to Larry Dokes, the co-pilot sat calmly in his seat, hands gently folded.
“What’s that noise?” he asked him. In a deadpan, Anderson imitated Dokes, “You idiot, we’re being shot at.”
What was thought to be a clattering nuisance turned out to be an AK47 attempting to take down the aircraft—a discovery that could be pretty sobering for a first time pilot.
“My call sign was Sea Horse-22,” Anderson said, referring to his platoon—one of the accolades in his office has the platoon inscribed on the plate—“And the guy who had the sign before me just a couple of weeks before I got there was shot down and killed. So I began to think this could be a little hazardous.”
In his tenure as a pilot, Anderson took pride in sacrificing one’s well-being so a fellow soldier could be brought to safety.
“I actually do believe that the main thing Americans did for each other were get the others out of trouble,” Anderson said, “And that was a real pleasure.”
He found great inspiration from a helicopter pilot named Hoss Cartwright in what Anderson referenced as the bravest thing he had ever seen.
“He was flying a UH1 into a landing zone with a 6-man team of rangers,” Anderson said, “And the North Vietnamese just happened to use that landing zone as a rest area and deployed around it.”
As Cartwright made the drop, the Rangers were immediately under fire. Noticing the grave danger, Cartwright was forced to turn back to recover his squad under enemy fire.
“He came out of there and did the tightest turn I have ever seen…came back in, sat down on a slight slope with one skid on the slope, and stayed there until all six got back on and left the [landing zone].”
All six, along with Cartwright himself, made it out safely. The inspiration along with the lesson in under extreme conditions would be pivotal for Anderson when a standard reconnaissance flight turned into making a landing with only one wing. Anderson’s mission included finding a group of North Vietnamese that had attacked a National Guard compound.
“They had come down out of the mountains and were escaping along these stream beds that lead back into the mountains,” Anderson said.
In order to see more clearly, a fellow Air Force gunship flying at 4500 feet—Anderson flew at around 1000 feet—shot out flares to help with Anderson’s sight. What was meant for assistance accidentally put Anderson in grave danger.
“I heard this ‘wham’ which turned out to be the canister had swung up underneath the underside of the wing and left a dent about three inches deep,” Anderson said, “This flare shoot…had deployed over the top of my wing wrapped around my rocket tubes.”
As Anderson turned to survey the damaged, he noticed, along with his destroyed wing, dripping coming from his fuel vent. With one wing and an emptying fuel tank, Anderson made a dash for the base, a trip he was not sure he could make.
“It was either [make the landing or] turn off into the ocean at night going away from shore with no flotation gear and a whole lot of stuff weighing me down.”
Oddly, what Anderson forgot in the midst of the chaos was his co-pilot in the backseat. “I turned around to say, ‘Pretty exciting, huh?’…His entire body was shaking…I looked from his boots to his head, he was vibrating.”
Using every last bit of power the plane could bear; Anderson managed enough of a lift to land on the overrun of the runway.
Anderson would spend the rest of his service with the Charlie Co. 75th Rangers. When reflecting on his time in Vietnam, Anderson’s demeanor does not change. His head remains high. A man humbled by the change he’s gone through but without regret.
“For 20 years, my main regret was that I didn’t kill more of the enemy…But all of a sudden it struck me that instead of wanting to have that attitude which is pretty hostile, negative attitude to have,” he said. “[The Vietnamese] had families. Most of them didn’t want to be there—just like a lot of our guys didn’t want to be there—but they were under threat of death if they didn’t do what they were told. So I thought I’d rather not have to hurt anyone.”
When wrapping up the story of his one-winged landing, he gives no credit to himself. Instead of explaining the difficulty of such a landing or the aftermath of it all, he talks about the change of heart the experience brought. “It is my firm belief that on several occasions God spared me because at that time I was not a committed Christian. I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand. I put it on the form but I really wasn’t. So I think I was spared and I appreciate that forever.”