The Vietnam vets arrived at the Saturday ceremony at the Museum of Flight to rock music from that era playing over the loudspeakers. In 1967, they were listening to The Doors’ “Light My Fire” in Da Nang, too.
Some were gray-haired, some used walkers, others brought their kids and grandkids, so that the crowd numbered nearly 3,000.
Eventually, most walked under the wings of the event’s centerpiece, the mammoth Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber that was saved from the scrapyard and repainted in its original tan, gray and green camouflage colors.
Dono Hash, 69, of Spanaway, an Army veteran who earned a Purple Heart over there, remembered hearing the B-52s on their bombing runs.
“It felt like an earthquake, the carpet bombing,” he said. “Five hundred pounds leaving nice little craters for fish ponds.”
This was mostly not the Seattle often portrayed as blue and progressive that had shown up.
The dedication was for the museum’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park, which began with saving the bomber and then expanded to include the vets. It also has a bronze statue depicting an aviator and a tribute wall.
Jim Mattis, the retired Marine general and former secretary of defense who resigned because of disagreements with President Donald Trump, was the keynote speaker.
The Richland native was greeted with whoops and yells. He told the crowd, “Having left Washington, D.C., and returned to the better Washington, I’m so happy, ladies and gentlemen, that I could cry.”
He talked about the Vietnam veterans who returned to “even find contempt,” although “fortunately the contempt never represented the majority of their fellow citizens.” He thanked them for their “patience until the country found its way back to self-respect.”
After the ceremony, Mattis was surrounded by those wanting smartphone pictures and autographs. He did that for 1 ½ hours. A vet in the crowd thanked him for the time. “No sweat,” said the general. “You guys served.”
If you parked a B-52 in the middle of a football field, nose facing a goal post, its 185-foot wingspan would extend more than 10 feet outside each sideline. Its 488,000 pounds are powered by eight turbojet engines, with some versions having a range of 10,000 miles.
It is such a durable design that, first flown in 1952, it’s expected to be in service beyond 2020. It has carried everything from nuclear weapons to cruise missiles to “dumb” bombs that simply free-fall.
“It’s always the first aircraft in there in a conflict. We knock down the door — and let all the other aircraft in to do their job,” a B-52 bomb wing commander was quoted as saying in a 2015 BBC News story.
The story quoted a weapons systems officer, “Think about the political power this aircraft has. When an F-16 [a combat plane] shows up in your country — big deal. But when a B-52 shows up … they start singing a different tune.”
It was mostly B-52s that dropped more than 20,000 tons of bombs on targets in and around Hanoi and Haiphong during nearly two weeks around Christmas, 1972. President Richard Nixon had ordered the bombings when peace talks had broken down. An Air Force history says the bombing, called Operation Linebacker II, killed some 1,600 people in those two areas.
This is the plane that also was featured in Vietnam anti-war posters, using photos of a B-52 dropping its payload of bombs. On May 5, 1970, some 5,000 demonstrators in Seattle took part in the first anti-war freeway march in American history.
But this is also the region where Boeing is a major military contractor, and is home to bases that include Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Fairchild Air Force Base and Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Jim Farmer, 71, of Bellevue, piloted B-52s.
“It was a challenge to fly,” he says. “Like driving an old truck that doesn’t have power steering. Pretty sluggish.”
Farmer is 6-2.
“It was very uncomfortable. It was built to carry a payload. You can’t stand up. The only way you can stand up is on the ladder where the navigator and bombardier sit,” he says.
Farmer’s plane was shot down during that 11-day Christmas bombing. He says he could see a North Vietnamese guided missile changing directions as it was targeting the plane.
“We were fortunate. We weren’t on fire. The wings stayed on. We lost all of the hydraulic power and electrical power but the mechanical linkage continued,” he remembered.
Of the six-man crew, all were rescued that same day, except one man who was not found.
Farmer is one of the committee members that saved the B-52 on exhibit. It had languished at Paine Field since 1991, towed from one location to another there.
It was only because of a long and massive effort by vets that B-52G Stratofortress No. 92584 found its new home.
Just repainting costs $200,000, and then unbolting the wings and dismantling the plane into four parts, and transporting it from Everett to the museum, cost $400,000, says Farmer.
He says he sees a bit of irony in No. 92584, now nicknamed “Midnight Express,” finding a home in Seattle.
“Progressives, they wouldn’t be able to be as active as they are if it wasn’t for the military,” says Farmer.
But that’s for another day.
On Saturday, at the memorial, it was a time when the vets surrounded Jim Mattis. The general seemed at home.
(Video credit: Department of Defense)