Growing up in the Toledo area with one older sister and three younger brothers, Nicholas Essinger of Troy, Ohio, says, “We grew up during World War II and the Korean War , so my brothers and I knew that we were expected to serve our country. It was ingrained in us.”
Of the four brothers, Nicholas opted to attend military school at Howe, Indiana, where he participated in Army ROTC. He learned from that experience that, as he puts it, “The Army was not in my future.”
His brothers opted for public high schools in the area, and all graduated from Bowling Green State University where they participated in ROTC. Nicholas, Stephan, and Gordon chose the U.S. Air Force and Douglas, the youngest, became a U.S. Marine.
After college graduation, Nicholas headed off to Webb Air Force Base in Big Spring, Texas, in November of 1963 to become a pilot. This didn’t work out because of the heavy academic curriculum which Nicholas was not prepared to master.
Security police training and aeronautical charting training came next, and by 1966, Nicholas was a first lieutenant and off to the air base at Da Nang, Vietnam, as commander of the Security Police Canine Corps.
German shepherds were the primary dogs in the canine corps, and most had the rank of sergeant. These dogs, according to Nicholas, were donated as puppies to the military and were sent to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where they received training. They were on trial for their first month at Lackland, and if they didn’t show promise, they were discharged.
Nicholas tells a story of the invaluable expertise of these dogs: “One night in February of 1967, I received a call to go to the field where one of the dogs kept alerting his handler that something was wrong at the edge of the base he was guarding.”
Nicholas pauses to declare, “Those dogs were magnificent, and the handlers were darn near married to their dogs, a good marriage for sure.”
He continues, “A sergeant and I went out to the site, looked around, saw nothing, talked, and left. The next morning I was called to a special briefing. In the light of day, it was discovered that Viet Cong were trying to breach the base. There were tracks and explosives in the high grass. Obviously, that dog had done his duty, kept the Viet Cong out, and saved our lives.”
Later in 1967, Nicholas was assigned to Saigon as field commander for Operation Entertainment. I asked, “Why?” and he was quick to respond, “I happened to be available. Right now. Not next month. The sergeants ran the show, and I just signed my name on the paperwork.”
I wanted to know about this entertainment feature of the U.S. Air Force, having read about Bob Hope and others, and Nicholas was happy to explain: “The Air Force includes men with all manner of skills — dancers, vocalists, musicians, comedians — and the Air Force has 17 categories of entertainment. We were able to recruit this talent from all the men stationed in Vietnam. We went around to all the bases in Vietnam performing. One day I got a call from a three-star general in Okinawa telling me to bring our group for Operation Entertainment Competition for all of 7th Air Force. Our group won first place in 15 of the 17 categories. Our group had talent, but it was more about how we worked together.”
The next stop for Essinger was a short stay in Saigon and then back to Da Nang as captain of the 20th TASS (Tactical Air Support Squadron) to call in air strikes. Next, also at Da Nang, was a stint as executive officer for the 15th Aerial Port Squadron where Nicholas was in charge of supplies, i.e., men, food, equipment, ammunition, to 17 outposts in the northern part of South Vietnam.
Nicholas maintains, “It was difficult to get anyone to volunteer for these 90-day assignments at the outposts. I could have commandeered them to go, but I had been ‘commandeered’ in the past, and I didn’t like it. I had to devise an incentive, so I called the guy who handled R & R in Saigon and asked him how I could get some unrecorded R&R of four-to-six days for places like Hawaii, the Philippines, and Australia. He worked with me.
“I had proved I could be trusted to follow through with promises, unlike some of the officers who promised the airmen but didn’t follow through. The airmen had a saying, ‘No matter how nice he smiles, look out for that knife.’
“Once, I gave a command to hold a civilian plane until I could get an airman aboard who was at an outpost that was under attack from the Viet Cong. We brought him in on a transport C-123 K, and he boarded and was off on unrecorded R&R.”
Essinger had more service-base squadron commander, professor at Tennessee Military Institute, National Guard, Air Force Reserves, but was finally finished with his commitment to military service on August 31, 1978.
Just as his comfort level was high, that he and his brothers had all survived while serving, the family gathered in Greenville, Tennessee, on August 13, 1980, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their parents, Edgar L. Essinger and Ruth J. Essinger. They received the phone call that no one wants to get: Son number three, Major Gordon Essinger, career military fighter pilot with 100 plus combat sorties in Vietnam, had on August 16, 1980, been killed in a crash of his F-4 Phantom at Cairo West, Egypt. Gordon was commander of a flight of four aircraft as part of the 347th Tactical Fighter Wing: Operation Proud Phantom that had been aborted after initially being called out to support the freeing of 400 American hostages being held in Tehran.
His F-4 crashed in the sand and burned and the three F-4s in the convoy stayed at the site as long as their fuel would allow it. Nicholas says, “After some time, Air Rescue arrived but not before Arabs had cannibalized the wreckage, including taking Gordon’s wedding ring and watch.”
At Gordon’s funeral service, when the officer in charge indicated that the crash was due to “pilot error,” Nicholas shouted out, “No way! Gordy don’t make no errors.” The officer smirked.
Nicholas concludes our interview by telling me how he felt back in 1980, “It was a shock to all of us. Gordy was just too damn good. It wasn’t right. Why couldn’t it have been me?”
It’s 40 years later this month and Nicholas maintains, “There is the official account of my brother’s death and my feelings about it.”
Toni Essinger Hall reports that her mother, Gordon’s wife Billie, received benefits until she remarried, and that she and her twin, Jamie, nine years old at the time of their father’s death, received benefits until they graduated from college (Toni from Valdosta State University in 1992 and Jamie from the University of Alabama in 1993).
To the Essinger Family: “All gave some; Some gave all.” On behalf of a grateful nation, thank you.