Genealogy has been a passion of Donald Melvin Condra, of Troy, since long before Ancestry and others came on the scene. His studies have revealed that 14 of his ancestors served in the Revolutionary War, and two of his great grandfathers were in the Civil War. His father was drafted during World War I.
That war ended before he could participate, but he had five sons who have served in the U.S. military: Robert, Billy, Don, Thomas, and Jerry. His oldest son, Robert, was killed in a convoy of 40 tanks crossing a bridge near Rheinberg, Germany, in 1945 as World War II was ending. Condra’s son Greg has served 14 years in the air force, and his daughter Cindy has served six.
Condra was 13 at the time of Robert’s death, and he recalls where he was when the telegram arrived and the devastation of the family. Growing up on a cattle-and-grain farm in the small southern Indiana town of Paoli, Condra and his family knew that their choices were to work from before sun up to after sundown regardless of the blows dealt by life. After graduating from Paoli High School in 1950 in a graduating class of 50 students, Condra opted to join the U.S. Air Force in June of that year. He retired from the air force as a lieutenant colonel in June of 1973.
Condra’s service in the military and since the military has been varied and complex; however, the focus of this column is 1966 when he was stationed in Vietnam, a deployment for which he volunteered and for which he prepared. As a pilot of an A-1 Skyraider, (He was certified to fly 25 different aircraft from a propeller-driven trainer to jet aircraft), he flew 140 missions in Vietnam with 85 of them for Sandy, the term used for search-and-rescue operations. The remaining components of his mission were to deliver weapons for troop support, to serve as helicopter escort, and to provide reconnaissance to identify targets.
The A-1 Skyraider was originally designed for the U.S. Navy as an attack aircraft with 2.75 inch rockets to be fired from tubes mounted on 15 stations in the plane. It also carried standard World War II 1,000-,750-, and 250-pound bombs in addition to white phosphorus smoke bombs used to shield/disguise rescue operations. It was called a flying dump truck because of its capacity to carry these heavy loads, including extra fuel for 10 additional hours of flying time.
Condra outlines a typical search-and-rescue operation of 1966 in Vietnam. From Udorn Royal Thai Air Base in Thailand, (1) An alarm goes off by telephone or horn; (2) Four A-1 Skyraiders meet up with two HH-3s (Jolly Green Giants); (3) The six head to the target using coordinates or the name of the town/village; (4) At the target area, two Skyraiders fly high, two fly low, and the helicopters pinpoint the rescue and complete it while the Skyraiders troll for flack. If they are shot at, they return fire and destroy the enemy.
At times, things go wrong. Condra relates one of those times (In his Vietnam journals, Condra writes that 25 of the pilots in his squadron went down, and one-half of the pilots were killed). An F-4 Phantom was shot down west of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The rescue team had located both pilots who were separated and had rescued one. That helicopter with the rescued pilot was shot down. The second helicopter was able to rescue both pilots and return to base. Condra’s engine failed while he was laying down phosphorous, and he nursed the engine and headed back to home base.
The problem was that the downed helicopter needed to be destroyed, and according to Condra, “They sent out a kid, Dave Wegener, a good pilot, a first lieutenant, 22-years-old or so, to strafe it. He never flew out of the dive. We didn’t know if it was pilot error or if he had been shot down by enemy fire and killed in action.
Condra then revealed a tradition left over from World War II which reveals the way in which other pilots react to the KIAs: “We put money in an envelope and tape it to the pilot’s locker when he is on a mission. If he dies, we take that money and have a wake, a celebration of his life, with drinking and telling little stories. I call it ‘whistling in the dark.’ It’s the way in which the men convince themselves it’s never going to happen to them. If you worry, you’ll be shot down for sure. You just do your duty, and whatever happens, happens. You ignore reality.” He continues, “We lost 23 or 26 aircraft while I was there. We’d just go to Subic Bay in the Philippines and get another one.”
When Condra left Saigon on Dec. 16, 1966, on a Pan Am flight to return home to his family in Indiana, he had an unfriendly reception in San Francisco and a friendly welcome in Louisville. Also, he was surprised at how his children had changed and that there was a new store called K Mart.
And the surprises continue in 2022. At a social media site, Condra posted a photo of a military cemetery with the question, “Have they died in vain?” For exercising his First Amendment rights, he was banned from the site for one month!
PS: At Edison State Community College in Piqua on Nov. 17, 2022, at 7 p.m. there will be a readers theatre production entitled “Dispatch: The Battle of Angel’s Wing.” Angel’s Wing is the location of a deadly Vietnam War battle, and the play tells the stories of 11 American soldiers who were killed in that battle as well as the story of a survivor who still suffers from PTSD. Admission and parking are free, and the public is invited.. The production is not suitable for children. At 6:30 that evening, Vietnam War U.S.
Navy veteran Steve Skinner’s quartet, “Whomsoever,” will present old- time country gospel music as a tribute to American KIAs.