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Wing man

Bill Clark, retired Air Force colonel, flips open a scrapbook while sitting ramrod straight on the den sofa. “This one was World War II,'' he says. “This one's from Korea. Here's me in Vietnam.'' • Every old photograph, every old medal, every old book has its proper place in the properly kept home he shares with his wife, Thelma, in Pinellas Park. He is one of those men who hates leaving anything to chance. He can always find the scissors, the Scotch tape, the glasses he needs to read the bills he will pay on time. “I'm organized,'' he says. “It's the military way.'' • Bill Clark is one of those guys — you may know one or two — who doesn't tolerate loose ends. • Dave Hatcher was a loose end.

They knew each other in 1955, when they belonged to the same Air Force squadron in Georgia. Bill was the navigation squadron leader of an air-refueling unit and Dave was learning the art of navigation.

On first glance, they were opposites, Bill an urbane gentleman from Philadelphia and an accomplished storyteller, Dave a raw country boy from the Carolina mountains who was stingy with words. Though Bill was 32 — a dozen years older than the slow-talking farmer with a birthmark on his face — they hit it off. Both were newlyweds. Both loved their country, the Air Force and machines that flew through the clouds.

But what impressed Bill — and it was something he never forgot — was Dave's ambition to leave the navigation field and become a pilot.

“Most of us stay with what we know,'' Bill told people. “Dave's an up-and-comer. I'm going to keep my eye on him.''

After six months in Georgia, they moved on to other assignments. Bill reported to a Strategic Air Command outfit in Spain. Dave — Bill followed his progress from afar — learned to fly airplanes with propellers, and jets in North America, Europe and Southeast Asia.

By age 30, he and his F-105 were dropping bombs on the Viet Cong.

When Bill turned 42, he received a Southeast Asia assignment, too.

The first thing he did upon arrival — it was May 31, 1966 — was go looking for his old friend at the air base. Bill wanted to pat him on the back and say, “Wow! You did it! You became a Top Gun!''

He got Dave's address, drove to his hootch and rapped on the door. A stranger answered the knock. “You're a day late,'' he told Bill. “Dave got shot down over North Vietnam yesterday.''

• • •

At first, nobody was sure whether Dave was alive or dead. Another pilot had watched him bail out, seen him parachute into the trees, and spoken to him by radio. Then the pilot had lost contact.

At home, Dave's wife, Willodene, heard the news and felt like she was dying herself. The mother of two preschool daughters, she waited by the telephone.

A few weeks later, Dave's photograph appeared in Newsweek. He was a captive in one of North Vietnam's notorious prisons.

As the years dragged by, he remained there with 802 other POWs, including James B. Stockdale and John McCain. An occasional word leaked out about beatings, torture by rope, day-and-night interrogation and solitary confinement.

Bill began wearing a shiny bracelet.

Whenever he drove a Jeep, his right hand at the 2 o'clock position, Dave Hatcher's name on the bracelet looked back at him.

• • •

One year passed. Then two, three and four. At home, Willodene was lucky to get a scrap of news about her husband and other POWs. Some had died, some had lost their minds. She hadn't seen or talked to Dave in five years. Year six arrived. Peace talks in Paris dragged on.

On Jan. 27, 1973, peace was declared.

On February 15, POWs were released.

Dave Hatcher, who had been a prisoner three months and 15 days short of seven years, came home.

Bill Clark, a colonel, checked military files and located a North Carolina address for his friend. He sent a “Welcome Home" letter and included the bracelet that long had been part of his wardrobe.

He never heard a word back.

For whatever reason, the loose end stayed loose.

• • •

Bill is 85 now, but looks younger. He walks briskly and enjoys golf. He has a good sense of humor and laughs at his own detail-oriented nature. When he buys a book, the dust jacket isn't enough for him. He covers the book with a nylon jacket, too. He buys them in bulk.

He and Thelma have been married 54 years. They have married children and grandchildren and memories of the places (21) they lived during his career. They have mostly happy memories about the thousands of people they knew, including the loose end, Dave Hatcher.

A few months ago, Bill went out for a round of golf at Mangrove Bay in St. Petersburg. When he got home he put his clubs away and took a shower. In the den, on his desk, he noticed that the light on his answering machine was blinking.

“Hello, Bill,'' said a Southern voice. “It's Dave. Dave Hatcher, Bill. How are you"''

Hands trembling — he admits he was scared — Bill picked up the telephone and punched in the numbers.

When the two old friends began talking, they wept.

• • •

“I'm really nervous about this.''

It's late December, a cold day in Raleigh, N.C., and Bill and Thelma are sitting in the dimly lit lobby of a hotel near the interstate. “I haven't seen Dave in 52 years."

Bill set up the meeting a few weeks ago in typical Bill fashion. He made hotel and dinner reservations for both of them. He bought a book for Dave, American Patriot, which tells the story of another POW, Bud Day. In Bill fashion he covered the book in one of those nylon dust jackets.

It has been a long morning. Bill and Thelma excuse themselves and head for their room to freshen up. Seconds later, Dave and Willodene arrive. They've driven three hours from their home in Mount Airy.

As they walk to their room, a door opens and Bill and Thelma step into the hall. Both couples stop in their tracks.

“Dave""

“Bill"''

“You've gotten taller.''

“I thought I was shrinking.''

They shake hands.

Everybody is talking at once.

“I'm sorry I didn't get back to you right away,'' Dave says.

“No problem.''

“I don't know why I didn't. Just a lot of things were going on. Then I lost the envelope with your address.''

“So how did you find me"'' Bill asks.

“Well, I Googled you.''

• • •

Dave grew up on a farm. He helped harvest tobacco, milked cows, collected eggs. His two older brothers fought the Germans, but Dave was too young. He joined after Korea, but Vietnam was his war.

On his 87th mission, he was strafing a train north of Dien Bien Phu near the China border when he felt something jolt the F-105. He'd taken antiaircraft fire. A nearby pilot told him he was on fire. The engine stalled. The jet glided several miles. He ejected near a clearing. From the ground, he called for rescue, but then he had to hide.

Another pilot told him by radio, “Well, Hatcher, it's going to be fish heads and rice for you.''

“Have a nice day,'' Hatcher answered back before the radio died.

He was captured the next morning.

• • •

“What was the food like"''

Bill and Thelma and Dave and Willodene are eating lunch at a Sweet Tomatoes. Dave has piled his plate with lettuce.

“First day I was there, they put greens in a bowl with what looked like a tiny piece of pork on top. I'm a Southern boy. I thought, 'If they feed me mustard greens I'm going to survive this.' Well, I didn't gain any weight. We'd have pumpkin soup two times a day for a month, then we got a soup twice a day for a month that I'm sure was made out of leaves. Then we got cabbage soup twice a day for a month.''

“Were you constipated"'' asks Bill.

“I would say that was the least of our problems.''

His new home was the so-called Hanoi Hilton. Refusing to provide more than his name, rank and serial number, he was beaten and tied in a fetal position in which he had to kneel hours at a time.

One night his captors marched 45 prisoners up a narrow street. Crowds 15 deep yelled, spat and threw things at the inmates.

Dave spent six months in isolation. Then he got a roommate. On Christmas Day they received a special treat, rice with scallions. His roommate gave him his scallions.

“Still one of the nicest Christmas presents I ever got.''

• • •

Back at the Wingate Hotel, they settle down in a room. They exchange photographs of children and grandchildren and stories new and old.

“Every man had his breaking point. Every man knew he had to provide more than name, rank and serial number or suffer. They'd ask for the names of people in your squadron. I thought back on my childhood. I gave them the names of my neighbors. Other pilots provided the names 'Clark Kent' and 'Bruce Wayne' and other superheroes. Unfortunately, that got in the newspapers, and they found out, and there were a lot of beatings.

“One time they were beating me and I went wild. I resisted by falling on the floor and yelling. A guy jumped on my leg with all his weight and when I screamed got a gag on me.

“When I play golf now, and follow through on my swing, my leg really hurts.''

“That's quite an alibi for bad golf,'' Bill says, and both men laugh.

• • •

They go to dinner at a popular restaurant, 18 Seaboard. Dave orders a pork shank with grits. Bill goes with the shrimp and grits.

They talk about favorite airplanes, air bases, assignments, people they knew who might still be alive, McCain, whom Dave supports. But Dave's war hovers over everything.

“What did you do to pass the time"''

“Prayed. Recited scripture. And for a long time — this is going to sound strange — I made plans to open a Kobe beef restaurant when I got out. I'd eaten in one in Japan. In my head I had it all planned out. When I got out, and I got home, and told Willodene, she thought I was crazy.''

“How did you communicate"''

“We tapped on the walls. We developed our own code. You had to be careful. They'd beat you when they caught you. But being able to communicate is what got us through, kept up our morale.''

Prisoners sometimes found ways to write, using sticks as pens and rat droppings as ink.

Dave once wrote a note to James Stockdale, the prisoner of a philosophic bent who about two decades later ran for vice president as Ross Perot's running mate. Dave had remembered a few lines from the Ernest Henley poem about self-reliance, Invictus.

“I am the master of my fate,'' Dave wrote with the rat feces. “I am the captain of my soul.''

He left the note in a wall crack to be found by the other inmate. Stockdale read the note while sitting on a bucket that served as a toilet.

• • •

Dessert. Coffee and pie.

“This has been a wonderful night,'' Bill says to Dave. “Thank you very much.''

“It was my pleasure,'' Dave says. “I'm glad we got to do this.''

They tussle over the check. Dave wins.

They don't embrace. They don't weep. When they spoke on the phone months ago, they got emotional, but, they're not going to lose control in person. This isn't a Steven Spielberg film. This is real.

Bill has tied up his loose end. Next time he thinks about the war, about the good men he knew, he won't have to worry about what happened to Dave. He knows.

“Dave's a good guy,'' Bill says. “He came out all right.''

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

Wing man 03/18/08 [Last modified: Sunday, March 23, 2008 10:44pm]

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