“Split Second Moments that Altered Lives”: 270 Days on the Yankee Station Firing Line

Place Bob Heckert next to the encyclopedia definition of a veteran, and he’d look perfectly at home: tall and proud, still in shape into his 70’s, and active in his community. He considers himself somewhat of a historian, interested in both the history that came before him and the conflict that he was part of. Armed with his commemorative cruise book, a carefully-curated photo album, and stories told many times over, Heckert sat down on the morning of Wednesday, April 3 to recount his Naval service in Vietnam.

After enlisting in 1967 and completing his training at San Diego, Heckert was assigned to Attack Squadron 93 (or VA-93), where he served one deployment from October of 1969 to June of 1970 as an aviation fire control technician servicing radar systems, bombing computers, and guided missiles on Corsair II crafts. These flights launched from his 270-day home, the USS Ranger, which cruised the 300-mile long Yankee Station firing line during its sixth Vietnam cruise. Yankee Station changed location a few times over the course of the war, but while Heckert’s ship patrolled the waters, Yankee Station was around 115 miles east of the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone along the Ben Hai River, on the southern edge of the Gulf of Tonkin. Each day, Ranger sailed back and forth down Yankee Station, passing the USS Constellation, 30 miles away at the opposite side of the Station, in the middle of its shift. The USS Henry B. Wilson, an Adams-class destroyer, followed her as a plane guard, as did a pair of submarines, which Heckert never saw.

Ranger and its sister carrier operated on a 12-hour shift schedule: sailors would operate from midnight to noon, or noon to midnight, receiving and launching missions to mainland Vietnam. Each strike aircraft prepared for takeoff in a span of about 45 seconds, and from there traveled only eight minutes before it reached the beaches. Over the course of Heckert’s deployment, Ranger suffered no friendly fire incidents, and the 22,000 missions she launched inflicted no friendly fire, either.

Ranger’s track record is commendable; the sailors onboard knew just how accurate they needed to be in order to fulfill their duty. “When you did your job, there were no A-minuses. It had to be A-pluses across the board. When you didn’t do your job, someone 150 miles away lost their life.”

Even with a crystal-clear record, Ranger still lost men during her 1969-1970 cruise. “If I had a do-over,” Heckert begins, “I’d save five guys lives who died in accidents.”

One such accident was the death of Jimmy Brennan, a sailor who was assigned to arm all 18 bombs loaded on the wings of the Corsairs before they departed on missions. While preparing a Corsair for a bombing flight, Brennan noticed red hydraulic oil leaking from the plane; certain it wouldn’t make it off the flight deck with an oil leak, Brennan started re-pinning bombs to disarm them. He made it through nine bombs on one side and ducked under the Corsair’s intake to reach the other side, not knowing the pilot had fully throttled the plane in preparation for takeoff.

In an instant, Brennan was sucked down the intake and into the Corsair’s engine. “He was there one second and gone the next,” says Heckert. “It was a split second moment that altered his life and his family’s life forever.”

Accidents onboard weren’t the only threat to Ranger’s sailors. Among Heckert’s former shipmates is Patrick Thomas, a fellow aviation fire control technician who attributes post-war health issues with Agent Orange contamination. Heckert, born and raised on a farm outside St. Elmo, recognized the smell of herbicides when Thomas didn’t, and stayed wary of the aircraft that returned with that smell about them. For his vigilance, he has had none of the health issues associated with Agent Orange contamination; Thomas, when Heckert last contacted him, had two liver transplants across his three run-ins with cancer.

(Va.gov’s information on Agent Orange lists contact with Fairchild C-123 aircraft, service on the ground or on an inland waterway, and even stationing in Thailand and the Demilitarized Zone as among the many possible causes for Agent Orange contamination. Though the Banner could not find information on Fairchild C-123 missions associated with USS Ranger nor whether USS Ranger entered or docked on mainland Vietnam during Heckert’s service, we find Heckert’s theory that sailors contacted Agent Orange through aircraft entirely plausible, especially considering Agent Orange’s persistence—the Agent Orange Association of Canada states that TCDD, the toxic contaminant that makes Agent Orange so deadly, may persist in soil for 15 years before it reaches half concentration, and va.gov notes that some Fairchild C-123 aircraft remained contaminated until the mid-1980’s.)

At the end of their deployment, the sailors of the USS Ranger were more than eager to return home. In June of 1970, the ship steamed for home—San Francisco—and made the return journey in only eight days, though the trip to Vietnam from the States had originally taken three weeks. “We were in a hurry to get home,” Heckert says.

When Ranger approached Naval Air Station Alameda, she sailed through thick San Francisco fog—so thick, Heckert says, that sailors on the deck didn’t see the Golden Gate Bridge until it was nearly above them.

But on land, there was only a sparse crowd. No news crews, no photographers, no banner-waving civilians welcoming them back from war; for the most part, those gathered were either direct relatives of the returning sailors or veterans themselves, and even those were thin on the ground. “5,400 guys were gone for 13 months,” Heckert recalls, “and there were maybe 200 people to meet [Ranger].”

Among those waiting at the dock were his wife, Marcia Heckert, and their infant son, who was born while Bob was away. Marcia loaded Bob and his belongings into their prized 1968 Buick Gran Sport and prepared for the long drive home.

The drive was quiet all through NAS Alameda. But just outside the base’s gate was a surprise Heckert didn’t expect: protestors, armed with tomatoes and eggs, carrying signs that called him and his shipmates “baby killers.”

While stateside pundits and protestors talked about the war’s morality, Heckert never heard those conversations out at sea. His news diet was limited to the Stars and Stripes newspaper, an official publication of the armed forces, and a few copies of the Decatur Herald and St. Elmo Banner.

At home in St. Elmo, though, the conversations never seemed to include him. Heckert recalls an incident at a barbershop—the same shop he’d used since childhood—when his barber asked if he was in the service.
“I said, ‘yes, sir, I just got back from Vietnam.’ And he didn’t ask another question.”

Aside from Marcia, nobody asked Heckert about his service. His parents never broached the subject. For some ten years, nobody seemed curious about his experiences in Vietnam. It was only when the newer generation, those who were never privy to the political news surrounding the war, grew up that Heckert started fielding questions about his service.

Those days of silence have affected Heckert; now, he speaks about his service whenever he gets the chance, and goes out of his way to support other Vietnam veterans. “Any time I see a Vietnam vet, no matter how rough they look, I shake hands and welcome him back,” he says.

Heckert gives several presentations throughout the year, recounting his experiences to civic groups and local schoolchildren. He’s a common fixture at the yearly St. Elmo Veteran’s Day program for local fifth grade students, remains active in veteran’s organizations, and shows off his cruise book and Vietnam cap with pride.

 

Cut heckertA: Bob Heckert, of rural St. Elmo, pictured in his living room with his cruise book, a photo album, and a framed picture of himself as a sailor.

Cut heckertB: A sparse crowd, photographed from the deck of the USS Ranger, gathers to greet 5,400 returning sailors in June of 1970. Heckert notes that part of this crowd left over from the return of another ship, pictured in the rear of the photo.

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