May 21, 2007

I’ve already briefly mentioned my recent trip to West Point for the funeral of Timothy J. Vogel, one of America’s greatest warriors. Tim meant a lot to me, so please forgive me if I repeat myself a little. Before I go on, however, a brief and nostalgic look at the soldiers of another war and their representations in celluloid. The film was The Bridges of Toko-Ri, after the book by James Michener, starring William Holden, Grace Kelly, Frederic March and Mickey Rooney among many others. The plot was a simple one. Our hero, played by Bill Holden, is recalled to duty off the Sea of Japan during the Korean conflict. He is a reluctant warrior. He is a successful lawyer married to a beautiful blonde, Grace Kelly, with two young children. He nevertheless answers the call. The admiral on board the carrier is Frederic March, who knows Holden’s father and his comfortable situation back home. He worries about him, especially when he meets his wife on a brief shore leave in Japan. “What kind of man risks his life when he has so much to lose…?” he asks himself.

And lose his life the hero does. Assigned to blast the heavily defended bridges of Toko-Ri in order to stop Chinese men and supplies reaching the enemy, Holden has to ditch in North Korean territory as his plane takes machine gun fire and loses fuel. His buddy Mickey Rooney flies off on a chopper trying to save him once Holden is on the ground. Both men die when surrounded by North Korean regulars,  fighting to the end. “What kind of men are these..?” asks March, once again when informed of their deaths.

Well, I’ll tell you. The Holden character, who was called Brubaker in the movie, was based on Sully Vogel, the strongest man ever to attend the Naval Academy, and the one who was shot down over North Korea, but already a legendary fighter pilot before his death. He left behind three boys, Tim Vogel, my friend, Bill, a submarine commander, and Freddy, a Marine Colonel and later in the CIA. (There was also a daughter.) Tim Vogel was teased throughout his life for having Grace Kelly as his mother. (“I’d like to do your mother,” was an opening greeting by many). He wasn’t teased about anything else, however. Vogel became an even greater pilot than his dad. He won 17 awards for gallantry in action, two DFC’s, flew 200 missions over the most heavily defended targets in history over North Vietnam, and had 600—yes, 600—landings on pitching carriers. He was the most popular cadet at West Point, became a Commander in the U.S. Navy, and was as fierce a warrior as he was a warm and giving friend to everyone who knew him. My friend Chuck Pfeifer—two Silver Stars in the Nam as a Special Forces captain—introduced us and it was love at first sight. I took him to Elaine’s, we both got very drunk, and all he wanted to know was about my experiences in Phu Bai and Firebase Birmingham. Like a lion asking an ant about the hunt.

About ten years ago Timmy contacted MC, a more lethal cousin to Multiple Sclerosis, and was given a year to live. He stretched it to ten by his warrior spirit. His funeral with full military honors took place last week at the Point. The chapel was packed with heroes, his brothers in arms. Pfeifer, Dennis (the Horse) Lewis, Bob Jones (6 years in the Hanoi Hilton and looking twenty years younger than the rest of us) the legendary Johnson brothers, Oliver and Johnny, one a fighter pilot, the other a chopper ace, Robbie Stichweh, the best back in the nation while at the Point, Jim Hall, a fighter pilot who volunteered for a suicide raid north of Hanoi and was awarded the DFC, John Seymour and on and on. Tim was laid to rest along the cemetery line of the class of 65, next to the pyramid, among the beautiful maple and oak trees that line that sacred place. There were very few tears. Tough guys keep their grief to themselves.

Robert E. Lee once said that duty is “the sublimest word in the English language.” Yes it is, but dodging duty has now become the operative word in the neocon language. They talk about supporting our troops and all that blather, but how many of these bloodthirsty donut eaters have ever answered the call of duty? Some of us helped with Timmy’s bills toward the end of his life. He never asked, but we knew he was needy. This is the greatest outrage of them all. While the fat Kagan brothers feast at the White House and TAE institute, Tim Vogel needed help to get around on his wheelchair. The blood of America’s fighting men cannot indefinitely be spilled by a government made up of people who have avoided military duty, which is unwilling to meet the needs of those who have served. 

—The American Conservative


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