On a beautiful sunlit day, a Marine A6 Intruder prepares to take off
from a remote airfield in Olathe, Kansas. When the go-ahead signal is
given, the aircraft lights up and launches into the wild blue yonder.
Out beyond the airfield, the Intruder zooms into the horizon. Only a
few puffy clouds dot the sky. For a few minutes, the Intruder flies in perfect
conditions, then suddenly dark, gray clouds appear dead ahead. Created out
of thin air, the clouds become darker and darker. The Intruder proceeds in
the middle of this mist, with no visibility, and starts to rock with severe
turbulence, like the flak from anti-aircraft fire.
BOOM! Out of no where, the flight of the Intruder is abruptly
interrupted by a tornado. Caught in a vortex of swirling wind, awesome in
its deadly power, the tornado renders this superb machine useless, like a rag
doll being toyed with by a cat.
Just like that, the Intruder begins to augur in, the awful groan of
descent gaining in strength and volume. Beneath the dark clouds, Mother
Earth looms closer and closer, the Kansas farm country spinning in crazy
circles beneath the deadly hulk of falling metal.
Suddenly, the canopy opens, and two pilots eject. The first makes a
relatively clean break. He is banged up, but not severely. The second is not
so fortunate. He jettisons out of the craft like a rag doll being run over by a
truck. His legs hang loosely, and there is something very wrong with the
way they distend away from his body. They appear to have been cut from
his knees, but not fully severed.
The first pilot’s parachute unfurls. The second pilot’s parachute does
the same thing, and in both instances the men are catapulted to higher
elevations until the parachutes unfold and begin the slow descent.
The more injured pilot floats to Earth, and there is something serene
about him as he drifts amid the clouds and the weather, and behind him the
wreckage of what just a few moments ago was a perfectly good aircraft.
Off in the distance, the Intruder crashes loudly amid much fire and
smoke. The pilot does not even notice this. It is as if time has stood still for
him. He seems to be thinking logically and clearly, as if he has all the time
in the world. His face is a mess, and blood drops from his shattered legs into
an abyss of air below him.
The injured man seems to pass in and out of consciousness, his helmet
ripped from his head, D2 mask torn off, his legs swinging as if cut in half
and held together by a few strips of bone and sinew.
He does odd things, like checking his teeth to make sure they are still
there. He tastes blood in his mouth, and is mindful not to swallow his
tongue. Now the guy does something really off the wall. He starts to laugh.
As Major Don Crowe descends in a heap on a Kansas cornfield, he is
laughing because he is alive, he has beaten the Grim Reaper. The son of a
Don Crowe is still laughing, only now he is 17 years old. Behind him,
an Irish Christian Brother lays the paddle to him, but no matter how hard he
hits him, Don refuses to let this joker know that he feels any pain.
“Laugh will ya?” says the Brother. “Disrupt my classroom you’ve
done for the last time, Mr. Crowe. Do you hear me?”
“Yes, Brother,” replies Don, a twinkle in his eye.
“Well take your seat then,” says the authority figure.
Don ambles back to his seat, exchanging smiles with his classmates,
winking at one. They marvel at his willingness to stand up to the brothers
here at Power Memorial Academy in Manhattan.
Born in New York City in 1934, Don grew to fit the profile of so
many American fighter jocks: The rugged individualist. Two of his brothers
died during their childhood before he was born. Another brother died when
Don was one. Don did not learn about any of this until the night before he
left for flight school! He does have a sister, Eileen, four years younger than
Growing up, Don was rambunctious, in and out of minor trouble, a
smart kid who chafed at the tedium of school and rebelled against the rigid
discipline imposed upon by the private Christian education system. The
brothers gave him a hard time, and he gave it right back.
The war was raging in Korea, and while Don felt it was a dirty, nasty
affair, he was influenced by some Hollywood films of that era, which
romanticized combat aviation. On a more realistic note, he felt inspired by
the great Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, then on his second tour of
duty as a Marine pilot. His graduation yearbook from Power Memorial in
1952 includes an entry in which he aspires to be a carrier pilot.
For some reason, his relationship with his parents was not
demonstrative, perhaps because of the loss of his three siblings. Like
Williams, Don is a skilled baseball player, playing first in a semi-pro league
and then on a scholarship at Carroll College in Montana.
The wide-open spaces of the big sky country give Don a different
view of life from what he knew back east. Whatever it was his
parents, the Christian brothers or his friend’s thought he should be—well,
Don would never fall into any kind of predictable pattern.
After a stint in the Montana smokejumper forest service program, Don
found himself hitchhiking when a Navy Lieutenant picked him up on his
way to a Reserve weekend. Inspired by the young officer, Don would
decide to pursue his aviation dreams in the United States Marine Corps.
1954: NAVCAD. Pensacola—pre-flight training. Then flight school,
and in 1956 he earns his wings, followed by a stint at M.C.A.S. Cherry
Point, North Carolina, where he experiences what almost all pilots go
through: The loss of fellow pilots. One fellow’s name was Blackburn,
another, Harry Pribble, was a mentor of his-- they were both older than Don,
and killed in training accidents--while still another guy named Schofield was
killed at sea. In a form of defense mechanism, Don made the assumption
that these incidents resulted from the kind of pilot error that he, a naturally
superior pilot, would never succumb to.
From 1959-60 Don is deployed to Taiwan in support of the Chinese
Nationalists struggling for a toehold of Democracy against the mainland
Communists, and then for three years thereafter he returns to Pensacola as a
When the Cuban Missile Crisis hits in October, 1962, Don was the air
liaison officer at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and in 1963 he makes the
move to the place that would eventually become his home, Orange County,
California, just south of Los Angeles. There he was stationed at El Toro
Marine Corps Air Station. Don did a tour on the U.S.S. Yorktown and was
part of a task force that resulted from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which
started the Vietnam War.
Don found life in Southern California during those golden days,
before Vietnam, before the protests and the free speech movement, before
hippies and hatred and the 1960s powderkeg would explode, to be nothing
less than idyllic. The Beach Boys were all the rage back then, and girls in
this year-round paradise were pretty, plentiful and available. For a
handsome young bachelor like Don, it was like dying and going to Heaven.
The bars and nightclubs near El Toro were filled with willing young women
who were impressed by the gallant young fighter pilots, and more than eager
to show it.
“I’m Don Crowe, I’m a fighter pilot, and these things on my chest are
called golden legspreaders.” Today, in the era of A.I.D.S. and Political
Correctness, to say such a thing to a young lady might be considered the act
of a Neanderthal. In 1964, a pilot with wings decorating his uniformed chest
and answering to the call sign “Bedrocker” was a genuine Romeo.
Halloween night, 1964 at the Sandpiper, a popular gathering place in
Laguna Beach, a place with a fireplace and grill, a band playing the
easygoing surf sounds that fortified Southern California mythology, and
couples twisting the night away. Everything would change for Don Crowe
on this night.
So, the scene was set when a beautiful blonde named Marylin Jensen
entered the Sandpiper that evening. The stars are aligned perfectly for love,
and the crowd seems to part like the Red Sea when she enters and heads
straight to where Don sits.
Don gallantly stands and offers his seat to the young lady. “My chair,
Madame,” he says.
For Don and Marylin, it was just about love at first sight. Destiny,
perhaps. Marylin actually entered the Sandpiper with a date, but as she
walked towards Don, past the costumed Halloween partiers, the other dude
did not stand a chance. When she leaves, Don asks for her number and she
gives it to him.
Three or four nights later, Don calls her up, and then a couple of
weeks pass before their first date—a Saturday night party in which the guys
cooked scaloppini and drank, and then the girls cleaned up. Less than a year
later, in August of 1965, they were married.
Don was a rapidly rising pilot. He would fly A4 Skyhawks over the
South China Sea. He was a combat carrier-based pilot, and soon he was
piloting fighters. Vietnam for 13 months beginning in December, 1965, split
halfway between Chu Lai and an assignment as the Marine representative to
the 7th Air Force, Saigon, then Ton Son Nhut until the spring of 1967. Don
was eventually re-assigned stateside, to Cherry Point and the 2nd Marine Air
Craft wing in ’67.
Flying in the skies over North Carolina, the mustachioed, dark-haired
Crowe was known as a pilot who tended to “zikky over here, and zikky over
there,” a term that simply means to move swiftly.
April 15, 1968. Tax day in a tormented land. Not even two weeks
had passed since the Memphis assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Race riots still rocked several urban centers. The college campuses were in
turmoil, and America was beginning to realize that the war in Southeast Asia
was not going as planned. In January, a suicide squad of Viet Cong had
penetrated the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, and the whole ugly affair was
broadcast to a shocked nation in Technicolor.
The war, however, was not on Marylin Crowe’s mind as she rode in
the passenger seat of their car to the airfield at M.C.A.S. Cherry Point. A
little over two and a half years of marriage to a pilot with a couple tours of
combat duty over the skies of North Vietnam had caused her more than her
share of sleepless nights, yet…something was different this time.
Something gnawed at her insides, something she could not put her finger on.
She should have felt relieved that Don, now a Major, had stateside
duty. He had paid his dues. Still, the Corps had scheduled him to another
tour In Country.
“Let the younger pilots pick up the slack,” Marylin would muse to
herself. She dared not say anything to Don, or anyone else. He was gung-
ho all the time.
She had already “survived” two tours of combat flying, in which she
could have received a phone call at any time telling her that her husband was
in the clutches of the Communists, or worse. Maybe the war would end
soon. The Republican Presidential candidate, Richard Nixon, intimated that
he had a secret plan to end the war. Lyndon Johnson had just announced he
was not seeking re-election, and if a Democrat replaced him, surely America
would pull out. Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy was very popular
espousing that notion, and New York Senator Robert Kennedy was now
donning the wings of the dove.
Don pulled up to the station, full of cheer, and not a care in the world.
His mission on this day was as routine as it gets for a military pilot: A
payroll hop to Arizona. He had to deliver the squadron’s payroll checks to
Yuma, where they were at that time. Back in those days, the military still
paid their service members by physical check. Now they would simply
make automatic deposits into designated bank accounts.
The car pulls up to a stop. The driver’s side door opens, and out
steps Don, smartly dressed in uniform. Out the passenger side steps
Marylin, a pensive look on her face. She moves slowly, downcast. She
wants to tell him what is on her mind, but that would make it even worse.
“My God, I’ll never see you again,” she thinks to herself but does not
Don gives her a big kiss, grabs his bag and heads into the station.
Marylin gets behind the wheel, stares at her husband disappearing into the
station, and watches after him after he is out of sight. A car honks behind
her, indicating she is taking up a temporary parking space. Jolted awake,
she drives off.
Don enters the station. Just before the hop, he and his
bombardier/navigator, Captain Jim Klingsmith, go over the routine
inventory checklist of the squadron’s payroll serial numbers. They are
prepared for any kind of weather, but the information given them is that they
can expect perfect conditions. Therefore, no mandatory pre-cautionary
measures are taken. It is time to fly, so off they go go!
Marylin Crowe, meanwhile, drives home. She turns on the t.v., then
turns it off when a news report about casualties from Vietnam fills the
screen. She tries the radio, switching stations from rock to easy listening,
but nothing tickles her fancy.
She goes to the kitchen and fixes herself a drink. She sits down, starts
in on her drink, then as if in a trance picks up the telephone and dials a
Mrs. Lola German answers the phone. She is the wife of Colonel
German, Don’s commanding officer.
“Hello,” says Lola.
“Lola, this is Marylin Crowe.”
“Oh hi, Marylin.”
“Don took off for Arizona today.”
“Do you need help with the kids?”
“I’ll never see him again.”
“Come on, Marylin,” says Lola. “He’ll be just fine.”
“I mean it,” replies Marylin. “I know something’s going to go wrong.
I just know it.”
Lola is taken aback for a second, then she just smiles.
“My goodness, Marylin,” Lola says matter-of-factly. “Can’t you live
without that man for two weeks?”
“You don’t understand. Haven’t you ever had a premonition?”
“I’ve had many premonitions, and none of them have ever happened,
at least not resulting in my husband’s plane crashing, just like yours
are not going to come true. Now, I’ll be happy to look after the kids if
you need to do something, but I don’t want to hear another word about
“I never said anything about the plane crashing.”
“See? Everything’s going to be fine.”
“Except for one thing,” says Marylin.
“What?” asks Lola.
No emotion, almost monotone, zombie-like: “His plane is going to
Marylin hangs up. Lola just stares at the phone. Eerie.
Meanwhile, Don and Captain Klingsmith have no trouble navigating
the skies between North Carolina and Kansas. After a few hours, they begin
to descend for a hot re-fueling stop in Olathe.
Kansas is “w.w. country,” pilot-slang for “wild weather.” Every kid
who ever saw The Wizard of Oz knows that there are tornadoes in Kansas,
and every pilot who flies there respects the suddenness with which they can
appear. While meteorology has never been an exact science, and techniques
were not as effective a predictor in 1968 as they are today, nevertheless
these two pilots had no reason to doubt the report of continuing clear skies
ahead. Only a few puffy clouds dot the horizon.
The landing at Olathe is perfect. Everything about this uneventful re-
fueling stop is routine. After loading up on fuel, they prepare for the last leg
of their journey. Again, no pre-cautions.
As they take off, however, Crowe and Klingsmith are unaware that
the air traffic controller has given them an incorrect radar vector, and
because of this he has steered them straight towards a developing weather
pattern. A wild weather pattern!
Within minutes, they find themselves in gray, misty clouds that allow
for zero visibility. Surprised? Yes. Worried? No. These are two
experienced aircraft carrier-qualified combat vets, recipients of the best
training in the world, and the machine they are in control of is as fine a
flying craft as there is.
BOOM! Out of no where, the Intruder is abruptly interrupted by a
tornado. No warning. A total fluke, only this fluke is more like the Jolly
Green Giant with an anvil!
Crowe loses control, and the Intruder begins to augur in. All hell
breaks loose. Broken gauges, high-speed rapid descent, power back, speed
brakes, and Crowe’s ejection command goes unheeded by Klingsmith, who
is seemingly unable to remove his face curtain. The B.N. goes, a rocket
blast—dirt and debris from the bilge smoke, a windblast, tumbling action,
Don feels the loss of his mask and helmet. All within a matter of seconds.
Then Crowe resorts to his training, what the great Chuck Yeager calls,
“If Plan A don’t work, try Plan B. If Plan B don’t work, try Plan C. If Plan
C don’t work…”
NOTHING WORKS! Crowe remains calm, but Klingsmith is frozen
in fear. Everything he ever learned is out the window. The order goes out.
“EJECT! EJECT! EJECT!”
“My God, you look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”
Lola German stands in the doorway of her Cherry Point, North
Carolina home. Standing in front of her, shaking, is Marylin.
“Come in, Marylin,” says Lola. “What’s the matter?”
Crowe could eject, but he sees Klingsmith unable to react. He
screams at him to eject, but there is no reaction. Crowe realizes that his
navigator has lost it, and any chance Klingsmith has to survive will now
depend on Crowe. Crowe reaches over to pull Klingsmith’s face curtain,
and this somehow causes Klingsmith to snap out if, pulling the face curtain
and jettisoning himself out. Crowe follows suit, only he exits like a rag doll
from the Intruder’s cockpit, his body slamming furiously against the canopy.
Don finds himself airborne, awakened in his chute, gloves furled,
bouncing and floating, seriously disoriented, his left leg swinging from heel
to head. He needs to turn his chute, but it is difficult because his elbow and
shoulder are injured. He sees farm buildings, and suddenly time stands still.
His whole world is now in slow motion. He thinks clearly, logically,
as if he has all the time in the world. What forces within some men allow
them to react to stress in such a manner? No amount of training or testing
can teach this. No one can identify with any real certainty who possesses
these traits and who does not. If modern science could bottle it, or figure out
what qualities to look for beyond the obvious, yet flawed, characteristics,
then we would be on the road to creating the perfect soldier or pilot. It
would be priceless.
Nothing learned or observed during flight test training compares. No
amount of survival skills learned can prepare one for this experience.
Whatever it is, though, Don Crowe has it. At least, he had it on April 15,
1968, a day in which he was prepared as always for the worst possible event,
but had simply been unable to overcome the forces of nature.
He passes in and out of consciousness. His helmet has been ripped
from his head. He looks, and the bottom half of his legs are swinging, as if
they have been cut in half and are held together by a few strips of bone and
sinew. He catches and cradles his left leg with his right foot, sees no other
chute, and prepares for his landing, dragging on his right side.
Don’s helmet and D2 mask are torn off. He tastes and smells blood in
his mouth. He checks his teeth, making sure they are still there, but mindful
also of swallowing or biting his tongue. He is fearful of choking on any
loose teeth, or having broken jaws. Also, he is…he is…LAUGHING.
As Don Crowe descends in a heap on a Kansas cornfield, he is
laughing, because he is alive, and he has beaten that old bastard, the Grim
On the ground, Crowe looks up and sees Klingsmith approach him, as
if in a trance, yet not injured nearly as badly. Crowe sees a nearby
farmhouse and tells Klingsmith to go there. He tells to do this, and is calm
Crowe gives detailed instructions, right down to the word, as if
reading from a manual, and Klingsmith repeats Crowe’s directions back to
him in slow, staccato sentences.
When a Kansas highway patrolman named Ziegarnick arrives at the
scene, Crowe gives him exact phone numbers to call. Then Major Crowe
begins to give the patrolman more information. At first, the lawman
frantically writes it down on his notepad, but now he stops and simply stares
at the injured Marine. Crowe is repeating, verbatim, the serial numbers of
all the checks! Don has remembered every single number!
Then Don tells the patrolman something else. “Tell Colonel German I
spoiled his safety record,” he says, in all seriousness, and he notices a
little old lady holding a glass of water. Then, and only then, he passes out.
At the Forbes Air Force Base hospital, Don fights to stay conscious.
The doctor, seeing that Don is temporarily able to hear what he is telling
him, gives him the news that Don does not want to hear.
“Major Crowe,” says the doctor. “I’m sorry, but we can’t save your
legs. We’re gonna have to amputate. If we don’t, you’re going to die.”
Don just stares at the m.d.
“No,” is his one-word answer.
Don drifts back to unconsciousness, and the doctor looks at the nurse.
“He can’t understand what’s happening,” says the doctor. “Get his
wife on the line.”
Marylin sits in Lola German’s living room. They both have drinks in
their hands. Marylin finally looks a little more relaxed.
“Trust me, Marylin,” says Lola, “everything will be just fine.”
No sooner does she say this, and the phone rings, jolting both of them
out of their chairs.
There is something different about this ringing phone.
Something…ominous. Lola German, the wife of the commander, a
gregarious, outgoing woman, is the social center among pilots’ wives and
families. Her phone rings off the hook, so what could be different this time?
The phone rings a couple of times, and Lola suddenly seems
paralyzed by it.
Trying to recover, she says “Maybe baseball practice was canceled.”
“Answer it,” Marylin says tersely.
“Hello,” answers Lola. Her face hardens. Time passes. Slow motion.
“Yes. She’s here.”
No, a nightmare.
Lola German indicates the phone to Marylin. Marylin Crowe has
been expecting this call.
“Mrs. Crowe, you do not understand what I am telling you. If you’re
husband’s legs are not amputated immediately, he will die.”
Marylin stares straight ahead while holding the phone to her ear. She
speaks into it.
“If Don says no, I say no.”
“Mrs. Crowe, do you want your husband to die?”
“I will not give you permission to amputate my husband’s legs as long
as he says no.”
A long silence ensues.
“Mrs. Crowe,” says the doctor, “we’ll do the best we can.”
The doctor hangs up the phone, and his face reflects frustration. By
God, he is a doctor and he is going to save this man’s life no matter what…
“Get Major Crowe’s commanding officer on the phone right away.”
Colonel German sits at his desk, his face distorted in anguished
concentration, while listening to the doctor over the phone.
“Colonel German,” says the doctor, by now pleading is case, “time is
of the essence, and I am telling you that if Major Crowe does not undergo
amputation very soon, he will die. I can save his life, but I must amputate in
order to do so.”
Colonel German is a study in thought.
“Major Crowe said no. Is that correct?”
“And he was aware of what you were telling him, and asking him?”
“As aware as he could be under the circumstances, sir, yes.”
“Mrs. Crowe was sure, she said no, too?” asks Colonel German.
“Yes, sir,” replies the doctor, “but she is not here to see what I see,
and she is not a doctor. With all due respect, Colonel, neither are you. I am,
and it is my considered advice, which I urge you as forcefully as I possibly
can to accept and adhere to, that this man must undergo amputation in order
to be given a chance to live!”
Colonel German has been in the military for over 20 years. He has
seen men die, in combat and in training and sometimes by accident. He has
made some difficult decisions, but never one quite as gut-wrenching as this.
Years ago, coming out of Quantico, he was advised that all decisions
in the end must be instinctive, from the heart. Sometimes logic and reason
needs to be overridden by gut feeling. Perhaps this may not be the best
advice for the guys working in the antiseptic, button-pushing atmosphere of
a nuclear weapons launch facility, but here the human element seems to
dominate German’s sense of judgment. Suddenly, as it always seems to
happen when it is time to decide, German has it.
“No doctor. If Major Crowe does not authorize the amputation, I
The doctor is apoplectic.
“Colonel, this man is going to die. You’re not here to see this happen,
“My duty is to my men. I know I’m not on hand to judge the
situation, but…no. If Don Crowe says no, then my answer has to be no.”
“Yes, sir,” says the doctor.
“You save that man’s life, doctor,” advises Colonel German sternly.
“That’s an order.”
“Yes, sir,” replies the doctor.
“Let me know as soon as you have an up-date.”
With that, Colonel German hangs up the phone. The doctor just
“Marines!” he says to nobody in particular.
The operating room. The doctor is scrubbed up. His nurses are ready
to go. Don Crowe woozily lies on the operating table, drifting in and out of
a semi-conscious haze. The doctor stares at Don, who appears to have
drifted to sleep, then turns to the nurse.
“The hell with it,” says the doctor. “These people are not doctors.
None of them can give me a medical assessment. I am, I know what’s best
for this man medically, and all the colonels and wives and fighter jocks in
the world can’t tell me otherwise.”
The nurse watches him intently.
“What are your orders, doctor?” she asks.
“I want this man put down. I’m amputating his legs to save his life.”
Unbeknownst to the doctor, the nurse or anybody else in the room,
Don has drifted back to a conscious state, just in time to hear the doctor’s
pronouncement. Crowe’s eyes widen slightly, then harden with a look
The nurse approaches Don, and begins to apply anesthetic to him.
Don sees what is happening, but he does not panic. He simply applies his
mind to the situation at hand.
And so it went. The nurse applied anesthetic, and Don Crowe decided
that he was not going to go down. A simple case of mind over matter. Or
was some higher force at work?
There are some things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, which can’t be
dreamt of in your philosophy.
Call it will. Call it God.
Time passes, and the doctor observes Don still awake. Impatiently,
the doctor says, “Nurse, I want this man down. Please administer more
“Doctor,” she replies, “I’ve administered a near-fatal dose of
anesthetic, but he will not go down.”
He will not go down!
Don Crowe would not go down. By sheer grit, determination and
fortitude, he stayed awake and kept those people from cutting his legs off.
In a barely audible whisper, his eyes hanging heavy like iron weights,
Major Crowe manages to look at the doctor and mumble these words:
“You’re not cutting my legs off.”
Did the doctor come to realize that some kind of cosmic fate was
underway in his operating room that day? Probably not. Maybe he never
understood what it was he was up against. He was just trying to do his job
as he saw it, and Don Crowe was just another patient to be treated. There
were many before him, and many after him. There is one thing that did sink
into his mind on April 15, 1968. At what time it cannot be stated for sure,
but on that day Don Crowe defeated that doctor. It would be the most
important victory of Don’s life!
Up to that point, Don had won many victories. He had known a few
defeats (although not many). His victory over that doctor was more vital to
his survival than any dogfight over the skies of North Vietnam, the Viet
Cong and the Hanoi Hilton looming just one flak burst below. It would be
more vital than his triumph of will over the brothers at Power Memorial, or
any of the by-the-book “jar heads” trying to impede his progression up the
Still, it would not compare with the triumph he was to experience over the next year.
Pribble had died. A few others—a test pilot for the squadron, some
kind of maintenance malfunction--but no real close friends. The average
moviegoer has seen Top Gun, the scene in which Commander Mike Metcalf
tells Lieutenant Pete Mitchell (“Maverick”) that “there will be others” after
his best friend Goose bites the dust in a freak accident over the water. “10
planes. 20 men,” says Commander Metcalf. Surely any experienced pilot,
especially one who flew over The ‘Nam, could reel off a similar laundry list.
Not so with Don Crowe. Maybe the accident rate was higher among all
those Right Stuff test pilots and astronaut candidates at Edwards, but the fact
is that the Department of Defense prefers not to inform the mothers and
fathers of our brightest sons that they have died, whether it be in the cause of
freedom or because of a yaw in the left engine. This country puts its best
efforts into avoiding this scenario, and the result, in reality, is that accidents
are rare. Our guys are so skillfully trained, our machines so splendid, and
our commander so unwilling to recklessly risk lives, that we normally do not
lose our pilots.
There had been that accident—a cable grip on a hot day. Grips
wrapped themselves around the aircraft, causing the plane to flip over and
over. The pilot had not been killed, though. His ejection seat had acted as a
Anybody on deck has the ability to spot any unsafe action by yelling
“dumbfuck.” You had to earn 13 “attaboys” in order to lose the stigma of
being the object of a single “dumbfuck,” which was labeled upon the guy
responsible for the unsafe action. Pilots spend a lot of time around enlisted
personnel, and if they get chewed out for being a “dumbfuck,” then rank
does not particularly matter. Everybody knows all about it, and the enlisted
guys love to talk dirt about superior officers.
Squadron commanders read the riot act to pilots just like the guys in
the movies and t.v.—loud and salty. They want the point to get across. It
starts in the office prior to an all-officers meeting, and the C.O. always
knows the details ahead of time. The experience is one of total ridicule—
“who the fuck do you think you are using one of my airplanes like that. That
stunt almost splattered your ass…exposed this command…cause you to lose
your wings…early retirement…disconnect your intellect…how often do you
suffer brain farts?” Vulgarity and sarcasm.
These riot sessions would only be the first humiliation. Afterward, a
“kangaroo court” would assemble, and somebody, maybe the C.O., would
announce something like, “I got three of the dumbest s.o.b.’s in the world
standing behind me.” The court verdict often was to place the pilot in
“hack,” a form of house arrest, and one would be smart to accept the
punishment stoically. Oh yeah, the details always got out.
Another time, Don’s plane just landed, clearing the arresting gear.
Trying to park on the right catapult area, the planes’ tail broke, and the g-
forces of the deck working against the wing caused him to lurch toward the
side as the deck tilted. Somebody saw what was happening—the Captain or
the officer of the watch—he saw Don veering left towards the water, and he
veered the ship. That action reversed the momentum and kept the craft on
deck. Don had both hands on the ejection handle just in case, but if the
plane had fallen into the sea, he would not have survived.
All in all, flying was satisfying. Don generally avoided stunts and
dangerous fly-byes. “Risky things” were not necessary. Anybody had the
power to stop “dire consequences” by calling attention to them immediately,
for the safety of all concerned. There was the close air support, the flying
component, “dusting off antennas’,” and roaring across the top of a position
to shake things up, but nothing too reckless. He lived in a world of danger,
but he had learned control. Night vision was sometimes dicey, and firing
jato bottles caused the cockpit to fill up with brilliant blue-white light; firing
the bottles temporarily blinds the pilot.
On another occasion, Don mistakenly destroyed all the model
airplanes displayed in a diamond formation because he did not realize a
show was going on at El Toro.
Rabble-rousing is as much a tradition in the Corps as Belleau Wood
and Iwo. The best kind of rabble takes place at fancy dress-blue functions,
like the one that occurred once on ship. The only Marines invited were
fliers—Don and some of his pals—and the Naval officers immediately
began to harass them as “skinheads.” The Navy guys were all sub-human
types (in Marine pilot hierarchy); helicopter pilots, submariners that sort of
thing. They were Godsends if you were hanging on for dear life to the wing
of your dearly departed plane somewhere in the Indian Ocean, but under
these circumstances they were viewed as squids or swabbies who jacked off
in their socks. Put these people together, give them too much to drink, and
the result is predictable.
A senior Navy lieutenant, a crusty guy named Brant, was bracing two
of Don’s lower-ranking lieutenants, standing them at attention, and pulling
the bullshit drill sergeant routine. There were some civilians there—
taxpayers is the military term—and to embarrass them under these
circumstances was unacceptable to Don Crowe. He decided to intervene.
Tactfully. In a Marine Corps kind of way, that is.
“Why are you standing my men at attention,” Don asks.
“Because it makes me feel good,” is the reply.
Don pulled the Navy boy’s cummerbund up and poured ice water
down his pants.
“That’s for being an asshole,” Don said.
After the near-brawl that ensued, Don found himself hauled before the
air group commander. He was ordered to apologize to Lieutenant Brant, so
at the evening meal in the officer’s wardroom, with everybody seated
according to rank, a senior officer announced that a “special event” was
about to take place. Don was to tell Charles Brant he was sorry.
“Lieutenant Brant,” intoned Don, “members of the mess, I’m sorry I
still think Lieutenant Brant is an asshole.”
Happy hour at Cherry Point. Junior officers commandeer the
drinking area. Each squadron brings in their flags and logos. A test of
barroom courage is to drink a “flaming hooker,” which is to chug cognac so
fast that it leaves the flame in the glass.
Suddenly, a group of wives enters, rattling pots and pans and even
playing the tuba. They call themselves the “death angel ladies.” Unamused,
the commander sits on the bar, picks one of the women up, and spanks her
butt. Tearfully, the woman asks the other wives to leave. That’ll show
them, say the pilots as the humiliated spouses depart.
When those men got home, they all found their clothes and personal
items scattered on their front porches. Everybody slept in the bachelor’s
quarters that night.
Another time, Don tore the wings off the pocket of a Major’s shirt
because the guy had been, in Don’s view, derelict in his overseeing of the
safety and training time of the men under his charge. When Don woke up
with a hangover the next day, he knew he had gone too far. He was
informed that his commander, Colonel Dees, wanted to see his ass first thing
Monday morning. All weekend Don sat in his room, convinced that this
time he had really done some damage to his career.
On Monday, Colonel Dees addressed him sternly, and asked if the
shirt-tearing incident was true. Don said it was. Colonel Dees asked why he
had done it, and Don repeated that he was incensed that the Major was not
properly concerned with the safety of his men, and that he was derelict in his
duty, which essentially was to see to it that the pilot’s get proper training,
and are allocated enough flight time to hone their skills.
Colonel Dees listened to Don, who readily offered to apologize in the
most profuse manner, then Dees told him, “You are to do no such fucking
thing!” The Colonel could see that he had a dedicated, passionate man on
his hands, and that is all too rare.
The memories of his life--his wife and kids, the Brothers at Power
Memorial, his buddies, the fast times, the partying and the Vietnam War,
accidents and incidents and triumphs—all passed through Don’s mind,
acting as an anti-dote to the near-lethal dosage of anesthetic coursing
through his body. To the amazement of the nurses, and to the infuriated
consternation of a Navy doctor determined to play God, he had not “gone
down,” and therefore he had maintained that vestige of control that had
always been the central hallmark of his existence. Now he was going to call
some shots himself.
Don called the group commanding officer of the doctor to his side,
and informed him that he was not going to lose consciousness no matter
what, and that he wanted a medi-vac to North Carolina to be arranged
The call goes out, to Air Group Commander Moose Trainor at Cherry
Point, and Trainor in turn calls the senior Naval medical officer, who
dispatches the squadron’s flight surgeon from Yuma, Arizona, Don’s
intended destination. He is sent to Forbes, and he in turn supervises Don’s
medi-vac from Forbes to Camp Lejuene, North Carolina, where Don arrives
still wearing his torn clothes, sweaty and dirty.
Don’s legs were hyper-swollen, and he was in drug-induced shock.
The operation would be a two-day effort, one leg the first day, then a wait so
he could stabilize, followed by another operation on the other leg the
The nerve column that was severed was grafted back, but would it
fuse? The left leg was worse than the right one, so severe that his
circulatory system was the only thing intact, except for his outer skin.
There was significant ligament and cartilage damage.
A hole through the bone was braided and wired through the knee to
the shin, and casted at an angle. Large coat buttons held the braided silver
wire. The right leg was not as badly torn.
It is there that Don fights and struggles to recover. Marylin braves
stormy weather and what at that time were narrow roads between Cherry
Point and Lejeune to visit him faithfully, but the ordeal is taking its toll.
“I can’t do this any longer,” she tells Don. But she can, and she does.
When a Camp Lejeune doctor tells Don he will never walk again, Don
“I will walk again. Not only that, I will dance with my wife again on
our anniversary. Not only that, I will fly again.”
Dr. Porter Collier, the orthopedic surgeon who performed the surgery,
tried to set Don straight.
“Your legs may not stay on,” he warns him.
“Yes, they will,” replies Don.
“You may not walk again.”
“Yes I will.”
“You may not run again.”
“Yes, I will.”
“You may not fly again.”
“Yes, I will will fly again.”
“And I will dance with Marylin on our anniversary.”
“Don,” the doctor would tell him, “you’re setting yourself up for a
major psychological crash.”
Don Crowe wears casts on both legs from April until mid-July. The
wire came out during further orthopedic surgery when sufficient resistance
proving the wire could be removed was attained. The terrific sensation Don
felt as the wire passed through the thighbone caused his pajamas to become
instantly soaking wet. It was a fluttery, painful, high-speed sensation, like
an electric shock. His therapy among the others, who were wounded in
Vietnam, would be filled with setbacks. The main purpose of his life would
be to re-train his severed nerve column. His pre-occupation during this time
was to program his toes into moving, because he is told that if he can ever do
this, he might walk again, but if he cannot, he will be paralyzed.
“Make the nerve graph work,” he tells himself over and over. “Do not
For hours upon hours he sits manipulating his toe, trying to do the
“big toe wiggle” and the “toe curl.” One day, his big toe moves, and Don
cries out in ecstasy, tears running down his happy face, which turns to
despair when a nurse enters to see what the ruckus is all about, but Don
cannot repeat the movement. He could not make it move in front of the
doctor, attempting unsuccessfully over several days, but the nurse urged him
to keep trying.
Eventually in May, Don does move his toe in Dr. Collier’s presence.
This proved that the nerves in his right leg, while badly bruised and
damaged, were still intact. He still could not move his left leg. He begins
physical therapy, rejoicing at small victories, despairing at the inevitable
“plateauing” that occurs.
Visiting every day, braving summer thunder storms, Marylin thought
he had brain damage because she would say something to him, and he would
answer, then tail off in mid-sentence.
“I…can’t…do…this…any…more.” Marylin was in despair. Of
course, she could do this more.
Sometimes Don would not recognize her, but she did not realize that
the sedation used at the time had impaired Don’s memory sequence patterns.
Marylin was concerned about his mental state, but Don was 100
percent determination. He did not appreciate Marylin’s attempt at
inspiration and would turn away from those trying to help him—“stay in
control”—and would be be obstinate about this. Others would be
disappointed that they could not help him.
On another occasion, Don accidentally tipped forward on his
wheelchair when the back is released. Control. Do not lose control. What a
predicament for a man so driven to be in control!
Re-habilitation took seven months before Don could be transferred
back to Cherry Point. He eventually loosened his “frozen” knee, and he
would tell the corpsmen “no not quit until I say stop the third time,” no
matter how much it hurt. Some corpsmen could not treat Don, his pain was
too intense for them, but the ones who worked with him would straddle his
lower right leg and force it downward. The process was repeated over and
over, no cast, and then the wire was taken out.
One day, he and two other laid-up buddies get permission to go to the
officer’s club to watch a ballgame. For half an hour they load into the car, a
1962 Porsche Cabriolet, two guys on crutches, one guy in a wheelchair.
Don drives to the club. For another half-hour they unload themselves.
Finally ready to enter the club, they become aware of a huge ovation from
the officers who have provided a tearful audience, not wanting to help these
proud men who must do this themselves if they are to feel like men again.
Once inside the club, Don and his mates are told, “Oh, that game’s been
called on account of rain for two hours.” Alcohol consumption follows, and
eventually they return to the hospital by ambulance.
Eventually he would be able to drive to and from the hospital, and
home on weekends. One year after the accident, Don begins to jog—slowly.
He stumbles, the accident flashes before his eyes, but he makes one lap.
August 1, 1968. He does dance with Marylin on their anniversary.
After not getting to the floor in time to move to the rhythms of the band,
they did sway to the accompaniment of “Little Green Apples” by Dionne
Warwick on the jukebox. To recall it is a surefire way to get Don’s eyes to
well up in tears, to this very day!
Dr. Collier, the surgeon who saves Don’s legs and who has become a
friend (and host) throws the anniversary party for them at the Camp Lejeune
officer’s club, and many of the off-duty medical personnel who watched
Don struggle in therapy to make his promise a reality, came to root for his
Exercise machinery. Whirlpool baths. The process seemed endless,
but finally, again self-sufficient and in control after applying for re-
instatement of flight status 18 months after the accident, he is back in
Vietnam by 1970, assigned to support his squadron commander, again re-
qualified to fly A6s.
Captain Klingsmith recovered from the injuries he sustained during
the ejection process to return to active duty and further flying duties.
Don Crowe would go on to graduate from Oklahoma State with a
degree in psychology, a subject he probably knows more about than any
professor of Psyche 101.
Today, he lives with Marylin in Laguna Beach and works full time.
He is still laughing, and he has danced with Marylin on many anniversaries
since the accident.
The story of Don Crowe is the story of a cocksure young man who
thought he was immune from the kind of dangers that other mortals are
subject to. It is the story of how that young man distinguished himself in
combat, and when he was not in the air he was rocking the world of every
pretty girl who fell for his charisma and charm.
More than any of that, however, this is a true love story. It is about
the power of a good woman, and how she can change a man for the better.
This is the story of shear survival against all odds, the desperate
struggle of a man and the woman who loves him, and how they banded
together to overcome crippling injuries. This is also about faith, how
mysterious events can occur without explanation and leave one grappling for
answers that we cannot contemplate.
It is a story of how people grow and mature, how God gives humans
only as much to deal with as they can handle, and finally this is the story of a
happy ending, an ending in which two people can create a power and a bond
that is simply greater than the obstacles placed before them.
It is a story that needs to be told.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism