VR-57 Welcomes an American Hero
By AWF1 Richard Rizzo
Fleet Logistics Support Squadron (VR) 57 had a very interesting Guest Speaker at our March drill weekend. Everyone, from the Skipper to the newest Seaman looked on in awe. During an age where young people call sports figures and rap singers heroes, this weekend was special and showed us the real heroes of our great nation. VR-57’s Commanding Officer, Commander Tim Rascoll, welcomed back a previous VR-57 Commanding Officer, Captain Read Mecleary (retired), who spoke of his five and a half years as a Prisoner of War (POW) during the Vietnam War at the horrific “Hanoi Hilton” POW camp.
As Skipper Rascoll introduced his predecessor, we were not aware of this gentleman’s history, since most members of VR-57 had not even been born when this man started his Navy career. As we learned of his heroic past, we all hung on his every word. He spoke both frankly and humbly, as if his fated flight was just another day in the cockpit—but his narration was so captivating, there is no doubt that Hollywood would do well to tell his story.
Skipper Mecleary (then LTJG Mecleary) was a young Naval Academy graduate and newly winged Navy Attack pilot with Attack Squadron (VA) 93, flying the A-4E “Skyhawk” onboard the USS Hancock (CVA-19). On May 26, 1967, he was in a flak suppression division leading an Alpha Strike against Kep Airfield, 60 miles east of Hanoi. “As we rolled in,” he explained, “I felt a bump under my A-4. We had seen two SAAMs (Surface-to-Anti-Air Missiles) launch toward us.” He lost control of the A-4 as he tried to turn toward the coast to head for the water. A SAAM then exploded close to his aircraft; the A-4 began to break up, tumbling out of control.
LTJG Mecleary ejected at an airspeed of 600 MPH. His helmet and mask were ripped off during the violent departure, and he was lucky he did not lose his head with his gear. His legs were broken upon ejection, and his injuries were further compounded as he flailed about in the ferocious wind. “I landed in some trees and when I hit the ground, my knees buckled under me, pointing 90 degrees to the side.” LTJG Mecleary knew he was in a heap of trouble. His parachute in the trees was a giant beacon, easily giving away his position to the North Vietnamese. He thought they would kill him—not capture him—for it would be a great deal of trouble to carry him out. However, they brought him out of the jungle to the Hanoi Hilton. He was now a Prisoner of War.
LTJG Mecleary did what all POWs had to: he survived with honor, while helping other fellow POWs to do the same. He told us the importance of honoring the Chain of Command. The Vietnamese tried extremely hard to break that chain, but they never could. He told us how the POWs communicated, making signs with their hands, tapping codes, even putting a glass up to the wall and talking to each other. He spoke of the food they were given: rice, gruel, French Bread, weeds that they called salad, pumpkin, fish, and on some occasions, pig fat floating in soup. He said the POW experience made him morally stronger, more confident in himself in achieving goals, and it gave him a better appreciation for the necessity of the support of family and friends (his fellow POWs in Hanoi).
One of the biggest problems LTJG Mecleary didn’t realize at the time was that his parents did not know what happened to him. Three years had passed in captivity before they heard from him. “Missing birthdays and holidays were rough,” he told us, but he got his strength through, “family values, support of fellow POWs, his military training, and personal honor.”
When LTJG Mecleary finally returned to the United States and reunited with his family after more than 69 months, he had a long recovery for his wounded legs. Against the odds, he returned to the cockpit to fly the A-4 “Scooter” again. After 12 years of Active Duty, he joined the Navy Reserve as part of VR-55. He transferred to VR-57 at Naval Air Station North Island, the “birthplace of Naval Aviation,” in December 1977 to establish the squadron, and later completed a tour as Commanding Officer from 1983-1984. His time with VR-57 was peaceful; the new C-9 “Skytrain” was just arriving to VR-57 and the squadron spent time developing operational standards for worldwide application.
Skipper Tim Rascoll shared his thoughts about the guest speaker: “It was a great honor and privilege to have Skipper Mecleary take time out of his day and life to join us. I am confident that the squadron feels improved in all regards, both as individuals and as a squadron team. I am thankful for the leadership example that Skipper Mecleary has set. It was a great day!”
Once you meet a true American Hero, especially a Naval Aviator in this year that we celebrate 100 years of Naval Aviation, you begin to realize just who paved the way for all of us. The VR-57 Conquistadors’ appreciation for Skipper Mecleary and the POWs of all eras was elevated after this visit. The POWs and all other military service members can never be thanked enough for what they endured and how they served our great nation with pride and dignity.