After nearly eight years in North Vietnamese prison camps, Cole Black was repatriated in 1973. Watching him walk across the airport tarmac, free at last, is an unabated lifelong emotion.
And I didn’t even know the Navy pilot.
His fighter-jet was shot down in 1966 near Hanoi. Before he returned home in the first day of Operation Homecoming, I wore his name on my wrist. So did thousands of others.
After recalling the experiences of wearing a POW/MIA bracelet in two earlier columns for “CDR Cole Black 6-21-66,” and I now share a side-story that includes a longtime Mississippi Coast resident in the same squadron.
In 2000, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I located Cole Black, then retired and living in California after serving 36 years in the Navy. I was amazed he answered my questions and even ask about my own father’s career in Navy aviation.
With our exchange of e-mails, I understood how Cole Blacks’ genuine curiosity and caring of others, his patriotism and love of life made him a survivor. He gave me permission to write about the man I think of as “my POW.”
To my surprise and delight, a Sun Herald reader also contacted me by e-mail.
“I read your article with a great deal of interest,” John Barlow wrote in June 2000. “I was in the squadron with Cole when he was shot down. I was scheduled to go on the next flight for a similar mission. I did go, we had a target time and I had to go on. We were flying the F8 Crusader fighter and our primary mission was to engage Migs, if they came. Some of us were flak suppressers.
“Until the latest fighters, the F8 was the last fighter that was designed with guns. We proved the guns were needed and Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM). The more common name for that was ‘dogfighting.’ The F8 was the Navy’s leading MIG killer until completely replaced by the F4 Phantom.
“When the Top Gun School was formed, it was made up mostly with F8 pilots. I was one of those. I met a Biloxi girl while going through flight training in Pensacola, Florida. Shortly after getting my wings we were married, and we are now retired in St. Martin.”
John Barlow’s letter filled in blanks for me on what sort of flying Cole Black did in the war.
I filed away both of their stories and moved on with work and life, although the Mississippi Vietnam Veterans Memorial, dedicated in 1997 in Ocean Springs, is a poignant reminder of the patriotism and sacrifices of so many.
I found John Barlow’s 17-year-old e-mail last month when I rediscovered my aging POW bracelet. Sadly, new attempts to track him down ended with an obituary dated September 2005.
“He was one of the original ‘Top Gun’ instructors and had a perfect safety record,” CDR John R. Barlow’s family proudly pointed out in his final write-up. His wife, Beverly Balius, also has died.
For John Barlow, Cole Black and so many others who have moved on to their final rewards, I cite John Gillespie Magee Jr. His poem, “High Flight,” remains with anyone like me who spent growing-up years on air bases:
“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
“And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.”
Those who didn’t experience this ingraining still have likely read the Magee final verse that graces many headstones at national cemeteries:
“And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
“The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
“Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.