A Tale from Vietnam
By Staff Sgt. Bryan Vandersommen, 509th Public Affairs
/ Published May 06, 2009
WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. --
Whiteman has its share of military history as host to the only unit in the world to have detonated nuclear weapons in combat. Missile silos, photographs, hardware and old encased documents form much of this legacy.
But these are hardly more valuable than people who lived history; men and women whose sweat writes the story of America. Retired Master Sgt. Jerry Headrick, a civilian employee at Whiteman's Detachment 5, 29th Training System Squadron is such a man.
He was a tail gunner on the B-52, tail number 683 which rests at Whiteman's Arnold gate. Man and metal, here each day in a humble reunion, reveal the ghosts of Vietnam through their experiences.
The gun turret was an experience of extremes. One could see nearly the entire sky, but "If you have a phobia for tight quarters- it was tight," said Mr. Headrick. That of course didn't bother him, recalling it was "the best seat in the plane."
"There is not a (B-52) D model around I haven't flown in combat," said Mr. Headrick. So after seeing the plane here, a quick look at his old log book showed when he had flown in it.
He related that, befitting a "Stratofortress", MiGs and other enemy aircraft respected the B-52 and its gunners and "hardly came within 20 miles." His pride in the plane is obvious, along with his reverence for the culminating air mission over North Vietnam, Linebacker II.
According to Headrick it was "the largest armada of jets over that tiny country in aircraft history." In Winter, 1972, 150 B-52s along with tankers and fighters struck Hanoi, North Vietnam in a campaign of startling precision, persuading the North Vietnamese government to return to peace talks in Paris.
15,000 tons of bombs were dropped for an overwhelming airpower victory. In spite of the political and military significance of the operation, Mr. Headrick's thoughts on the topic are more down to earth.
"It was the best 4th of July show you ever laid eyes on," he said. "It was a job that had to be done and we did it to the best of our ability.
Headrick's own milestones in the skies over Vietnam include 2000 combat hours, 10 Distinguished Flying Crosses and a Surface to Air Missile hit so close to the turret he "could have reached out and touched it." But the highlight of his gunnery career was the dedicated crew he flew with. They shared, as flyers are fond of saying, hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror.
Of the 11 days of Linebacker II, one holds special significance for Whiteman and Mr. Headrick. December 26, 1972, then Staff Sgt. Headrick crawled into the turret of aircraft 683 for a typical 14.3 hour mission from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam to Hanoi and back.
Fellow gunner and roommate Technical Sgt. James Cook was flying on a different B-52, Ebony II, and was shot down over Hanoi. Sergeant Cook and three others survived the crash and enemy capture. The pilot and electronic warfare officer were killed in the air. It was one of 15 B-52s lost in Linebacker II.
The pilot, Captain Robert Morris, was the only Missouri native killed piloting a B-52 during combat in Vietnam. Whiteman's B-52 display aircraft will be rededicated to that crew later this summer with friends and family present, including Mr. Headrick.
Just don't expect poetic sentiment from him on that occasion. "Someday I just want to climb into the back and find some of my graffiti in it," said Mr. Headrick. History has to be written somewhere, whether printed in a book or scrawled in a B-52 gun turret.