- Associated Press - Sunday, October 12, 2014

POCAHONTAS, Ark. (AP) - John “Hondo” Johnson had a mission in the darkness.

It was 1972 and the Vietnam War was about to reach its crescendo. He was a young pilot assigned to the U.S.S. Saratoga. His job was to fly a naval A-7A Corsair II light attack bomber over North Vietnam and drop bombs on specific targets.

Some nights the raids against the Vietcong were successful. Other nights planes were shot down and Americans died. Throughout his ordeal he could rely on two things - the men he worked with and the trusty aircraft he flew, The Jonesboro Sun reported (https://bit.ly/ZseIn3 ).

Several years ago he reunited with several of the pilots he flew with, and each year they get together for a motorcycle ride. It took a chance encounter on the Internet to reunite him with one of the A-7A’s he flew in Vietnam.

It’s on display in front of the Pocahontas Municipal Airport. Four pilots who flew that very aircraft recently drove their motorcycles to Pocahontas to see the bomber they flew more than 40 years ago.

“My emotions are mixed,” Johnson said sitting in the shadow of the imposing airplane. “We (the pilots) have a bond that few people experience. Seeing this . some of the memories are good and some are bad. That’s for sure.”

Johnson flew the craft 11 times according to his log book. Military aircraft often have pilots’ names on them, but it means nothing, he said. When a pilot was called to participate in a mission, they flew whatever airplane was available, he said.

In fact the plane that bared Johnson’s name was shot down and now rests at the bottom of the Gulf of Tonkin, he said.

Norm “Crusader” Green flew the A-7A, too. He doesn’t know how many times, but as he examined it the memories came back in a rush.

“I think it’s been modified,” he said as he examined the tail section. “A lot of these planes were modified when they came back from Vietnam.”

The A-7A is on loan from the Pensacola Naval Museum, based in Pensacola, Florida. It has been at the airport since 1991. Most of it is still original, but the engine is different, according to officials.

Green was shot down during combat, but it was in a different aircraft, he said.

Another pilot, Chris “Stoney” Stoner flew the A-7A countless times, he said. Stoner didn’t check his log book to see how many times he piloted it.

As he ran his hands over the skin of the plane his mind wondered to a time long ago when he was a young man fighting for his country. He said he realizes now he and his comrades were nothing more than pawns in a game the government was never intent on winning.

“Sometimes it seems like it was long ago. . Other times it seems like it was yesterday,” he said of his combat tour.

Johnson agreed with his fellow pilot saying “the military has never lost a war. The politicians have.”

Another pilot who flew the plane, John “Gurleyman” Gurley also came to view the aircraft.

When pilots died and aircraft were plucked from the skies it was rough, Johnson said. After it happened, most pilots had to tell themselves that whoever was shot down must have made a mistake, a mistake I won’t make, he said.

It was the only way to keep their nerves, he added.

Johnson, a Memphis native, came across a message on the Internet about the A-7A at Pocahontas. The man who wrote the message said he flew the plane after the war.

He checked the serial number listed for the craft, and it was the same one in his active duty log book. Each time the pilots, who live in various states from Florida to Texas, meet they talk about the good and bad experiences, their lives and futures.

But this plane is a prominent piece of their past, Johnson said.

“She is a very important part of our history,” he said.

___

Information from: The Jonesboro Sun, https://www.jonesborosun.com

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