Sky Watch

Men and women of the United States Armed Forces are constantly on duty all over the world with the expressed responsibility of protecting America and its citizens. Chuck Woods was one of those valiant defenders. His service began in 1952 when he joined the United States Air Force at eighteen years of age.

Chuck had wanted to be a pilot as long as he could remember. Unfortunately, this tall, slender man did not qualify to go to flight school because of his weight. He was just too thin to meet the difficult Air Force pilot physical requirements. When he was assigned to the maintenance crew, it was a tough pill to swallow.

Before too long, things changed as he was given the opportunity to go to gunnery school for the B-36 bomber. If he couldn’t be a pilot at least he could fly. Chuck jumped at the chance and became a tail gunner, eventually flying on the B-52 which became the workhorse of the U. S. Air Force defense system. His responsibility was to defend the aircraft and its crew in case of an aerial attack.

Chuck tells the story about being on a flight that included an air force general who had come along as an observer. It is important to understand that Chuck’s station was in the tail of the plane and in a compartment that was not much bigger than a coffin, requiring him to slide into place. On this particular flight there was a complete failure in the pressurization of his station at the far end of the plane. This meant that he was in danger of freezing and/or suffocating from lack of oxygen. An effort to find a way to remedy this difficult situation was not successful. With the temperature inside the tail of the aircraft well below zero, the captain ordered him to leave that section and come to the crew cabin in the front of the aircraft.
It took quite a while to traverse the 189 feet of the aircraft using only an oxygen bottle to breathe, and as he walked along a catwalk above the bomb bay doors he could feel the cold in his bones. It was also necessary to stop midway along his route to refill his oxygen supply. When he arrived at the crew quarters he found the general waiting for him.  Due to the possibility of frostbite, he was instructed to immediately remove his flight boots after which the general began to massage his feet. There was great concern that his toes could have become frostbit in the frigid, low pressure area where he had been. A general rubbing his feet!! Now that was a story, he decided, wouldn’t be believed by most of his Air Force buddies.

God’s hand of grace was on Chuck’s life as he served five tours in Vietnam while flying 168 missions. In an attempt to force the North Vietnamese back to the peace talks in Paris, B-52s were sent to bomb and devastate the transportation infrastructure of Hanoi and Haiphong. We lost seventeen B-52’s in that war, eleven in just four nights to SA-2 surface-to-air missiles hidden around those cities. In one instance, Chuck was removed from a crew that had been ordered back to Vietnam, which would have been his sixth tour. It was decided that he would not be sent again, and he was replaced. On that crew’s third or fourth mission they did not return. They were shot down over Hanoi with the surviving crew ending up as prisoners of war. The gunner who took his place on the crew survived prison camp with two broken legs. At a later date, Chuck was removed from a crew whose flight crashed in Watertown, New York, while flying at an altitude of 500 feet. Although some survived, the tail gunner was one of the crew who lost his life on that tragic mission. Chuck’s life was graciously spared so he could return to live with his wonderful wife and family all these years.

In 1962, America found herself face-to-face with Russia and this time it involved the placement of missiles in Cuba. This crisis crossed a line in the sand that we could not allow. Soviet missiles positioned 90 miles from our shore was a situation that was non-negotiable. When the Soviets refused to back down, and after explicit warnings, a naval blockade was placed around Cuba and tensions rose so high that our entire American defense system was moved to the DEFCON 2 stage. War was a real possibility that was being faced by President Kennedy, our military, and our national leaders.

While our citizens were going about their lives in a routine way, Chuck and his crew were flying on the edge of Soviet air space in a plane that carried a hydrogen bomb payload with more explosive power than the sum of all the bombs dropped in WWII. Their orders were clear, if you receive the final war alert, proceed to the assigned target and do what you were trained to do. Reaching their target also meant they would not have enough fuel to get home. They all knew the risks involved in their “one way” mission. President Theodore Roosevelt said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick”. In this case the big stick was a hydrogen bomb. Their purpose was to carry the bomb as a deterrent so we would never have to actually use it.
In these days and times it seems that some of our citizens forget that freedom isn’t free.  For us to enjoy the security of this great nation, men and women have to put their lives on the line every day and night of the year like Chuck did during his 26 years of service.  We would do well to remind ourselves of this truth and show a genuine spirit of gratitude for the peace they have secured for each one of us in this great nation.

Thank you, Chuck Woods, and all who have served in our armed forces for your lives of service.  Let’s not forget the women who heroically held families together while waiting for their hero to return home. Chuck’s wife, Helen, cared for three young children while he was away. We must also remember those on the home front whose loved ones were delivered home with serious injuries or even in a flag draped coffin.

These types of things also remind me of the One who put Himself on the line for us many years ago when He gave His life so we could be free “forever”. We all need to show our gratitude to Jesus every day for His great sacrificial gift that lasts for eternity.

Isn’t God’s grace a wonderful thing?

Roger Allen Cook

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