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'It's a wonderful place'

"On the night of Jan. 26, 1968, Lt. Cmdr. Norman “Buzz” Eidsmoe and Lt. j.g Michael Dunn flew an A-6 Intruder off the flight deck of the USS Ranger and out over the Gulf of Tonkin.Their mission was a low-level night bombing run over North Vietnam. They never returned.And for almost three decades, they were never accounted for.Then in 1997, a Vietnamese farmer led a military search team to the site where Eismoe and Dunn’s Intruder had been shot down, and to an unmarked grave nearby. By 1999, DNA testing confirmed the remains in that grave were Eidsmoe’s and Dunn’s.When the final evidence reached Betsy Eidsmoe in Oak Harbor last July, it didn’t shock or surprise her. It only confirmed what she’d known in her heart for a long time. Her husband Buzz, the father of her five children, had been gone almost 30 years by then.What did surprise her was the attention it drew. Television and newspaper reporters started calling with questions:“How did you feel when you got the news, Mrs. Eidsmoe?”“What did you tell your kids?”“What was Buzz like?”But what they didn’t ask her, Betsy said last week, was how she and her five kids survived the loss. How in 1968, Oak Harbor’s predominantly Navy community closed ranks around a young widow and her five pre-teen kids and helped them survive their loss. Even as some in the community were reeling from losses of their own.How Buzz’s squadron friends, people like Lyle and Diana Bull, Carl Wiechert, Hugh and Lee Brainard, were more like an extended family, than friends.“How good this town was to us,” Betsy said last Thursday. “This town was a wonderful place, a wonderful home.”It was also a town where a war half a world away would exact a terrible toll.In 1968, Whidbey was the home of the new A-6 Intruder, an all-weather, carrier-based attack bomber and one of the Navy’s preeminent weapons in Vietnam.A group of 12 aviators that included Eidsmoe, Bull, Weichert and Brainard spent six months on the East Coast learning the aircraft, learning how to teach others how to use it. Then they flew the Intruders back to Whidbey and started the base’s first Intruder training squadron, VA-128. Back home, the men who flew it and taught others to fly it and fight it, became friends, neighbors. Eidsmoe lived next door to Wiechert. Up the street lived Gerald Ramsden, another squadron mate and fellow flier.Some nights after flying practice runs on Whidbey, Buzz Eidsmoe and Betsy would play bridge with squadron mate Hugh Brainard and his wife, Lee, who still live in Oak Harbor.“Buzz and I would play the women. We had our own system,” Brainard says. “They cheated is what they did,” a smiling Lee Brainard interjects.She pauses and the smile drops from her face.“It was a terrible time,” Lee says. “I just think about all the friends we have lost.” She apologizes, stops. One by one, the men were sent out to carriers headed for Vietnam.The women waited and hoped and prayed for them to come back.“The wives were the real heroes,” Bull said. “They held the families together.”Bull, a bombardier-navigator would eventually fly 237 combat missions and win a Navy Cross for a 1967 bombing mission over Hanoi.“You just had to believe it wasn’t going to happen to you,” Lee said.Wives who could took jobs in Oak Harbor. Others focused on their children.All lived in the unspoken fear of an unannounced visit from a Navy aviator or chaplain, wearing dress uniforms.Like those who came to Eidsmoe’s 40th Street neighborhood in the last week of January 1968, Weichert remembers. And then, they came again.First, Ramsden’s Intruder crashed into the ocean. The pilot survived. Ramsden didn’t. Two days later, Eidsmoe was down and missing.“We got word on Gerry on Wednesday and Buzz on Friday,” Wiechert said. The friends, pilots and wives, dealt with the losses in different ways.Betsy said she had already put the kids to bed when she got the news. Wives from VA-128 and friends started gathering at Betsy’s house.“I’ll never forget that evening,” Wiechert said. “Even Joanne (Ramsden) was over trying to console Betsy, and she’s just lost her husband.”Bull, getting ready to go over to Vietnam again, said he heard about Buzz, grieved, then tried to put it out of his mind.“If you dwell on it, it affects how well you do the mission and could put you in a position to get shot down.”The day after news about Ramsden reached Oak Harbor, Lee Brainard couldn’t stop thinking about it. She felt guilty because she was worried that the Navy was going to send Hugh to replace him. She felt terrible for Joanne Ramsden. Driving out along Scenic Heights she got so distracted, she wrecked her car and ended up in the hospital.Betsy said living in Oak Harbor made it easier to heal.“At first I was going to go back to South Dakota, but I couldn’t until I found out what happened to Buzz. Then this became home.”Others helped with the healing.After hearing about Buzz, an old retired chief who lived down the block started showing up to take her kids fishing. Her neighbors, Bob and Grace Biddler, would take Betsy and her kids on camping trips. Bob Biddler taught her boys how to change the oil in the family car. Her kids played sports with the Bulls’ kids and the Brainards’.And Oak Harbor respected and appreciated the Navy, she said.“I always felt that people in this town were so good to us,” she said.Bull agreed.“Here, you were allowed to feel like heroes,” he said.Betsy Eidsmoe is planning a formal funeral ceremony for her husband in April. Capt. Buzz Eidsmoe will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery with Betsy, their five children, and grandchildren that Eidsmoe never met, in attendance.Betsy will say her final farewell to the flyer, friend and husband she loved and lost more than 30 years ago.Then she will come home. "

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