Tonya Clark had just finished changing her 2-month-old son’s diaper when a set of unexpected visitors arrived at her home.
It was January, 1973. The Vietnam War was just weeks away from ending, but for Tonya Clark and her family, a new tragedy had just begun.
“The C.O. and the chaplain came to the door,” she said. “We all knew what that meant.”
The news was what she feared: Her husband, bombardier Lt.j.g. Robert Alan Clark, and his pilot, Lt. Michael Timothy McCormick, had been shot down in their A-6 Intruder over North Vietnam.
The pair were the last U.S. crew based out of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island lost during the war. This week, base personnel joined Lt.j.g. Clark’s and Lt. McCormick’s families and former squadron mates in a ceremony honoring them on the 50th anniversary of their deaths.
Tuesday’s ceremony was not the only time the squadron has gotten together to celebrate the lives of their fallen brothers-in-arms. The first was at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. nearly 20 years ago, when the pilot and bombardier were finally laid to rest.
After the plane went down and contact was lost, the other members of the squadron, VA-115, searched for Lt. McCormick and Lt.j.g. Clark. Rod Maskew, a former VA-115 member, said the squadron searched that night and the next day, both looking for visual clues and trying to make contact via radio, all to no avail.
Theirs was a time-sensitive endeavor; rains and monsoons in the region would soon erode most evidence of the crash. But the squadron never located the downed Intruder, and Lt. McCormick and Lt.j.g. Clark were declared missing in action.
Prisoners of war gradually returned home in the following months, but the two-man crew from NAS Whidbey Island was not among them.
“We never knew exactly what happened to them,” Maskew said. “We just knew they didn’t come back.”
It would be 30 years before the former members of VA-115 got an answer.
In 2003, U.S. recovery crews in Vietnam were visiting a war museum in Hanoi, Maskew said. A metal placard was on display in the museum, which they recognized as belonging to an A-6 aircraft. They managed to get in contact with the person who found the placard, who led them to the location of the discovery.
An excavation of the site revealed two sets of remains, identified as Lt. McCormick and Lt.j.g. Clark through DNA testing. Maskew said word spread quickly through the squadron. On Jan. 9, 2004, the pilot and bombardier were buried together at Arlington National Cemetery.
Lt.j.g. Clark’s son, Air Force Brigadier General Tad Clark, said the date of the burial was serendipitous; because Jan. 9 in Washington, D.C. is Jan. 10 in Vietnam, the burial technically took place on the 31st anniversary of his father’s death.
Brig. Gen. Clark said the discovery and identification of his father’s remains was surreal; though he had long since assumed his father had not survived the crash, it was still a healing experience to see him laid to rest.
Maskew described a similar experience; for him, the discovery of the crash site erased the question of whether his friends and fellow VA-115 members had been taken prisoner or tortured during the final weeks of the war. Gathering as a squadron to lay Lt. McCormick and Lt.j.g. Clark to rest gave everyone a needed sense of closure.
At the ceremony on base the afternoon of Jan. 10, former VA-115 members shared memories of the squadron’s time in the war, some humorous and some harrowing. Dave Walsh said he remembered persistent feelings of numbness during the most intense periods of combat.
The squadron saw tragedy and hardship together, but also success; their aircraft carrier, the USS Midway, was one of only three aircraft carriers in the war to be awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, an honor bestowed upon it “for its extraordinary heroism and professional duty for that conflict,” Walsh said.
Lt. McCormick and Lt.j.g. Clark, whom Walsh and other squadron members affectionately referred to by their call signs, Mondo and Arlo, were important players in the unit’s success.
“To know that those two gentlemen served their country so well, were so loved by everyone and really contributed to our Navy and the success that we had — we did have success in armed conflict — was wonderful to us,” Walsh said.
The culmination of the ceremony was the presentation from the squadron to the base of a work of art depicting Mondo and Arlo and the Intruder aircraft they flew with the USS Midway. Maskew first saw the painting in the gift shop of a museum in Arizona. He said his wife pointed it out to him, but it wasn’t until he flipped the print over to check the price that he saw the description and realized it was an image of his own squadron mates, lost in the Vietnam War.
The painting is by Michelle Rouch, a longtime Department of Defense engineer and aerospace and aviation artist.
It hung in Maskew’s home for seven years. Then, last August when he was in the area for a small plane captains’ reunion, he visited NAS Whidbey Island and saw the memorabilia wall in the base Officers Club and Conference Center, which is named in honor of McCormick and Clark. He wanted to present some memorabilia to the base, and thought the painting he purchased in a museum gift shop all those years ago would make the perfect addition to the wall.
He contacted Rouch and ordered several more prints, which he subsequently presented to the base, the Pacific Northwest Naval Air Museum and the McCormick and Clark families on Tuesday. The date of the ceremony was the 50th anniversary of the pilot and bombardier being shot down, and the first in a series of events planned at the base over the next few months commemorating the end of the Vietnam War.
Capt. Eric Hanks, commanding officer of NAS Whidbey, said that A-6 history is an important part of NAS Whidbey Island’s heritage, and the Vietnam veterans form an important part of the Whidbey community.
“It’s important that we don’t forget what they’ve done,” he said.
For Brig. Gen. Clark and his mother, it was a special experience to return to the base for this commemoration. Brig. Gen. Clark, who was born in the base hospital, called Whidbey Island “hallowed ground.” He said the people of Whidbey Island should feel encouraged that they’re a part of an important mission.
“Even though the missions have changed, and the jets have changed over the years, Whidbey Island is a team that really has a huge impact on the Department of Defense and our national security,” he said.
Brig. Gen. Clark had the opportunity to visit the crash site in Vietnam where his father died. He said though he never met his father — Lt.j.g. Clark died at the age of 26 without ever having lain eyes on his infant son — his father still had an enormous impact on his life.
The general said that the men of his father’s squadron took him under their wing and got him excited about military aviation, in which he eventually made his career.
Now, at age 50, he’s nearly twice as old as his father was when he died. He said it’s strange for him to have served for so long, when his father and Lt. McCormick lost their lives after just a few years of service.
Still, he said he knows they were a part of something bigger than themselves.