Commander Randolph Wright Ford '53, a career pilot in the United States Navy, went down in Vinh, North Vietnam, near the coast, in June 1968, and was taken Prisoner of War (POW) by the North Vietnamese Army. This special edition of "Alum of the Month" seeks to honor Commander Ford and all Hotchkiss alumni who have devotedly served our country, recognizing them particularly as Veterans Day approaches. Thank you to Commander Ford's family, especially to his son, Curtis; sisters, Gwen McLin and Charlotte Abington; and his best friend and Hotchkiss classmate, Jim Curtis, for offering here the following personal remembrances.
Lieutenant Commander Curtis A. Ford, USNR, the youngest of Randy and Frankie Ford's children, born after son Danny and daughter Leslie, whose Naval career was inspired by his father:
Curtis writes: "On the night of 10/11 June 1968, a section of A-7A aircraft from Attack Squadron VA-86 conducted an armed reconnaissance mission along Highway 1 southeast of Vinh. The flight lead, LCDR Randolph W. Ford, in A-7A BuNo 153265, ejected from his A-7A, descending to the ground via parachute, landing on a hilltop. He called his wingman, LCDR Bratton, who had crossed over into the Gulf of Tonkin, and indicated that he was on the ground. LCDR Ford was captured and information later received indicated that he died of his injuries on 20 June 1968.
"Dad had a compound fracture to his right arm. He went down around midnight, and he was in constant contact till just prior to sunrise. He had landed on a hilltop 1/4 mile away from the beach line. The Air Wing Commander, Capt. L. Wayne Smith, told me that there were over 80 aircraft involved in the attempt to rescue him, the largest amount of assets used in a rescue attempt that cruise. There were two rescue attempts; the first resulted in the helicopter crew taken under fire, with one crewman getting seriously wounded in the leg. The second attempt was called off by my father after he learned of the fate of the previous helo crew. This decision was met with some dissension. His best friend and roommate, LCDR Ken Webb, who was on station at the time for SAR support, demanded that the helo get in there to get him out... But, the decision was Dad's. He also reported that the NVA were so close that he could smell them on several occasions, so he destroyed his radio just prior to his capture at sunrise. Out of respect for my father, the men of VA-86 saved one bomb after each mission to drop on that same hilltop, to let the VC know that they had taken one of their own. I've seen pictures of that hilltop; there wasn't one tree left standing at the end of that cruise! It was not until 2 ½ years later when other POWs began coming back from Vietnam that our family learned he had died in captivity, but due to his reputation as an officer and pilot during that 2 ½-year period, the Navy promoted him to Commander.
"Although the North Vietnamese had his remains, they were not repatriated until 14 August 1985, with the government announcing positive identification on 04 November 1985. He was buried with honors on 21 November 1985 in Plot E31A, Saint Augustine National Cemetery, St. Augustine, Florida.
"My dad's return was a closure for my family that we needed. Only God could have made that happen. The North Vietnamese never admitted that he was ever captured (because they failed to provide proper medical care resulting in his death). His name was brought up at the Paris Peace talks many times. His return got the men and ladies of VA-86 back together after 17 years of separation. A reunion has followed every few years since. Our father was a Christian man who left a great legacy for his children.
"His Bronze Star Medal with Valor Citation reads: 'For heroic achievement in connection with operations against the enemy while serving as a pilot serving with Attack Squadron EIGHTY-SIX, embarked in USS AMERICA (CVA-66) on 11 June 1968. While on a night armed reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam, Commander (then Lieutenant Commander) Ford was forced by enemy action, to eject from his A-7A Corsair II. Once on the ground with his position compromised by the close proximity of enemy forces, and despite his having sustained injuries, he exhibited extreme courage and total disregard for his own safety by ordering the rescue forces to depart his immediate vicinity and proceed to a safe position where they would be out of the area of enemy fire. This action on his part greatly reduced and ultimately eliminated his only chance for rescue. Commander Ford's daring actions, courage and loyal devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. The Combat Distinguishing Device is authorized.'"
Gwen writes: "How do you describe a lover of the skies? He was the lover of his home and family, who gave him so much joy, a lover of his country, which gave him his life-long profession, but most of all a lover of the blue solitary expanses stretching above the soft green fields and forests, the craggy mountain peaks, the smoky beige desert sands, and the endless midnight-blue stretches of white-capped or breathlessly still oceans far below.
"More than anything, he loved to climb into his Navy jet, adrenalin pumping, ignite its power and instantly, as if whisked away by a magic genie, disappear over the horizon. Faster than the speed of sound: that is the way true lovers of the skies wish to live.
"Before Randy left for his tour in North Vietnam, he wrote a poem, 'BLUE AND COOL,' which he sent to his mother, Marian Briggs Ford, to hold in the event he did not return from Vietnam, at which time she was to give it to his wife, Frankie Ford. In it, he described the beauty of flight, yet the potential of heartbreak. It seemed like a premonition, but he remained true to his life's calling. All of us still hold Randy close to our hearts."
Blue and Cool
Yet there is when one wanders by
Something new and fresh
Another white trail upon the sky.
Blue and Cool
A man feels the brotherhood of you and me
Sees the garden and the gardener
Yet knows he is alone upon this sea.
Blue and Cool
Forever frozen above the parchment
A youth with the flush of a kiss
The maid forever with a sigh
Blue and Cool
Far beyond his family sleeps
It was a fleeting dream
And yet his wife's time would come to weep.
Blue and Cool
His weapon has fallen from the sky
No longer the instrument of policy
And now his turn has come to die.
George M. (Jim) Curtis III '53 writes: "It was a rare, very good, and very quiet friendship. There were never demands, not a hint of a fight in all my time with him. I have never trusted another contemporary as I did Randy. That trust, invaluable, Randy achieved because of his indwelling nature, one altogether unique in my life, one that has been spent with many inside and outside of college classrooms. It is a sacred quality, I believe, a distinctive combination of nature and nurture. As has been said of some very special people, 'Few such as him have passed this way.' I never saw him on any soapbox. I never saw him beat his chest in self-glorification. I never saw him mean-spirited with another person. What I did see was a deeply decent young man, a quiet, utterly unflappable man - among boys sometimes. He never ever paraded political fables, something that has become ubiquitous and corrosive. Randy Ford was a truth-teller like very few I ever met. Only once in our time together did we discuss matters of state-our last day together before he embarked on his fatal tour to Vietnam. In retrospect, his observations were more truthful than any contemporary commentary I ever saw. What he said to me that day was delivered in a quiet monotone, striking when I thought about it later.
"There was another side to Randy, a very significant side, one very hard for me to describe as its elements were varied and complementary. Randy always could summon the damnedest twinkle in his eye-not the kind that made me nervous, the kind that signaled that he had something up his sleeve, some notion of impending action, never, ever accompanied by fanfare. Closely, very closely, perhaps uniquely connected with that was Randy's capacity for risk-taking, for 'putting himself out' even into harm's way. It is right here that I think that for some strange reason George Van Santvoord's Hotchkiss was good for him, good for me, and very good for us as friends. Our parents made powerful decisions in electing to send us to Hotchkiss. Both of us came from a long way away, from very different worlds than most of our classmates. All of us in our class had to become independent and dependent in new and continually challenging ways. In ways, singularly private, each person worked his own way through those four years. Randy's route became very constructive in that it helped to seal in some of the most powerfully constructive elements of his character. Randy was and remains in the best sense my brother-it was as if we had been born into it."
Among several war memorials on the Hotchkiss campus, a small stone lies in a quiet spot behind the Forrest E. Mars Jr. Athletic Center, which is inscribed with the names of six Hotchkiss students who gave their lives in the Vietnam War.