Danger close: Saving Marines from being overrun in Vietnam

Veterans Voices

BERRYVILLE, Va. (WDVM) There’s a saying in flying circles: “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” But Colonel Donald “Duke” Stanton, USMC [Ret] is an exception.

Donald Ray Stanton, a 1959 graduate of the Cadet Corps at Virginia Tech, flew an A-4 Skyhawk attack fighter during the Vietnam War in support of fellow Marines south of the DMZ, the demilitarized zone separating North from South Vietnam.

Lithograph of the A-4E Skyhawk that Duke Stanton flew in Vietnam

Strapping on an A-4E Skyhawk was like putting on a pair of fine leather gloves. Pilots like Stanton had to squeeze into the cockpit.

Duke Stanton NOW and THEN

“When I was flying, I was about 6-3 and 185 pounds. I couldn’t fit into a Skyhawk today. God made changes in me at my age of 84,” said the decorated combat veteran, but back in the day he was as “BOLD” as could be.

Major Stanton and other members of VMA-223

Most of the missions that Major Stanton and his fellow Bulldogs in VMA-223 flew were low-level ground support missions.

“That was our job,” said Stanton, “Get down in the weeds, and sometimes when the FAC [the forward air controller on the ground], called ‘DANGER CLOSE,’ that meant you’d better put it [bombs] right on the money, because they [fellow Marines] were really close to the bad guys.”

North Vietnamese troops on the move in the DMZ

March 5th, 1969 found Major Stanton and his flight leader sitting in their Skyhawks on “Hot Alert” at Chu Lai Air Base near the South China Sea waiting for someone to call for help.

Major Stanton on Hot Alert waiting for a call for help from Marines in the field

They didn’t have to wait long. A company of Marines was in danger of being overrun by NVA troops near the Rockpile, a small observation post south of the DMZ that kept track of enemy truck traffic head into South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

“They were being fired on by a company of North Vietnamese who were located about 300 meters of where our troops were located,” said Stanton as he reconstructed the mission that would result in him and his flight leader being awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses.

Enroute to the target west of Chu Lai, the weather went south, and Stanton had to follow his flight leader down through seven thousand feet of solid cloud cover on instruments.

They broke out at 500-feet and headed toward a 300-foot hill where North Vietnamese mortar crews were taking a heavy toll among Marines at the base of the Rockpile.

By the time they reached the enemy positions, Stanton said, “We only had 100 feet to work with going over the top of the hill where the bad guys were.”

As they prepared to drop four cannisters of napalm, North Vietnamese machinegunners opened up on them. “And you had WINKIE BLINKIES all over the place, ” said Stanton. “Winkie Blinkies” are muzzle flashes from machineguns. “Boy that would hurt if it hit you,” recalled Stanton.

After they napalmed the NVA positions, they were told to go around and drop twelve low-drag snake-eye bombs DANGER CLOSE. After flying through a curtain of ground fire, the Skyhawks hosed down the hilltop with their 20 millimeter cannons and returned to base.

Before deploying to Vietnam in 1968, Captain Stanton was stationed in Hawaii. That’s where he met movie producer Otto Preminger in 1964 when he was filming “In Harms Way.”

Preminger needed paratroopers for the movie starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas. Stanton was one of a few jump-rated paratroopers who “jumped” at the chance to meet the movie stars.

Donald Stanton met John Wayne on Oahu where the movie was being filmed. After a filming session, Wayne autographed a photo taken of them. And that’s where Donald Stanton got his nickname; or as he says, “The Duke met the Duke.”

Colonel Stanton finished 30 years in the Marine Corps and capped off his military career with 17 more years in the air as a search and rescue pilot with the Virginia Civil Air Patrol.

In 2011, the Federal Aviation Administration presented him the Wright Brothers “Master Pilot” Award in recognition of 50 years of accident-free flying.

Duke Stanton flying over Northern Virginia in his Piper Cherokee

Although he no longer flies his Piper Cherokee that he bought after his first wife died in 1985, his second wife says her husband’s head still turns skyward when he hears an airplane pass overhead.

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