WINCHESTER, VA. — (WDVM) Most midshipmen who graduate from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland are commissioned as Ensigns in the Navy or Second Lieutenants in the Marine Corps. Maybe one or two of each year’s graduates opt for an inter-service commission in the Air Force. Colonel Charles Pinkham, USAF Ret., has no regrets about exchanging his “Navy Whites for Air Force Blues” sixty-three years ago.
“I wanted to fly more than anything else that they could offer me,” said Pinkham, who had qualms about flying Navy fighters off the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Despite the urging of John McCain in the Class of 1958, Pinkham became an Air Force pilot.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, First Lieutenant Pinkham was piloting a B-47 Stratojet toward a command and control center outside Moscow with four nuclear weapons in the bomb bay.
America’s premier deep-threat bomber was turned around when the Soviet Union agreed to remove offensive missiles from Cuba that could have reached U.S. cities from Miami to Omaha where the Strategic Air Command was headquartered had cool heads in Washington. Moscow did not step back from the brink of nuclear war.
After the Cold War cooled down and the Vietnam War heated up, Captain Pinkham was chosen to become part of the 5th Air Commando Squadron in Vietnam, an elite unit of about 30 pilots, who flew psychological warfare missions in a slow-moving single-engine plane, not a fast-moving fighter plane or high-flying bomber.
“The U-10 was a STOL aircraft that excelled in short takeoffs or landings,” said Pinkham who arrived at Bien Hoa Air Base outside Saigon just in time for Tet, the most important holiday on the Vietnamese calendar.
North Vietnam and the Viet Cong chose Tet, a time of noisy fireworks, to stage the Tet Offensive, a series of coordinated attacks on more than 100 cities, towns, and military outposts in South Vietnam. Bien Hoa Air Base was one of their targets.
The U-10 Courier that Pinkham flew dropped leaflets on enemy soldiers in an attempt to convince them to come over to South Vietnam’s side.
“We dropped pamphlets where we knew the enemy was and this pamphlet was part of what was called the Chieu-Hoi program,” said Pinkham.
During a mission three days after the Tet Offensive began on January 30th, 1969, Pinkham used a loudspeaker attached to the side of his plane to broadcast messages to the enemy below that they didn’t have to live that way.
At least 25 Viet Cong guerillas picked up the Safe Conduct Passes and surrendered to South Vietnamese soldiers.
Pinkham’s plane took a bullet between his back and the seat he was sitting in, but didn’t hit any controls in his aircraft.
For his actions that day over the battlefield, Captain Pinkham was awarded a DFC, Distinguished Flying Cross.
I asked Pinkham who retired as a Colonel in the United States Air Force if the Vietnam War was worth it to him personally. “It was hard, very hard to rationalize if this is doing any good in the world,” said Pinkham.
Sensing he was still thinking about the question, I asked again, “Was it worth it?” Pinkham said he hasn’t come up with an answer yet. “Do you think you ever will,” I asked. “No, because it’s too complex.”
But Charles Pinkham came home to his young son with a good feeling about his participation in the Chieu-Hoi Program.