For Christmas Eve and Christmas Day this year, retired United States Air Force colonel and Vietnam War fighter pilot Duncan Wilmore and his wife, Lisa, will travel to California to savor seasonal joy with their family.
“We’re going to be grandparents for Christmas,” Wilmore said with a smile of spending time with one of their four children and two of their four grandchildren, aged 6 and 3. “Christmas is going to be fun.”
For certain, it will be a far cry from the 12 day Christmas bombing mission Wilmore and his fellow fighter pilots participated in over North Vietnam 45 years ago, a final push by the United States government to force North Vietnam to participate in peace talks necessary to end the U.S. involvement in the war.
With emotions surfacing with his memories, the graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point said he has always been reluctant to talk about his war experiences.
Yet Wilmore said he was so disturbed by the portrayal of this pivotal moment in Ken Burns/Lynn Novick’s recent documentary he decided to speak out as an eyewitness to history. All in all, Wilmore said he felt documentary was a well-researched, accurate portrayal of the war and its aftermath, but he disputes the recall of this last-effort bombing mission called for after North Vietnam exited the planned Paris Peace talks. Burns’ seems to suggest, as did other leaders and the media at the time, the mission was “overkill,” maybe even was a war crime, Wilmore said.
The two-decade Air Force veteran’s vantage point of that mission was from the cockpit of a F-105 “Wild Weasel” fighter jet. He was not dropping bombs, but defending against surface-to-air missiles.
And he had some close calls.
He has vivid memories of the “giant flash” from one B-52 bombing “hit.” It was so startling he thought at first it was a nuclear attack.
The 12-day Christmas bombing mission started on Dec. 18 and ended on Dec. 29 — Christmas Day was the only cease fire — and is reported to have killed at least 1,600 civilians. Opponents of the war suggested the mission did little to halt North Vietnam’s military attacks; proponents suggested it forced leaders back to the peace talks. A month after the bombs halted, North Vietnam reached an agreement to release the United States’ prisoners of war and end the United States’ involvement in the war.
“In my experience, we took great care to avoid civilian casualties, but the North Vietnamese (reinforced by the Soviet Union) spread great propaganda that made us look like bullies,” said Wilmore, who served one year-long tour of duty in Vietnam and over the course of his career earned two Silver Stars, six Distinguished Flying Crosses and 23 air medals as well as other military conduct and service commendations. “I considered it a strategic necessity.”
As he watched the documentary, Wilmore said he felt more and more compelled to speak out because from his vantage point North Vietnam’s walk-out at the first Paris Peace Talks left the United States with limited choices about how to bring the war to a close. Casualties of ground troops were mounting and the American protests against the war were convincing politicians to seek a way out.
“I considered it (the Christmas bombings) a strategic necessity,” Wilmore said.
The fall of Saigon was still three years away.
“The hope was that it was to be a final mission. The North Vietnamese could have ended it all weeks before the Paris peace talks, but instead they walked out,” Wilmore said. “We couldn’t foresee what the outcome would be.”
Like many Vietnam veterans, Wilmore has struggled with the public’s perception and response to those who answered the government’s call to duty in that war.
“The country sent a bunch of 18-year-olds to go over and fight a war and then deserted them while they were there, and then deserted them when they came home,” said Wilmore, who at almost 80 is a regular figure in Prescott as a more than decade-long Prescott YMCA lifeguard and swim instructor.
Upon his return from Vietnam, the Air Force paid for Wilmore to earn his master’s degree in communications at the University of Denver. He remembers students there burning down the ROTC building. His response: he grew his hair long, wore bell bottom jeans and “blended.”
At the fall of Saigon, Wilmore said he felt relief. No more soldiers would be sent there to die.
He is saddened that did not mean the end of war. He is heartened, though, that Vietnam taught the military, and the nation’s political leadership, lessons that have saved lives in other endeavors.
He, too, is proud that today’s veterans are hailed as heroes, and has hopes of healing for his Vietnam brethren.
“He’s very modest about his service, but guys who are true heroes are the guys who don’t talk much about it,” said friend and fellow YMCA swimmer Jim Howard.
“It’s no wonder America is a great place,” Howard said of Wilmore. “Just knowing someone like him is a real honor.”