Special to GAN By DON PISCHNER
My day with Denny Hague: He’s a former Air Force Officer, aviator, fighter pilot, and hero with an outstanding career who has participated in several astounding exploits. During Vietnam, he flew 189 combat missions. He and two fellow airmen flew cover for military pilot Bernie Fisher, who’s life-saving bravery earned him the Air Force Medal of Honor.
It’s been my good fortune to have maintained a friendship with Denny since Coeur d’Alene High School days in the 1950s. Now entering a new era of life, Denny was recently diagnosed with beginning stages of Alzheimer’s. Still, he recalls earlier times reasonably well.
Today, I looked forward to hear what past tales he might recall and share, especially his role in war-time flying the day that Bernie Fisher took a “one-in-a-million chance” — landing his airplane and rescuing a downed fellow pilot while under heavy enemy fire.
After I picked Denny up in my red Chevy pickup, he buckled and seatbelt and said: “I’ll be the wingman. Where are we going?”
“Doctor Forrest Bird’s Aviation Museum,” I answered. “Burt Rutan, famed aircraft designer, is speaking there today and perhaps you can meet them both.”
It was 46 years ago when Captain Dennis B. Hague was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his role in the Battle of A Shau Valley, Vietnam. He retired from military service as Major General Dennis B. Hague, Commander of the Washington State Air Guard.
Denny is recognized as one of Coeur d’Alene’s outstanding citizens. He is of strong faith. A gentle and humble person, Denny loves his family, and he loves Idaho. Denny and his wife Carolyn live in their home on Lake Coeur d’Alene. They enjoy spending time with their children and their grandchildren.
Denny learned to fly at the Moscow-Pullman airport in the late 1950s while a student at the University of Idaho. Three years ago, he made his first return visit to the home field of his aviator beginnings. Together we flew there in my Cessna 172. Of course, I insisted that he take complete control of my small plane. Initially the flight proved a bit “shaky,” given that Denny had been commanding heavy-weight KC-135 Tankers. We had fun. Unfortunately, that flight and that day now appeared somewhat vague to him.
Even so, Denny remembers earlier times and he spoke about them in detail. He reminisced about his Air Force flight training experiences in Florida. He told me of his arrival in Vietnam on Christmas Eve. “I was just in time for the Bob Hope Show,” he remarked. The next day he joined his assigned Air Force flight group, the 1st Air Commando Squadron at Pleiku.
On March 10, 1966, Captain Jon T. “Luke” Lucas and his wingman, Captain Dennis Hague, took off from Pleiku in their A-1E Skyraider attack aircraft. Lucas and Hague, call signs “Hobo 27” and “Hobo 28” respectively, joined numerous other aircraft above the weather-obscured narrow A Shau Valley. Their flight mission was to provide air support in response to the following military report: “Seventeen US Special Forces and 368 South Vietnamese irregulars were being overrun by some 2,000 North Vietnam regulars.”
Denny described the day, the narrow valley, the steep high mountain sides, and the overcast weather. He explained that a single file strafing attack with bomb and machine gun fire power was the method used to hit the “bad guys,” who were positioned alongside the valley airstrip.
Of the first four A-1E Skyraiders to dive below the clouds and to fly in tandem down the valley, two were hit by enemy ground fire. One escaped to fly home safely. The second, piloted by Major Dafford W. “Jump” Myers, call sign “Surf 41,” was hit and crash-landed at the end of the remote valley airstrip. Returning for a second run were A-1E Skyraider pilots Major Bernie Fisher “Hobo 51” and his wingman Capt. Francisco “Paco” Vazquez “Hobo 52.”
At this point, Denny recounts: “Bernie Fisher embarks upon a most incredible heroic aviation feat. He elects to land and rescue Myers.” Bernie calls for the air support of Lucas “Hobo 27” and Hague “Hobo 28.” Bernie Fisher’s story has been reported, documented, and celebrated. For those of you who do not know the details, two websites tell the fascinating story: “Major Bernie Fisher’s Page” and “Air Force Magazine, October 2004.” A radio communication transcript adds real life drama to the action.
“It all happened quickly,” said Denny.
Under heavy enemy fire, Fisher and Myers had become extremely vulnerable targets while the aircraft taxied on the steel-plated runway. Their chance of survival was slim. Lucas and Hague joined Vazquez and boldly provided fire power cover and protection for their pilot friends, both down. The trio made multiple strafing passes, including “dry runs.” Each had gone “winchester” (out of ammo). They were willing to hold off the enemy by any means available, even choosing to simply momentarily scare them with engine screaming low-level fl-bys. A post-incident interview by a major national magazine reporter quotes Hague: “It was like flying inside Yankee Stadium with the people in the bleachers shooting at you with machine guns.”
Denny explained, “Bernie’s aircraft — bullet riddled — barely took off and headed for home with Jump on board. Paco was without radio; his plane hit by two dozen bullets. Luke’s aircraft was hit by enemy ground fire and he had flight instrumentation loss and hydraulic system damage. Now Luke became my wingman. I guided him and ensured his safe landing at Da Nang airstrip 20 miles distant.”
Upon disembarking their respective A-1E Skyraiders, they were met by questioning military leaders of air-flight operations. Hobo pilots Lucas and Hague chimed, “You are not going to believe what we are about to tell you.”
Denny Hague has clear memories of that day, some not so pretty, such as bullet and bomb hits. On a lighter side, he managed to repeat one of his quips to those who teased why his airplane had no bullet holes. He replied to them, “Oh yeah, while it was all going on, I was over the hill having a cup of coffee!” Denny spoke highly of Bernie Fisher: “A great man; a fellow Idahoan. Bernie has always included Luke, Paco, and me in any recognition or tributes that he has received.”
Denny’s conversation with me shifted back to stories of our youth. He laughed aloud with me when I credited him with my learning the meaning of the word ambidextrous. “I was playing third base. And Denny, you were the shortstop. You miss-fielded a batted ground ball, and displaying disgust you switched the glove to your other hand. Without error you played the rest of the game, throwing left handed!”
We didn’t speak of more current times. Doctor Bird was not at the museum for Denny to meet. Burt Rutan graciously obliged for a picture. A model of the “Voyager” held little interest for Denny. Instead, he searched the displays for a A1-E Skyraider replica.
Memory loss seems to impact most of us as we age. Even so, I look forward to Denny being my wingman again soon.
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