Memories of those who didn't return linger with Wallace

Nov. 12, 2012 @ 03:53 PM

During the Cold War-era, one U.S. squadron was doing routine electronic intelligence in North Africa, which basically consisted of a low-level run, meaning a plane would fly in as far as it could to figure out if it would be detected by enemy radar. Once the plane was detected, it was to record the signature of the radar and fly as long as it could to determine the nature of the radar. Then, the plane was to turn around and leave the area, but this particular plane flew into the side of a mountain, killing all crew members.

"Of course, I knew all of them," said Richard Wallace, retired Lieutenant Commander of the United States Navy. "They were all friends."

Wallace wasn't responsible for this tragedy, and the above is his speculation of the mission's purpose. Still, he can't help but wonder, as many involved in situations like this wonder, whether there was something more he could have done.

"You never know what happened, whether it was a pilot error or something went wrong with the plane they flew off course. But it just seems like they're here one day and the next day they're gone."

He said the people he served with were the best and worst parts of wartime.

"That's the hard part of the military," Wallace said. "You lose shipmates, you lose fellow soldiers."

Wallace, who now practices law in downtown Sevierville, joined the Navy in 1967, during the height of the Vietnam War.

"The Vietnam War was very hot, and we were all subject to the draft," he said. "So the choice was, either choose a service you wanted to go into, or the draft board would find a place for you. I chose the Navy because my father had been in the Navy."

When he joined as a 23-year-old, Wallace had an undergraduate degree in math and physics from Carson-Newman University (then Carson-Newman College), so the Navy placed him in a post-graduate program to receive a degree in geophysics — meteorology and oceanography. They moved him to Spain, where he was responsible for forecasting weather and ocean environment for all of the Navy's ships, submarines and aircrafts in a third of the world.

"The western Pacific area was a real challenge, particularly in the summertime," he said. "It wasn't uncommon to forecast for typhoons and tsunamis, and have to tell the fleets how to evade those."

On top of that, Wallace drove the aircraft carrier he was on, where he spent months at a time away from friends and family. But it wasn't all bad. He got to know his shipmates.

"It's something special when you call someone a shipmate," Wallace said. "You get to know each other very well, bad and good. And when you finally get to a port, you get to know them during what we called 'liberty,' basically spending time on the beach and letting your hair down."

Once, he and his shipmates were on liberty in Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu, the Philippines, where Ferdinand Magellan was killed.

"Here we were, standing on the place Magellan was killed, and I remember thinking, what about us?" Wallace said.

A couple weeks later in Cebu, he and his shipmates were attacked by terrorists on the island while they were waiting for their ship to return. Luckily, their cab driver emerged from the jungle and whisked them to safety.

This story illustrates Wallace's environment during the war, a kind of underlying threat of violence, even in the midst of seeming peace.

"That's the thing about serving ... you never know from one minute to the next," he said. "That part of the Cold War is an untold story, just the number of men who died doing stuff like I was doing: landing on remote beaches, inserting SEAL teams into countries, guys that never came back that nobody knows about. It's a time of our history that's hard to explain.

"It was a challenging life, an exciting life. ... But I got plenty of adventure."