Every culture has rites of passage, those ceremonies or events that mark important transitions in a person’s life. Birth, puberty, and death are generic passages. Baptisms, bar mitzvahs, graduations, and weddings are more specific, but the most important traditional rite across all societies is the passage from childhood or youth to adult. Native American boys endured strenuous ceremonial tests to prove their manhood while African girls often suffer grisly genital mutilation to cross over. Most modern societies have less ritualistic rites to mark important the transition.
The first tests in my personal rite of passage were surviving Marine Corps Officer Candidate Class at Quantico, Virginia and Naval flight training in Florida and Texas. When the golden wings of a Naval Aviator were pinned on, I thought that was it. I was puffed up and ready to go. All the boxes were checked, all the tests passed, and Jack Jet was set to roll.
But, that wasn’t “it.” The rite of passage wasn’t complete until a true American hero scolded my sorry ass and made me grow up.
For years, since my time as a Marine pilot, I’ve entertained friends by telling the story of my last flight on active duty. The length and drama of the story often depends on the number of tequila shots I’ve had, but at the time I was flying the F8 Crusader at MCAS El Toro, loving the airplane and the esprit de corps of my squadron mates. We were young, full of testosterone, and had a self-confidence that came from flying the world’s hottest fighter at speeds up to 1000 mph. Pretty heady stuff for a 23-year-old.
In August of 1962 I was just wrapping up my active duty obligation and about to start law school. On that last day at El Toro I was scheduled for an air-to-air tactics sortie with a squadron mate – a dogfight – the thing we most loved to do. As we were briefing for the flight, we learned that one of the aircraft was down for maintenance and the flight was going to be canceled. We were both disappointed, but, the Ops officer intervened and told me to take the good plane out alone and “wring it out and have some fun.” This was his gift to me on my last day in the squadron.
Without going into detail, I did “have some fun,” flying high, low, and everyplace in between – enough fun that when I returned to the base, Ops radioed to warn me that the skipper was pissed, and staff cars were pulling into the squadron parking lot in droves.
The next day the Santa Ana Register reported an F8 Crusader was seen “at car top level on 17th Street” and I carried that clipping around in my wallet until it turned from white to yellow and eventually to powder. Local citizens reported an airplane flying through backyards and one threatened to sue because the airplane had singed the leaves on his orange tree.
It was the beginning of a miserable self-inflicted three weeks for me. I was held on active duty, kind of like house-arrest, while “the episode” was under investigation and a decision made about whether a court-martial was the appropriate punishment. All complainants were to be interviewed and their stories duly recorded.
In the end, the investigating officer recommended a formal 40-page Letter of Reprimand, forfeiture of $180 ($1530 in today’s dollars) fine, and indefinite grounding, no more flying, but no court-martial.
I was released from active duty with barely enough time to load the car and drive to Berkeley for the start of school. I had been planning to pay for school by flying with the Marine Reserve squadron at Alameda, but the grounding kept me from joining the squadron. Money was so tight that I lived on Kraft Mac and Cheese and an apple a day ($17 worth) the last month of my first year in school, but in June my grounding ended and I was allowed to resume flying with an A4 squadron at Alameda.
It’s always fun to tell the story, but over the years and many moves the Letter of Reprimand was lost. Last summer a squadron mate told me how to get a copy, and last week it showed up in my mailbox.
I remembered it as something like the police report in Alice’s Restaurant, complete with diagrams, maps with arrows, and hyperbolic descriptions of “willful and wanton disregard for human life” etc. What I found was a well-documented description of my airborne transgressions along with my own apology for embarrassing the service and putting lives in danger. The story is still funny, but I had a humbling epiphany when I read through the file and decided to Google the name of the steely-eyed general who signed and delivered the Letter.
General J. P. Condon was the Commanding Officer of the 3rd Marine Air Wing, and it was he who summoned me to receive the Letter of Reprimand. I arrived at base headquarters, and after what seemed like an eternity his adjutant told me the General was ready. I entered his office and had to walk across what seemed like an acre of carpet to stand in front of his desk. My heart was pounding when he looked up. His elbows were on the desk and his gnarled hands were clasped under his chin. He paused and stared at me before delivering the line I will never forget, “Son, that shit when out with V-J Day.”
That was it. He handed the Letter of Reprimand and returned to the paperwork on his desk. I said, “Yes sir” took the Letter, did an about face, and left his office. I never saw him again, but I will never forget thinking he looked like a movie general – someone out of central casting – blue eyes, close-cropped white hair, leathery brown face, and two big stars on his collar.
At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate what General John P. Condon had done for me. I thought he was simply going through the pro forma steps of scolding a junior officer for engaging in a stupid ill-conceived testosterone fueled “episode.” The truth is he saved my sorry ass.
At first, I thought the Captain in charge of the investigation was kidding when he mentioned the possibility of a court-martial, but he wasn’t. General Condon could have ruined my life. Maybe he saw a version of his younger self in me –young, brash, and aggressive – something he thought a Marine fighter pilot should be that dictated the choice of the reprimand rather than court-martial. Or maybe he may simply wanted to get rid of me and hoped a Letter of Reprimand would take care of the matter at Marine Corps headquarters and the Santa Ana Register.
What I didn’t know, quaking before his desk, is that I was in the presence of greatness. I didn’t realize that Major General J.P. Condon was a true American hero, and as a young Commanding Officer in a Corsair squadron on Guadalcanal, it was Major Condon who developed the plan that succeeded in intercepting and shooting down Admiral Yamamoto, Japan’s Navy Minister and Commander of the Japanese fleet, a turning point in WWII, and that later on that he commanded a Marine Air Group at Okinawa during the last major battle of WWII or that in Korea he commanded the last Marine Air Wing to fly the Corsair and transition to the jets in combat.
These are pictures of John Pomeroy Condon, USMC. The picture on the far left is Condon as a 1st Lt., about the same age and rank I was when I flew through Santa Ana. On the far right is General Condon before his hair turned white and he handed me the Letter, and in the middle is Major J.P. Condon when he was serving in the Pacific and credited with bringing down Admiral Yamamoto’s airplane.
General Condon retired from the Marine Corps in 1962 shortly after delivering his “Son, that shit went out with V-J Day” showstopper line to 1st Lt. John D. Bernard. Following his Marine retirement he became an executive with North American Aviation and later President and CEO of the National Alliance of Businessmen in Washington DC. In addition to his other accomplishments, he earned a doctorate in Public Administration from UC Irvine and wrote a history entitled Corsairs to Panthers: Marine Aviation in the Korean War. Another hero of the Greatest Generation, he lived a remarkable life. He died in December 1996 at age 85.
I will forever be grateful to him for his generous treatment and for delivering the final lesson in my rite of passage. I’m sorry I didn’t have a chance to meet him under different circumstances. I’d like to have thanked him.