Joseph S. Pfleghaar, Aviation Anti-Submarine Warfare Operator, Petty Officer 2nd Class, (AW2) US Navy, was barely 20 years old when he reported aboard HS-12 on the last day of March 1986. One of my collateral duties at the time was Squadron Legal Officer. Joe had to check in with me to receive his in-country legal brief, and throughout my presentation he interjected wise cracks with an innocent and infectious smile. I knew he’d fit right in.
HS-12 was the anti-submarine component of the USS MIDWAY (CV-41) Battle Group, based out of Japan. We were also the Search and Rescue (SAR) asset. Eventually, I became the Air Crew Division Officer, and Joe, who was also a designated Rescue Swimmer, reported to me. During a port visit to Subic Bay, Philippines, in 1987, Joe suggested that I jump out of one of our helos to feel what it’s like for a Rescue Swimmer when he takes the plunge. The day of the jump, the water was glass calm and warm. But sitting on the edge of the hatch, 40’ above the water was still intimidating; the impact of the water was more violent than I had expected. I couldn’t imagine doing it at night over rough, frigid seas. It was just one experience that formed my respect for the crewmen working in the back of our helos during every sortie.
On another PI stop, I returned the favor, challenging Joe and a few other crewmen to join me in a Naval Warfare Jungle Environment Survival Training (JEST) course. My Skipper was hesitant to approve the training, questioning why we would volunteer to take abuse from instructors and endure several nights in an inhospitable jungle environment, rather than spend the port call carousing in Olongapo. But we were a tight group, and the training served as a great bonding experience.
On the night of Nov. 9, 1987, while steaming across the South China Sea, the ship’s Captain announced over the 1MC that a helo was in the drink. SAR procedures kicked in and the entire Battle Group searched for Speargun 610 and its crew. Our Skipper, Cdr. Bill Young, was first on the scene, and having numerous successful combat rescues under his belt affected the rescue of both pilots and a crewman.
The second crewman, AW2 Pfleghaar, however, was not located. The search for Joe went on for about 48 hours, with negative results. When the Captain advised the crew of the MIDWAY that SAR ops were being discontinued, every man on the boat realized the weight of that decision and what it meant. A memorial service was conducted en route to the Gulf.
Then, just five days later, while rounding the tip of India, an EA-6B Prowler, from VAQ 136 Squadron, missed its scheduled landing time. Another SAR mission was launched. No sign of the wreckage or the crew was ever made. A multi-engine Navy jet, two pilots and two flight officers had simply vanished. We were still about a week away from reaching our assigned patrol area in the North Arabian Sea, and we had already lost five air crew and two aircraft.
At the time of the mishap, LT(jg) Dan Shanower was the Intelligence Officer for VAQ 136.
Ten years later, Dan would pen a tribute to his four fellow squadron mates in a piece for Proceedings Magazine, reminding us all that “Freedom isn’t Free.”
This month’s column is my personal testament to those who have never worn the uniform, and serves as a reminder to those who have, that the ties that bind us are only tightened with the passage of time.