By Jonathan E. Coleman
Four decades after his A-7 Corsair was shot down by Vietnamese fighters in Laos, former Navy pilot Kenny Wayne Fields returned to the site where he eluded capture and plotted his escape in May 1968.
Fields, who wrote about his harrowing experience in “The Rescue of Streetcar 304: A Navy Pilot’s 40 Hours on the Run in Laos”, was on hand at the Harrisburg library last week — hours after returning from Laos — to share his story and sign copies of his book.
Fields, call sign Streetcar 304, had just successfully bombed a gun site in Laos when enemy fire brought his plane down in dangerous enemy territory.
“You’re looking at what everybody who is involved in this story thinks is the luckiest guy alive,” Fields said. “I agree with them. I was bouncing around through unexploded ordinance, snakes and tigers and came out of it without a scratch.”
From hiding in craters formed by exploded bombs to starring down monkeys in “the monkey tree”, Fields recounts his story of survival, due in large part to his training, and, he said, several instances of divine intervention.
“You think you’re living a good life, but when you’re in a life-or-death situation and say that first prayer, you’re going to ask yourself, ‘Did I live a life good enough to be worth saving?’,” Fields said.
He knew his chances were slim. Of the 600 planes that were shot down over Laos during the war, only 13 pilots survived.
“If you were shot down, you only had a four percent chance of surviving more than an hour,” he said.
Fields survived for 40 hours before a 60-plane rescue force — at least the third rescue attempt made — arrived and transported him to safety.
During his years in the service, Fields flew 139 combat missions over North and South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. He was awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, two Navy commendations medals and 12 Strike Flight Air medals.
While most of his book is dedicated to his own experience, Fields also writes about an experience that was shared by so many — the experience of being a family member of a deployed soldier.
The 40-hour ordeal was also a nervous time for Fields’ wife, whose father was killed in combat during World War II. Several chapters in the book are dedicated to her experience waiting for news.
“I didn’t think anything about (the danger),” Fields said of preparing for his tour. “But for my wife, it was deja vu because she’d gone through it in World War II.”
There was little deja vu for Fields when he returned to Laos earlier this month, though he did find the crash site and several other points of interest from his escape. It was the first time he’d been back to Laos since his escape.
The trip, for the most part, was exciting, he said, but did drive home the realization of one dark aspect of his journey all those years ago.
“There’s one sad part about this story, and that was re-emphasized on this last trip,” he said. “As a result of my rescue, there are men that bear the scars of combat — both physical and mental — that is because of me.”
• Contact reporter Jonathan E. Coleman: 704-789-9105.