By Mary O’KEEFE
“I first met Bill in 1972.”
That was how Bill Flanders, former U.S. Marine and current pastor at First Baptist Church of La Crescenta, started his address as keynote speaker at Two Strike Park’s Memorial Day service on Monday morning.
Each year American Legion Post 288 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1614 host the event that includes veterans and the community who all come together to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of their country.
In his address, Flanders wanted to bring meaning to those names on memorial walls.
“I share this story with you because I want you to understand that names you see on this wall were not just names, they were not just statistics, they were not just fictional characters – they are real people who had friends like me, people who left behind children and wives,” he said.
Flanders spoke of his friend Capt. Bill C. Nystal whom he had met early in his military career. Although Nystal outranked him, he was generous with his time and helped Flanders make it through flight school.
“A lot of the guys had hours and hours of flight [time], and I was just struggling to make it,” Flanders said. “Bill was kind, he was caring, he was a Marine.”
In 1975, Nystal was assigned to the USS Hancock in the South China Sea.
“Saigon was falling and it was a chaotic situation, and we needed to get our [Americans] out of there,” Flanders said.
“It was April 29 at 0600 hours in the morning when Yankee Tango 14 set off as a SR, search and rescue, mission. They would be flying all day long,” Flanders said.
The planes and helicopters never stopped as they rushed to save as many as they could during Saigon’s fall. The aircraft were barely stopping for fuel, Flanders said. In fact, they were doing what is called “hot refueling” when they land on the aircraft carrier and do not turn off their engines – they just fuel and go.
Nystal and his co-pilot Michael J. Shea had been flying many, many hours at this point.
“They were circling in a very chaotic situation. Planes were coming in, not only military craft but Vietnamese who were trying to escape the military take over. It was a very dangerous situation because those pilots, unlike naval aviators, were not trained to land on carriers. And so they were literally crashing aboard the ship, were landing beside the ship and had to be rescued in the water. It was an extremely dangerous situation. Nightfall came and Bill and Mike were still flying the aircraft with their two crewman,” Flanders said.
Night falling over the sea is very challenging and combined with the chaos surrounding them and landing on an aircraft carrier, the situation evolved into a perfect storm.
“My friend Bill and the rest of his crew had been flying … 10 hours straight in a demanding situation …They came in for a landing and the crew chief saw a plane coming in behind them. He called for a wave-off immediately and Bill said, ‘Someone is going to die here tonight,’” Flanders said.
For some reason, Flanders said no one knows why, around 11 that night their helicopter crashed.
“Suddenly, to the horror of those on the USS Hancock, Yankee Tango took a 45-degree turn and crashed into the water,” he said.
The cause was never determined; it might have been a malfunction or they had to maneuver to avoid another aircraft or perhaps it was pilot fatigue.
Bill Nystal and Michael Shea died on April 20, 1975. They were the last pilot casualties in the country of Vietnam. It occurred during the Embassy evacuation in Saigon.
Flanders’ story personalized the sacrifices made and those he felt should be remembered on Memorial Day.
“My friend died then,” Flanders said. “They never recovered Bill’s body; it is still in the South China Sea.”