PILOT & PATRIOT
By Chris Wadsworth
200. That was the limit — the maximum number of combat missions you could fly in Vietnam without becoming a commanding officer. Jim Goodwin flew 199.
199 times, Goodwin piloted his aircraft — usually an A-4E or A-4F Skyhawk — off the deck of a ship or from some military runway and into the skies over North Vietnam. For his service, he was awarded a variety of commendations, including a whopping 27 Air Combat medals.
It was a far cry from his childhood in Providence, R.I., or his years studying forestry at Syracuse University. But with the Vietnam War looming, Goodwin decided to control his destiny.
His future father-in-law — a man he greatly admired — had been a Navy medic in World War I and World War II, so, despite having no experience, Goodwin approached a Navy recruiter thinking he could be a medic, too.
“Then out of a clear blue sky, they asked if I would be interested in flying,” Goodwin recalled. “I said, ‘Hell, yes!’”
Goodwin went on to serve 23 years in the Navy — from 1956 to 1979. Ashburn Magazine had the honor of sitting down with Goodwin, 89, at his home at the Tribute at One Loudoun community in Ashburn. We talked about a few of the most memorable moments — highs and lows — from his time in the military. Here are excerpts of our conversation, salty language included.
When Goodwin is asked about his proudest moment from the roughly four years he was preparing for and flying combat missions as a lieutenant commander in Vietnam (1965-1969), he demurs. Nothing immediately jumps to mind — he was just doing his job. But when pressed, he recalls the bombing raid that earned him a Distinguished Flying Cross, one of the top honors for an aviator.
“I can still see it like a picture. There is the target. There is the roll in point. There is a saying that you are on your own from roll in to roll out. Your ass belongs to Uncle Sam. You stay on target. You don’t go left or right — and you are as vulnerable as hell. There was a SAM [surface-to-air missile] right under the run-in line. I was watching it very carefully. Well, the radar came on and it lit up. That’s when you hear a signal — doo doo doo. Then you know you’re in trouble. I rolled in and immediately fired off a shrike — that’s the name of our missile. A shrike is a lethal bird. The missile went right into the target and took it out. I felt damned good about that. There was a guy I could see in another plane named Bill Cook. That’s the guy that vouched for me that I actually hit the target. I still owe him some beers.”
As you might imagine, your first real combat flight over enemy territory is bound to be emotional, and it certainly was for Goodwin. They were on a bombing raid somewhere over North Vietnam. He admits he can’t recall the details of the mission — where they were specifically or what they were targeting, but it was likely North Vietnamese supply lines or vehicles.
“I was as scared as I have ever been in my life. I can’t remember where we were going — I was literally that scared. We go in and suddenly the sky is full of SAMs. So many that we couldn’t keep track of them all. I could see a little hill with three or four SAMs flying out of it, all at the same time. I was scared as hell. We dropped the bombs we were carrying and got out of there. Afterwards, my lungs hurt. From the minute you start a jet to the minute you get out of it, you’re breathing 100% oxygen. We were hyperventilating and didn’t realize it.”
There is one moment that still causes Goodwin to choke up — his voice becomes raspy and his eyes well up. He apologizes for his sentimentality, even now, more than 50 years later. But who can blame him? He lost a good friend, a leader, a mentor — Commander Bill Searfus — the same man who guided him on that first frightening combat run some two years before. It happened on the Gulf of Tonkin.
“Bill Searfus was the most savvy combat aviator I have ever known. The real tragedy is that he wasn’t shot down during a mission. We were on the USS Coral Sea during my first combat tour. [The ship] had been given the deck of a supercarrier. It was a steel deck, and it had a light tilt to it, and it was very slippery. All the planes were positioned on the aft end [rear or stern end] of the carrier. Of all the aircraft, his was parked at the very far back. He had just pulled out to taxi forward when another plane taking off used too much power and [Searfus] was blown backward [in his plane]. He flipped over and right off the deck. That was a tragedy. That screwed up our morale for a while.”
Commander Searfus’ remains were never recovered.
Goodwin retired from the Navy with the rank of commander in 1979 and went on to a long career as an earth sciences teacher in Fauquier County schools. His beloved wife, Trudy, passed away in 2017 — after 61 years as husband and wife — “a good long marriage,” as he calls it.
His eldest son joined the Navy and had his first tour of duty on the USS Enterprise, the same ship on which Goodwin ended his service. Today, he has 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Most of his family lives within three hours of Goodwin’s Ashburn home, and he loves spending time with all of them. When asked to reflect on Vietnam, he’s clearly conflicted — an old airman wise enough to see the world in all its shades of gray.
“I don’t really think we got much of anything done there. We lost. When you lose, what is there to brag about? This isn’t a country of losers. We appreciate winning and I like that attitude. Olympics, a war, whatever — we are used to winning. We have trade with [Vietnam] now and we support them. And why not? Germany was our deadly enemy. Now, they are our allies. History kind of repeats itself. It’s a good thing to be generous in victory. You make friends you would never believe. I’ve always been proud of America. I’m a patriot and I love this country. It’s unique and — with all its faults — it’s a good-natured country. I love it. The only thing I love better is my family. That’s the truth.”