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“There is a mystique about being a Marine pilot. You actually believe that you’re invincible.” (Audio Interview, 32:36)

   Ed McGaa
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War: Cold War; Vietnam War, 1961-1975
Branch: Marine Corps; Marine Corps
Rank: Major
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Born during the Depression on the impoverished Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Ed McGaa saw a lot of young men join the military in search of a better life. He joined the Marines and served in Korea just after the truce ending the hostilities was signed. He used the GI Bill to go to college, and then a military recruiter persuaded him to re-enlist. This time, he trained as a Marine pilot for service in Vietnam, where he flew 110 missions, as many as five of them in a 24-hour stretch. McGaa went on to become a published author, exploring in works of fiction and nonfiction the history and contemporary experiences of his people.

Interview (Audio)
»Interview Highlights  (8 clips)
»Complete Interview 
Download: audio (69 min.)
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 Audio (Interview Excerpts) (8 items)
Born on the Pine Ridge Reservation; a lot of American Indians joined the military; he enlisted out of high school for two years in the Marines; wanted to see foreign countries, so he volunteered for Korea; arrived after the truce, comfortable life near the DMZ, engineer battalion; went to college on GI Bill, made good money as a welder; recruiter pointed out he could re-enlist as a Second Lieutenant; this time around he decided to be a pilot; flew 110 missions during the Vietnam War; went to law school and stayed in the reserves for a total of 20 years’ service. (03:26) Motivation for joining the Marines; WWII inspired a lot of patriotism; worry at beginning of that war we might lose; oldest brother was in Marines on Tarawa; taking scrap metal to school; Marine brother seemed prouder of his branch than his two brothers who were in Navy; inspired by portrayal of Marines in movies; mother did not want him to go in; Ed was last of 13 children and at first she wouldn't sign for him. (07:08) Most memorable experience was getting his gold wings out of flight school; next was when he flew his first combat mission; was shot at; took out an antiaircraft site; a thrill to come out of the mission alive; geography of Vietnam; flying missions all over, some in Laos and Cambodia; Phantom very fast aircraft; once flew five missions in a 24-hour period; two-man craft, with man in rear there for information on what else is going on; during the mission, having no fear, totally focused; fear can paralyze you; dangers: hitting your own men or hitting a mountain or flying into a box canyon; saving an H-46 load of Marines when he flew those five missions. (08:20)
Specs of the F-4B Phantom he flew; could do 2.1 Mach without bomb cargo; science of dropping bombs; also carried napalm; rockets didn’t allow you to stay up long or go as fast; North Vietnamese and Vietcong very disciplined; many were on drugs, which made them more dangerous, likely to take risks. (03:21) Mystique about being a Marine pilot; actually believe you're invincible; didn’t know any pilots who refused a mission; WWII pilots were in much more danger; you were lucky if you flew 25 missions; as an Indian he never saw any antiwar sentiment in his community; in his novel Eagle Vision he wrote about a ceremony that was held for him before he went over; had no use for the antiwar crowd. (03:04) Indians have always honored their warriors; didn't have medals, but an eagle feather was a badge of honor; Navajos served in WWII by passing on information in tribal language; Sioux always volunteered to serve in the front lines; "we're not the greatest soldiers in garrison;" he rose from private to captain and could have made full colonel had he stayed on. (03:11)
We lost the war because of the politicians; critical of Robert McNamara and Lyndon Johnson; should have invaded Hanoi or Haiphong; superior firepower, concentrated on those areas, would have won the war; thinks we did the right thing in Iraq by going straight into Baghdad, but we didn't follow up well. (03:50) Regrets that he didn't stay longer in Korea; should have stayed over another year and then gone to college; did not regret his service in Vietnam; in touch on the Internet with his combat buddies; enjoyed the adventure and being single. (01:34) 

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  The Library of Congress  >> American Folklife Center
  October 26, 2011
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