My Veterans Spotlight subject this week has a very down-home, welcoming way about him. He no doubt acquired it while growing up in the outskirts of Devon, Pennsylvania. He went to private school on a work scholarship and received another to play football in college. He acquired the skill of art at a young age and became infatuated with the drawing of hands; he has hundreds of those drawings. His art skills have never left him.
US Navy veteran Mike Campbell, a radioman who reached the rank of petty officer third class, grew up with an intense love and passion for his country. His great-grandfather (George Ross) signed the Declaration of Independence, his great-uncle was one of the captains of the USS Constitution, and his father was a second lieutenant in Europe in World War II. That prestigious family history led him to enlist in the Navy in 1965, during the Vietnam War. “The feeling inside me was always one of service. Service is what you do for country or people, it’s a wonderful thing,” he said.
That service was never more apparent than it was on July 29, 1967, when Radioman Campbell was aboard The USS Forrestal, the first American super aircraft carrier, operating in the Gulf of Tonkin. It was a tragic day he will never forget; an explosion rocked the massive carrier and set off other blasts like dominoes as thousand-pound bombs, rockets and fuel tanks ignited. Flight decks were covered with Avgas that poured into holes and burned men to death.
The first three damage control teams got wiped out. Radioman Campbell was thrown into the middle of rescue efforts, helping to carry horribly burned men and bodies through fire and smoke. “I saw a corpsman perform a tracheotomy on a sailor choking to death and save his life,” he recalled. Among those aboard the ship was Lieutenant Commander (later Senator) John McCain III, who was seated in his aircraft ready to take off when the explosions started.
Radioman Campbell described a powerful moment when Admiral John Beling went on what was left of the intercom and gave a powerful prayer. “It was invigorating and inspirational and helped in the saving of our ship. My hero was Admiral John Beling,” he said. In a true moment of sadness, Radioman Campbell shared something that’s bothered him for years. “I was with heroes, true heroes that sacrificed their lives to help save our ship. Not one Purple Heart was given out. I’m tremendously proud of the men I served with. It’s devastating that they weren’t recognized,” he said.
Radioman Campbell was on the Forrestal for 2½ years. He had asked for transfers but couldn’t get them. “I smelled death until 1976,” he recalled sadly.
After his discharge Radioman Campbell felt, like many returning home, a real sense of shame. “I never told anyone that I was a Vietnam vet,” he said. He went to a New England Shelter for Homeless Vets to check it out. After a three-hour interview the counselors invited him to join their recovery group, saying, “You don’t even know how messed up you really are.” In an extremely emotional moment, he explained what that experience meant to him. “I was taught to cry by my counselors and fellow vets George Mendoza and Peace Fox (real name, and two tours as a Marine in Vietnam). They made an impact that is indescribable and saved my life,” he said.
Radioman Campbell also commented on serving with his crewmates: “Our feeling of love for each other kept us going and got us through some very tough times. I see a young veteran now and thank them and tell them how much I appreciate them.”
After our interview I was treated to a special song that my new friend personally wrote and played on his harmonica. The song is titled “Way Down Blues,” and is an enormously powerful tune that helps him in his healing.
Radioman Mike Campbell, I say a long-overdue “Welcome home” to you and all of our Vietnam veterans, and thank you for your service to our great country.