John Scherer had intended to offer the navy his services as the pilot of a Phantom jet. But when his left eye went 20/40 during his senior year, his dreams of being a naval aviator ended. He was suggested to become a radar intercept officer (RIO), the person who rides behind the pilot and operates the attack radar. It seemed like a good idea until he learned that the RIO also needs to handle all the radio communication.
The problem of John was that he was a stutterer. The toughest words were those beginning with hard sounds, like t or b, k or g. John lived with a chronic, low-grade fear of stuttering. He decided to avoid the potential ignominy of being required to handle radio communication from a jet and take his chances on a destroyer where he hoped he wouldn’t have to talk so much. However, the navy made him an air controller.
Just weeks out of training, John found himself aboard the destroyer, USS Eaton, came to be standing watch in the middle of the night after a hurricane when a voice came over the radio.
“Hermit,” said the voice, “this is Climax Himself. Over.”
“Hermit” was the call sign of John’s ship. “Climax” was the call sign of the most formidable ship in the fleet, the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, flagship of the battle group that were being escorted across the Atlantic. “Climax Himself” was the Enterprise’s captain. John’s heart pounded.
“Hermit, we just lost a Foxtrot Four out your way,” he said. “Both men are down and missing.” Translation: A Phantom jet had crashed, and John’s ship was being deputized on the spot as search-and-rescue coordinator because they were the ship closest to the plane’s last known position. That meant suddenly John was responsible for coordinating the search.
“Climax” would be the most difficult word for John to pronounce. And, fresh out of Air Control School, John had never been responsible for a real live airplane in his life. Nevertheless, with images of two souls out there in the frigid water, John took a pencil, donned headphones and sat down at his radar console.
When John graduated from Air Control School, they told him that it would unlikely have to control more than four or five aircrafts at a time. John now had a conversation going with 15 to 20 planes, all streaming toward a potential disastrous convergence at the center of his scope. Out of the inky night the voices started coming in to him in the laid-back, relaxed, under-pressure argot of Navy pilots. The dialogue went on for almost 24 hours.
Three or four hours into the ordeal, it flashed on John that he was not stuttering. Not only was he not stuttering, he hadn’t even thought about it. John will never forget the feelings of amazement, exhilaration, grace and gratitude that swept over him at that moment. It occurred to him that in that situation it simply was not authorized for him to stutter – not with those two guys out there and depending on him. John was almost overwhelmed several times with the awareness that this was surely a spiritual experience.
As the only controller on the ship qualified to control jets, John had to stay on the scope as night turned into day and then into night again. At about sunrise the following day, one of the search planes got a fix on a rescue beacon … but found only fragments of the RIO’s helmet and ejection seat. But then a little later, another plane spotted the pilot bobbing in the swells. Climax Himself sent a helicopter from Enterprise to bring his pilot home and called over to John, “Bravo Zulu, Hermit.” Navy talk for “well done”!
Eaton arrived at the scene shortly after the helicopter and its rescue crew. As the pilot was being helped into the sling, he somehow got a message to the ship. Captain’s voice came over the speaker: “Mr. Scherer, lay to the bridge! Some guy out there wants to see you.” The sun was just coming up and John ran up the short ladder. The helicopter hovered 20 feet above the water, the pilot just beginning to rise.
They looked at each other over the water. John grinned, waved and gave the pilot a thumbs-up. Dangling from the hoist, just before disappeared into the helicopter, the pilot took a last, long hard look – then saluted John. Standing there on Eaton’s rolling deck, John returned the salute. And John wept. He had helped the pilot to find his Phantom. But it had also helped John to find his.