Navy pilot's return to Charleroi offered all a wake-up call
Part 1 of 2
As a U.S. Navy fighter pilot with 200-plus missions in Vietnam, Capt. Paul Valovich was accustomed to early wake-up calls during his 30-year military career.
But one alert — which came during what was planned as a quiet visit with his mother at her Crest Avenue home in Charleroi — continues to follow Valovich 44 years after it stirred him and hundreds of others on both sides of the Monongahela River from a deep sleep.
“Oh, yes, people still ask me about it when I come back to the Valley,” said Valovich, who retired from the Navy in 1995. “Some people have great memories, I guess, and I can't elude it.”
“It” was a unique aerial salute by one of Valovich's squadron buddies whose low flying Skyhawk jet scared practically everybody in the Charleroi area out of their wits early on the morning of Saturday, Sept. 7, 1968.
“A little bit lower, and we could've shaken hands,” Valovich told reporter John Bunardzya of The Valley Independent in a Page 1 story on Monday, September 9.
That amusing reaction notwithstanding, Valovich, 69, who lives in Ridgecrest in California's Mojave Desert, remembers the incident as though it were yesterday.
“It was about 7:30 on a very still Saturday morning with a temperature inversion layer over the Monongahela River near Charleroi,” said Valovich, the son of the late Betty Michener Valovich and the late Joseph Valovich. “I had just returned from a Vietnam combat cruise flying A-4 Skyhawks off the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga (the Tico). After a night of reunion and partying with my Charleroi friends at various watering holes in the area, I was awakened by a phone call from my Tico roommate, who was flying an A-4 on a training mission from Lemoore, Cal., to the East Coast to coincidentally attend a wedding.”
The fellow pilot had spent the night at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, and in planning his next leg of the flight, noticed that he “would be passing the vicinity of Charleroi,” Valovich said.
“He told me he would like to fly over the town and ‘say hello,' ” he said. “I was half asleep but told him to find the Mon (river), then locate a dam and locks to the north and two adjacent bridges to the south at Speers. The larger town on the western side between them was Charleroi, I explained.”
About an hour later Valovich “and every other resident of Charleroi” was awakened by the “loudest jet airplane sound I had ever heard,” he said.
“My buddy found the river and Lock 4, increased speed to as fast as the jet would go, and decreased his altitude to fly north to south at high speed just above the water,” Valovich recalled. “Later, he told me he had contemplated flying under the bridges (at Speers) but backed off when he realized he couldn't tell if any cables were hanging down. He repeated the maneuver two or three more times before departing.”
Valovich said the temperature inversion in the area trapped and amplified all the jet noise between the hills on both sides of the river to produce “an almost unbelievable early morning racket.”
“Because many people in Charleroi knew I flew jets for the Navy and knew I was home on leave from the Vietnam combat cruise, it didn't take long before some of them made the connection and started calling,” said Valovich, a 1961 graduate of Charleroi High School. “Since what my buddy had done was totally illegal and could have gotten him — and me — into real trouble with the Navy, I tap-danced around explanations.” Those maneuvers worked well until Bunardzya called Valovich to tell him he was writing a story about the unusual wake-up call the Valley had received.
“Showing astounding creativity, which has been unequaled since, I fessed up and told Mr. Bunardzya that it was, indeed, a squadron mate who was flying the jet,” Valovich said. “But I said the purpose of his actions was an ‘aviator tribute' from one veteran to another and acknowledging to my hometown that I had safely returned from combat. I then tried to explain inversion layers and the difficulty in judging one's low-level altitude at high speed over water. I wasn't sure if he understood what I was saying, but the story was published and was written in such a positive way that there were no repercussions. I've always been grateful to John for the way he handled it.” But Valovich's friend wasn't done with his aerial hijinks.
He and three other squadron pilots joined up at an East Coast airfield, flew a four-plane formation to the wedding in New England and then headed to Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia.
Valovich declined to identify his fellow pilot when he was interviewed by Bunardzya in 1968. It was, he explained, for “security reasons.” But because the “statutes of limitations are up,” he did reveal his name recently.
“My friend's name is Tom Gill, originally a cowboy from Fairfield, Idaho,” Valovich said. “He now lives in Mountain Home, Idaho, and works in timber real estate. We have remained close friends. I flew my (home-built) airplane to Mountain Home last month, and Tom and I spent a relaxing afternoon floating down the Boise River while he explained the intricacies of fly fishing for really big rainbow trout. I'm close to not only him but a lot of guys from my first squadron. It may sound like a cliche, but combat really does forge lifetime friendships.”
As an example of life's ironies, Valovich also recalled that Gill had a best buddy during flight training and in a sister squadron on the Tico, a U.S. Naval Academy graduated named Clarence Miles.
“Prior to our combat cruise, Tom and Clarence stood on the fantail of the Tico flight deck and promised that if anything happened to either, the other would take care of the deceased's family,” he said. Clarence had a very young son, Kurt; Tom had an even younger daughter, Kim.
“Clarence was killed in an A-4 accident a month after the Mon Valley incident. True to his promise, Tom helped Renee, Clarence's widow, through some very hard times. Years later, Renee married another of our squadron mates. Her son, Kurt, also a Naval Academy graduate, fell in love with and married Tom's daughter Kim. He is a captain in the Navy and they are stationed in Belgium on a NATO assignment. Clarence, a really good guy, would be proud – and satisfied.”
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer.