TWO FLIGHTS, TWO FATHERS
By Mike Moffett
Sport is usually a safe discussion topic at holiday gatherings. So it seemed safe when basketball came up during a conversation with a Michelle Walters---a friend of my co-author, Fahim Fazli---at a California social event last month. Then I mentioned that I’d once coached college hoop and Michelle responded that her dad had also been a college basketball coach—at Evansville University in Indiana.
Our eyes locked and I knew we were both thinking of one of the most tragic sports stories ever.
I was seated with a dozen other Marines in the back of a CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter flying over rugged Korean mountains when the engine started screaming and the aircraft started shaking. Terrified, I looked to the crew chief for reassurance, but he too, looked concerned as he spoke on his headset to the pilot. Then he yelled to us:
“Tighten your seatbelts! We’re going down!”
It was on Dec. 13, 1977, that a Douglas DC-3 crashed on take-off in Indiana—killing all 29 aboard, including every member of the University of Evansville Purple Ace men's basketball team, except for one who was not traveling with the team. Was Michelle’s father among the victims?
Our CH-53 came down in one piece in a dry stream bed near a small Korean school. Youngsters swarmed out to see the spectacle. Repairs were made and we flew back to base to further prepare for a special training mission for Lima Company 3/5—a long distance night raid over the Korean mountains. We’d utilize six CH-53s in a reprise of the ill-fated Iranian hostage rescue mission of 1980—four years earlier. One of the pilots from that Iranian mission would lead our operation.
Two weeks after the Indiana plane crash, the only member of the Evansville team who was not on the plane was killed by a drunk driver.
Michelle’s dad, Dick Walters, was NOT on the plane. The head coach was a Watson, not a Walters. Bobby Watson was named Evansville head coach in 1977, beating out Walters and distinguished Evansville grad Jerry Sloan for the job. (Sloan would go on to become one of the NBA’s winningest coaches.) The charismatic Watson was fired up about his program advancing to the Division I ranks. A standout player at Virginia Military Institute, Watson was a highly decorated Viet Nam vet, earning, among other awards, FIVE Purple Hearts. Walters took over the program after Watson’s death. Had Walters been named head coach in 1977 instead of 1978, Michelle would have lost her dad in the plane crash.
American and South Korean Marines loaded into the six CH-53s after nightfall on March 24, 1984, for our raid mission. We flew over jagged Korean mountains en route to our objective, near the DMZ, far to the north. We ran into bad weather and the Sea Stallions were buffeted about in the dark, terrifying many Marines—including me. We eventually turned around and returned to base. But when we landed, there were only five CH-53s, not six.
Walters sought to honor the Purple Aces by not only reviving but elevating the Evansville program. His 1978-79 team went 13-16 and steadily improved thereafter. In 1982 the Purple Aces went 23-6 to earn an NCAA bid—losing a close first round game to Marquette University, led by Doc Rivers. Michelle, aged 10 at the time, remembers the joy that team generated, and how their success helped honor the memories of the fallen Purple Aces.
Our missing CH-53 had crashed into a mountain, killing all aboard. I accompanied a detail that quickly flew to the crash site to retrieve the bodies—accomplished with great difficulty, given the steep, rugged terrain.
The day after my conversation with Michelle, I received a Facebook invitation to join a special group of Lima Company survivors, for whom a 2019 reunion is being planned. I happily accepted the invite and quickly made my first post. I soon received a message from a woman named Jessica Liddle. She asked if I knew her dad, Staff Sergeant John Liddle—a Viet Nam veteran and a Lima Company platoon sergeant—and if so, did I have any memories of him? Liddle’s was one of the bodies we’d retrieved from that 1984 crash site. Jessica was five at the time. I replied to her that I indeed knew her dad. I shared some recollections, to include that he’d become a big San Diego Charger fan—despite his earlier K.C. Chief inclinations—and that we’d often talked football. She seemed happy to learn more about her father.
At yet another California social event on New Year’s Day I received a surprise. Michelle’s dad showed up late in the afternoon. We subsequently spoke at length about basketball, life, and death. Coach Walters shared much about his basketball journey, including wondrous anecdotes about the likes of Bobby Knight. But clearly the Evansville plane crash was something that’s never far from his mind. That his Evansville predecessor had survived the horrors of Viet Nam only to perish with his basketball team will always be a tragic irony.
Through the wonders of social media, communication continues with the extended basketball and Marine networks associated with Michelle and Jessica. The holiday recollections about fallen Marines and deceased basketball players revived their spirits while reminding us of our mortality and how precious life is.
Semper fi … And go Purple Aces!
(Immediately below are Michelle and Dick Walters, on New Year's Day 2019 and at a basketball camp, circa 1978. Below that, me and Coach Walters. Further below: Jessica and John Liddle.)