Monday, November 28, 2005

A Tarnished Legacy

California Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham resigned from Congress this afternoon, after pleading guity to accepting more than $2 million in bribes from a defense contractor and other conspirators.

An eight-term Republican who represented a suburban San Diego district, Cunningham is also a retired Navy Commander and a legend in military aviation circles. On 10 May 1972, then-Lieutenant Cunningham and his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Lieutenant (jg) Willie Driscoll, shot down three North Vietnames MiGs in a single day, giving them five kills and making them the first American aces of the Vietnam War.

Flying from the USS Constellation, Cunningham and Driscoll were part of a flight of four Navy F-4 Phantoms, flying a flak suppression mission over North Vietnam. After dropping their bombs on a warehouse complex, the Phantoms were engaged by a score of enemy MiG-17 Frescoes. Though smaller than the F-4, the MiG-17 was more maneuverable, especially at slow speeds, an advantage North Vietnamese pilots often used in dogfights against U.S. Phantoms.

After quickly destroying two MiG-17s, Cunningham and Driscoll found themselves in a classic engagement against a highly proficient North Vietnamese pilot. While many dogfights were over in seconds, Cunningham's third engagement of the day dragged on for several minutes, as the opponents gained and lost tactical advantage.

Finally, the MiG-17 pilot made a fatal mistake, and Cunningham and Driscoll dispatched him with an AIM-7 SPARROW air-to-air missile. Ironically, the two men almost didn't survive the mission; enroute back to the Constellation, they were shot down by a North Vietnamese SAM and forced to eject. They were pulled from the waterby a rescue helicopter just moments before enemy PT boats arrived on the scene.

Duke Cunningham retired from the Navy in 1987, was elected to Congress in 1990, and easily re-elected for seven additional terms. As a navy hero in a Navy town, he could have been Congressman for life, and (possibly) a candidate for statewide office in California. But somewhere along the way, Cunningham apparently succumbed to greed, selling his home to a defense contractor for an over-inflated price, and accepting other bribes as well. He is now facing time in a federal prison, and (with a felony conviction), the likely loss of his Navy pension as well.

The fall of Duke Cunningham represents a sad end and a tarnished legacy for a man who served his country so courageously. It is also a reminder that no man is above the law, even one who once soared so valiantly in the skies over North Vietnam.

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