That night aboard the Connie all the squadron commanders organized a party to celebrate Cunningham's and Driscoll's victory. Cunningham was having a fine time retelling the story, using his hands -- right for the MiG, left for the Phantom -- and recounting the fight. Then a pilot asked innocently, "What's it feel like to kill another human being?" The question struck to the bone. Cunningham didn't answer; immediately he returned to his room. As he relates in Fox Two, his recently published book about his Vietnam experiences, "As I interrogated myself, a sickening feeling dug at my stomach. Dropping bombs for a year had not bothered me. Everything was so far removed when the 500-pounders went off in the jungle below, almost like bombing practice in the desert. But this was different. I observed another human being die because of me. I watched his twisted machine disintegrate, taking him to a horrible death, but at the time I guess my defense mechanisms allowed me to put it out of my mind. Now, after the excitement had died down, I was confronted with it point-blank as I tried to make excuses for myself, saying it was in the line of duty...."
Cunningham visited the chaplain that night, confessing his feelings of doubt only after receiving assurances that the conversation would remain confidential. But the next day he was confronted by his squadron skipper, who'd received a full briefing from the chaplain. Cunningham found himself insisting that if the situation arose again, he could definitely pull the trigger without hesitation, and in the next four months he proved good to his word. He and Bill Driscoll went on to notch a total of five confirmed enemy kills and to earn the unofficial designation of "aces"; in fact, they became the only Navy aces of the Vietnam War.
On a soft couch in his home in Mira Mesa, not far from Naval Air Station Miramar where he's stationed, Commander Randy "Duke" Cunningham is being cuddled by his five-year-old daughter, April. One of two daughters from his second marriage, she presses against the wide cluster of decorations on his chest and, wrapping her arms around his ruddy, mobile, beaming face, flattens the ribbons that signify Cunningham's status as the most highly decorated Navy pilot of the Vietnam War. Beneath her rest the Navy Cross, 2 Silver Stars, 15 Air Medals, various commendation medals, a Purple Heart, and the South Vietnamese Medal of Honor and Cross of Gallantry. "Okay honey, why don't you let Daddy have some privacy." But as April untangles herself from him and happily starts away, he grabs her. "Don't think Daddy doesn't love you, honey. Nothing I ask of you would ever be because I didn't love you." He stares tenderly into her face for a moment, solicitous in that unique way of fathers who have killed in war. I'd seen such intense expressions of affection from another decorated aviator once, someone I hadn't thought about for years. He was the father of one of my elementary school friends, and he'd been a bomber pilot in World War II. Jimmy Johnson had been telling me his father's war stories for months; he'd even dug out some of the medals and ribbons stashed under a bench. Then one day his father was home and Jimmy asked him to tell us about the time he parachuted out of his damaged bomber. Mr. Johnson had grabbed his son the same way Cunningham now grabbed his daughter. "It's nothing to be proud of," he'd said softly, staring hard at my friend. "It's nothing to be proud of." Then he hugged his son in a way I didn't see again until that afternoon in Cunningham's house.
During our conversation, just after Cunningham had enthusiastically recounted a long dogfight he'd won against the infamous North Vietnamese ace known to the Americans as "Colonel Tomb," I asked him the same question that had stunned him that night on the Constellation. His face drained, and he sat back down, elbows on his knees. "The first kill I had was against the MiG-21, and I could see the guy in the airplane when I went over him, as he died. I could see him almost thrashing around in the cockpit. The explosion had severed his tail, and the rest of the plane tumbled end over end. He couldn't punch out. Now that -- if I close my eyes, mentally I can still see that. And I dream about it once in a while. Equate it to -- if you were a Marine on the ground, and you saw someone way up on a mountain, and you shot him and you just saw something drop. It probably wouldn't bother you as much as going up to that same individual and, looking him in the eye, you stick a knife in him.... Now if I hadn't ever seen this guy, this flash in the cockpit, it probably wouldn't have bothered me. I knew I could do it again, it just bothered me a little more than I thought it would, knowing I had taken another human life."
Cunningham had killed a lot of people with bombs, from afar. I asked him if the act of killing bothered him less each time. "No. But I think mentally you can do anything on this earth that you really set your mind to. And what I'd do, if I'd start to think about it, I'd try to change my mind, my thought processes. I wouldn't allow myself to dwell on it."
The MiG killers, as they refer to themselves, were the only Navy aviators who dealt death at close quarters, and Cunningham is one of the few still in the Navy. Historically, the fighter aces from any war (there were more than 300 Navy aces in WWII) almost never make it to the top of the military structure. Cunningham's boss, Commander Nick Criss, the commanding officer of fighter squadron VF-126, who talks as rapidly as Cunningham talks slowly, explains: "The personality type that does well in combat is probably a little less manageable than the kind of guy who goes along with all the wickets all the way. It takes the kind of guy to throw himself in there to get those kills. You can't be timid at all. But when peace breaks out, all these little bureaucrats who've been hiding under the rocks resurface...and start reestablishing all the rules that everybody was violating for years and years during the war. And the kind of personality that can kill MiGs runs right smack against that.... And I know almost all the MiG killers, to a man, ran into big trouble after the war was over."