For Marine Corps fighter pilot Major Ed McGaa (Eagle Man), traditional Oglala Lakota ceremony played a large part before, during and after his eventful tour of combat in Vietnam.
The Black Hills Veterans Writing Group heard from one of their own when the noted author spoke about his Vietnam War experiences recently.
Flying over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, McGaa survived 110 combat missions – as it had been predicted during a protection ceremony beforehand on his home Pine Ridge reservation.
McGaa received eight air medals and two Crosses of Gallantry, and was recommended for a Distinguished Flying Cross. Escaping death under heavy ground fire and two SAM missle attacks, his missions in F-4B Phantoms included a rescue of an H-46 helicopter load of Marines.
“There is a mystique about being a marine pilot. You actually believe that you’re invincible,” recalled McGaa, who was the guest of the writing group at the Western Dakota Technical Institute in Rapid City on June 11.
“You don’t have any fear, you just have a job to do,” he said, giving credit to World War II pilots whose flights were often “more dangerous.” Often McGaa flew as many as five combat missions in a 24-hour stretch.
“You’ve got troops out there depending on you, so you have to do it,” McGaa added. “While you’re doing it you have to have total concentration; if you show fear you’ll get killed; you’ll freeze up.”
He did crash one F-4, but walked away from it. “A bit of a shock, I must admit.” The aircraft does a speed of Mach 2.1 without bomb cargo.
Today Maj. McGaa keeps in touch with war buddies by e-mail from the remote Black Hills cabin near where he spends time fly fishing. Other times, you might find him at Crazy Horse monument. He converses with the help of a hearing aid – most other fighter pilots have the same affliction, he said.
As an author, his many books include Mother Earth Spirituality – Healing Ourselves and Our World, which was reprinted 41 times. Another work, Eagle Vision, outlines ceremony held for him before he went to war. He considers Creator’s Code (2007) his best work, he told Indian Country Today Media Network, along with Crazy Horse and Chief Red Cloud - History of the Sioux and its Warriors. He earned a Bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University and a law degree from the University of South Dakota.
He is honored by the Sioux for having participated six times in the Sun Dance ceremony.
In an interview on the Native Digest website, he referred to the Sun Dance’s role as post-war spiritual balm. “I survived two SAM missile encounters very, very miraculously and came back and damn well did Thanksgiving and Appreciation for my life through the Sun Dance. I was forever free now from the white man’s controlling, fear-filled superstitions.”
McGaa told Native Digest he wore a protective wotai stone for his 110 combat missions. Lakota warrior lore tells that Crazy Horse had a protective stone behind his ear during his encounters on horseback with the invading white soldiers.
“What is a bit unique in my situation was the fact that a Sioux medicine person, Chief Fools Crow held a ceremony for me prior to my Vietnam departure in which within the ceremony it was predicted that I would see the enemy over a hundred times and the bullets would bounce from my plane- which is the way my combat happened,” McGaa said. He has studied under Fool’s Crow and another Sioux holy man, Chief Eagle Feather.
“I flew my tribe’s flag ‘over the enemy’ as was requested by Tribal Chief Enos Poor Bear,” McGaa related in an interview that was tape-recorded in 2007 for the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project. “He had the Marine Corps tuck it under my ejection seat unbeknownst to me before going out on a combat mission. ‘Look at all the photographers,’ I exclaimed to my back seat RIO- radar operator, as we came in to the revetments. ‘Some big wig S.O.B. must be coming in.’ Little did I know it was for me. The Corps respects our tribes as many, many Marines were and are tribal members and most often we do well in combat. It is in the Blood.”
Those listening to McGaa speak today will hear resentment about wrongs inflicted by the very country that American Indians fought wars for. McGaa had served in Korea just after the truce ending the hostilities was signed. He re-enlisted for Vietnam and this time trained as a pilot.
Remarking after his talk with the Black Hills Veterans Writing Group, McGaa summed up, “They just want to know the truth.”
In his essay, “True Roots of Democracy,” McGaa wrote, “Our Religious Freedom Right came back in 1978 when Congress finally woke up. (After we faithfully served in World Wars I and II, Korea, Nam and the rest.)”
McGaa brings up the old federal insane asylum in Canton, South Dakota as a tragic injustice of which many people are unaware. The Canton Insane Asylum for American Indians has since been dismantled, but 121 graves of its residents remain on what is now a public golf course.
“Primarily its ‘patients’ were Indian medicine people and spiritual adherents. It, too, was lobbied for by missionaries,” McGaa said.
Audience members noted McGaa’s talk at the Black Hills Veterans Writing Group with reviews such as, “a top-notch presentation.”
Fellow author Alan B. Walker (Omaha/Winnebago), of the Rapid City area, was in the audience with the common bond that McGaa was in the Marine air wing and he was in the infantry that the wing supported. “And we did call in the F-4s to help. We called and he delivered,” Walker said.
“For instance, there was 88 Marines on a ridge one night and 1,100 North Vietnamese. They surrounded us and attacked us. They had the upper hand,” Walker told ICTMN. “We had called in artillery mortar fire, helicopter gunships and it all helped, but the biggest gun we called in was the Marine F-4 plane. He (the pilot, which in this case was someone other than McGaa) came in at daybreak, made one pass to find out where the enemy was, and on the second pass through, he released napalm and burned them out.”
In the interview for The Library of Congress, McGaa had described the rescue mission of the H-46 helicopter crew this way: “We had two choppers down; one got captured; one we fought all night long to get them out. You can see those guys … jumping up and down because they knew you were going to save them.”
“We lost the war because of the politicians,” McGaa continued. “If you’re going to fight a war, fight to win or get out.” He decried the five-day truces and the nine-day truces that “let the enemy re-arm.”