Wade Hubbard, Vietnam Aviator, and Street Masters Member, Honored for His Service
Wade Hubbard, Vietnam War Aviator, Phu Cat Base, Vietnam, 1971
Hubbard, 2022, discusses his service with artist John Mollison
The following articles appeared in the Capital Journal on September 15 and September 19, 2022
authored by Michael Leifer, Capital Journal
Wade Hubbard was 20 thousand feet over Cambodia when he ejected from the burning F-4 Phantom. The wind blast immediately ripped off his helmet and oxygen mask. As his rocket seat spun like a top, Hubbard was only able to shout a few profanities before darkness overtook him.
When he came to, he was at around 18,000 feet and still in deadfall. His parachute hadn’t deployed and, as Hubbard prepared for death, the chute suddenly unfurled like angel wings at around 10,000 feet. Feeling his seat ripped away, Hubbard took his radio and began to broadcast on an emergency frequency. Below him was nothing but a sea of tropical green. Hubbard hoped he’d land in the canopy above the treeline, shielded from enemy eyes, with pararescue picking him like fruit.
But the tree he fell into was dead.
American involvement in Cambodia, mostly secret, was never a formal war — politicians and military brass called it an “expedition.” If discovered, Hubbard might not qualify for protections granted to enemy combatants under international humanitarian law. But the way things had been going, Pol Pot didn’t seem to know the Geneva Convention from Woodstock.
“I would not have been taken prisoner,” Hubbard said. “The war in Vietnam was over and the prisoners were home. The Khmer Rouge were vicious and violent. They would have just killed me on the spot.”
Hubbard drew his pistol and waited for rescue to arrive, probably from the Korat or Ubon air force bases in Thailand. Today, Hubbard holds no animosity towards the individual who shot him down. In the exceedingly unlikely event the two were to meet, Hubbard said he’d thank him for giving him a mild injury that didn’t prevent him from piloting aircraft. Had the two met that day, things might have been different — the Cambodian communists were known to creatively employ pliers and acid as part of their torture technique.
On Friday, the Pierre community will honor this decorated combat aviator at Pierre Regional Airport’s “Eagle’s Gallery.” The room hosts artwork created in tribute to South Dakota’s veterans. There, an F-4 Phantom drawn by artist John Mollison will be unveiled in Hubbard’s honor. The presentation, which runs from 4:30 to 5:45 p.m, is hosted by the members Pierre-Fort Pierre Rotary Club, who described the occasion as upholding their motto of “service above self.”
“The men whose airplanes and stories will be displayed in ‘The Eagles Gallery’ embodied that motto and represent the extraordinary actions of South Dakotans who responded and continue to respond to the call of service. Our Club is proud to support this effort,” rotary president Lori Simpson said.
Pierre City Commissioner Jamie Huizenga added that Hubbard’s stories are not just memories — they reflect a courage that still resonates.
“Courage is standing up for doing what is right, even when it’s not easy, even when it’s not fun. But when called upon, courage is stepping up to serve the best interest of our nation,” Huizenga said.
For Mollison, stories from Vietnam have “often been misunderstood and hidden under myth and inconvenience.” He expressed a desire to separate facts from fiction.
“The myth is that somehow the Vietnam War tainted the men and women who served,” he said. “If we listened to popular entertainment, we’d think that Vietnam veterans were disillusioned, poor or drafted from the dregs of society. It’s not true. They signed up, took their oath and delivered. To think these people are damaged or somehow nuts is just patently wrong. The Vietnam War needs to be taught better and stronger.”
The U.S. Selective Service System reported 1.8 million inductions during the Vietnam War between August 1964 and February 1973.
Mollison, who has interviewed veterans from at least three major American conflicts, personally lived and made films in Vietnam. There, he lectured at Hanoi University and met some of America’s former enemies. The experience didn’t shake his faith in the homeland.
“I’m proud to be an American,” Mollison said.
The artist described himself as a “history geek” before delving into his background as an aviation artist, filmmaker and writer. He remembered how, as a child, his mother would salvage his father’s leftover boxes of model airplane parts.
“The boxes always had some fantastic painting of something dramatic, you know? Flames, people getting shot down and stuff like that. And she’d say, ‘well, look at the scene. Imagine what’s next.’ That’s how I learned to draw and write,” Mollison recalled.
Text on his website’s homepage states, “John Mollison interviews old guys and draws their airplanes” above a caveat in smaller text: “Don’t think for a second that that’s all there’s to it.” Mollison’s “challenge coin” that doubles as his business card bears the expression, “when an old man dies, a library burns.”
I started appreciating that old warriors had way more to offer than war stories,” Mollison said. “So, I started interviewing these combat pilots, drawing airplanes and talking to them as people — to figure out what I could learn simply as a human and not a history geek.”
For the past few decades, Pierre City Commissioner Jamie Huizenga has lived a block down the street from Hubbard. The two have known each other since the early 2000s. To this day, Hubbard walks his dogs past Huizenga’s house.
From 1986 to 1992, Huizenga served in the South Dakota National Guard. His unit, however, was not deployed during Desert Storm. Asked how his own war stories compared to Hubbard’s, Huizenga chuckled.
“I really don’t have any,” he said. “But (Hubbard) is a true warrior — also a heck of a nice guy and a modest man.”
Hubbard, the reluctant celebrity, doesn’t sell himself as a war hero. Huizenga knows that humility well.
“He’s just a friendly guy that lives down the road. He’s not seeking attention,” Huizenga said of his neighbor. “This (event) was not his idea. Mollison is really the driving force behind this.”
Mollison said warriors — especially older ones — have lessons that are useful in business, politics and community life. Although many high-profile artists publicly opposed the Vietnam conflict, Mollison disagreed with the notion that warriors and artists have opposing worldviews.
“I wouldn’t think so, I’d say we’re more alike than different. I’ve learned that the ethos of an artist and the ethos of a warrior are similar, because we have to think abstractly — we have to think bigger than ourselves,” he said. “The warrior has to think not only about the situation at hand — they also think about the ‘meta,’ their brothers, their ethic, the thing that they were brought up to be. To me, that is how artists think. Any true artist understands that they are serving somebody as well as any warrior knows it. Every individual I’ve met who has accomplished something great has an appreciation for that greater sense of serving somebody.”
On Friday, Vietnam aviator Wade Hubbard was honored for service to country with an art unveiling at Pierre Regional Airport.
There’s nothing unusual about a noisy and crowded airport, but this time the bustle was from a smiling crowd of onlookers rather than exhausted travelers. The wine — flowing freely in plastic cups — was plentiful enough to saturate the air with its aroma.
About six dozen people assembled along the hallway, starting from baggage claim and stretching back, beyond the restrooms.
Although a minority of the crowd, the presence of Pierre’s senior community was impossible to miss. One of the old veterans dramatically rose from his wheelchair to salute the American flag during the Pledge of Allegiance.
On the wall were two small blue veils covering two freshly minted artworks by John Mollison. The microphone placed before the concealed art sported a blue sponge cap to match the veils and the color most associated with aviators.
Mollison was difficult to pick out from the crowd, but Wade Hubbard was a clear target — a center of gravity among excited patrons. He stood shaking the hands of men and embracing women, looking somewhat younger than his years thanks to animated blue eyes and a healthy complexion. When the time came for him to speak, Hubbard walked without stiffness to the microphone — his body wasn’t in bad shape for a man who once fell 20,000 feet into the Cambodian jungle.
Emerging like a chameleon from the crowd, Mollison was sharply dressed, appearing focused but relaxed, polishing off a small cup of red wine before heading for Hubbard. He paused briefly to speak with the Capital Journal.
“What I’m seeing right now is that the community has turned out in force to honor this local guy,” he said, repeating the slogan “when an old man dies, a library burns.”
“The only way we get their stories and make them available to schmucks like me is if we talk to and venerate our elders. Right now, a library is not burning. Wade Hubbard is here, and Wade is a regular guy — one of us. But he’s a guy who didn’t fail, he didn’t quit, he didn’t give up, he did his job and he did it really well,” Mollison said. “What I see here is a whole community appreciating that. To me, that is the beauty of American history.”