The old saying is almost a cliche: “The price of freedom isn’t free.”
Pasted on bumper stickers or on T-shirts, the words rarely are received with the honor and thought they deserve. To many, it’s a nice sentiment, like “God bless America,” or “Happy Fourth.”
Herbert Perry Hunter Jr. knows the price. Answering the country’s call cost him his father, Navy pilot Herbert Perry Hunter, a former Blue Angel aviator who died 50 years ago this month when his crippled plane crashed on landing after taking anti-aircraft fire during combat missions in Vietnam.
Perry Hunter was only 5. His brother Colter was 2.
“I was just old enough to know him,” said Hunter, a well-known general manager at McGuire’s Irish Pub. “I always considered my brother fortunate, because he didn’t really know him.”
See, Perry — his dad went by Herb — remembers his father. Not everything. But the few precious memories that still soothe also hurt at the same time. He remembers his giant of a father taking him to the hangar to meet the Blue Angel pilots and team; Hunter flew with the team in the 1950s. He remembers drives with his father through the golden canyons of California when the family was stationed in San Diego.
He remembers driving in his father’s Volkswagen and his dad stopping to pick up a hitch-hiker.
“Don’t tell your mother,” he remembers his father telling him. “He’s a young service member and we’re going to give him a ride.”
Perry Hunter, 55, still remembers.
And “it still hurts. I’ve never really gotten over it either.”
Perry’s a big tough guy, a proud conservative American with a long line of military service in his family. But his eyes still water, and the voice breaks a bit, as he talks about his father, the respected Navy commander who died on July 19, 1967 when his plane landed hard on the USS Bonhomme Richard and landed in the water after taking enemy fire in the Gulf of Tonkin while on a bombing mission.
He had taken off from the USS Oriskany, where his best friend, Cmdr. Robert Rasmussen, was commander of Fighter Squadron 111 that was attached to the Oriskany. (Editorial note: Reporter Troy Moon’s father, Ken Moon, was an air traffic controller aboard the Oriskany at the time and photographer Tony Giberson’s father, Art Giberson, was assigned to the Oriskany in 1970.)
Hunter was commander of Carrier Wing 16, which was attached to the Oriskany, which is now an artificial reef in the Gulf of Mexico off Pensacola Beach.
“We were best friends,” said Rasmussen, who retired as a Navy captain and is a well-known Pensacola artist and sculptor — he sculpted the statue of Don Tristan de Luna on Palafox and is the sculptor of the soon-to-be installed statue of Spanish Gen. Bernardo de Galvez, which will also be on Palafox.
The two men were Blue Angel pilots at the same time. They went to flight school in Pensacola together. They received their wings together.
They even dated Pensacola sisters — Dianne and Phyllis Colter — and married them. But not the sister they were originally dating.
Phyllisoriginally dated Hunter. Dianne dated Rasmussen. But one day, they switched partners.
“It was their idea,” Rasmussen said, referring to the sisters. “It worked out.”
Both men served in Korea and in 1957, both were Blue Angel pilots. Both served in Vietnam.
“They were like brothers,” Perry Hunter said. “They were that close.”
Perry Hunter, who never had children of his own, said he was always aware of what he and his brother lost so early.
“He was a great man,” he said. “I still miss him.” He was asked about the recent Father’s Day.
“Father’s Day is always hard for me.”
Perry said it helps to be in Pensacola where his father is honored. Cmdr. Herb Hunter’s name is on the Wall South at Veterans Memorial Park in Pensacola; he is buried at Barrancas National Cemetery; his former plane once stood outside Pensacola International Airport, and though it has been replaced, there is a plaque to honor Hunter there now. And then, the Oriskany, where his father departed on the fateful day a half-century ago, is buried in the Gulf of Mexico off shore.
“There are some really special things for me in Pensacola as far as Dad,” he said.
Still, he never really talked about his dad’s death to many people. He would bring up the Blue Angel connection or the Navy combat connection once in a while when others would talk military. But not his father’s death.
Wesley Delware, a former Blue Angels electronics chief from 1999 to 2001, was talking with Perry about the Blue Angels recently, when Perry mentioned that his father was a team member in the 1950s.
Delware, a drummer in the McGuire’s Pipe Band, said he was intrigued.
“I did some deeper research and found out about his father’s service in Korea and Vietnam, his relationship with Capt. Rasmussen, his death.”
Perry never mentioned his father’s death during the war.
“I found out in my research,” he said. “That family paid the ultimate price. I think the people of Pensacola should know that. That family embodies the military spirit.”
Perry considered the military as a young man, but knew he would never fill his father’s shoes. And he didn’t want to try. He said his mother was relieved when he told him he wouldn’t go into the military.
“I thought she would be disappointed,” he said. “But she said she had already lost a husband.”