It was almost 50 years ago, but Brad Pinches will never forget the moment he learned his father was missing in Vietnam.
“I was a 10 year old boy … and I remember thinking … there was not much chance of seeing dad again,” he said. “I was asleep in bed, and I heard mum a bit hysterical … and then my sister came in and told me that dad was missing ... At that stage we didn’t know that he had been shot down, they just said he was missing, and that they’d keep searching, but they didn’t hold a lot of hope of finding him, and I just remember thinking I’d have to grow up and be the man of the house.”
Brad’s father, Flight Lieutenant Allan Pinches, was a navigator with No 2. Squadron when Canberra Bomber Magpie A84-228 was hit by a SA-2 surface to air missile near the Demilitarized Zone in Vietnam on 14 March 1971. He and the pilot ejected, but they were not rescued from enemy territory until 27 hours later.
Their story is told in a painting by aviation artist David Marshall, RAAF Magpie 228 Takes a Fatal Hit, which has been donated to the Australian War Memorial by Barry Carpenter. Speaking at the handover ceremony, Wing Commander John Downing, who was piloting the plane when it was hit, said the memories were still vivid.
“Allan and I were scheduled for a combat mission. Radar control ordered us to turn quickly … and about half way through the turn, the roof fell in. It really did. The sky exploded, and my canopy was shattered,” he said. “The aircraft was still flying – everything was normal according to the cockpit – and then I saw a missile, high to the right, go past the aircraft. It was ballistic, and it hadn’t exploded, [but] I then realised, of course, we had been hit by its partner, the other surface-to-air missile.”
Downing, who was commanding officer of No. 2 Squadron at the time, told Pinches to eject before making a mayday call, and ejecting himself.
“We waved to each other, and then we both saw the aircraft below us go spiralling down slowly, and the whole starboard wing was a ball of flame,” he said. “It happened very quickly, and then we faced another problem. Luckily, I went through the cloud into a valley and then crashed into the hillside underneath. Allan was further away from me, and fortunately was suspended in the trees about two feet above the ground. That saved him because he had three crushed fractures in his spine … It was getting late in the afternoon and I crawled up the hill a fair way away from my chute in the trees and settled down for a very wet night.”
The next morning, Downing climbed further around the mountain to a ledge with a view of broad, long valley.
“The [radio] I was using just wasn’t doing any good,” he said. “I had no contact with anyone, so later in the afternoon I changed [radios] and immediately heard an aircraft above calling himself Magpie 4-1 … I immediately got on the blower and said, ‘Magpie 4-1, this is your commanding officer on the ground.’ Well, Allan, later [said he] thought I was talking to him, and was heard to return, ‘I’ve known John for years – that was a bit bloody formal.’
“He had thought I was dead because we didn’t get in touch. It wasn’t until I changed to the second radio when he heard me make what he thought was a very formal call that he realised I was alive.”