He’s 93 and still fits in his Air Force uniform from the Vietnam War.
Dick Moore was ruffling through old stuff in his Missoula apartment not long ago and came upon his leather aviator helmet, the kind with flaps that come down over the ears. He wore it while piloting B-24 bombers over Italy in World War II.
A veteran of three wars on three continents — he was a controller in the U.S. air defense system in Alaska during the Korean War — Moore looks back on those years without sentimentality. He shouldn’t have survived the first one, he says, and can’t see why he was even in the third.
“We shouldn’t have been in Vietnam in the first place,” Moore said last week at the Missoula Senior Center, his home away from home. “It was well-known you don’t fight a ground war over in the jungle. Way back in WWII we knew that.”
Moore makes no claim to heroism, and says what commendation medals he received weren’t for putting his life in danger, though surely it was many times. Those awards were packed up with the aviator helmet and sent to Seattle last week. There, his son Rich has set aside a room for his father’s memorabilia.
But Dad kept three letters. The third is a thank-you note from President Barack Obama.
The first is from Rich to his father, dated Jan. 20, 2009, the day of Obama’s inauguration. Rich was 60 at the time and recalled an incident on vacation from 50 years earlier. The family of four, including Moore’s late first wife Louise, was driving through Kansas at lunch time.
“I think we were pretty hungry and didn’t have a lot of choices out on the plains,” Rich wrote. “You pulled into a restaurant, and we saw a sign on the front door or window. It said, ‘Coloreds served in paper bags at the back door,’ or something even worse.
“I don’t even remember you turning off the engine. You and Mom decided we could wait a bit longer to eat, and we turned around and left that restaurant behind. Thank you for the example.”
“One never knows what small thing might stick in a young mind to mold them as they grow up,” Moore wrote in a letter of his own, dated three days later.
His was addressed to the White House, and enclosed was a copy of the letter his son wrote him.
Both of Moore’s sons went to Punahou, a college prep school in Honolulu, when Moore was stationed there in the 1960s. He told Obama that when he learned the new president also was a Punahou alumnus, “you had my vote.”
“The road ahead will be difficult but you’re on the right track and have my complete confidence of success,” Moore went on. “Only through talking can you reach common ground with your adversary. I have dearly loved and defended this country and our way of life. But I feel we should never impose our way of government on others. We should be willing, ready and able to help only when asked.”
“I hope to be around when you finish your second term,” the note concluded, “but if I’m not I will leave knowing the United States is in good hands.”
The best place to find Dick Moore these days is at the Senior Center on South Higgins.
The best times are not on Tuesday or Thursday afternoons. Those are his bowling days, and his schedule becomes even fuller when golf season rolls around.
Moore and his second wife, former Missoulian reporter and columnist Evelyn King, competed in the Senior Olympics for 15 years. King, who died in 2010, went to nationals twice. Dick, a golfer, went once. Just last spring he sold the health club on Kemp Street that he bought in 1965, soon after moving back to his hometown from Bellevue, Washington, where he was a district circulation manager for the Seattle Times and Post-Intelligencer.
He’s hard of hearing, so when asked why he joined the military and why he stayed in it for 25 years, Moore’s silence leads you to believe he didn’t hear the question.
Eventually, the answers start trickling out.
It started, he supposed, on Sarpy Creek, where Moore’s mother grew up. She was the first white child born in Lame Deer on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, and her son was later enthralled by her story of a barnstormer who landed on the farm one day. The young woman talked the pilot into taking her for a ride.
Moore figures it was around 1933 or ’34, when he was a boy of not yet 10, that he caught the flying fever. Another barnstorming pilot was offering rides at the Western Montana Fair in Missoula, where the family now lived.
“I went out there and I fell in love with it,” he said.
Moore was in high school when his mother remarried and the family moved to Spokane. He’d always planned to join the service, he said, and his stepfather was lobbying his congressman for a nomination to West Point when Pearl Harbor was attacked.
“The Japanese made it easier for me to get in,” Moore said.
He was 17 and would have joined the Navy if he could have flown right away. Instead, he took the Army exam on Nov. 4, 1942, the day he turned 18. He had to have a high school diploma before he could fly for the Army Air Corps, so his enlistment was deferred until the following June.
Moore wanted to be a fighter pilot.
“I should have been a fighter pilot,” he said.
Instead, he was sent to Douglas, Arizona, on the border of Mexico to learn how to fly B-24 bombers. And that’s what he did, piloting 13 or 14 bombing raids with 10-man crews as the Allies pushed into northern Italy and Austria in the last months of the war.
“My first and last missions were to Linz, Austria,” Moore said. “We dropped bombs there on the rail yards. Much later, when Evelyn and I were taking a trip over there, we visited a church in Linz as part of the tour, and the guide said, ‘Look what the Americans did. They bombed this church.’ ”
That irritated Moore.
“I said, 'Pardon me, what’s that over there across the street?' ”
That’s a rail yard, came the answer.
“I said, 'Yes, that’s what we were after: rail yards. We didn’t deliberately bomb churches. But we were not that accurate' ” from 25,000 feet.
In the bomber squadrons, Moore said he was usually “tail-end Charlie.” As planes dropped out en route to a target, he’d move up in the formation.
On one fateful flight, he was pondering filling a slot ahead when another bomber slid in ahead of him.
“Over the target, he got a shell right in the bomb bay,” Moore said. “I saw it explode, and down they went. I didn’t see anybody bail out.”
Sad as it was, it was one of several lucky turns that saved his bacon in that and subsequent wars.
Moore arrived in Vietnam in late July 1964, three days before the Gulf of Tonkin incident that propelled the U.S. into full-fledged involvement.
“I started the war,” he said with a wink.
He spent a year at Tan Son Nhut Air Base outside Saigon, where he was the Air Force’s deputy commander of operations in charge of radar sites in Vietnam and Thailand.
By December he was looking for new living quarters. Moore told Louise he was renting a room in the Brinks Hotel, an American officer quarters in downtown Saigon. At the last minute he changed course, pooling his money with a fellow officer to rent a villa. On Christmas Eve, two Viet Cong operatives detonated a car bomb underneath the Brinks, killing two Americans and injuring roughly 60.
It took three days to get word to his wife that Moore wasn’t one of them.
Then there was his last night in Vietnam. Moore and two other Americans were traveling in a sports car driven by a Vietnamese officer who’d partied too hard and passed out. The car veered off the road and went sliding down railroad tracks that shared the bridge they were on.
They survived that scare, but with their guide indisposed the Americans couldn’t agree which way to go. The new driver, a captain, thought they should turn left to get back to Saigon. Moore, who outranked him as a major, thought the proper direction was either right or straight ahead.
“You go left and I’m getting out,” he remembers saying. “I’ll walk back to Saigon.”
So they went to the right, which turned out to be the right way.
“We described it the next day before we got on the airplane to Hawaii,” Moore said. “They said the (Viet Cong) were killing people out there at that sector. Why they didn’t catch us that night, I’ll never know.”
Moore retired from active duty in 1968 as a lieutenant colonel after 25 years in the Air Force.
He says he didn’t experience the rancor other vets did when they returned home from Vietnam, nor the adulation often ascribed those who came home from World War II after Germany’s surrender.
As the '40s turned to the '50s and then the '60s, Moore didn’t have to stay in the service, didn’t have to heed the call to active duty not just once but three times.
What kept him there?
“Well, I don’t know,” he said after a long pause. “The first thing was for flying, but once I got in and involved in it, I can’t really tell you. I just liked the service life.”
Pressed further, he said it had something to do with leadership. He was captain of his football team at West Valley High School in the Spokane Valley, and a leader in his Boy Scout troop.
He’s surrounded these days by Missoula friends, including many he personally recruited to the Senior Center.
Leadership, he mused, “just came natural to me. I just never gave it a thought.”