Growing up in the ’80s, I didn’t know why my dad kept an “old car,” a 1967 Ford Mustang, in our garage even though he hardly drove it.
I knew he kept it for sentimental reasons, but it didn’t have the bells and whistles of our brand-new wood-paneled burgundy minivan or the government-issued Buick he took home from the office every night. It didn’t even have a tape deck, just an AM radio that captured scattered radio stations with unreliable frequency.
All I knew was that it had been my Uncle Mike’s, a ghostly presence we were told stories about but had never met. He was a Naval pilot who had been missing for 13 years before North Vietnamese officials “discovered” his remains and returned them to our family.
My grandmother passed away from Alzheimer’s when I was young. I remember visiting her in the nursing home as she kept thinking her oldest son had returned. She died never knowing what happened to him. We still really don’t, but 50 years after his final mission, we know more than we did then.
On August 25, 1972, Lt. Commander Michael W. Doyle and his Radar Intercept Officer Lt. John (Jack) Ensch were on an early evening combat air patrol in their F4 Phantom when they were shot down by a surface-to-air missile.
Both Mike and Jack were seasoned naval aviators, members of the elite squadron VF-161 Chargers with more than 500 missions under their belts. After successfully dodging a series of these missiles, they were struck by one and ejected from their cockpits. That’s the last time anyone saw my uncle alive.
Jack Ensch was taken captive by the North Vietnamese and held at both the infamous Hanoi Hilton POW camp and the Zoo. His left thumb was partially severed by the missile explosion and both elbows were dislocated from the force of the high speed 3,000-foot-high ejection. He had been shot at in the air and again after he landed in a rice paddy.
As a POW, he was interrogated for three days without medical care while his thumb and arms continued to cause him extreme pain. Finally, he had his thumb amputated and arms snapped back into place…without anesthesia.
After being held in 30 days of solitary confinement, he was finally put in a cell with other captured POWs. Some had information about Mike. His flight helmet with his call sign “Ratso” was seen in a pile of flight gear at Hanoi Hilton. His name was also scratched on an interrogation cell wall.
Jack was returned to his wife and three daughters in Operation Homecoming in 1973. After spending nine months in physical therapy, he became a Top Gun instructor and eventually commanded his own F-14 squadron. His new call sign? Fingers.
When I was in my 20s, I went with a group of friends to San Diego. The aircraft carrier Jack and Mike had flown off, USS Midway, had been decommissioned and was moored off San Diego’s Navy pier. It had been made into a museum with retired fighter jets and hallways of medals and other Vietnam memorabilia.
“Go see Jack Ensch,” my dad told me. “He’d love to meet you.”
Jack had retired from the Navy as a Captain and was working in military marketing for the San Diego Padres. He told me he’d be happy to meet up. I liked him immediately. Jack told me that once a month, a bunch of retired pilots met at Bully’s Bar and traded old war stories. After giving me a tour of the ballpark, we went down to the pier for lunch. He ordered fish tacos.
“Um, I don’t really eat fish,” I told him. He just looked at me quizzically. I thought of the months he had spent in a dirty prison, starved and beaten. I ate the tacos.
More than 10 years later, I returned to San Diego with my husband for a work trip. My Uncle John, who had also been a Naval flight officer, told me that Mike’s leather jacket was in the VF-161 fighter pilot’s ready room on Midway. John had been the Naval escort for Mike’s remains home from Hawaii.
By now, I had been listening to years of stories about Mike. He had been fast and fearless, living in a beachfront house in La Jolla with a group of fighter pilots and throwing legendary parties. He never backed down from a fight but didn’t need to start one. He once outran a police car in a chase, flipping his Mustang and puncturing a lung. It didn’t slow him down.
We couldn’t find the ready room, a spot on the ship where squadron air crews briefed and debriefed their missions and gathered for comradery when not flying. I spotted a docent named Nigal Miller and approached him for help.
“Not a lot of people ask about it,” he said. “It’s off the beaten path.” He offered to walk us downstairs.
I told him my uncle’s jacket was supposedly hanging on the back of a chair.
“Who was your uncle?” he asked.
“Mike Doyle,” I answered.
His eyes clouded over. “I was just talking about Mike.” Ironically, it turned out that Nigal was in squadron VF-161 on USS Midway in 1972 when Mike and Jack were shot down. For the rest of the tour, he walked with my husband and me as he told us more about the uncle I’d never met.
Mike was born in a rowhouse in Overbrook. The oldest of three brothers, he graduated from St. Joseph’s Preparatory School before becoming a Navy ROTC student at Holy Cross University. He was on his 250th mission and third tour of duty when he was shot down at 29 years old.
Although my father was from Philadelphia, he had joined the FBI and we never lived in the area. Ten years ago, my husband and I moved to West Chester from New York with our young children. Last Thanksgiving, I was at my son’s CYO football game when I started talking to another parent I knew. His father Thel Hooks was visiting from San Diego.
“My uncle lived in San Diego,” I told Thel. “He was in the Navy.”
“So was I,” he answered.
“Oh, what a small world. He was a pilot.”
“So was I. What’s his name?”
His face froze and he closed his eyes, rubbing a hand down his face. “Mike Doyle. I knew him well.”
Turns out, they had been good friends. He told me he also went to Bully’s and regularly spoke to Jack Ensch. Luckily, my father was also at the game and the two sat talking, swapping names and sharing stories.
Would Thel and Mike have ever guessed, while drinking beers on a San Diego beach, that their grandson and great-nephew would one day be squaring off against each other at a Turkey Bowl in the Philadelphia suburbs?
Another circle, another treasured memory about a remarkable man I had never been able to meet. Even five decades later, he was still being talked about, remembered by those who missed him.
Oh, and that Mustang? It was my first car.
Lt. Cmdr. Michael Doyle is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. During the Vietnam War, more than 750 Americans were POWs. Many of their remains have never been returned.
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