For Fred Cone and his wife, Pat, their anchor holds in Christ alone, and they want as many people as possible to know His enduring joy. They married almost seven years ago, both of them drawn to each other from similar past experiences: the frequent moving of military life; the numbing grief of losing spouses and children; and for Fred decades earlier, the hardships of war.
Just three weeks prior to speaking with Decision from their Arizona home, Fred had buried his oldest son, who had spent 21 years badly disabled because of a fall. Fred, with Mary Cone (his first wife who left him widowed), also buried a newborn son who died. He still has one son living.
Pat lost an adult daughter who had Down syndrome and a son who succumbed to cancer. “We’re not mad at God for what we’ve been through,” she said. “Many people do experience that. If things don’t go correctly, they become upset with God.”
Instead, Fred and Pat have leaned on God in times of trial, and they’ve come out of those times with a strong faith and an infectious energy.
That energy fuels Fred today at age 88, and served him well during a successful 30-year military career, which was followed by another 30-year career teaching engineering and aviation. Those book-ended careers have brought him the ability to give away some of the earnings he has accumulated over his life to Gospel ministries, such as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
“The best thing in the world is for a person to receive Christ as their Savior,” Fred says. “But right behind it, I have never missed one penny that I gave to the Lord’s work. Not one.”
Fred’s connection to Billy Graham goes back more than 70 years. He surrendered his life to Christ around age 16 after hearing Mr. Graham preach at an arena in St. Joseph, Missouri.
After graduating from high school in 1952 with no good job prospects, he made a last-minute decision to enter college just before the following fall. Fred had found an open ROTC scholarship at the University of New Mexico, so he took it. Four years later, with an engineering degree in hand, he was commissioned as a Marine Corps officer. He served two years in the infantry before entering flight school in Pensacola, Florida, and falling in love with flying.
He started out flying cargo planes. But after jet training, Fred began flying the A-6A Intruder, a plane that carried him on most of the 800 combat missions he would fly during two tours in Vietnam, 1966-68 and 1970-71.
Of those 800 flights, 217 were into North Vietnam—all night missions—where Fred and his navigator evaded enemy fire flashing up from the darkness below.
“Every time, before I pushed the throttles forward to take off, I prayed to the Lord that I was doing the right thing and that He’d be with me,” he recalls. “And He was every time.”
If the night missions were harrowing reminders that God was shielding him, an event in the early morning hours of March 24, 1967, on the runway of the Da Nang Air Base added emphatic punctuation to that belief. It is considered the worst ground aviation accident of the Vietnam War.
Fred, by then a captain, and his navigator, Warrant Officer Doug Wilson, had a heavy load on the A-6 that day—30 bombs, 500 pounds each. On the runway and cleared for takeoff, Fred started gaining speed toward 150 knots, figuring he needed about 6,000 feet of runway to get his load off the ground. What they didn’t know was that the control tower had also cleared an Air Force C-141 to cross the taxiway at a right angle to Fred’s jet.
“When I saw the other aircraft crossing in front of me, I cut the power, locked the brakes and tried to turn off the runway. I didn’t make it to the turnoff. I hit him and went right through the cockpit.”
Five people aboard the C-141 perished. The crash set off an explosion from the acetylene gas cylinders the big plane was carrying. A sixth crewman on the C-141 survived.
Meanwhile, Fred’s A-6 skidded down the runway on its back. Fred and Warrant Officer Wilson were both hanging upside down and on fire, the flames held partly in check by fire retardant flight suits. Fred doesn’t remember escaping the burning plane, but as he crawled away on the tarmac dragging a badly injured leg, Wilson got to him. Despite his injuries, Fred survived with both legs intact. Within a month, he was back at work finishing out the last half of a 15-month tour.
Fred says he never struggled with post-traumatic stress like many of his fellow warriors did.
“Without the Lord, I would have never made it. I couldn’t have gone through that much because it was horrible.”
On March 23 this year—55 years to the day of the accident—Fred was substitute teaching at the local high school. He shared his story with teenagers in the five classes he had that day. He doesn’t shy away from giving God the credit for bringing him out of the war alive and in a good frame of mind.
“They all know I’m a Christian on the campuses there,” he says.
Fred and Pat believe God brought them together to help others see the Lord at work in their own lives, and to lead others to Him.
“I’m still just a Missouri farm boy, and the Lord has seen me through so many things. I feel almost embarrassed to be as blessed as I am, but He did it and He did it for a reason, and I’m trying to help out every way I can for other people to know how good He is.”
Above: Fred Cone, retired Marine Corps fighter pilot who flew 800 missions in Vietnam, speaks during a Phoenix Veteran’s Day event in 2014. To his right is the late Sen. John McCain, a fellow pilot and Vietnam veteran.
Photo: AZ Strong