Navy air vet will lead Memorial Day parade

Flying as radar intercept officer on a Navy F-4 Phantom off an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War, Dave Campbell saw a bit of action. Monday he should see nothing but smiles and waves, leading Ridgefield’s Memorial Day parade as grand marshal.

“We flew over Vietnam, dropped some bombs. My mother used to think that was terrible,” said Campbell.

It was war, though. And the North Vietnamese were shooting back — with surface-to-air missiles, or “SAMs.”

“You got to see SAMs every once in a while — like a big telephone pole in the sky coming up at you,” Campbell said. “If you haven’t seen it at night, you haven’t lived. And you try and evade it, so it doesn’t hit you.”

Missiles weren’t the only danger in the sky.

“They used to shoot 88 mm shells up at you all the time,” Campbell said. “Invariably, those emplacements were right next to a big tent with a red cross on it. And according to the rules of the war, you couldn’t bomb anything that has a red cross — even though there was a gun emplacement right next to it. That’s not playing fair.”

Guys did get shot down.

“We had a lot of boys in the Hanoi Hilton, who were not treated very well,” Campbell said. “You really did not want to wind up there.”

Campbell flew off the carrier USS Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the Gulf of Tonkin, part of the South China Sea between China and Vietnam. Pilots were “always keeping an eye” on Vietnam’s giant neighbor, which sponsored and supported the communist forces the U.S. was fighting.

“You look down and you could see their planes on their runways, their taxiways,” Campbell said.

“They never came up.”

Campbell’s air missions mostly took him over lower North Vietnam.

“Just north of the demilitarized zone. I didn’t go on any rides to Hanoi,” he said.

‘Quite a nice honor’

Campbell was, of course, pleased when American Legion Commander George Besse told him he’d been selected grand marshal of the parade.

“That was quite a nice honor. I was a little surprised with that one. I don’t know if it’s deserved or not. … Martha will appreciate it,” he said, speaking of his wife.

“I told them there were a lot of other people I would recommend. But they said, ‘No, we’ll take care of those guys next year and the year after.’”

Being chosen Ridgefield’s grand marshal is an honor that reflects on what a person has done with his or her life.

“No. 1, you had military service. And hopefully you didn’t do anything bad. And you did things for the town — and my wife’s been a big part of that,” Campbell said.

“I’m going to try to get the OK to make sure my wife is in the car in her Colonial garb from the Keeler Tavern — because she belongs there,” he said.

In the family

Patriotic service was a natural fit for Campbell, who grew up in Michigan, the son of a doctor and a nurse, both immigrants from Canada in the 1920s.

“The military runs in our family,” he said. “My father ran the eye clinic at McCoy Army Air Force Base during World War II, checking all the eyes of the bomber pilots.

“My mother’s older brother served in the trenches of World War I. He always coughed and had lung problems the rest of his life.”

She had other brothers in World War II.

“Her youngest brother was in the Canadian coast guard, and helped launch the convoys going across the Atlantic,” he said.

A third brother — “who was the apple of the eye of the family,” Campbell said — joined the air force, lost his life flying in World War II, and is buried in Scotland.

“We went to the cemetery,” he said. “There were a lot of Canadian air force graves there.”

Campbell’s brother Don, now 90, fought in Korea with the Marines infantry.

And Campbell’s sister’s husband served in World War II as a gunner on a plane — “flying in the Caribbean, looking for German subs,” he said.

“Most recently, my son Doug,” he added. “He graduated from high school, didn’t know what he wanted to do. I suggested the service.

“He joined the Navy as helicopter crewman. … He was the one who used to pull the pilots out of the water. He was on the Saratoga, during Desert Storm.”

Joining up

Campbell went to Harvard, graduated in 1961, and was soon deliberating about what service to join.

“We got a notice to join the Army. They said you don’t have to join the Army, but you’ve got to do something,” he said, “I talked to all three of them. The recruiter from the Navy was cool.”

He had about a year of training to become a radar intercept officer — or RIO.

“My eyes weren’t quite good enough. I wanted to be a pilot,” he said.

So he was “the second guy” in a Phantom jet. “Pilot’s in the front, I’m in the back seat,” he said.

“You help the pilot land aboard the carrier, navigate to the carrier — navigation, communication, weapons setup, target setup. In the Navy’s opinion, there was so much to do in that airplane they needed two people to do it.”

Navy service worked out well.

“We were on the USS Franklin Delano Roosevelt and we took two cruises of the Mediterranean, usually six months in duration.”

On one of the cruises, there was a problem with one of the carrier’s four propellers — a crack — and no dry dock in the Mediterranean was big enough for the huge ship.

“We limped back to Bayonne, N.J.,” Campbell said. “We were in town for three weeks. It also happened to be the time of New York World’s Fair.”

When repairs are completed on a ship that size in dry dock, it takes about eight hours for the water to refill around the ship.

“We’d call in, say, ‘Is there water coming up?’” he recalled. “We had a lot of fun in New York — good liberty town.”

Around the globe

In the Mediterranean, ports of call included Gibraltar, Marseille, Athens, Cannes, Barcelona, Naples.

“It’s good duty,” Campbell said. “You worked hard at sea and had all sorts of exercises — nothing was going on Europe or Africa at that time. We were just going around the pond, protecting it for the Navy.”

Campbell also had duty in Florida — at a time when relations with communist Cuba were near a flashpoint. Crews did four-hour shifts, in their planes, ready to take off.

“We were on the ‘hot pad,’” he said. “The hot pad was in Key West. Ready for any problem with Cuba, down at Guantanamo Bay.

“You’re literally sitting in a seat and if the call went out: Boom! Start the engine and go down the runway.”

Eventually the ship went to the active war zone.

“All the captains on the East Coast weren’t going to Vietnam, and they weren’t getting promoted to admiral,” Campbell recalled. “And they said, ‘It’s time to get the East Coast carriers to go to Vietnam.’”

That’s when he ended up in the Gulf of Tonkin, flying on bombing missions over North Vietnam and having missiles fired up at him.

Campbell was out of the Navy after serving a total of five years — including 300 carrier landings, more than 100 of them at night. He started as an ensign and finished as a lieutenant.

“I was a full looie coming out,” he joked.

Campbell remembers landing in San Francisco with another guy who’d just been discharged, and being treated to a Giants baseball game at Candlestick Park.

“At a time not a lot of American kids were doing patriotic things,” he said.

“We were in town. We had dinner and walked over to Candlestick.

“You’ve got a couple of kids, our heads are shaven. A cop spotted us, said, ‘You boys from Vietnam? You want to go to the game?’ He said to a scalper: ‘Give these boys some seats.’”

Meeting Martha

After the Navy, Campbell went to Harvard Business School in September of 1966.

“I met a young lady there, and her name was Martha,” he said.

She worked as assistant to the editor of the Harvard Business Review — a major business publication.

“When Life or Fortune wanted to come to the business school and do an interview or have a tour of campus, she was the marketing gal,” he said. “She had a pretty good job.”

They married in June at the end of Campbell’s first year of business school.

After he graduated in 1968, they moved to New York.

Campbell worked for GTE, General Telephone and Electronics, overseeing pension funds, then joined Neville Rodie and Shaw, starting a career in the investment industry that ended with retirement from ING Barings in 2003.

“We moved to Ridgefield in ’77, bought a house on Marcadon Avenue. It was a starter street — it has a cul-de-sac at the end where the kids could play.”

Fight for Branchville

Dave and Martha Campbell have “three wonderful kids,” he said — Heather, Doug and Betsy. They all went through Ridgefield schools.

The Campbells were among the parents who sued the town to keep Branchville Elementary School open when the school board wanted to close it. They lost, although the town eventually needed to reopen the school.

“We did establish the right of parents to sue the Board of Education in the state of Connecticut. Before that, you couldn’t do it,” he said.

They later moved to Woodlawn Drive, off Branchville Road.

“That’s where our kids probably had the most fun, out of that house, Woodlawn Drive,” he said.

“They had a wonderful time in town, tried to stay out of trouble. Fortunately, the cops were watching them — as well as a lot of Martha’s friends.”

Politics, service

The Campbells got involved in Republican politics — both served on the Republican Town Committee and they became close to former state representative and first selectwoman the late Liz Leonard.

“A young guy named John Frey used to be in her kitchen all the time,” he said. “She was a big mentor for John.”

Martha was elected to the Board of Education. Dave Campbell served 33 years on the town’s Pension Commission, retiring in 2017.

The Campbells were involved in many school groups and youth sports: “PTO, softball, golf, Little League, travel hockey,” he said

Over the years he was also involved in civic groups — Jaycees, Rotary — and the many projects, events and fund-raisers they organized.

“Sold oranges and grapefruits in front of Squash’s,” he said. “We had the beer festival at the skating rink.

“Ran the haunted house in connection with Parks and Recreation. We had the Bunny Luncheon.

“The best one we did, we ran Special Olympics for this part of Connecticut. That was a wonderful project,” he said.

“Heavily involved in the Bicentennial, helping out.”

Martha and Dave Campbell were selected Rotary Citizens of the Year in 2004 — the first time the award went to a couple rather than an individual.

The Campbell children all graduated from Ridgefield High School.

Heather was Class of 1987. “She was drum majorette and was in the band,” Campbell said.

Doug graduated in ’88, and Betsy was Class of ’91.

“Doug was heavily into hockey,” Campbell said. “And Betsy was into soccer. She was president of the class.

“All three kids went to Boston, either Boston College or Boston University.”

One of them — Betsy — recently moved back to Ridgefield with her husband, Dave Imbrogno, a Class of ’90 RHS graduate, and their four children — grandchildren Dave and Martha Campbell are glad to have here in the town they’ve lived in and contributed to for more than 40 years.

Campbell is still contributing — he teaches an investment course at Founders Hall.

“I love this country,” the parade grand marshal said. “And I love this town.”