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Cliff Cushman, Hero

Tomorrow, it will be 29 years since Clifton E. Cushman was officially declared dead. He had been missing in action since September 25th, 1966, when his F-105 Thunderchief went down over the Haiphong area of Vietnam. He was 28.

Cushman’s hometown was Grand Forks, where he distinguished himself as a gifted hurdler. In fact, he was recognized as N.D. athlete of the year in 1960 – the same year he won Silver in the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympics in Rome. Cushman’s dream was to come back to capture the gold in ‘64, but that dream was stunningly crushed when he stumbled over a hurdle at the final U.S. Olympic trial meet in Los Angeles.

Cushman’s family and fans were devastated for him. But it wasn’t in his nature to feel sorry for himself. Just hours after his fall, he wrote a letter to the Grand Forks Herald asking the young people not to feel sorry for him. “You watched me hit the fifth hurdle,” he wrote, “fall and lie on the track in an inglorious heap of skinned elbows, bruised hips, torn knees and injured pride... In a split second, all the many years of training, pain, sweat and blisters and agony of running were simply and irrevocably wiped out. But I tried!”

The two-time All American cited Romans 5:3-5, about how suffering leads to endurance, character and hope, then wrote, “I dare you to look up at the stars, not down in the mud, and set your sights on one of them that, up to now, you thought was unattainable.”

Dave Clark, a pole-vaulter who roomed with Cliff, said, “(He was) just the most gentle guy you’ve ever seen.” Clark said Cushman was quiet, and that he couldn’t imagine him writing such “a bold letter.” He also said Cushman never boasted. Once, while they were driving more than 800 miles for a (track meet), Cushman said they should have rented a plane. Up until that moment, Clark had no idea Cushman was a pilot. He also never imagined Cushman would go to Southeast Asia.

Cushman joined the Air Force in 1961, after graduating from Kansas University. When he was called up for Vietnam, his first baby, Colin, was only days old. Less than a year later, Cushman’s plane was shot down. His flight leader saw him eject, and he was officially listed missing in action.

When his wife, Carolyn was notified, she said, “Somewhere in Vietnam he’s running the biggest race of his life.”

Several stories emerged about Cushman’s fate. One states villagers found him bleeding from a mortal head wound. Another says a bullet killed him. The official North Vietnamese statement was: “Capt. Clifton E. Cushman, 28, died from his wounds, was buried, and his grave washed away in a flood.” It was nine years before Cushman was officially declared dead.

The Advocacy & Intelligence Index For POWs-MIAs features something said by helicopter pilot Major Michael O’Donnell in January 1970 – two months before he, himself, would be MIA: “If you are able,” he said, “save for them a place inside of you and save one backward glance when you are leaving for the places they can no longer go. Be not ashamed to say you loved them, though you may or may not have always. Take what they have left, and what they have taught you with their dying, and keep it with your own. And in that time when men decide and feel safe to call the war insane, take one moment to embrace those gentle heroes you left behind.”

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm