Laguna Beach veteran among Vietnam War aviators reunited with restored jet

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(Left to right) Jim Wade, Eric Jensen, Shedd Webster, Doug Bradt stand with a restored A-7 Corsair II unveiled on Nov. 6 at Palm Springs Air Museum. Photo courtesy of Jo Jensen

Retired Navy Capt. Eric Jensen recently reunited with the A-7 Corsair II bomber he piloted during his first combat mission over Vietnam in 1969.

The 78-year-old Laguna Beach resident joined fellow shipmates and retired captains Shedd Webster and Doug Bradt at a Nov. 6 dedication ceremony for the restored Corsair, which was rescued from an Arizona aircraft boneyard and restored for permanent display at the Palms Springs Air Museum.

“I feel a responsibility to make their aircraft come alive,” Jensen said

In April 2019, the Palm Springs Air Museum restoration crew chief Larry O’Brien learned about an aviation parts refurbisher’s plan to sell off a collection of decommissioned Corsairs after foreign militaries transitioned to other airplanes.

The Museum’s offer to buy the bomber was accepted in March 2020, around the same time as the nonprofit was forced to close its doors due to COVID-19. Several private donors chipped in to fund its restoration, which O’Brien estimates cost more than $20,000 to buy the airframe, transport it on a trailer to Palm Springs, manufacture multiple missing panels, and paint it with the colors of Jensen’s former unit, Attack Squadron 82.

About eight months ago, Jensen received a call from O’Brien who shared the plan to restore the A-7 Corsair. Jensen checked the aircraft’s bureau number against his logbook of missions while serving on USS Coral Sea. Coincidentally, it was the same bomber he piloted on many of the 113 missions he flew in 1969 and 1970.

“All of the sudden, I was the living history to this airplane,” Jensen said.

The buzz of anti-aircraft rounds flying by his cockpit became a familiar sound to Jensen during his deployment. About 80% of his missions involved bombing supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. He also responded to calls for close air support from American infantrymen under enemy fire.

“We always pulled out all the stops when we got called to help those guys,” he said.

To help educate future generations about aviation history, Jensen donated the survival vest, G-suit, helmet, and oxygen mask he used while flying over Vietnam. The flight kit is worn by a mannequin inside a display case next to the Corsair.

Jensen’s roots in Laguna Beach run deep. As a boy he visited his grandparents at their home in town. His first jobs were helping set up the Festival of Arts displays and working as a janitor at Surf & Sand Resort. He also worked as a Laguna Beach lifeguard from 1958 to 1961.

Jensen moved to Laguna Beach after leaving active military service in the 1970s and enjoyed a civilian career flying commercial planes for Western and Delta Airlines for 25 years. He and his wife, Jo, live on Brooks Street.

Laguna Beach police chief Jeff Calvert joined the Jensens at the dedication ceremony in Palm Springs.

Eric Jensen, 78, of Laguna Beach met Laguna Beach police chief Jeff Calvert during a dedication ceremony for a restored A-7 Corsair Il on Nov. 6. Photo courtesy of Jo Jensen

Americans’ evolving perspective on the Vietnam War has allowed veterans of that conflict to finally start sharing stories from their service. By the conflict’s end, many service members returned home without the parades and accolades their parents’ generation enjoyed after World War II.

“In a way it’s taken 52 years for me to come and be a part of society,” Jensen said. “You learned really quickly that you don’t talk about [Vietnam] because it’s not going to be good for you.”

Twenty-three aircrewmen assigned to USS Coral Sea died during Jensen’s deployment. He feels a responsibility to talk about his service on the aircraft carrier to inspire others to remember their sacrifices, he said.

“I’m really nervous about going and speaking because it brings back a lot of memories from 52 years ago but it feels like it was just yesterday for me,” Jensen said.

This isn’t the first time, O’Brien has helped reunite veterans with their aircraft. The Museum originally focused on World War II aircraft but has expanded its collection over the years.

“It’s really a closure for these guys because a lot of them never knew what happened to their airplanes after they get out of the service so to bring them all together is quite satisfying,” he said.

An A-7 Corsair II was decommissioned and sent to an Arizona aircraft boneyard before it was restored by Palm Springs Air Museum. Photo courtesy of Larry O’Brien
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