Editor’s note: This is one of a series of articles that will run until Labor Day in advance of the Shelby County Historical Society’s Week of Valor, including the return to Sidney of the Vietnam Memorial replica wall and a Field of Valor featuring American flags in Custenborder Park. Flags for the Field of Valor can be purchased by calling 498-1653. The project commemorates 2015 as the anniversary of the beginning or end of several U.S. armed conflicts. This series will include stories about most of America’s wars. Today, a Shelby County resident recalls his role in the Bosnian War of the mid-1990s.
RURAL SHELBY COUNTY — Keith Putnam, of rural Shelby County near Conover, likens his flights as a U.S. Navy navigator during the war in Bosnia to those portrayed in the 1986 movie, “Top Gun.”
The Fairlawn High School graduate had joined the Navy ROTC while he was a student at Ohio State University. He joined the Navy full time in March 1971, was commissioned an ensign and got his training at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. After stints in San Diego, San Francisco and Alameda, California, Putnam was stationed on Guam for two and a half years. His wife, Jeanie, joined him there.
He flew in the Ea-3b Skywarrior, a plane used for electronic reconnaissance. Putnam earned an air medal for flying 34 combat missions in Vietnam.
“But I was at the end of the war,” he said. Later, he navigated a plane for an air show the U.S. put on for the Shah of Iran.
“I was in India, Mombasa (Kenya), Singapore, Hong Kong. I really was all over the Pacific. The primary thing we did was fly 89 electronic reconnaissance missions over Russia,” he said. He and his fellow crew members transmitted and reported to the U.S. whatever Russia was sending out over the airwaves to its military. Most of the time, Putnam had no idea what the transmissions were.
“I didn’t always have the need to know, so I didn’t know. I flew the track,” he said. He sat to the right of the pilot in the cockpit.
“VQ-1 is the squadron. They’re still doing what I did,” Putnam noted. Eventually, he returned to Pensacola to instruct other aviators. He earned a master’s degree at the University of West Florida and left the Navy in July 1977.
“Then I joined the Navy Reserve in Detroit,” he said. A reservist for 16 years, he flew a Lockheed P-3, an antisubmarine and surveillance aircraft, which is what took him on three combat missions over Bosnia in late 1992 and June 1993, including the first combat mission of Operation Maritime Guard.
The war in Bosnia had begun in 1992 after what had been Yugoslavia broke into four countries following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. War in Slovenia and Croatia had prompted the United Nations to send peacekeeping forces to the region. Serbian forces on the orders of dictator Slobodan Milosevic had engaged in ethnic cleansing to a degree that shocked the western world.
In addition to the ground forces, the U.N. imposed an arms embargo and had set up a “picket line” of ships off the coast of Yugoslavia.
“We were monitoring all ship traffic (from the air),” Putnam said. “But what we were really looking for was — there was some Italian faction trying to run probably guns on the black market. They had cigar boats that moved really fast. But we could see them. If we saw a ship going south to north, we’d do a low fly-by and query them.”
Were they cargo ships? Tankers? Did anything look suspicious? Ships tried to run the blockade.
“We were flying 500 feet from the stern,” Putnam said. Usually, the fly-by would scare them off. But the crew on which Putnam served had specific orders if the ship didn’t change course.
“I carried live torpedoes and cluster bombs. We were briefed so we knew we were carrying live ammunition. We were told that if we were sent a message, we go to an exact location and drop the cluster bombs,” Putnam said. “… that seems strange and seems irrational — no explanation given — they said just to it …” he wrote in his diary 23 years ago.
On one mission, a Yugoslavian ship “painted” Putnam’s aircraft with a radar that was not typical search radar.
“That’s a big deal, because that’s how you get shot down,” Putnam said. “We were cherishing everything. We weren’t taking anything for granted.” The plane wasn’t shot down.
“I just had to put him in God’s hands and if he comes back, it’s a gift,” Jeanie said of what it was like to watch her husband leave for duty.
When Putnam wasn’t on duty as a reservist, he was a science teacher at Anna Middle School. His students had no idea that he spent 75-100 days a year with the Navy, no idea that he was involved in a war half a world away. During his down time on those military weekends, he sat in his barracks and graded their homework papers.
Keith and Jeanie were amused when their friends became worried about what Keith might have been into. The FBI had come knocking on their doors, asking questions about the Putnams. But it was just to assure that Keith qualified for the top security clearance he needed in order to navigate the naval missions.
He left the reserves in October 1993. The Bosnian War escalated in 1995. Bosnian Serb commanders executed more than 7,000 men in Srebrenica and exploded a mortar shell in a busy market in Sarajevo. Those actions resulted in a heavy offensive by ground forces and NATO air strikes. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Europe Richard Holbrooke brokered a cease-fire agreement that ended the fighting.
Peace negotiations took place in Dayton in November 1993. The Dayton Accords were signed in Paris in December of that year.
Now a retired teacher as well as a retired naval officer — he left the service with the rank of commander — Putnam enjoys traveling, salt-water fishing in Florida and bicycling.
“I bicycle 1,000 miles a year,” he said. He also is active in a group that saves military airplanes and gets them into museums. He and Jeanie have two children and four grandchildren.
“Keith’s father was a retired Navy commander,” Jeanie said. “We expected our children to respect what their dad was doing.” Putnam has proudly kept his helmet and leather flight jacket.
“My first combat mission in Vietnam was in June 1972 at age 23. Twenty-one years later, I flew my last combat mission. A combat mission is defined as an operational flight in which exposure to enemy fire is probable and expected. I doubt if there are any other naval aviators that have ever done that during this time period … and very few, if any, 44-year-old naval aviators are flying combat missions after reaching the rank of commander,” he said.
But he had grown up in the family of a Navy commander and had decided early on what was important.
He displays a framed quote from Revolutionary War Gen. Israel Putnam, who is of no relation to Keith, “If there’s a need, you leave your plow and go fight.”