‘I’m Absolutely Convinced I Survived Because of the Real Presence’

New Jersey deacon searches for meaning in a deadly wartime accident and finds it in the Eucharist.

Deacon Joe Tedeschi survived a harrowing ordeal in Vietnam right after attending Mass and receiving the Blessed Sacrament. He later became a deacon for the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.
Deacon Joe Tedeschi survived a harrowing ordeal in Vietnam right after attending Mass and receiving the Blessed Sacrament. He later became a deacon for the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey. (photo: Courtesy of Deacon Joe Tedeschi)

At dawn on Oct. 4, 1966, Maj. Joseph Tedeschi was in the officers’ tent of a forward operating base in Vietnam. The division chaplain, who happened to be a Catholic priest, poked his head in to ask if anyone wanted to attend Mass. Tedeschi and his friend, Maj. Bob Ray, were the only two to respond. Later that day, both men ended up in the twisted wreckage of a transport plane, trapped among the dead and wounded on the side of Hon Cong Mountain at An Khe.

In the year of recovery that followed, and the many years since, Tedeschi wondered about what led him to that moment, what saved him, and what role faith, Mass and the Real Presence played in his survival and subsequent life, including his ordination to the permanent diaconate. Over the subsequent 55 years, he assembled information about the crash, its cause and the people involved, compelled to revisit the incident as “an itch he had to scratch.” The results of his research and reflection appear in A Rock in the Clouds, a memoir now available from Koehler Books.

Deacon Joe Tedeschi was born in 1934 and grew up in a small mill town in Rhode Island, before attending St. Lawrence University, West Point and Iowa State University, where he studied chemistry. He entered the Army in 1957, and in 1966, he was sent to Vietnam. He rose through the ranks as an expert in chemical warfare, with assignments that included postings to the Pentagon and a stint as the commander/director of the Foreign Science and Technology Center in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

After retiring as a full colonel in 1984, he began a second career with Lockheed Martin as the program manager for the Counter Battery Radar (COBRA) system until civilian retirement in 1999, when he became a deacon for the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey. He served the parish of St. Mary of the Lakes until 2020, when he retired for the last time at age 86.

Deacon Joe spent much of his life looking back on his time in Vietnam and the crash, wondering what brought him to that moment and what saved him. The memoir that resulted from his reflection began life as an affidavit to back up another survivor’s Veterans Affairs claim. “That was about 20 years after the crash,” he recalled, “and then I put it aside. I wanted to leave a memoir of the Vietnam War and my part in it for my grandkids, and so I elaborated on that affidavit. When I discovered the power of the internet in the late 1990s, I started gathering more and more information about the crash and contacting more people who were there. I only knew one other person on the airplane, so I had this big mystery all these years.”

His wartime experience began with a rushed and chaotic deployment to Vietnam to replace a division chemical officer for the 1st Air Cavalry Division. His duties involved working with any chemical agents used in the field, such as smoke grenades, tear gas and defoliants. He looks back with “dismay” at the use of chemicals like Agent Orange, which had a devastating toll on humans as well as vegetation.

In the war zone, he encountered Maj. Ray, a college classmate and fellow Catholic. On Oct. 3, 1966, they were observers of a South Vietnamese Army operation to move an entire village in an effort to root out the Viet Cong presence in the area, and the things he witnessed began troubling his conscience. “I was very much aware that here I was in this foreign land,” he says, “but I had to see everybody as God’s creation. What I saw there flew in the face of all my sensibilities as a Christian and Catholic.”

When they returned to base following that operation, Deacon Joe was ordered to return to the division base camp in An Khe to coordinate future chemical operations. He and Ray were to take a courier flight the next morning on a C-7A Caribou, a high-wing twin-engine plane used for short takeoffs and landings.

No one got much sleep that night due to expected mortar attacks, so the pair were awake when the division chaplain came looking for Catholics to attend his daily celebration of the Eucharist. “Of course,” Deacon Joe recalled, the priest “had no place to say Mass, but his assistant set up a field altar on the hood of a Jeep. He said a regular Mass, and Bob and I received Communion.”

The pair weren’t able to get on the morning flight; they caught the next one that afternoon. Thirty-one people were on the plane. There were four crew, and the rest were passengers, some of them injured soldiers being transported to the hospital. The flight was crowded but uneventful at first — until they began the approach for landing. Deacon Joe recalls looking out the window and seeing only clouds, feeling the pilot making adjustments, and hearing the landing gear deployed. Then there was a “sudden and loud roar of the engine, and the aircraft began to pitch violently upwards,” he relates in the book. 

“In the very next instant, I heard a shattering bang on the right side of the aircraft, and I began to be propelled up from my bucket seat. This was followed immediately by a second, much greater noise. ... I felt myself being hurled forward and up at the same time, and then came an instant of blackness followed by complete silence.”

When he came to, he was in a pile of bodies and seats, unsure which way was up. The plane had hit a “rock in the clouds,” pilot lingo for collision with a stationary object in zero-visibility conditions. What followed was a harrowing vertical rescue, followed by a long recovery period. Deacon Joe had a badly broken hip that left him in a full-body cast. He was one of the lucky ones — 13 people were killed on Hon Cong Mountain.

His war was over, but his quest to understand what had happened and why was just beginning. 

He spent the next 50 years seeking survivors, trying to learn about those who didn’t make it, and trying to piece together the details of the crash. The task got easier in the internet age, which finally allowed him to put names to the people involved and to learn the facts that couldn’t be known during the chaos of war. A Rock in the Clouds ends with the service details of everyone who died in the crash.

“What eventually pushed me to write the book was a spiritual thing,” Deacon Joe said. “I wanted to tell people about the Real Presence and how I really feel that I survived that crash because of the Communion I received that morning from an altar on the hood of a Jeep. I think that’s what made the difference, that Bob and I ended up in the last two seats and survived. We both were injured, but we both survived. I know my case may be full of holes. People can say, ‘Well, what about all the others? Why did God save or not save them?’ I don’t care about that argument. I just feel that Bob Ray and I survived that crash because we were the only two people responding to the priest’s call that early morning at Landing Zone Hammond, and we received Communion. I’m absolutely convinced I survived because of the Real Presence.”

That feeling never left him. For years he was pursued by “the hound of heaven” to do more for God, and that something more was a call to the permanent diaconate. 

It was a call he fled at first, feeling he didn’t have the time to devote to formation and ministry. Finally, upon retiring from Lockheed Martin, he answered that call and was ordained in 2002, serving until he started to “lose steam.”

His advice to those who feel that tug to service? 

“Listen to the hound of heaven that’s behind you. He’s calling you. He called me, and I’m sorry I didn’t answer it earlier. Being a deacon has been a wonderful gift.”