Flag Flies for Phil Keith

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In continuing its mission to take history out of the textbooks by honoring a local veteran each month of the school year, the Hampton Bays School District is paying tribute to Vietnam War Veteran Phil Keith by flying an American Flag in his honor throughout the month of May.

“The district is proud to honor Mr. Keith for his bravery and service to the United States,” said Superintendent of Schools Lars Clemensen.

Mr. Keith was honored at ceremony at Hampton Bays Elementary School on May 20. During the event the Hampton Bays Middle School seventh- and eighth-grade chorus performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Welcome Home,” composed by John Jacobson and Mac Huff. Middle School student Simone Scotto read the poem, “A Nation’s Strength” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The ceremony culminated with the raising of the flag on the district’s new flagpole, which was donated by the American Legion Hand Aldrich Post 924.

Mr. Keith was born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1946 and grew up in East Longmeadow. Following graduating high school in 1964, Mr. Keith attended Harvard University, where he joined the Navy ROTC and earned a full scholarship for the next three years of college.

Upon graduating Harvard in 1968, Mr. Keith was commissioned as an officer in the United States Navy. He trained on several vessels, including both diesel and nuclear-powered destroyers and submarines. Despite being underwater so much, it was the air that caught his imagination. He applied and was accepted into the Navy Flight School in Pensacola, Florida.

Flight training was a grueling 14 months and consisted of learning to fly a prop driven T-34 training aircraft and Lockheed F-9. Following this, Mr. Keith enrolled in advanced flight training, where he flew the iconic McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. In the F-4, he qualified to take off and land on aircraft carriers, including as the USS Lexington. In August 1969, he graduated flight school and earned his gold aviator’s wings. Keith was soon assigned to a combat fighter squadron, which was in need of a legal officer, and subsequently sent back to school in Newport, Rhode Island to study for the position.

In November 1969, he was reassigned to the “Fighting Falcons,” the squadron VF- 96 aboard the USS Constellation off the coast of Tonkin in Vietnam. During his station, Mr. Keith and his fellow pilots flew “close air support missions,” flying protective cover planes going into and coming out of North Vietnam on bombing raids.

In the early 1970s, and on his second tour of Vietnam, Mr. Keith was flying his 272nd mission when a North Vietnamese missile hit his F-4. Keith and his weapon systems officer were both badly wounded and the F-4 was badly damaged. One engine was destroyed and there was a loss of flight control. Mr. Keith, however, managed to fly the crippled jet back to the carrier. He was awarded the Purple Heart for his injuries and the Distinguished Flying Cross for saving the life of his weapons systems officer and managing to maneuver the plane back to the carrier.  

For the next six months, Mr. Keith recuperated in Hawaii and worked as a legal officer. He also wrote several articles for local papers about universities removing ROTCs from their campuses due to the unpopularity of the Vietnam War. The articles caught the attention of the Navy “top brass” and Keith was assigned to work in the admiral’s office before requesting to serve a third tour in Vietnam.

Although his injuries precluded him from flying an aircraft with an ejection seat he didn’t stop flying. Instead he transitioned to the Lockheed EP-3, an aircraft used for surveillance and reconnaissance.

He continued to serve in naval intelligence for another 14 years and retired after 24 years of active duty. After retirement, he worked for a software development company in Manhattan, ultimately as its vice president of marketing. After visiting the Hamptons one weekend, Mr. Keith later decided to purchase a home in Water Mill.

After moving, he started a consulting company and served as the executive in residence at Long Island University. He also started writing books about WWI and WWII and two others about the war in Vietnam. He is currently writing a book about Eugene Bullard, the first African-American fighter pilot. He has three grown daughters, two live in Utah and one lives in Idaho. His 13-year-old son Pierce is an eighth-grader at Westhampton Beach Middle School.