Cliff Cushman: a Jayhawk, an Olympian and an MIA Veteran

This column is what I submitted for the Jim Murray Memorial Award in 2015. I, along with five other extremely talented student journalists from around the country, were selected as winners. At this time, this is not intended for reprint.

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Cliff Cushman: a Jayhawk, an Olympian and an MIA Veteran

Cliff Cushman wanted to buy life insurance. The healthy, 27-year-old wanted to purchase a $25,000 policy, but was turned away.

Five days earlier, the Air Force pilot received his orders. He was going to Vietnam.

Just five years before, in the summer of 1960, Cushman competed at the United States Olympic Trials against the best of the best in the 400-meter hurdles. The top six finished within 0.9 seconds of one another. Cushman finished third, and took the last United States spot for the Olympic Games in Rome.

All three Americans—Glenn Davis, Dick Howard and Cushman—advanced to the finals. Glenn Davis clinched the Olympic record and the gold medal by two-tenths of a second, with Cushman earning the silver medal, and Howard finishing third.

At the University of Kansas, Cushman earned All-American status in 1959 for his NCAA runner-up performance in the 400-meter hurdles. In that same year, Kansas won its first NCAA Championship in track and field. The following season, in 1960, just months before the Olympics, Cushman captained the 1960 Kansas squad and one-upped his performance at the NCAA Championships from the season before, winning the 400-meter hurdles. That performance led Kansas to its second-straight national title.

Cliff Cushman. Photo credit: Grand Forks Herald
Cliff Cushman. Photo credit: Grand Forks Herald

Cushman received his orders for Vietnam around Thanksgiving Day 1965 and almost immediately attempted to purchase a life insurance policy in order to help out his young wife and newborn son in case he didn’t return. Cushman wanted Bill Dotson, an insurance agent for New York Life at the time, to draft him an insurance policy. Dotson was a long-time friend of Cushman’s. The two were teammates and did nearly everything from flying planes to running together.

But Dotson couldn’t write Cushman a policy. Insurance companies were not allowed to draft policies for men who had received their orders. Going to Vietnam was a death sentence.

“That’s the first time I ever saw him worried,” Dotson said in a recent interview. “I think his mind was telling him, ‘Maybe I’m not coming back.’”

Dotson said watching Cushman run was like looking at piece of art. “When he ran over those hurdles, it was amazing. He was so smooth. He had such a powerful stride. His form was almost perfect. Every time he went out there, you knew he was going to win.”

Except for the last time.

September 13, 1964: The thermometer registered at 70 degrees at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and Cushman’s hopes at winning the 1964 Olympic gold in the 400-meter hurdles lay with him on the cinder track. Cushman had done something he rarely did: Fall.

He came over the fifth hurdle too low, catching his shoe on the top of the hurdle. Cushman was badly bruised and couldn’t finish the race.

He wrote the “Letter to Youth” after the end of his track and field career.

“Don’t feel sorry for me. I feel sorry for some of you!” Cushman wrote. “In a split second all the many years of training, pain, sweat, blisters and agony of running were simply and irrevocably wiped out. But I tried! I would much rather fail knowing I had to put forth an honest effort than never to have tried at all.”

Dotson said whatever Cushman was called to do, he would go out and do it.

Less than a month after being stationed in Vietnam, on September 25, 1966, Captain Clifton Cushman took the air for the last time. He piloted an F-105D, the only aircraft in U.S. military history to be pulled from combat for high mortality rates.

Cushman and two other pilots were conducting a combat mission during the afternoon to bomb a railroad bridge. “Devil 2” was Cushman’s call sign.

Once they had pulled off the target, Cushman radioed that he had been hit by enemy fire and his fire warning light had come on.

One of the other pilots on the mission saw Cushman’s plane burst into flames and break into several pieces, as Cushman ejected. He was never seen or heard from again.

His plane crashed into a remote area, making his recovery impossible. He was listed as missing in action. He maintained that status until Nov. 6, 1975, when he was declared dead. His body was never recovered.

Even though Cushman never made it home, his legacy remains.

His full name, Clifton Emmet Cushman, is etched in the native Kansas limestone that makes up the Vietnam War Memorial at the University of Kansas. His name lives on at his high school in North Dakota, whose football stadium bears his name. His memory lives on with Dotson, who said he always tries to talk to Cushman right before he goes to sleep.

He’ll always be remembered for the two NCAA Championships he helped win, for the individual national title he brought home, for the Olympic silver medal he earned in Rome, and for his ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam.

50 years later, people are still living up to one of his philosophies:

“Do something worthwhile with your life. If you’re going to do it, do it in a way you’ll be noted for.”

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