In modern history, various conflicts required different types of aircraft for different missions. Industry changed airframes and weapons based on mission, cost, and time to manufacture. During the tensions of the Cold War, numerous borders around the world were being contested, sometimes using military force. Communist and Socialist dictators were taking over many countries. There was a worldwide feeling that it could all explode into World War III at any moment.
In that climate, military pilots worldwide constantly prepared for the worst, hoping that being fully prepared would deter political and military action. This is the story of one of those pilots who flew in defense of his country. He prepared for fighting at high or low speed and high or low altitude with most of the missiles, rockets, and bombs that a fighter aircraft could carry. His missions in Vietnam steeled him for deadly combat. This combat experience prepared him to protect our country and our allies in the Far East and in Europe throughout a loyal career. This is my story.
Targeted Age Group:: 12-99
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After WWII, life settled down to a new normal. Everyone was happy, and becoming more prosperous. Was born two years later. During that time, tensions were growing with Russia, and the “Cold War” began. A Nike Antiaircraft Missile site was built just north of town as part of the ring to protect Chicago, Illinois.
At school, we were all taught to “duck and cover” if we saw the flash of an atomic bomb. The windows of my classroom faced toward Chicago, which was about 50 miles away. Most of that distance was across Lake Michigan. About half way along the coast to Chicago were Whiting and East Chicago, Indiana. A large part of those cities was oil refineries and steel mills along the shore of Lake Michigan.
On my birthday, August 27, 1955, a Saturday, I was at the school for practice for some special event that I don’t remember, since it never happened. My 3rd grade class had gathered in a classroom for the teachers to tell us all about it. While we were sitting in our seats, the entire sky toward Chicago lit up in a gigantic fireball! About two minutes later was the sound of an unbelievably huge explosion. The windows bulged in and out like they were going to blow in. There was no doubt at all in any teacher or student’s mind that Chicago had just been nuked!!!
Several more explosions were heard over the next hour as we all cowered under our desks, expecting to die at any second. Some screamed. Some cried. Some were just paralyzed. I kept thinking about what to do if we survived.
Finally, maybe two hours later, we got word that the Standard Oil Refinery in Whiting had exploded. Here is a link to the Whiting Refinery Fire in 1955.
During those days, awaiting the Russian missiles that never came was scary, especially for children, and news was limited to the 6pm and 11pm broadcasts. Most of my friends and I developed a strong sense of duty to defend the United States. A few thought that just loving our enemies would bring peace. I wanted to be able to fight back, not just cower under a desk. I decided to dedicate my life to defending my country.
My wife and two daughters convinced me that I should write down the many stories from my 20-year USAF career as a Cold War Fighter Pilot.
One night in Sep ’72, I was number 2 in an F-4D 2-ship CAS mission. We were trying to help a surrounded SVN Army unit that got into a much larger engagement than expected.
The FAC, call sign Covey, was out of flares and his rockets wouldn’t fire, so he couldn’t show us where to drop. All we could see was a blank black area with sparkles of artillery explosions all over the place. The arty fire was from both sides. We couldn’t tell friendlies from bad guys since the friendlies were nearly surrounded.
We reached Bingo fuel and had to head back toward Korat. A few minutes after we left, arty started a fire in the middle of the main group of NVN troops, so the FAC asked us to come back.
We went back while the FAC arranged for us to land at Da Nang (the only base within our fuel range by then) instead of Korat. The FAC had us drop our 2 strings of 12 MK-82 bombs west to east with one string on each side of the fire. That would head us right for Da Nang and get us on the ground safely with our low fuel state.
Pulling off target after the 30 degree dive, I was blinded by huge explosions in my rear-view mirrors. As we turned right, I looked back and saw the largest explosions I have ever seen growing and spreading over a large area.
It turned out to be an ammunition dump that a battalion of NVN regulars was guarding. We found out later that the SVN unit we were supporting used the chaos to get away with all their guys. There was no way to estimate enemy casualties, but FACs reported that the place burned and exploded for 2 ½ days!
Unfortunately, on our way to Da Nang, a rocket attack hit and cratered both Da Nang runways, closing them. We asked for a tanker over the water or Vietnam, but none were around. The few places north or west of Da Nang where an F-4 could land were closed months previously. All we could do was head for Nankon Phenon AB (NKP) in Thailand, the closest place we could land.
That was also where the Search and Rescue (SAR) forces were based. We hoped we could at least make it into Thailand. We jettisoned our empty drop tanks to reduce weight and drag and climbed to about 45,000 feet to get as much range as possible.
After many calculations and recalculations, we realized that Lead couldn’t make it across Laos to Thailand, and I could probably just make the Thai border, but not to NKP. The GCI controller started to arrange a SAR, and we developed a plan for Lead to glide as far as possible and eject at 5,000 feet. I would follow him down, circle once to record their location, then see how far west I could get before doing the same thing.
Of course, it was about 2 AM, so the location wasn’t going to be very accurate. We had no idea what terrain we would end up in. It could be jagged karst mountains, jungle, or flat plain. We did all we could do to prepare for ejection at any time.
As Lead’s fuel gauge approached zero and I had maybe 5 minutes left, a tanker called on Guard frequency. He said they heard of our situation and had the throttles to the wall “heading across the fence” (That’s the Thailand/Laos border.) We had never heard of a tanker flying into Laos before.
We pulled the throttles to idle and coasted down to his 24,000’ altitude using very little fuel. He did the most perfect “tanker turn onto fighter” maneuver that I have ever seen and rolled out of his left 180 degree turn less than 100 feet in front of us just as we leveled at his altitude. Kudos to the tanker crew and Leads WSO.
The Boomer plugged into Lead with the boom fully extended and pumped a few hundred pounds in. I stayed tucked tight on Lead’s right wing. I no longer bothered looking at my fuel gauge, because it stopped at the bottom. Then, I connected, got some fuel, and we all started breathing again. We both took plenty of fuel to get back to Korat and even divert if necessary.
The next day, we wrote up the paperwork to nominate the KC-135 crew for a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). I don’t know what became of that. They certainly deserved it. They saved two F-4s for sure and likely the four of us. No one who bailed out in that area of Laos returned unless they were rescued within a few hours. We were also nominated for a DFC, but it was downgraded to a single-mission Air Medal.
Each mission into North Vietnam was worth 2 points. SVN, Laos, and Cambodia were worth 1 point. 20 points was worth an Air Medal. Air Medals could also be awarded for single missions.
We arranged for the tanker crew to be well supplied with drinks at the Utapao AB Officer’s Club. I think it was a case of Chivas Regal Scotch.
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