Top Cover for America

F-4 Phantom Landing in Alaska


From 1974-1978 I flew intercepts of Soviet bombers off the coast of Alaska in the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighter. The F-4 was the mainstay of the Vietnam War and I had arrived in Alaska fresh from a combat tour in Thailand, where I flew missions over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  Flying in Alaska was very different, but more on that later .

The importance of Alaska to the defense of America, dated back to when the U.S. Army Air Corps sent Billy Mitchell there in 1901 to supervise the construction of the Washington- Alaska telegraph system. From this Mitchell came to appreciate strategic importance of the territory. Over the 73 years since Mitchell, there had been a major buildup of military forces in the state.   As the Cold War engaged America and the U.S.S.R. around the world; they met also at the top of America.

When I arrived in 1974, the Air Force had Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, and Eielson in Fairbanks. Several remote air stations also served as forward operating bases including King Salmon on the Kenai Peninsula and Galena on the Yukon River, which surrounded the base and flooded sometimes causing evacuations.

Galena AB on the Yukon River

Aircrews sat air defense alert at the three bases ( Eielson, King Salmon, and Galena) Our home base was Elmendorf with crews rotating to the three facilities on a weekly basis where they sat alert twenty-four hours a day.

Flying in Alaska was a different challenge where cold was a deadly killer. To prepare for our missions there, all aviators attended Arctic Survival outside Fairbanks in the interior. There the days were even shorter and survival training entailed three days living in the bush. My training took place in December when the average temperature was about 35-50 below zero. I quickly learned what it was like to be on the planet Mercury with one side of me facing a fire – warm and the other side away freezing. We built snow shelters, which basically entailed covering boughs of fir trees with snow, and cocooning oneself inside a snow coffin. In the interior – not for the claustrophobic – the temperature rose to about 25-30 F from your body heat.

About twice a month the average crew member could expect to “sit” alert at one of the three remote sites for a week at a time. Alert could be very boring as the air crews could not leave the facility and were expected to launch within 5 minutes of receiving a scramble order. To wile away the time, crews watched movies, many, many movies. There was also some old TV on the AFRN network, Kung Fu, M*A*S*H, and other gems from the 1970s, and for the new guys – a proper initiation.

The new guys were always called FNGs – the F is self explanatory (every Air Force flying unit used this term to refer to new members). They were subjected to the type of military hazing that has gone on since time immemorial. In our case, it was not uncommon to put eggs in the boots of a sleeping FNG and then blow the scramble Klaxon. Boots could also be hidden, tied together in knots, or if he left is flight suit unguarded it could be tied in knots as well. If he left his ditty bag of toiletries out, red pepper might be added to the toothpaste. All this was done to test not only his to test mettle but to see how he fit into the squadon pecking order.  Make no misake every flying unit had and has a pecking order — Tom Wolfe talked about it in “The Right Stuff.”

Air Force F-4 E Phantom II Aircraft near Mt. McKinley

In Anchorage,  the summer days went from about 3:30 a.m. until 11 p.m. when dusk would begin to fall. Summer flying was the best. Our training missions were often conducted near Denali National Park. One summer we were flying a four-ship formation near Mt. McKinley, when we flew over the summit there was a climbing party on the peak. They were very excited to see us and waved, probably thinking the Air Force had scrambled our flights to honor their arrival on the summit. It was a nice thought but we were running air intercept training to prepare for the Russians who tested our defenses off the Alaskan coasts.

In 1976, ten soviet aircraft were intercepted alone.  An average flying year in Alaska could total as many as 5,000 sorties.  It was challenging and probably the best flying I ever engaged in.  My departure in 1978 would end my time in the Phantom as I headed off to teach at the Air Force Academy, but that is a story for another time.

Bats… a bit of personal history


Recently, we came home from our choir practice and noticed the cat wasn’t at the door begging to be fed, as usual. We walked in and called and called him and finally he showed up. I was in the kitchen and my wife Bonnie started shrieking – we got a bat in the house!

The bat was flying around and around in our dining room — I am sure it had a four foot wing span and had yellow eyes. It had YELLOW EYES!!!

So what to do?

Miss Bonnie said, “Let’s try to herd him out of the house!” So we closed off the doors to the dining room and got in position – actually I got in position, she disappeared.

Armed with the throw off the chair I attempted to swing it at him and try to get him to fly into the living room and out the front door. Think about that one! Well it made sense at the time.

After several minutes of “Lets watch the old guy swing a sheet in the air over and over,and perhaps have a heart attack” I was finally able to knock the bat down mid-flight (Please hold your applause).

This was fine, but then I didn’t know where the bat went. Miss Bonnie showed up at this point and told me next time to try to get him to land in the cat’s basket so we could carry it out and dump it. She is always very helpful at times like this.

Well, we tip-toed around and looked in the corner where he disappeared – No Bat.

Finally we found him clinging to the dining room drapes – I guess he was tired of playing “Lets dodge the sheet in the air.”

I sneaked up on him and grabbed him with the sheet (you can applaud now) and we hustled him out the front door and released him into the night where he belonged.

In the past nearly 20 years that is the third bat we have had in the house – ah the joys of living in a rural area!

Post Script

Further investigation the next morning seemed to indicate that he came in the window where we have an air conditioner in our bedroom. Our intrepid feline hunter seemed to confirm this as he smelled the drapes around the window and seemed very interested in the area – almost saying “Where did he go, where did he go.”

From the Halls of Montezuma….

Captain Freeman Norvell in the uniform of the First Michigan Cavalry.

Captain Freeman Norvell in the uniform of the First Michigan Cavalry.

Mary Irene Norvell Fisher Masse, writing in her memoirs in 1960,  commented about  her grandmother Mary Dean Redfield Norvell this way:  She had married young, the son [Freeman Norvell] of wealthy and prominent people.   My grandmother had  riches, a social position and the early loss of her husband…. She  blamed the war for bringing about the early death of her husband and the changes to her life.

The War had changed their life — a very telling phrase, but what did it mean.  His obituary only made it more tantalizing:  “Colonel Freeman W. Norvell, a well-known Michigan officer in the War of Rebellion and the Mexican War, died this afternoon.  He had been in poor health for nervous disorders for some time….”

My search to discover the whole story began in 1968 when I was a young lieutenant living in Washington D.C.  In the evenings I would go down to the National Archives to look at the military records of the members of my family.  I knew that my great-grandfather Freeman Norvell (1827-1881)  and his five brothers had fought in the Civil War, but didn’t know many of the details. In the yellowed pages of the files the story of Freeman Norvell came to light.   Freeman had resigned from the Command of the 5th Michigan Cavalry  for  drunkenness while on duty in 1863.   The file contained letters written about the incident both from his superiors and the men who served with him.  I was taken back.  Not the kind of news one expects to find, especially when the family never talked about it.

My father, himself a career military man, did not know about it and when I told my elderly aunts, they refused to discuss their grandfather.   And so the story ended.  When others could talk of the valor of their family in the war, my story was one that I often did not share. Then a turning point came about ten years ago.

Googling various members of my family I discovered that there was a great deal more to Freeman’s story. Not only had Freeman served in the Civil War, but he was a Marine Lieutenant during the Mexican War.  He served in the Mexican War, with Co. A, Marine Battalion in 1847.  He was breveted 1st Lieutenant for the storming of Chapultepec and capture of Mexico City, and appointed Adjutant, November 1, 1847.  He remained in Mexico until 1848.  During the 1850s, he was first posted to a series of ships and then to the Brooklyn Naval Yard.  He  had been citied for his bravery and actions at Chapultepec and meritorious service. Something did not fit.  How did that square with the man who was drunk in the Civil War.

Yet it would be made clearer that the one did affect the other. An incident provided a clue:  In 1855, he was tried by court-martial for drunkenness. Found guilty of the charge, Norvell was dismissed from the Corps on June 23, 1855.

Having flown in Vietnam, I knew many men who used alcohol to deal with the stress that they were under.   Perhaps Freeman carried a burden from the Mexican War that he found it hard to deal with. A letter from the 5th Michigan Cavalry surgeon provided the last piece of the puzzle:   On Dec. 31st,  [1862] Col Norvell while returning from drill on the evening of Dec. 30, fell sick and arriving at his tent was prostrated with sheer nervous exhaustion….

It was at last clear to me for the first time since 1968 that he had used  alcohol for self medication to deal with stress.  And the phrase from his obituary:  ” He had been in poor health from nervous disorders.”    Nervous disorders and stress coupled with alcohol use meant one thing to me Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Freeman carried the ghosts of Mexico with him and the stress that he felt could only be deal with by drinking.      According to the Department of Veterans Affairs: “PTSD and alcohol use problems are often found together.  People with PTSD are more likely than others with the same sort of background to have drinking problems. PTSD would not have been diagnosed in the 19th century.

That might be the end of the story, but  he did not give up after losing his command. In February 1863 he rejoined the Army in the U.S. Volunteers  and was with Slocum’s Corps during the terrific Battle of Gettysburg on Culp’s Hill on July 1863.   In 1864, he resigned his commission and returned home.  There were no further incidents.

In the end, my great grandfather carried a burden that he took to his grave. He was a flawed individual who put his life on the line three times for his county. And that is his legacy not the negative times he experienced.


For a complete account of the career of Freeman Norvell see my article on Colonel Freeman Norvell, “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Hills of Gettysburg, “Military Collector & Historian” Vol 66, No 2, Summer 2014,  it details his service as a Marine Lt in the Mexican War, and subsequent problems with alcohol abuse and  PTSD in the Civil War.


See A Civil War Mother for a discussion of all the Norvell Brothers in the Civil War

4th of July

When I was younger in upstate New York, the 4th of July and the Field Days were big occasions and as such merited a parade.

At first I decorated my bike and rode in the parade. Later, when I was a Boy Scout I always marched in these parades, some years carrying the US flag, other just in the ranks. As marchers we were a motley crew, all different shapes and sizes, some with uniforms, most without and seldom in step; which now strikes me as also true of the adult leaders, who were a mix of fathers, town adults, and senior scouts. Still, we seemed to fit in nicely with the rest of the parade.

The parade usually formed the school, marched down Cayuga Street, around the town square and sometimes down Fulton Street or back up Auburn Street to the school. The Hannibal Central School band led the parade. George Tripp, the director, had molded the varying degrees of talent, found in our small, rural school, into a remarkably good marching ensemble. Following the band came the scouts, some floats pulled by tractors, some kids on colorfully decorated bicycles that invariably won the rider honorable mention. Finally, the town firetrucks brought up the rear blowing their sirens, as the firemen threw out candy to the kids along the curbs.

One year, 1960, the parade marked the centennial of the founding of Hannibal and was particularly a big deal with two or three times the usual number of participants from all over the area. The Hannibal Centennial was not only celebrated with a parade, but also with fireworks. The Field Days always ended with a big fireworks display, that we watched from home as we lived on the top of the Oswego Street hill. There were usually no fireworks in Hannibal on the 4th, so this was a special event, most years the ones from Fair Haven cleared the horizon so that we sat in the back yard and watched them. Finally, a time capsule was buried in the town square to be opened in 100 years. Alas, now most of the beautiful, old square is gone, as the streets were widened and the time capsule is probably buried under pavement.

These events seemed to bring out everybody, which surprised me as every parade was always the same. I was a teenager and found this amusing. People would come early to get a seat, often bringing lawn chairs or sitting on the top of cars. I couldn’t understand why, as the parade would last all of five minutes. Now I realize that these events were the cement that held our small town together. People came not only to watch the parade or the band concerts and plays at the school, but also to see each other and be seen– to gossip, to talk, to inquire about family and friends, and to let their neighbors know that they care about them.

A Bicentennial Dog in Alaska 1976

Later during the Bicentennial Celebrations in 1976, we were actively involved in celebrating the United States 200th Birthday in Anchorage Alaska. Even our dog Niki was part of the celebration, and we helped to build the Air Force Base’s float, perhaps a skill I learned as a kid decorating my bike 20 years earlier in those long gone days in our small town.

A Family Torn Asunder

WP Belt DeathEmily Walker Norvell,  the daughter of Major Edwin Forrest Norvell and Margaret Smith Norvell,  was born March 8, 1871 in Michigan. On May 15, 1899, she married Dr. Edward Oliver Belt, a noted professor of ophthalmology and otology at Howard University,  one of the leading ophthalmologists and ontologists of the District of Columbia.

The family was wracked with tragedy in 1906 when Dr. Edward Oliver Belt and his two sons, Edward and Sinclair, died in a train crash.

Here is the story as reported in the Washington Post February 12 1906


Many of the victims in the great Baltimore and Ohio Railway disaster were residents of this city, and hundreds of the people of Washington had acquaintances among the passengers on the Ill-fated train. In no other household did death reap so great a harvest as in that of Dr. Edward Oliver Belt, a prominent occultist, of 816 Connecticut avenue, who, with, his two little sons, was returning from a visit to his brother, McGill Belt, at Frederick, Md.

Dr. Belt and his older son, Edward, were instantly killed, and the younger boy, Sinclair, five years old, died later at the hospital.  Dr. Belt leaves a wife, who was Miss Emily Norvell, of this city, and a three-year-old son, Norvell, who was confined to his bed with a broken leg.

Alarmed for the safety of her husband and little ones, Mrs. Belt summoned Dr. Morton Griffith, a personal friend of Dr. Belt, who, like him, had an office at The Farragut. Dr. Griffith readily identified the body of little Edward, but it was not till the morning was far advanced that he recognized among the charred and battered remains at the morgue the body of his friend.  As soon as the news of the accident reached Frederick. Md., Dr. Belt’s brother turned to this city and joined Dr. Griffith in his frenzied search for the physician’s body.

Dr. Belt Prominent in Profession.

Dr. Belt was forty-five years old. From his graduation from the medical school of the University of Maryland In 1885, he rose rapidly in the ranks of his profession.  For three years he was attached to the Presbyterian Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital in Baltimore, and later practiced In his old home town Frederick, Md. Dr Belt’s widow is completely prostrated with grief.

Emily Norvell Belt  died  in1952 in Maryland, where she was living with her son  Norvell Belt.  He had a broken leg the day of the accident.   Thus, he missed the deadly and fateful train trip with his father and brothers that long ago day in 1906.

Norvell Belt died of old age  in 1983.

Camp Life On the Texas Frontier

Spencer Norvell grave Elmwood Cemetery Detroit Michigan

Spencer Norvell grave
Elmwood Cemetery
Detroit Michigan

Spencer Norvell,(born October 13, 1814 in Pennsylvania -died August 12, 1850 in Saratoga Springs, New York),the son of John Norvell and Alexandrine “Kitty” Cone, attended West Point.

On February 4, 1838, he joined Captain Rowland’s Company of Brady Guards of the Michigan Volunteer Militia. On October 20, 1839 he was assigned to the 5th New York Infantry as a 2d Lieutenant and became a 1st Lieutenant on May 18, 1846.

On November 22, 1845, the eve of the Mexican War, he wrote to Emily Virginia Mason, the daughter of Stevens Thompson Mason:

I write more to remind you of your kind promise to write to me than from any hope that news from the “army of occupation,” as it is called, will afford you either pleasure or profit. : The details of a camp life are as monotonous as those of a garrison, our duties being very much the same, such as drilling, parades and such like performances. The encampment extends about three miles along the beach of Neuces bay on a plain admirably calculated for military purposes and surrounded by hills of a slight elevation. There are about four thousand troops present in tolerable good health, not so good, however, as is represented by the newspapers. We hear nothing of the invincible Mexican army and fully expect, (the 5th I mean) to remain in the country to establish posts as soon as the annexation is completed.

The village or Rancho, as it is termed, of Corpus Christi adjoins the right flank of the army, consisting of fifteen or twenty frame buildings scattered over the space of a mile, and inhabitated by a thorough a set of ruffians, principally Americans, as can be found anywhere. A soldier was killed by one of them to day (sic), a circumstance causing much excitement as you may suppose.

The territory between Neuces and Rio Grande being in dispute there is no civil law to protect the life or property of individuals, so that I have no doubt that this murderer will fall a victim to lynch law. A few scouts have been sent out without any result of consequence. They report the country to be very beautiful and fertile. The climate is mild, water bad, and wood very scarce; rattlesnakes, tarantulas, scorpions, centipede, oysters, fish and game abound. Two large panthers have been killed in the immediate neighborhood and a pack of wolves occasionally pay us a visit in the camp. A soldier two or three weeks ago who was about to sling his knapsack found two very respectable rattlesnakes in his blanket and I have myself killed sundry and diverse scorpions, centipedes and such like.

We receive mail from New Orleans about once in ten days, hearing through the newspapers, (for I have not received a line from a living soul excepting a dunning creditor who begs to call my attention to that small balance,) what is going on in the States. Indeed, we can expect nothing of public interest until the session of Congress when I hope you will trouble yourself if you should be in Washington to write to me occasionally without expecting anything like an adequate return, if indeed it were possible for me to render one under any circumstances.

This is written in the guard tent at two o’clock in the morning where I as solitary and alone in my glory, (very glorious for those that like it,) before a rousing fire, and by the light of a solitary dip (a burning buffalo chip). . . .

In April 30, 1849 he was promoted to Captain after serving in the Mexican War.

He died from diphtheria at Saratoga Springs, New York on August 12, 1850.

A Civil War Mother

Portrait attributed first to artist Thomas Sully (1783-1872), a leading portrait artist of the time. Later,to  the artist Jacob Eichholtz (1776-1842).

Portrait attributed first to artist Thomas Sully (1783-1872), a leading portrait artist of the time. Later,to the artist Jacob Eichholtz (1776-1842).

All but two of Isabella Hodgkiss Freeman Norvell’s eight sons served in the Union forces.

Barry Norvell , a civil engineer, died of yellow fever in 1858, aboard the steamer John Bell on the Ohio River.

James Knox Polk Norvell was born in 1845 while Polk was President of the United States, and therefore too young to serve when the War began in 1861.

Colonel Freeman Norvell first served in the First Michigan cavalry and then the 5th Michigan, entered the service as Captain, he also had served as a Marine Lieutenant in the Halls of Montezuma in 1848 during the Mexican War.

Major John Mason Norvell of the Second Michigan infantry, entered the service as First Lieutenant.

Lieutenant Edwin Forrest Norvell served in the First Michigan cavalry and then the 5th.

Lieutenant Alfred Cuthbert Norvell served in the Twenty-third Michigan infantry and Lieutenant Stevens Thompson Norvell was in the Fifth U. S. Regulars. Both Alfred and Stevens enlisted as privates.

Dallas Norvell, was a Commissary Sergeant of the Fifth Michigan cavalry, and later a Lieutenant. Edwin Forrest Norvell and Dallas Norvell later served on the staff of General George A. Custer.

During the ten months in 1863 when Dallas Norvell served, Isabella Norvell had six sons in service. Throughout the duration there was no day when she did not have at least three sons in uniform.

All six survived.



Edwin Forrest Norvell died young in a carriage accident in 1876.

Freeman Norvell would later return to Detroit where he at one time was the co-owner of the Detroit Free Press and died of pneumonia in 1881.

John Mason Norvell served in the Army for the remainder of his life; he died in 1892.

Dallas Norvell, resigned from the service during the war for medical reasons –he was subject to seizures– and after the war moved to Canada where he died in 1888.

Stevens Thompson Norvell, like his brother John Mason, continued in the Army first as an officer with the famed “Buffalo Soldiers” on the plains, and later serving with Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill.  He died in 1911.

Finally Alfred Cuthbert Norvell, suffering from depression and possibly PTSD, committed suicide in 1883 by shooting himself in the heart with a pistol.