Udorn We Have A Problem

July 22, 1973 started off like any other bombing mission. We did our preflight, routine, strapped in and taxied to the arming area. For this mission we had 18 Mark 82 – 500 pound bombs loaded, a more or less standard drop. That was 9000 pounds of bombs hanging from the F4 (almost twice the amount that one B-17 bomber carried in World War II). The munitions folks checked the bombs and pulled the pins. Then we were cleared onto the runway. 

We were the lead for the mission that day, which meant I was flying with an Old Head. Our bird, F4E 237, got clearance and we began our takeoff roll, I called out 60 kts to the AC, and then confirmed that the gear was up. We climbed up, passed over the Klong and turned. Still pretty routine, passing 1,000 feet and climbing. Now we were over the Thai countryside, off in the distance I saw a Monsoon dumping its afternoon load across the landscape.

Then, there was a violent lurch to the right. We were about 6,000 feet and dropped losing at least 1,000 instantly. Our wingman on the rejoin, held back to wait and see what was happening. A routine take off and rejoin seemed to have morphed into a bold face emergency.

The AC was struggling to control the bird. The stick moved but the bird seemed to have a mind of its own. Almost simultaneously, we both got out our checklists and began to run them. I checked all the circuit breakers, many of which were along my right side in panels going up and behind my head and shoulder. It was hard to turn to see them as I was strapped in tight. The AC continued his efforts to regain control, now the rate of descent had stopped, but the bird was not happy.

We were flying in a squirrelly bird with 9,000 pounds of bombs, and thousands of pounds of JP4 still in the tanks.

500 pound Mark 82 bomb load on F4

Not a winning combination. We got on the radio and contacted the SOF in the tower. He said we had two options: One, get the bird out over an uninhabited area and eject. Two, if the bird settled down, a big IF, we could fly it around the area for about 45 minutes to burn off the fuel in the tanks and then jettison the bombs. There was an area off the end of one of the active runways where we could jettison the bombs.

At this point we had only been airborne about 20 minutes, although it seemed a lot longer. We talked out our options. Neither of us relished ejection.  It all boiled down to the basic dislike of any fighter crew to leave the airplane while it could be flown. So we elected for the present to work the problem.

So now 25 minutes had passed and the bird was flying better, but she still was not happy. The AC talked to the SOF and told him we would be staying with the bird for the present. We were able to climb back to about 7,000 feet to give us more altitude and headed away from the populated areas to wait it out. The remaining hour was one of my longest in the air. Nothing more serious happened, and we dumped and burned off fuel, jettisoned the bombs, and landed safely.

That was the first time I came close to buying the farm in a non combat situation, although it was always possible on any flight – any time.

I would like to say I know what caused the flight control issues but never heard. Like many things, once a mission was over it was done, the only thing was important was the current mission.

F4 Aircraft over SEA

The past was past.

Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, Air Force lingo, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

I get my Wings


July 25, 1972; I remember the day well,

That long ago afternoon at Mather, the Officers Club ballroom was filled with family and friends gathered to celebrate the occasion. The wives were all in their finest, ready to pin their husbands. These were the women who had for the past eight months spent long hours alone as their husbands flew. Today they were Mrs. Lieutenant, but some day down the line they might be Mrs. Colonel. The promise was there, the men had done well. The future lay ahead, but on that afternoon they eagerly waited for the pinning to begin.

My fiancee could not be present to pin on my wings, she was in New York. The first time she would see those new wings on my blues was a month in the future at our wedding August 20, 1972. So on that day in July, my sister had flown out to California from New York to do the honors. 

We filed in by rank. The captains would graduate first and receive their certificates of aeronautical rating as navigators. From that point on to the end of their service, they would be rated officers apart from the others who were non-rated or “ground pounders.”

You see, even before Star Wars coined the term, we now were sky-walkers and we knew it. In the words of John MaGee’s immortal poem High Flight: “we had slipped the surly bonds of earth.” To remind us of this fact, the poem was on the first page of our graduation program.

As if we needed reminding.

We had flown.

We had fixed our positions by capturing star light.

We had done “a hundred things you have not dreamed of…”

The pride in our eyes could have lit the room.

The room filled, behind us all the lieutenants had taken their position. The chaplain offered an invocation, our 3538th NTS squadron commander and the wing commander spoke, and then the big moment was at hand. I walked up, saluted and was given my certificate and a brand new set of navigator wings, my sister walked up to me and pinned them on.

Pinned on my wings. The sound of that phrase echoes to me across the years.

Pinned on my wings. I repeat this as nearly 50 years later, its almost as if it were unreal.

But there I was:  An old man of 28, who had languished in a dead-end Air Force job before nav school.  A history major who couldn’t do anything more than simple math in college.  Someone who had gained confidence in his abilities to do an important job in the Air Force.

Someone — Me — with Silver Wings on my chest.

My nav wings are pinned on the first time.

The photo of that event shows me looking down, as my sister pinned them on, almost in amazement that this thing had happened.

Now, I was on my way to upgrade to the back seat of an F4.  A whole new world beckoned.

Posted in Air Force, American History, Mather AFB, Navigator, Veterans, Vietnam War | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

In the Pit

Having spent a little more than 1,000 hours as a WSO, I first had no clue what to expect when I left Nav School to upgrade to the backseat of the F4.

I actually no clue of what to expect when I went to Nav School. I only knew that if I wanted an Air Force career I had to fly, but more on that later.

It took me a long time to get to the Pit. I was born during the Second World War and grew up in the 1950s. This was an era when the newly-independent Air Force was coming into its own.

Coming out of the Second World War, the Cold War era moved the Air Force into a prominent role in the nation’s defense. While, Hollywood had featured Marine and Army action during the second World War, in the 1950s there began to be a shift to stories about the new Air Force. Some of the early movies I remember were Strategic Air Command (1955) with Jimmy Stewart, himself a pilot in WWII, and Bombers 52 (1957) with Natalie Wood and Karl Malden.   Combined with this, in 1957 the U.S.S.R launched Sputnik and the Space Race was on. The Mercury Seven Astronauts captured the county and my imagination. To be an astronaut you had to be a pilot, not that I ever aspired to be one, but I did want to fly. I was drawn to the adventure and excitement of flying and when the time came for me to go to college, I chose one with an Air Force ROTC program. 

I did well in ROTC, completed the summer cadet training and passed the flight physical and was on track to enter pilot training when I graduated. But first I decided to take a detour: I applied for permission to attend graduate school, which delayed my entry onto active duty to at least 1968. As that time approached, I had to take another physical, Whether it was graduate school, or the normal genetic outcome of two parents with glasses, this time I did not pass the vision tests. In fact my vision kept me from entering even the navigator training program. Flying it seemed was not an option.

In 1968, I was a newly minted Air Force second lieutenant stationed in Washington DC. My initial duty was at Bolling Air Force Base in the South east part of the city on the Potomac. There I reported on February 15, 1968 to the 1100th Security Police Squadron to be one of its officers.

I did not know before I arrived that this was in actuality the Air Force Honor Guard Squadron which performed ceremonies at Arlington, the White House and the Pentagon. I walked in the door and the captain in charge took one look at me and I could tell I was not what he expected. To be perfectly clear on this: Air Force Honor Guard officers have to be a minimum of 6 feet tall, well built, and not wear glasses. I however, was 5 foot 5 inches, built like a fireplug ( 40 inch chest on 29 inch legs) and wore glasses.   Clearly somewhere in the bowels of Air Force personnel there was someone was a strange sense of humor to assign me there. By noon I was reassigned to the base’s plans office. There I learned a valuable lesson, if I relied upon Air Force personnel to manage my career it would be very short, much like me.

Yet the idea of flying never went away. I didn’t give up. I had to get into flying training. Almost on a weekly basis I went to the Personnel Office and checked about getting into Nav School. My vision was still too bad to pass the pilot physical, but almost, almost close enough for navigator.

By 1970 as the Vietnam war heated up, the Air Force was burning through aircrews at a dramatic rate. Then an amazing thing happened: they changed the vision requirements for nav training, and I passed. Interestingly my vision was never worse than about 20/40, not the 20/20 needed to enter pilot training, but it got me in the door as a nav and who knew where that could lead.

So in the fall of 1971 at the ripe old age of 27 and 1/2 (the cutoff for flight training) I entered Navigator Training as a Captain — one of the  “Old Men” of my nav class.  There were 10 captains in my class, 5 First Lieutenants, and 77 second Lieutenants.

The next 10 months were a blur of training. It was a time of proving to myself, and others, that I could do many things I never had even dreamed of: learn to do a parachute landing fall (PLF as opposed to what the crusty old NCO in charge called my PFL– Poor F’ing Landing), move from my initial flight experience on the T-29 trainer: chaos in the air – which my Instructor Nav (IN) characterized as being “all A..holes and elbows,” failing my first checkride, but persevering and working hard to overcome this setback and go on to master some difficult material, to a point where I was a confident student navigator.

In June 1972 I got my wings: not at the top of my class, and most certainly not in the bottom. When the assignments were handed down, many navs went to SAC and tankers.  I was lucky to get an F4  WSO slot. If I could not be a pilot, I would be as close as a Nav could ever get to be one. 

In the fall of 1972, I arrived at Luke AFB, near Phoenix,  to upgrade to the backseat of the F4.  Training began with ground school where I  spent about a month in training before I even got to fly “Big Ugly,” as we affectionately called the bird.

On September 22, 1972 I had my first flight in the Pit.

Our bird, F4D 010, requested permission to taxi out of its parking space and slowly moved into position.  Now on the runway, the AC Instructor Pilot pushed the throttles which had been idling in what was called “Military Power,” past the detente into afterburner, and released the brakes.  The Phantom jumped off the runway. I called off 100 kts as we passed that speed and began to rapidly lift off. And we did our training, all by the book, at least in my mind. 

When we got back the IP started off by telling me that I was the best prepared new WSO running the pre-flight checklists he had ever seen. That was the last nice thing he said to me.

Clearly there was a long way to go to get to that 1000 hours in the future.

When you fly in the military there is a path that you follow. All do it. You start as a student flier, earn your wings, become qualified in a certain aircraft, move on as a squadron member, and then if you are proficient, and do well, become an instructor for others.

This Old Man had moved up that ladder to the third rung.

And the future, with possible combat time, lay ahead in that long ago year of 1972.

Posted in Air Force, American History, Bolling AFB, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Hobart College, Thailand | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Care Packages

Care packages are in the news a lot this time of the year. With good reason, the holiday season is one of the worst times for American military men and women serving overseas. It is hard for those who have not served to understand this. Paramount is the feeling of disconnection – not being part of the world you are currently in and not part of the world you left.

I experienced this nearly 50 years ago during my time in Thailand during the Vietnam War. On a holiday, there may be a big feast planned at the officers’ club or chow hall, but it’s not the same.   

Care packages were a way that home came to you. The modern concept of the “care package” may be dated to the period after the Second World War when “C.A.R.E.,” an international relief agency, sent packages to European civilians left in dire circumstances after the war. However, such boxes for troops probably date back to the founding of the Republic when military members often got packages with necessities sent from home.

Now care packages were always special, but sometimes relatives, in their eagerness to send things, did not think through the whole process. I once had a jar of jelly sent to me with no lid on it, only a wax seal that did not survive the heat of SEA en route and nicely coated everything with its contents in the box. Then there were the many cans of sardines that came my way. I had mentioned to my mother that I liked sardines and voila not only did she send me cans of sardines, all my relatives did. One would think that I was a very large Cat that flew the backseat of the F4 fighter for a living. Still care packages connected you with those far away.

In those long ago days of the Vietnam War there were no instant communications like email, Facebook or Instagram. Phone calls were an excruciating undertaking due to the about 12 hour time difference and the inability of the local operators to often speak or understand English. So phoning home seldom occurred, but letters and care packages were always welcome, even if the contents were covered with jelly or contained many, many cans of sardines. And the most special packages came at Christmas.

To send a box to Thailand nearly 50 years ago meant that my wife had to gather her few Christmas gifts for me in September and mail the box no later than the beginning of October to reach me on time. She had become very adept in making the perfect size cookies to fit exactly into a Pringles potato chip can, so each package had one or two cans of her cookies, and the requisite cans of sardines, smoked oysters, or potted meat. Sometimes there would be an audio tape that the family had made earlier in the year at a gathering. 

And for Christmas she included a small decorated tree which I placed in my room near my wife’s photo. There I sat listening to the tape, eating those special cookies, looking at that tree sent lovingly to me, and for a few moments was almost home.

Yes — the most special care packages came at Christmas.


A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Dec 8 Finger Lakes Times as an OpEd.

Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Thailand, Udorn RTAFB, Vietnam War | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Strangest Thanksgiving Ever!

When we were first married our first Thanksgiving was the strangest one we ever had…

An American Family


Everyone has a mental image of Thanksgiving that is right out of a Norman Rockwell painting: the family around the table, Dad carving the turkey, the children beautifully dressed and smiling.

Well not all Thanksgivings are like that.

I have spent Thanksgiving in Thailand eating gummy fondue and bagels heated on a hotplate, Thanksgiving in Alaska on alert, and Thanksgiving with folks who were mad at each other and not speaking – that was pretty weird– and Thanksgivings with family members who were always eager to share their opinions on my life and how it was going.  But the absolutely strangest Thanksgiving was in California in 1972.

My wife and I had just been married and it was our first Thanksgiving. I was in training to fly the F4 in Arizona and we decided to go to California to visit a captain and his wife who were at an Air…

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Thank you for your Service

“Thank you for your service.”

It’s a comment I hear with some frequency these days. When I served from 1966-1989, no one ever said that to me. In fact most of us who served in the Vietnam era were never thanked; yet those who served after Desert Storm and in the ongoing Afghan and Iraq theaters most likely were thanked. It’s an odd thing to think about: we all served our nation, many put their lives in danger, yet many were shunned while others were thanked.

If one could pinpoint the phrase’s emergence, it would be in primarily the last 20 years. One factor that changed the attitudes may be Tom Brokaw’s 1998 work, The Greatest Generation. His book lauded the men and women of the WWII era. These Americans survived the Great Depression, helped win WWII, and built a stronger post war world. The book seemed to touch a national nerve. It helped revive feelings that were dormant during the post-Vietnam period but had formed the strong support for America’s military in the past. Brokaw, then, tapped into our strong national pride and respect for our citizen soldier.

In our early history, rather than having a professional standing army which the founders feared, the United States relied upon its citizen soldiers to do their duty when needed. After their time in service, these men and woman returned home, put down their arms, and rejoined their communities as if nothing had happened. This is the model that worked well until Vietnam.   

That war tore up the social contract and ripped the country apart. Americans who served were cast as the villains (rather than the politicians who actually ran and micro managed the war). World War II was considered a “good war,” but Korea and Vietnam were viewed as failures. Desert Storm fulfilled the need for an American victory in combat and helped to shift the national mood toward veterans. In turn Brokaw built on this feeling and helped heal the breach between those who did not serve and those who had by showing that those who served were neighbors, family and friends who did their duty: ordinary Americans who rose to the challenge.

“Thank you for your service.”

It would seem to be a simple thing to say and one that most veterans would welcome. But like many veteran issues even this phrase can be complicated. There are several veterans face book groups and periodically this subject is raised. Some folks feel humbled. Some are embarrassed. Many feel it is awkward to be approached and put on the spot. It’s not that this recognition isn’t appreciated: it is.

Most who served have no regrets; they feel that they did their duty in an honorable manner when so many have not. Most vets do not see their time in uniform as heroic. Some well-wishers try to engage them in further conversation, which many find difficult. Questions like: where did you serve or did you engage in combat can be problematic and trigger complex memories and reactions. It is hard, for many to discuss their service with people they do not know. They are not close friends. They ask that others please respect that fact.

To engage veterans, then, become involved with groups such as the African American PTSD Association, Wounded Warriors, Honor Flight, VFW , USO, American Legion, American Red Cross, etc. which all need volunteers. A complete listing of opportunities can be found on the VA website (https://www.va.gov/vso/VSO-Directory.pdf ) There are many ways to help.

Also, take some time to learn about our military and what veterans have endured during their service. Some studies state that less than 1 percent of all Americans today have any ties to the military or veterans. Soldiers give up much to serve: enduring isolation, hardships and separation from family, and of course possible death. Most Americans do not know that almost every person who served in Vietnam was exposed to Agent Orange. It is a terrible chemical and significant health issue for many. Learning about these issues will break down the barriers between those who served and those who did not.

So what should one do when encountering a veteran?

If they self-identify with a hat or patch on a jacket – say “Thank you for your service.”

No more no less.


A version of this post, appeared as an OpEd in the Finger Lakes Times, Geneva NY, Sunday November 10, 2019

Posted in Air Force, American History, Veterans, World War Ii | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Udorn trots and other quick steps….

Phantom crews during the Vietnam War overseas always had the possibility of contracting local diseases.

Its not that we weren’t prepared, before departing CONUS we had shots for almost every possible disease:  hepatitis, typhoid, small pox,  diptheria, plague, yellow fever, all come to mind.  There may be more — I know I felt like a pin cushion when they were done.   I had shots in both arms and they did a TB test just for fun. And that was before leaving. 

At Udorn, every Monday night as we paid our bill at the O Club for dinner, we picked up a quinine pill to take for malaria.  There were a lot of mosquitoes and it was wise to be prepared.  At least I think it was quinine, some folks thought it was another drug, which could often cause severe diarrhea.    There may have been some truth to that as diarrhea was so common we called it the “Udon Thani Trots,” (although the base was Udorn it was in the city of Udon Thani).

It really didn’t matter where you ate, you were likely to get the “trots.”  I am not sure if they were caused by a bacteria infection such as E. Coli, or something worse.  Popularly we referred to it as amoebic dysentery.   What ever it was it was terrible.  The textbook definition:  Dysentery is an infectious disease associated with with severe diarrhea.  Severe is the operative word.

My roommate once commented to the Thai women who were cooking their lunch on a small hibachi outside on the deck that it looked delicious.  One of them replied, “We like we eat, You eat you die.”  She wasn’t kidding.     You didn’t need to eat their food.   Even if you only ate at the O Club you got it.  If you ate the chow hall you got it. If you ate at the Thai restaurants on base, you got it.  If you ate downtown, you got it.   Sometimes it would be accompanied by terrible cramping.

It was worse if  “the Udon Trots” struck while on a combat mission.   There was no way to deal with it.  Although I heard stories of an AC who used his helmet.

As an aside we had “piddle packs” for relief in the air, which I seldom used as I had an iron bladder in those days and could go 5 hours before needing to  “make water,” as my grandfather called it, but I digress.

I remember landing and literally sprinting from the crew bus to the closest latrine.  I made it but there were times when I wondered if I would.  I remembering running and yelling at everyone to get out of my way or else.   There were pills for cramps,  pills for diarrhea, and pills for both.  Usually taken after you were doubled over in pain or leaning over the porcelain throne.  For the most part they were effective in dealing with your problems.

What you could not be prepared for were the diseases that were more stealthy: Clap and other Venereal Diseases.   For me the worst example of that occurred  in my squadron – the 13th TFS.   We had a WSO, who consistently frequented the massage parlors in the city.  He was known not to be too particular in his choice of  “servicers.”  These places were known in the vernacular as “Steam and Cream” parlors – steam for the baths and cream for the servicing.

I don’t know if the women in these places were inspected, but like everything overseas: you paid your money and, as they say, you took your chances.

Sex for sale was available all throughout SEA not just Thailand.  I remember hearing “hey Sarg want to boom boom my sister,” as we walked downtown.  Now I was too straight arrow to do this, but many did.   As an aside my friend from college who served at Walter Reed once told me that officers did not contract VD, they contracted Non-specific urethritis  and that is what was recorded in their medical records.  I guess the logic is that you wouldn’t want some future general’s career scuttled by a bad night at the local “Steam and Cream” parlor.

And a bad night is what our WSO had.

He was not the most popular man in the squadron (he always thought he knew more than anyone else) so when it leaked that he had contracted 4 kinds of VD, someone wrote on the squadron scheduling board, behind the duty desk: “Lets have a big CLAP for C……”   I don’t remember that happened to him  Perhaps he was shipped off to Clark Air Base, as many were, until his Non-specific urethritis was cured and then sent back to CONUS.

So what is the moral of this story?

As Dorothy put it so succinctly:  at Udorn we were not in Kansas anymore….

Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, Air Force lingo, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Fighter pilot lingo, Fighter pilot slang, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Veterans, Vietnam War | Tagged , | 4 Comments