Who’s your Daddy?

On Fathers’ Day some thoughts on what it means to be a dad

An American Family


During the last week, I had the opportunity to think about fathers and their impact upon others  in an entirely different way.  We had several men from my college ROTC unit and their wives to dinner, it was our 50th anniversary of our graduation from college last weekend.

We also had some very special guests:  the son and daughter of our ROTC instructor, a Major who died in Vietnam, June 9, 1966. During the course of the evening,  the son discussed how his father’s death affected him growing up.  He said he was often asked “who’s your daddy.”  A hard question to answer in a single family home, but he said he wasn’t in a single parent home, his dad was with him as much as his mom.

Then several of my friends spoke about the Major and how he had impacted their lives.  One man spoke movingly about learning…

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At RFK’s grave in Arlington with Jackie Kennedy – 50 years ago


Kennedys at RF Kennedy grave 1968

Like many Americans in 1968, the most newsworthy events played out each day on my television. Whether it was the Vietnam war, the protests, or the presidential election, each night my TV linked me to the wider world.

On March 31, 1968, as I viewed a speech by President Lyndon B. Johnson, he suddenly said: “With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office — the presidency of this country.” My reaction was what did he just say? Then he added, “Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” The thought that LBJ, probably the most political president in memory, would not run again was stunning.

With Johnson’s withdrawal from the1968 race, Senator Robert F. Kennedy became the leading democratic candidate. Then, on June 6, 1968 Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. Within five years the nation had reeled from deaths of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and now another assassination filled our TV screens. As the story unfolded on the nightly news, RFK’s body would be flown back to New York for a funeral on June 8. Then it would be taken to Washington by train for burial in Arlington, near his brother’s grave.

I went down to Union Station to be there went the train arrived. It was dark and late on a Saturday night and I climbed up on a wall near the station to see the limousines, hearse, and ever-present media move through the darkened city on the way to Arlington. I still remember the long line of dark cars moving away on Constitution Avenue toward Virginia on that warm June night. It was a very somber event, and markedly different than the reaction to the earlier death of Dr. King in April that year. Then the city exploded, now the mood was one of almost defeated sadness. Sadness that once again a life had been taken, sadness for our country and sadness for a year that seemed to be out of control.

On Sunday June 9, 1968, I decided to go to Arlington to visit the Kennedy graves. Despite all the recent events of the previous days, the area around the graves was deserted. I climbed the hill to JFK’s grave and saw the freshly-dug grave of Robert Kennedy nearby on the left of the main plaza area. After a few moments, I turned to leave. To my surprise there were Jacqueline Kennedy, John Jr., and Caroline. I didn’t know what to think: the Kennedy family was coming up the hill to JFK’s grave. When they reached their father’s grave, the children knelt down, and prayed.

Jackie Kennedy at JFK’s grave 1968

At Robert’s grave, Jackie placed a single white rose. She turned and passed very close to me, I stood there transfixed by something so unexpected that had happened. And then as quickly as they came, they were gone.

Yes, there were many stories in 1968, but not all of them played out on the nightly news. It was this special moment of that troubled year, I will always remember and cherish.




Version of this story appeared in the Finger Lakes Times as an Op Ed piece on Sunday June 3,  2018.

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Racing Back to Vietnam – A Good Read

There are few books that have really captured the world of the F4  backseater or GIB (Guy in Back)  in combat.

For Dr. John Pendergrass flying in the F-4 Phantom II in combat during the Vietnam War changed his life forever. Pendergrass’ time in the backseat, or “Pit” as we called it, occurred in 1971. Then as an Air Force Flight Surgeon he flew 54 combat missions out of Da Nang in the Pit over Vietnam. This was not something he had to do, as he states in his well written account of that time, Racing Back to Vietnam: A Journey in War and Peace.

He simply could have added his name to a C-130 crew manifest and had a much safer way to fulfill flying time requirements. He did it in the Phantom out of a sense of duty and a personal and professional need to experience some of the most high adrenaline, demanding type of flight of the Vietnam War.

The Phantom II had entered the inventory in 1960, so in 1971, when Pendergrass flew, it was relatively new. It was not a small fighter and the bird could weigh in at nearly 60,000 lbs when fully loaded with fuel at take-off. With its two big GE J79 engines, when the afterburners were cooking, the thrust could push it out there away from an enemy or engage him in combat. Every flight challenged the men who flew her, but Pendergrass was a different kind of back seater.

Most GIBs went to Nav School and had gone through an eight-month upgrade to the Phantom’s back seat; Pendergrass gained his skills flying on the job. He learned that the back seat of the F-4  was a place of G-suits, Martin Baker ejection seats, INS, radar, RHAW gear, memorized emergency procedures, and many, many circuit breakers. It was a place where one needed to be a contortionist, while tightly strapped to a rocket hoping it would never fire. It was a place where the man in the rear cockpit was valued and every flight in combat was never routine.

Long before the movie “Top Gun,” glamorized the world of the fighter pilot, brave men were engaging others over the skies of Vietnam. The legacy of the Red Baron, Eddie Rickenbacker, and others of the First World War motivated the F4 crews. Pendergrass noted that this influenced him and this became the great adventure of his life. If flying fighters in combat were a very exciting life, the everyday world of the Air Force, Da Nang, and  Vietnam increasingly intruded. Pendergrass talks about how he waited for the daily mail, dealt with the bureaucracy of the medical corps, and learned to function in a very different world. There were two sides to his life – one exciting, the other routine and mundane. And all the time, he counted the days until he would be back in the “real world,” and home with his family.

Yet, the experience of combat and Vietnam stayed with him. 45 years later, he returned in 2016 to visit a much changed nation. There he participated in a demanding “Iron Man Triathlon” while revisiting old haunts In Vietnam and exploring new ones. Such is the engaging story of Pendergrass – it is a 45 year journey that is still on going for him, as it is for many of the men who flew combat.

And John Pendergrass’s journey is one to share.

Posted in American History, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, Vietnam War | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

On to SEA in ’73

45 years ago this week,  a new phase of my life began.

On May 15, 1973, I kissed my wife goodbye at the airport.   And set off on what was to be the great adventure of my life – flying the backseat of the F4 in combat.

From Syracuse New York, I flew to San Francisco and then caught a shuttle bus to Travis AFB where I spent a night in transit status.   From  there I flew on one of the cattle-car contract transport flights — from 45 years later I believe it was World Airways.  This took about 24 hours to get to SEA as we hopped from Alaska to Japan to the Philippines where I would attend Jungle Survival School, aka Snake School.

We got to Clark Air Base on May 18, 1973.  My initial reaction was that it was an unbelievable world with shacks  built right outside the main gate and people always  hassling you to buy things.

The Base, an old army post going back to the Spanish American war era, with a large green parade field surrounded by officer’s bungalows,  seemed right out of Kipling.  It reminded me of the British presence in India before WWII, very colonial. I noted in my journal that “the temperature here yesterday was 98 with about equal humidity.”

This was not my first surprise in this new world, nearly a week later as I finished Jungle School, I returned from the trek to discover that my assignment had been changed from Ubon to Udorn.

Then I was off to Thailand arriving there about May 25th.   A new chapter then began in my flying career, no more practice – all real now.

Two days later, I was assigned to the 13 Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS)–the Panther Pack.  I quickly learned that I would be flying bombing missions in Cambodia by the end of the week.  GIBs (Guys in Back–i.e., WSOs) were in demand and I was told that I would be flying at least every day 3 to 4 hour missions.    

One thing for sure, I knew I was not in Kansas anymore. We now flew with survival gear and camouflaged helmets.  We had 38 cal revolvers, which I carried in a holster strapped to my leg, gunslinger style.

There was a push on to get me a combat flight before the end of the month, so that I could get my “hazardous duty pay” an additional $65 a month to fly combat, not a great deal even for those days. 1

On May 28, I had my first orientation flight in the combat zone — which my IP referred to as the “South 40,” as we flew across Thailand and entered over Cambodian airspace.

The  next day my first bombing mission occurred.  I wrote in my journal:   “We bombed Cambodia–it’s a funny feeling to be using real bombs. The mission was 3 hours and we had to refuel 3 times. Drawing combat pay now.” The relief and excitement of the moment mixed with the realization: “348 days to go.”

It would be a long time before I would be “Back in the World.”


1 Sadly it would take several months to see this bounty of extra pay as since I went to Udorn at the last minute, all my records and whole baggage went to Ubon.  The baggage arrived relatively quickly, straightening out my pay would take about 3 months.   I was able to get advanced pay until all worked out; it didn’t seem to affect my wife who got a monthly allotment.


Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, American History, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, Luke AFB, Thailand, Vietnam War | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

F4 Graduation Day

45 years ago in April 1973,  I left Luke AFB in Arizona en route to South East Asia.  As I graduated from F4 upgrade training, I was a very different person than when I began it.

Actually, I can say that about flying training in general.  When I went to Nav School I had been a non-rated or non-flying officer for 4 years.  That made me much older than the other men in my class.  I was 27 when I began the school, right at the cut off.  If you were older than 27 1/2 the Air Force said you were too old to go to flight training in those days.

As a non-flying officer the most exciting thing I had ever done was push paper.   Now in flight training my whole world changed.  I was now learning to do things that I never would have believed I was able to accomplish.

Whether it was learning to parachute,  mastering the complexities of night celestial navigation, completing a very demanding survival school and POW experience,  or graduating from  upgrading to the F4, I gained new confidence and great insights into what I could do and my abilities to do it.

So in April 1973, my class completed its training at Luke.  Our class photo in the 310th TFTS showed a confident group.  It had been another demanding year of training, simulators, and more training.  And now we were ready.

Sadly some of the men in the group photo are gone now.  I was on the left end in the back row, in front of me was my pilot Capt Don Verdery (second from left kneeling)  who went to Thailand with me and passed away several years ago.  Others went on to be far removed from flying fighters:  today a good friend is a Methodist pastor, something I would never have imagined in those long ago days.

Leaving Luke in 1973,  many would go to South East Asia to Ubon, Korat, or Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Bases, which were the primary F4 units in Thailand.  I was first assigned to Ubon, but during jungle survival in the Philippines, my orders were changed to Udorn, where I joined the members of the 13 TFS, Panther Pack.

To say I was a bit apprehensive is an understatement, but when I picked the F4 I knew that I was going to combat. It was a fact of life then.

Still if you look at what I call my “graduation” photo taken in April 1973, you probably would not guess that I was apprehensive.   I was proud of what I had done.  Proud to be serving our country.  Proud to join a long line of American flyers.

There are only two services that have a romantic tradition of service:  the Marines and the Air Force.  The Marines trace this to a mythic battle in the Halls of Montezuma.  Air Force fliers, especially fighter jocks hearken back to the mythic dog fights over the battlefields of WWI.  To fly a fighter is to walk in the steps of Eddie Rickenbacker and countless others who proved their mettle one on one in the air.  It is a very romanticized idea of warfare going back to the middle ages when knights fought battles in hand-to-hand combat.   All fighter jocks are the proud sons of those knights.

But for me those days were still to come.  So home to see the family, on to the Philippines for Jungle Survival School, and what the future would hold.

And what a future it would be.


Posted in 13 TFS, American History, Arizona, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, Norvell Family History, Thailand, Udorn RTAFB, Veterans, Vietnam War | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Dr. King’s death: 1968 in Washington DC

50 years ago, I heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., give his last public Sunday sermon at the National Cathedral.    

In 1968 I was a brand new Air Force second lieutenant living in Washington DC.   I had only been there about a month when a friend suggested that we go hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preach a Sunday sermon at the National Cathedral.  On Sunday, March 31, 1968, my friend and I, along with a crowd about 4,000 people, went to the Cathedral to hear him speak.   It was an amazing thing to be there.  In that much simpler time, anyone could show up at an event, walk in, and hear a famous American speak.

Dr. King was well known to me for his 1963 “I have a Dream” speech and to be able see him in person and hear him speak was an event not to be missed.  From our seats, Dr. King was a small figure being led up to the Cathedral’s high pulpit, but when he began to speak, there was no mistaking that voice.   Yet after 1963 much had changed in the country.  In the wake of the Kennedy assassination, the country had experienced continual upheaval.    Although President Lyndon Johnson had promised “A Great Society” the escalation of the war had drained money that might have helped the poor.  Between 1964 and 1968, civil disturbances resulted in large numbers of injuries, deaths, and arrests, as well as considerable property damage, in predominantly black areas.

During his remarks in the Cathedral, Dr. King stated to bring attention to this situation, he would bring 3000 poor people to Washington that summer for a nonviolent “Poor People’s Campaign.”  Further, he added that if nothing were done to raise people’s hope, the summer of 1968 would be worse than previous years.  The U.S., he said, spent more than $50,000 to defeat one Vietcong soldier, while spending only $53 for every poor person in this country.  Dr. King knew that poverty could not be successfully dealt with without ending the war.  These twin issues dominated the news and it was not surprising to hear Dr. King link them in this manner.  We left the Cathedral with much to think about.

The following week began well for me.   I was finally going to get a car, after 6 weeks of walking to work and using public transportation in Washington.  I mention the car because that was where I learned of Dr. King’s death on April 4, 1968.  It was late in the day and I was returning from my car dealer in Arlington.   I drove home from Virginia on I-395 which crosses the Potomac near the Pentagon and heads east near the U.S. Capitol.   Then I began to notice smoke on the northern periphery of the city, beyond the Federal area.  I turned on the radio and heard that Dr. King had been killed in Memphis.  I was stunned.   As I approached my exit, I craned my head north to see what was happening and it seemed like a large section of Washington was on fire.

Things quickly spiraled out of control:   huge crowds (some estimated over 20,000) overwhelmed the small DC police force.  President Johnson then ordered nearly 15,000 federal and National Guard troops to restore order in the city.  By the time the calm was restored on Sunday, April 8, some 1,200 buildings had been burned, including over 900 stores.  I had good friends who had owned a store in the riot area.   It had served a neighborhood clientele who had come to rely on it.  Now it was gone.  The owners never re-opened the business.

The restoration of order in Washington seemed to finally bring a moment of calm.   Yet, if there was calm  now, many, many storms were to follow.   1968 was a tough year.

In April we couldn’t begin to realize how tough it would be.


A slightly longer version of this story appeared in the Geneva NY Finger Lakes Times on April 1, 2018 to commemorate the passing of Dr. King.


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Not all the Targets were In North Vietnam- A tale of the Panther Pack

As the war in SEA wound down, plans were put into place for an aggressive training schedule. Now schedulers were faced with actually having to plan training, not just assume it would happen in the course of daily events. It was an odd thing to be flying combat one day and the next acting as if it had never happened.

With the end of the war there were few opportunities to see if the entire wing could go through a surge exercise. That is actually generating a combat scenario where all the F4s would be loaded and taxi as if they were being launched for a combat mission. While this had been common during the war in such large scale events as Linebacker II, it hardly happened in the new peacetime environment.

So it came to pass that one evening the entire wing was scheduled to do a surge, or as we called it the “Elephant Walk.”

Members of the 13TFS about the time of the Elephant walk (Photo courtesy of Sidney Thurston)

It got its name from the long line of F4s that were loaded with live ammunition and missiles, taxied down to the arming areas at the end of the runway, and then instead of taking off, taxied down the runway and back to the revetments. It looked like a long line of elephants on the move, large lumbering beasts.

I am not sure why this was held at night. Perhaps to make it more stressful to the crews and the loaders, but any time things occurred at night, Murphy was bound to be there. Yes, if anything could possibly go wrong, it did.

The arming areas were located at the end of the active runways. On the other end there was a location called “Mobil” where an officer was assigned to observe the takeoffs and landings and relay any problems he saw to the tower and ground control. Mobil was essentially a trailer with a generator for power and was manned all the time that flight operations were being conducted.

The night of the Elephant Walk, one of the lieutenants from our squadron was assigned to Mobil. It was his job to basically sit there and simulate the role he would have played in an actual launch. It was a pretty boring thing to do, given that the aircraft were not taking off only lumbering down the length of the runway, turning off and then going back to the revetments where the crews would put them to bed.

After about an hour of this, things took a turn in a very different direction. As the crews pulled the safety pins on the missiles on an F4, a stray voltage surge launched one of the heat seeking “Sidewinder” missiles. The missile flew off the F4 and as the Mobil officer watched it through his binoculars, made a beeline for the generator at Mobil.

Now picture this, you are sitting in Mobil, bored out of your mind, watching one after another F4 lumber down the runway, then one of the Phantoms launches a missile at you.

Needless to say the lieutenant dove out the door of Mobil — expecting the worse. Fortunately for him, the missile didn’t arm. It needed to go a longer distance. but it did guide on the generator, where it hit Mobil.

As I said earlier, not all the targets were in North Vietnam.

Posted in Air Force, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, SEA, Thailand, Vietnam War | Tagged , | 5 Comments