Call Me a Fighter ‘Gator

This year marks 50 years since I arrived at Mather Air Force Base for undergraduate navigator training. To be honest, I had no idea what a navigator did. The dictionary definition wasn’t much help:

Navigator — Definition — a person who directs the route or course of a ship, aircraft, or other forms of transportation, especially by using instruments and maps or charts.

I often think back to my first flight in the T-29; military flying was a mystery. The nav trainers at Mather had not prepared me for all the sensory experiences of flight: turbulence, the aircraft’s motion through the air, the closeness of the cabin, and most of all, the stress that all of this produced. But, by the time I graduated, I was a seasoned navigator and better prepared.

Next year will mark 50 years since I arrived at Luke Air Force Base to upgrade to the back seat of the F-4.

Fighter ‘Gator, i.e., the navigator in a fighter aircraft or the Guy in Back (GIB) the Weapons Systems Officer.

Over my nearly nine months at Luke, I would find that I had to become like a fighter pilot. As such, I did all a navigator did and but also flew the Phantom. In SEA my flying skills would improve even more. Some ACs offered to teach me to refuel, and even if an emergency warranted it, land as some GIBs at my base had done.

In the skies over Cambodia, I often had the stick — sometimes the AC asked if I wanted to try refueling, such was what it meant to be a Fighter Gator,

Many folks have urged me to collect all my stories. So here we are in my new book Fighter ‘Gator.

First, we look at how I got to nav school, my challenges there, and what it meant to get my silver wings.

Then I focus on F-4 upgrading and my experiences in combat. The AC—fighter pilot—usually tells most combat stories about the F-4. However, we who flew the Phantom were a team.  I tell this story from my perspective in the back.

Leaving SEA, I went to Alaska, where Mother Nature was out to kill me, not the Khmer Rouge.

When I left Alaska, I left the F-4; when I retired from the Air Force, I did not think about flying in her for the next 30 years.

Then I met David Garbe, who reawakened my memories. These memories became the stories that, in the end, shaped my life and what it all meant in the context of Duty, Honor, and Country. I focus a lot on Duty, Honor, and Country. To me duty is dedication and hard work. That is why I was drawn to David Garbe and wanted to include his story in this book. He personifies hard work and dedication.

If I am a Fighter ‘Gator then David Garbe is truly a Fighter Builder.

The Appendix:  F-4 Phantom Restored by David Garbe

David first published this work in 2016 and graciously allowed me to include it in this book. 

Then, it was essentially a picture book, with many of David’s photographs showing how he restored the shell of F-4D 0720 and brought her back to life.   

David loved the Phantom,  worked to find a bird, get the parts, and rebuild the front cockpit area.  His story is a fascinating look at this process and the long hours and dedication that he showed in his quest to renew this bird.

And renew he did. She is the most beautiful F-4 I have ever seen. Everything is perfect in the cockpits. She gleams and sparkles and makes me wish I was 28 again in the skies above Cambodia with the long runway of life ahead of me.

In the introduction to Fighter ‘Gator, Col C. Richard Anderegg (USAF Ret.) a former F-4 and F-15 pilot, and former Director of Air Force History and Museums sums my story up this way:

Norvell’s story of combat, comrades in arms, air force tomfoolery and the stress of a year-long separation from his new bride and other family is told with a clarity and self-deprecating humor that provides a meaningful and wonderful read. He has the knack for describing the contradictions of life in combat—the professionalism and dedication of the aircrews juxtaposed with their rampant glorification of alcohol consumption and silly bar games. Although he describes himself as a straight arrow, it is clear that he has found a group of men with shared values: patriotism, dedication, valor, and an unquenchable thirst for excellence. It is a brotherhood forged in fire, and it changes his life.

Postscript: Folks as we said in the military Murphy’s Law applies: My friend Jim told me that the first thing we did in the F-4 training was get our manuals and then post page and pen and ink changes. That said, if you find a typo, I am a better flyer than proofreader, please just take a pen and correct it. Thanks John

Posted in American History | Leave a comment

Bridge and the Art of War

June 1973 turned to July. Most days, everything went as planned: TO-Take Off, rendezvous with the tank, take on gas—we loved the big gas station in the sky—get the target information. Contact the FAC; drop some surprises on the commies, back to the tank, and then home. Mission accomplished. In the first month at Udorn, I had flown 18 combat missions.

F4 sunrise over Cambodia 1973

By early July 1973, we had formed a bridge group. It is hard to imagine combat-hardened fighter jocks playing bridge, but many nights we often sat in the covered deck area and played. We invented the concept of B&B–Bombing and Bridge (and of course: Beer). It was an excellent way to unwind after combat. Indeed, we thought at the time healthier than spending each night at the club. Once again, thought is the operative word.

Many nights as we sat there, the base fogger trucks would come around spraying to control the mosquitos. We would be playing, see the truck approaching and spraying its white fog in the area and then duck back into our rooms until it passed. I later heard that these were the same trucks that sprayed herbicide, possibly Agent Orange along the perimeter.

Herbicide was used throughout SEA to defoliate areas. Around the base perimeter, there was a road that we often walked. At the time, we knew nothing of Agent Orange usage or the danger of exposure to it. You could see the bare dirt with nothing growing on it.

Near the perimeter were Thai homes, and we often saw their children swimming in the klong by the barren, dead defoliated zone. Sometimes we would see families taking buckets of water from the klong after the water drained from the dead area during the monsoon.

Although I didn’t know it, riding my bicycle each day to the squadron exposed me to it. The road from the hootch area passed along the base’s perimeter, and as I rode to the squadron, I breathed in the fumes of the spray. This exposure proved to be a time bomb.

Wing Headquarters

In the late 1970s, after I had returned to the US, I began to experience odd symptoms: my skin burning for no reason, and I had twitching in my arms. In the early 1980s, I became seriously ill. The symptoms included soreness, rashes, burning, and increased sensitivity to all kinds of chemicals. These issues continue to this day, but they have lessened their severity over time without medical help.

The air force flight surgeons could never determine the cause of my problems. Like many others exposed to defoliants or herbicides, these reactions only began to be experienced years later. Sadly, for those of us in Thailand, there has to date been no satisfactory resolution of claims for herbicide exposure at Udorn.

So each night, blissfully unaware of the dangers of breathing the fogger spray from the trucks, we sat outside, drinking beer, and played bridge.

And each day, it was business as usual bombing the commies.

Posted in 13 TFS, American History, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Veterans | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Some thoughts on combat

From the end of May to 15 August 1973, I  flew combat missions over Cambodia. That was the focus of every day – combat: brief, refuel, bomb, and RTB. Now it was over. The air war had ended by direction of Congress.

Almost immediately after 15 August, we had a stand-down of the wing for mandatory training not conducted during the war. Moreover, the schedulers now began a program to accomplish all our night, refueling, air intercept, and even practice bombing mission requirements. These are things that we had done automatically during the war on a combat mission. F’ing New Guys continued to arrive, and we, the old, grizzled war vets, welcomed them as much as we were welcomed earlier. Now I flew with a green lieutenant or captain who had just upgraded to the F-4. Now I was the expert on how we did things. Yes – the expert, but even that was changing for me due to the uncertainties of what lay ahead. Training became the name of the game. I thought how odd it is to be in combat one day and then training as if it had never happened.

In the Great Santini, Pat Conroy writes about Marine Lt. Colonel Bull Meacham, a fighter jock who needed a war but had none to fight. In the absence of a war to fight, he engaged in self-destructive behavior—fighting a battle with his family and the Marine Corps. Combat was the centerpiece of his life and defined him. It was not easy to be a warrior. While I was not Santini, my behavior after the war mirrored his. I was a warrior who now found that I missed the war. When we were in combat every day, it seemed as if we had accomplished something. We had a mission, and we did it well. Now every day was filled with mundane and, for the most part, tedious tasks.

For nearly 50 years, “Going North,” flying over North Vietnam, has been a siren song in my mind. The men who went north were called upon to do their jobs under the most demanding conditions. If we had gotten the order to go north so long ago, my friends and I would have gone. We would have flown and fought to the best of our abilities. We were experienced combat F-4 crews and ready to go into battle immediately. There would never be a training mission that replicated what we had shared and experienced in the skies over Cambodia. The end of the war, in many ways, was a hard adjustment. Not just for me, but others as well. We were warriors and the close bonds that we had forged in combat as Phantom crews were fraying as old heads now left, and new men arrived.

It makes no sense. I flew combat for nearly four months, yet I longed for more. I wonder if the men who came back from World War II missed the experience. Combat puts one on edge; one performs at a high peak. It is hard to come down from that peak. It can be exhilarating. To suddenly go from this high to nothing is hard. There is nothing that can ever replace it. As a teacher and student of military history, this was an issue I have pondered both professionally and personally. It is something that only those of us who have served in combat can fully appreciate and understand.

The men of the 13 TFS – Panther Pack – loved to fly the F-4, but there was more to it than that. Each time they strapped on an F-4, no matter where they would go, they would be back in combat in the skies above SEA. It was something that only that my generation of fighter pilots and GIBS would experience. Those moments in action defined us. We shared a special bond.

I would never find that bond again in the air force.

Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, American History, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, SEA, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Vietnam War | 6 Comments

The Brotherhood of Warriors

For the past months, I have been going through all the letters I wrote to my wife from SEA.

16 June 1973:  just when I was getting somewhat settled into my combat routine – we lost one.  An F-4 took a direct hit while dive-bombing a Triple-A position (AAA – Anti-aircraft artillery weapons).  The aircraft went in, no chutes, no survivors. This was a real wake-up.  When you fly there is a trap that many fall into complacency.  We had been warned about this repeatedly at RTU.  Although Cambodia was not as dangerous as flying north, it still was dangerous.  

Years later, I learned more of the details about this loss. In 2009, I read Colonel Phil “Hands” Handley’s excellent account of his flying career: Nickel on the Grass.   Handley told about his long friendship with GIB Captain Jack Smallwood and how he was stunned to learn of his death in Thailand in June 1973.  Smallwood and his front seater had perished at the time – although then I did not know the crew’s names. 

When I finished reading Handley’s book, I wrote to him personally and shared how I had heard of this event so long ago and how sad I was to learn of his loss then.  He graciously replied to me, a stranger, and yet not so much a stranger, but a brother in arms. Although we had never met, we shared this deep bond across the years.  The story of Jack Smallwood’s death so long ago had touched us both. 

This was recently brought home to me in another way.  I was admitted to the local hospital for a severe infection.  The first night there I was alone.  The next day an older gentleman joined me.  After a time we talked.  He was 99 and had served in WW II.  As he told me his story, I could see him as a young man –  he trained, as I did on a T-29, and became  a bombardier on a B-17 .

In my mind’s eye I could see him in his flying gear boarding a B-17 as part of the Eighth Air Force attacks on Germany.  That in itself was amazing to hear him tell me all this.  He was a link to the great air armadas of the past, the massive formations of bombers in the skies over Europe to defeat Hitler.  I have always admired the men who flew those missions in such deadly skies. 

Then, he continued, on the twentieth mission he was shot down.  He parachuted over the mountains of Austria and had a bad landing, breaking both legs.  For the next eight months, he was a POW of the Germans.  As he spoke, my hand raised in a full salute to him. My small way of thanking him for his service so long ago. A bonding moment between brothers of the air. 

Keith Ferris Mural National Air and Space Museum

We were brothers.  This is something those who have never served will not understand.

Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, American History, Mather AFB, Military history, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Vietnam War | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

My special love – The F-4 Phantom II

By 2016 I had not thought about flying fighters for a long time. My good friend from Alaska, the former Capt Jim (now Lt Col retired) suggested we meet in Dayton and go through the Air Force Museum. 

Capt Jim in Alaska

Jim was very knowledgeable and he and his wife had been our good friends for many years. So we said yes. I had taken a group of cadets there in the late 1970s when I taught at the Air Force Academy and really wanted to see their collection which included some legendary aircraft. It was amazing to see all those aircraft — every version of Air Force One from President Franklin Roosevelt’s plane to the 707 aircraft that took the body of JFK from Dallas back to Washington; a B1 Bomber, the XB70 Bomber, various versions of every type of fighter, pursuit, interceptor and Bomber ever made. As we walked through the vast hangars, Jim and I had a great time discussing all of them and I was glad I had come.

Yet it was an unexpected moment that really resonated with me. I was eager to get to the F4 and was not disappointed. In the SEA Vietnam War zone, Colonel Robin Olds’ F4 appeared in an area that suggested Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, where I had been stationed. I turned the corner to find an F4 crew cockpit on display with a ladder so that you could go up and climb in and sit in the crew positions. 

Me before a combat mission at Udorn

Now I have not flown in an F4 since 1978, when I left to teach at the Air Force Academy, but I was compelled to sit in the cockpit. Compelled it exactly the right word. I had to do this. I can’t explain it; it was an emotionally charged moment that drew me into a place that I had spent probably more than 1000 hours of my life in war and peace.

So hard to explain, but it meant so much to me to be there. It gave me a new appreciation for the men of WWII who flew the big bombers and how they must have felt when they entered a B-17 or B-29 years later after the war. Yes it was a very special moment. I suspect that many folks have the same moment. There is a time or place in their lives that is special in a way that they cannot begin to share with others. When they think about or revisit the place, they are taken back. Back to a time when their lives were touched in a way no one can ever know. Being in that cockpit again was such a moment.

Almost immediately after the trip to the Air Force Museum, I wondered what had happened to some of the men I knew so long ago. The Deacon, my WSO roomate in the 13 TFS, had died in 2004 as had my pilot at Luke, Capt Don who passed away in 1997. Not good news both died too young. So I did some more digging.

I reconnected with another old friend, Lt Ev, the WSO who had encouraged me to go to Elmendorf after Thailand. He had left the Air Force and then come back on active duty and retired also as a Lt Col. And to my surprise was now a Methodist pastor in Texas. I emailed his church and we immediately connected. We talked shortly before Christmas 2016 and he asked me if I had a facebook account, which I did not. So at his encouragement, I got my own account.

I went from no contact with the F-4 world for nearly 40 years to an abundance of sites. Many focused on photos of the bird, and I shared some of mine. As I dug into it more, I found a intriguing one: F-4 Cockpit Photos. And that is how I met David Garbe and my life changed again. 

David introduced me to his wonderfully restored F-4D 0720 cockpit.    David had worked on this restoration for several years and when I first saw her. She really impressed me. This bird was manufactured by McDonnell Douglas in 1966, the 1771 Phantom II off the production line and had her first flight 17 September 1966 and was delivered to the Air Force on 21 October 1966. She had several assignments from 1966-1969, then she went to Udorn RTAFB in 1970 where she would fly during some of the heaviest battles of the air war. She left there in 1972.  

In David Garbe’s Bird

I sat in her and I too was back at Udorn where I had flown combat missions from May – August 1973. In her the memories of all those days flooded back.  I once again remembered how it was to be 28 and in the great adventure of my life.  I can honestly say that I loved those days.  Its hard to put into words.  But I know I will never forget them.  And I thank Lt Col Jim, Lt Ev and most of all David Garbe for allowing me to re-live them again.  It was a great gift.

Posted in 13 TFS, 43 TFS, Air Force, Alaska, Alaskan Air Command, American History, Arizona, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Navigator, Vietnam War | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Homestead or Don’t Drown

In August 1972, immediately after basic survival my wife Bonnie and I were married.  We then went on our honeymoon.    She went to Arizona – my assignment and been changed to Luke AFB, outside Phoenix, and I…

Well I went to Florida for Water Survival training. Compared to Fairchild, this training was a vacation.

The course was conducted at Homestead Air Force Base in south Florida and took 5 days. 

The curriculum was designed to provide me with the skills necessary to survive a crash landing in the water:

Escape from underneath a parachute in the water– AKA don’t drown

Drag through the water on a harness–AKA don’t drown

Parachute into the ocean–AKA don’t drown

Climb into a bobbing raft on the sea–AKA don’t drown

Wait in a raft to be rescued for several hours–AKA don’t get too sunburned (or drown).

At this point, it may be clear that I went into this with some apprehension. I was never a strong swimmer, the crawl was not my best stroke. I mainly did the dog paddle combined with floating on my back. Not really a combination for a long swim at sea.   To say I could swim really was stretching it.  Floating on my back was my major skill.  

I didn’t go into the Navy– being at sea on a ship was not my dream job.  Yes sir, no taking off on runways that went up and down.  No landings that sometimes allowed you to use the skills you learned in water survival.   That’s why I was in the Air Force, which brings me back to learning those skills. 

The first phase included classes discussing signaling, life support gear, and how exposure at sea could affect an aircrew member. The concept was to make this information so familiar that if we ejected we were prepared. It was the same training philosophy used to train the NASA astronauts and it is still used today. The motto of the school was “Forewarned is Forearmed.”

The second phase was the actual practice sessions.

Escaping from beneath the parachute was done in a pool. Once in the water, the chute dropped over us as if we had landed there. It was a challenge to find the lines and use them to move to the edge of the chute and emerge. I had heard stories of men panicking under the chute, but it seemed to go well.

One down–many to go (and not drown).

Next we moved to the “Drag” phase of training. At this point the apprehension level rose a bit. Picture this: being on a large boat, standing on a “plank” for lack of a better word, in full parachute harness, and then being dropped 25 feet into the Bay of Biscayne.

Water Survival photo from NASA
Homestead AFB in the 1970s

I stood there and the NCO looked at me. He was really enjoying dunk the captain. He said something to me which I couldn’t hear and I said “ what?”

Bang, down I went.

The trick was to keep my head up, not swallow most of the bay water, find, and finally release the harness while being dragged along behind a boat.

Now doesn’t that sound like fun?

That done we got to be airborne on a parachute and land in the bay. And this was fun. Hooked to the chute, we got a running start, and sailed up to about 200 feet above the bay.

My good friend Al, an F-4 back seater from Thailand, later shared his experiences with me:

“We had our F-4 seat package strapped on, which included the one-man raft. We were expected to hit the water, release the chute, and escape from underneath it. Then deploy the raft, climb into it, and await the pickup from the instructors in the boat while bobbing in Biscayne Bay. All went well, and in no time I was enjoying the sun from my little yellow raft. Suddenly from the north came a speedboat with the driver and passengers enjoying the surf. They spotted me and turned with a big splash a few feet away and slowed down, long enough to say, “Here, have one of these!” and heaved a cold can of beer in a tight spiral which I caught with my left hand! My joy at my luck was quickly tempered by my guilt, thinking that a court-martial or worse would happen if I was seen glugging down a beer during an official training exercise. So I remorsefully put the can into my flight suit leg pocket to be used at a later time.” Al had all the luck; I had no boats handing out beers.

For me it was floating, floating, and floating–like Gilligan waiting to be rescued. All I could think of was “a three hour tour, a three hour tour, a three hour tour…”   

And  my bride waiting in Arizona.  

What we did for Uncle Sam.

Posted in Air Force, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 PhantomII, Family History, Fighter Aircraft, Survival training | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Rabies Shots

Today Dear Reader I have one word for you: Bats.

I sense your confusion. Is this another political commentary, an observation on 2020, or am I giving an insight into my general mental health? Well, no, it’s about the mammal: Myotis lucifugus, the common brown bat found here in large numbers in the summer. It’s odd that there are so many bats now. I grew up in a house built in 1860 near Oswego and we never had a bat in the house. Today I see have seen them in church quite often flying high in the sanctuary and my wife Bonnie has even found one in the ladies room when she lifted the lid. Yes it’s about good old Myotis and more: rabies shots.

First: the bats. In the past our bat encounters have been generally benign. Bonnie would tell me we have a bat in the house. Armed with the throw or a blanket I would swing it at him, knock him down and release him outdoors. In the past nearly 27 years that we have lived in this house we have removed about six or seven bats with this technique.

Now Part II: The Rabies Shots. August 20, 2019 dawned clear, hot and bright: it was our 47th Wedding Anniversary. I got up earlier than Bonnie and went down to watch the news and suck up my first cup of coffee for the day. Sitting there in bliss, I heard her calling me. She had discovered a bat taking a nap, near the window air conditioner. As in the past I scooped him up and let him go. Just as he groggily flew away, a voice in my head said: “Perhaps you should have called the health department.” Sadly this thought did not go away like a bat, it gnawed at me all morning. So I did just what you would expect I posted my encounter on Face Book. Why call the doctor when social media is right at hand? Really. As one might imagine there were several opinions about our actions, most said: Forgeddaboutit!

But one reinforced that gnawing thought in my brain. Our good friend commented that her daughter’s family had found a bat in their bedroom one morning and they all had to get rabies shots (even the dog). Ah yes, rabies shots. Rabies shots. Rabies shots. Well you get the picture of how this news landed on me. So armed with a new and increasing sense of dread we called our family doctor who told us that since we did not know where the bat had been while we were sleeping, it could have bitten us or scratched us, we should immediately go to the ER and get vaccinated. 

This was a Dirty Harry moment if there ever were one: Did I feel lucky today?

Well no I didn’t, so off we went to the ER. When we got there the head nurse asked “Did we call Ontario County Public Health?” No. “Then did the doctor call public health?” We didn’t know, so I called the doctor’s office and was told no. By now it was late in the day, we had been at the ER for more than an hour and I was concerned that the public health office might be closed soon. We called public health and my wife and I both had to tell what happened. After about 25 minutes we got the go ahead for the shots.

Well it was not that bad. Our first visit I had four shots: two Immunoglobulin, a tetanus shot, and the first rabies shot. Bonnie being smaller had only one Immunoglobulin. We then had to come back in ten days for another rabies, followed by two more rabies a week apart. We learned that in the ER the best time to come for our shots was about 6 a.m., when there were few folks there. This worked really well until the last shot which fell the day after Labor Day when the ER was overflowing with folks who it seemed celebrated a bit too much. Would I recommend this if you have a similar experience? Yes: any bite or scratch could be infected and basically it’s a roll of the dice.

If nothing else remember this to get a Rabies Shot you have to get Public Health approval. The good news was that any associated bills that insurance did not cover, Public Health paid. Our first visit alone was more than $22,000, with several other visits still to come and in the end we did not pay a cent.

This August marks our 48th anniversary. Perhaps to celebrate, I will arrange for Bonnie and me to get stuck in an elevator between floors. It sounds like fun, but I guess I will stay home and remember that golden afternoon on August 20, 2019 when I could blissfully sit in the ER for hours on end – without a care in the world, right.


A version of this story appeared the the Finger Lakes Times, Geneva NY August 15, 2020

Posted in American History, Norvell Family History, NY, NY History, Ontario Co | Tagged , | Leave a comment

At Fairchild 1972

After my graduation from navigator training in July 1972, I went almost immediately to basic survival training. When I got the F-4 aircraft assignment, I knew that this virtually ensured that I would find myself in combat soon.  

To prepare for combat, I arrived at Fairchild AFB near Spokane, Washington for two weeks of basic survival training.  The training taught the basic skills of how to deal with bailing out over a wilderness area, but since the U.S. was in the middle of a major air war in Vietnam, it also included a mock POW camp to prepare aircrew members for the possibility of capture.

The Training was officially called — SERE – Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape. Survival and Evasion and Escape were taught in the wilds of Washington State.  We were taken to the field and trekked for several days while trying to evade a force of instructors.   While in the field we learned camouflage, communication techniques, and how to improvise needed tools and equipment. We learned to build a shelter from a parachute, what types of plants could be eaten, and how to purify water.

In particular, one memory of the trek comes back nearly 50 years later: we stood on a ridge line looking over a valley in front of us. We needed to cross this area, where many fir trees filled the valley. Our goal was to get to the ridge in the distance where we would meet with our instructors who was acting as partisans. They would lead us to our campsite for the night. While we were on the ridge it was pretty clear where we needed to go, but once we began to descend, we lost our visual references.

Trek in the woods
Source SERE FB Page

Now we had to reply on newly acquired skills in compass reading, interpreting a topographical map, and land navigation. As we slogged through the brush and over rocks and other obstacles, the heat and bugs added to our misery. As the day progressed, we went through old growth and clear cut forested areas. These became more and more difficult to negotiate. Late in the day, though mostly dumb luck we made it to the rendezvous point. We were exhausted. The trek had taken a great deal out of us – it was a good introduction to what a real survival ordeal would be like should we be shot down over SEA.

The trek also served another purpose: it taught us that if we were to survive we had to learn to trust our fellow team mates. That was brought home to me in a very intense manner.  In the Washington wilds in August, we experienced  a very hot, miserable and demanding environment. After two days in the wilds, I was ready to SIE. I had never been through anything so intense and being a small man, it hit me hard. I was teamed with my friend Lt Ed, who had been in my nav class at Mather. I can honestly say Ed kept me going. He gave me pep talks when I was ready to hang it all up. Without Ed pushing, cajoling me, and helping me when I needed it, I don’t think I would have made it. Later after I was married in late August, the first night of our honeymoon, my wife looked at me and was stunned to see all the bruises and black and blue marks on my legs. These were the souvenirs of my time in the wilds of Washington. I would have other souvenirs, I gained during the resistance portion of my training: numbness in several of my toes having been put in stress positions in the POW camp experience.

POW training had not always been conducted at Fairchild. Early training was done at Stead Air Force Base in Nevada. Those who went through that program said that Fairchild was a piece of cake, compared to survival and POW training in the desert. In fact, there was a story circulating that a student had died at Stead and this had prompted changes to the program. Now there were always stories like that being shared. Someone knew someone who was there and he swore that it was the truth. Sadly, it was true. Stead was a definition of grim and those who went through it never forgot it.

That said, no matter where you went though it, the POW training was pretty grim. To get ready for it,  we had to negotiate an obstacle course in the dark. We had first encountered this course in day light where we learned how to get under barbed wire, cross and climb over pits and deal with a wide variety of things that we might encounter. My friend Donald and I decided to try to stick together and help each other. We had this theory that if we worked together we would not be so tired at the end.    

This plan fell apart quickly and we got separated almost immediately in the dark. Overhead there were shots fired and explosions to distract us. And it worked. After about two hours I finally made it across the course. I don’t know what happened to Donald. I was then tired, exhausted, and taken “prisoner,” From that moment, I was no longer an officer of the United States — I became a non-being: hooded, pushed, man-handled, and isolated from my compatriots.     

Alone in my cell, I anxiously wondered about what was to come. The answer came quickly as I was ordered to strip. A full blown strip search was undertaken as the guards commented on my male physical attributes. Or as they said lack thereof, which they were quick to point out to me. Humiliation was a powerful weapon and wielded regularly.

In the camp they kept me up all night to wear me down. I was put in a small cell with a window in the door and told that I was not to sleep. Periodically, the guards would come by and check each room to make sure that we were standing up and awake. It was in some ways easy to sneak a bit of rest as I could hear them coming and when they checked my cell I was always standing up. That said I got virtually no sleep that night. 

POW Training compound
Fairchild AFB
Source Flicker

In the morning, I joined my squad of prisoners. Depending upon your rank, the degree of stress and severity in the training varied. The more senior men ( majors and Lt Colonels) were made prisoner camp leaders and held responsible for the men under their command. The pressure that was put on them was very great and we lowly captains were for once glad that we were lowly captains. That is not to say that we got off easy.

They soon put me into a small box, about 24 inches wide and long and only 3 feet high. I remember I had to be hunched over in it and there was not much room beyond my shoulders on each side.  Now I am not a big man, I top out at about 5 feet 5 inches and I could barely fit in the box.  I cannot imagine how a man over six feet tall fit into this small enclosure.  Once in the box and the door closed it was total darkness and I lost all all sense of time. Even today I do not know how long I was in the box, but after some length of time I was let out for an interrogation session.

They took me to a room with a desk. Two men sat there and began to question me. Like a real POW camp the interrogators knew my background and used this information against me. They knew I was not married, so they told me my parents would never know what happened to me. As I was short they said that it was funny that the “Americans” would have dwarfs in their military. This gave them a good laugh.   Anything that could be used to break you was used.  

The Geneva Convention stated that all I had to tell them was my name, rank, and serial number. When I did answer this way, this made them angry. They said I was not a prisoner of war, but an American war criminal and then they left the room. I could see there was a large mirror in front of me and assumed I was being watched. At this point, I adjusted my glasses with my middle finger. That really ticked them off. That ended the interrogation. I went back to my cell wondering what would happen. It didn’t take long to find out. 

Geneva Convention Card

As the result of my one-finger exercise, they made me a “Camp Guard” with a rifle and I was forced to give orders to the other prisoners. My guard duty went on for what seemed like several hours until I was able to convince them that I was sick.   At the time, I could easily trigger my gag reflect and I started to act as if I were convulsing.  It was a good performance and they finally let me alone. Later in the debrief, the instructor would tell me that this was exactly the kind of thing to do to fool them and resist under pressure. He also cautioned us about pissing off our captors through stupid and futile gestures.

Once freed from guarding my fellow prisoners, I was sent back to my squad. We had been told that prisoners often were fed a mix of fish heads and rice by the North Vietnamese. “Dinner’ came, as it was, a disgusting mix of rice and something that looked like fish parts. In addition, it was extremely salty and impossible to eat. So we headed into a long night huddled in our shelter.

The morning of the last day, everyone lined up at dawn. The guards yelled and harassed us. They told us that we had performed poorly and we had made many mistakes. All this time, we stood at attention. We were so tired that some men passed out. The guards continued to scream and yell at us for an extended time. They told us we had not exhibited the right attitude. We were a disgrace and we needed more “education.” We thought that they weren’t going to let us out – it was so grim and we were so beaten down. They ordered us to do an about-face to head back to the compound.

And there was the American Flag flying on the pole, high in the morning sun.


It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

As Old Glory flew above us, we returned to our rooms –not prisoners– but American fighting men. Most Americans will never experience what the POWs in SEA went through. We had a small sample to prepare us for combat.

We had been given a great gift.

Posted in Air Force, American History, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 PhantomII, Family History, Fighter Aircraft, Fighter pilot lingo, Fighter pilot slang, Luke AFB, Mather AFB, Navigator, Navigator Training, POW training, SEA, Vietnam War | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

Silver Wings at Last

UNT Graduation 3538th NTS 

Mather Air Force Base – July 25, 1972

That long ago afternoon at Mather, the Officers Club ballroom filled with family and friends gathered to celebrate the occasion. The wives waited in their finest, ready to pin their husbands. These women 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 positions. The chaplain offered an invocation, our 3538th 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. 

My nav wings are pinned on the first time.

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:

Me an old man of 28 who had been non rated in a dead end job for nearly 4 years.

Me a history major in college who couldn’t do anything more than simple math.

Me who gained confidence in my abilities to do an important job in the Air Force.

Me with Silver Wings on my chest. 

As my sister pinned them on, I looked down almost in amazement that this thing had happened.

I was on my way to upgrade to the back seat of an F-4, but first other things took precedence: two survival schools. 

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Thoughts from the Pit

As I completed my time at Luke upgrading into the backseat some thoughts crossed my mind:

1. The Ejection seat was my friend and I took great care to make sure that everything was right. When I stepped in the seat, I looked to make sure that leg garters were not tangled, that the ejection handles were in the correct positions, and that the appropriate pins had been pulled. Then I made sure that I was strapped in properly. The last thing to do was watch for the crew chief to pull the upper pin and show it to me. Then the seat was hot and ready to fire. 

2. Air on Two – became a buzz word for anything that was starting. When we flew, the right engine was always started first. The AC signaled the crew chief to start;  the air and the external power were turned on. The whine of the J79 filled the cockpit, the RPM gauge began to move showing the rotation of the #2 engine. Even 50 years later that whine of the engines lives in me, I can never forget its high pitch and how the bird then came alive

3.  Phantom Bites and other adventures down under.  There was a tendency to hit my head on something hanging down from the bird while I was doing a pre-flight. We called this a Phantom Bite.  The crew chiefs always warned us about antennas and other things that would take a chunk out of your scalp.   Also while walking under the bird we had to watch for things that had leaked on the ramp, hydraulic fuel or other lubricants so that we didn’t step in them.  While looking down it was easy to walk into an antenna.  In addition to this I became very wary of walking under the tail hook, I had heard stories of how it had dropped unexpectedly and injured a crewman.  Now this many have been a phantom myth, but I wasn’t about to take any chances.    I am not sure how much it actually weighed estimates ranged from about 600 -1,000 pounds.  All I knew was that if it was strong and heavy enough to stop a Phantom, it was also strong and heavy enough to take me out.

4. Debriefs could be brutal. On my first flight the IP complimented me saying that I had completed the pre-flight checklist in the best manner he had ever seen. That was the last nice thing he said to me. I was behind for the first leg of the flight and I didn’t catch up until we reached the training area. Yet as the months passed I got better and better, and while there were always comments made about performance, they became suggestions about how to do things better rather than criticism.

4. Fighter Pilots could not talk without using their hands. Invariably the right hand became the F-4 and deftly demonstrated how to do an intercept on the left. Almost every debriefing witnessed this phenomenon. This was especially evident when they talked about BFM and ACM. BFM were basic manuevers; ACM were aerial combat maneuvers. It was impossible for them to describe a maneuver without using their hands. We WSOs got a big kick out of it. 

5. “ROE”– at Luke I was introduced to the concept of Rules of Engagement. These would come into play in one form or another the rest of my flying career. Whether war or peace, there were restrictions on what you could do in the air.  In war ROE would limit us even more determining where we could fly, when we could fly, and how we could engage the enemy.

In peace, these might be air spaces that were off limits, or specific approaches for an airfield that governed the landing.

One thing was particular to Luke.  We had to fly a very specific departure pattern for each runway. At one end lay Sun City, a retirement community; at the other there was a large turkey farm. If we overflew Sun City, the phones in the Commander’s office rang off the hook, if we went over the turkey farm, the birds were agitated so much that many of them literally committed suicide — running until they dropped.

Of course, we  fighter jocks saw that these two things were somehow linked as the turkeys who ran around until they dropped and the older retirees who became enraged to the point of apoplexy seemed the same.   

Throughout my career I would encounter many, many turkeys but that is a story for another day.

Posted in Air Force, Air Force lingo, American History, Arizona, Fighter Aircraft, Fighter pilot lingo, Fighter pilot slang, Navigator, Navigator Training, Tailhook, Vietnam War | Tagged , , | 4 Comments