Freedom Bird

45 years ago, this week in  April, I boarded a “Freedom Bird” heading home from Thailand after a year-long remote combat tour.

It was a year filled with many things:  honing my flying skills as a backseater in the F4, learning to deal with a whole new world, and being away from my wife —  being  gone from her for a whole year was a very difficult thing to do.

Much of that long-ago year revolved around combat.

The first four months, I was there,  as a member of the 13 Tactical Fighter Squadron, nearly every day, we bombed Cambodia hitting enemy positions.  Then, the bombing halted on August 15, 1973 at the direction of Congress.  Now we were in limbo.  There was always the chance the bombing could be renewed if the peace fell apart.  We wondered what would  happen if we had to “Go North.” We  were experienced combat F4 crews and ready to go into battle immediately, if called upon to do so.   But we never flew combat again.

I have thought about combat now for 45 years. I have worked through my mind my time in combat and read extensively about the experiences of others.    It’s hard to compare combat experiences.  There are many  commonalities, but  every man has a different story to tell.

To be honest, I wished I had gone North.  The men who went North were called upon to do their jobs under the most demanding conditions.  When I arrived in Thailand there were many “Red River Rats” still in the 13th. The Red River Rats had flown combat missions over the “Red River Valley” of North Vietnam.   Our Rats had last flown North during Linebacker II and I held what they did in awe.   They never talked about it, but simply had River Rats patches on their party suits, so we FNGs knew who they were and what they had done. 

My roommate was a special breed of Rat – his nickname was “Fast Eddy.”  He was part of a Fast FAC  F4 Laredo crew that directed other F4s to the target.  The Fast FACs in my mind came close to the mystique of the WWI fliers.  They led the others in, marked the targets, and controlled the air strikes and then moved on to look for more.   They were the hunters on the prowl.  I always wondered how I would have performed as a WSO in that arena.

For 45 years “Going North” has been a siren song in my mind.  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.  Such was the caliber of all the men who did their duty so long ago.  I will remember men of the 13th TFS the rest of my life.

In a way it was hard to leave these men I had gotten to know so well – we ate together, flew together,  we celebrated together, and shared some amazing adventures in the air.  When the flying was done we shared a few brews together – well maybe more than a few.  I never experienced again a bond like the one we forged in combat.

On the day I left,  my friends in the squadron turned out to see me off as I went back to”The World”–  a ritual that had been done so many times since the war began.

“Sawadee, the Thais said — Goodbye.”

Champagne popped and  was passed around,  a Thai Sawadee necklace was placed around my neck, and more quick goodbyes said.

It was all so fast — almost a blur  — and then it was over. 

I boarded our “Freedom Bird,”  the aircraft taking us home, stowed my carry on gear and strapped in.

The aircraft taxied into position and began the take off roll.

Udorn, the place where I had lived for a year,  rushed by the windows.

The bird broke ground.

Like a volcano erupting, a huge cheer went up.

“SAWADEE ,” we were on our way home.

Posted in 13 TFS, American History, Cambodia bombing 1973, F-4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Fighter pilot slang, SEA, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Veterans, Vietnam War | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Watch out for the flying Bucket of Water

This week is Songkran the Thai Water Festival – during the war it was a great opportunity for things to quickly get out of hand.

An American Family

Each spring in Thailand, there is a festival called Songkran.  13th TFS patch

This is the traditional Thai water festival celebrated with the Thai new year in April.

According to Wikipedia:   The Songkran celebration represents purification and the washing away all of their sins and bad luck.  As a way to show respect, younger people often practice water pouring over the palms of elders’ hands. On the same occasion, paying reverence to ancestors is also an important part of Songkran tradition.

th17However, in modern times, the ritual splashing of water had evolved into water fights. Celebrants, young or old, participated in this tradition by splashing water on each other.

Thais had the habit of sneaking up on you and dousing you with a bucket of water.  This was not a light splash.  It didn’t matter if you had just landed and wearing all your flight gear, you had to watch yourself and remind…

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Hello Darkness My Old Friend

At one time, there was a belief among some aviators that there is “no lift” at night, therefore night flight was not possible. Clearly this is not true, and is regarded as a joke among flyers, but it does reflect an unease among many about flying in the dark.

From takeoff to landing night flight is a very different world.

Even the takeoff is dramatically different as the afterburners kick in and there are concentric rings of light along the cone of fire from the rear of the aircraft.

Once airborne there is also a seeming “cloak of invisibility” around the fighter. The darkness hides you and somehow gives you a sense of security that is not there in the light. Now granted, this really is a false sense of security as you are clearly visible on radar and anti-aircraft SAM systems. Still it feels more calm. There is a stealthiness to this not felt in the day. Perhaps there is a feeling of invincibility not present in the bright light of day. (This feeling also manifested itself when we turned off the SAM warning indicators as they had become very annoying with their constant beeping – out of sight out of mind perhaps.) Such was the feeling at night, if you couldn’t see it how could it hurt you.

If the night is clear, above you is an amazing show of stars seldom seen on the ground anymore. Instruments become even more important as the horizon vanishes and you are forced to leave behind the normal visual clues that flyers rely on. This really can be dangerous as many an inexperienced flyer has wrongly thought he was flying straight and level, but in actuality was descending into a mountain range ahead. The artificial horizon is your most important aid in night flying and not to be ignored at your own peril.

During the Vietnam War, there were squadrons that only flew at night because of the very different conditions. It was hard to transition back and forth, and much safer to fly either at night or in the day.

One of the best accounts of flying at night was written by Richard Bach, himself a pilot, and author of “Stranger to the Ground.” He is better remembered for his 1970s novel “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” but his account of flying alone off the coast of Europe at night in the 1950s is a classic. Outside there is only a dark landscape below, punctuated with the occasional bright lights of a city, and little else. The night flyer is a ghostly presence, gliding over the darkened world below.

Night flight is more introspective. The mind and skills are shrunk to the cockpit only, the red glow of the instruments dominate the world of the night flyer. Gone are the distractions of clouds, landscape, and all the highlights of the day.

If the eagle is the swooping and soaring king of the day, the bat represents the flyer of the night.

While it is indeed great fun to be the eagle, personally I loved to be the bat. Silent but deadly, swooping in for the kill, and then gone into the darkness.

Posted in 13 TFS, 43 TFS, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Fighter pilot lingo, Vietnam War | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

National Vietnam Veterans Day

National Vietnam War Veterans Day will be observed on March 29. The nine million who served in the armed forces between November 1, 1955 to May 15, 1975, and their families are honored. Of this number: 304,000 were wounded. 1,253 were Missing in Action (MIA) have not been found and returned to American soil, 687 were Prisoners of War (POWs) who were returned, and 58,000 names of those who died are memorialized on a black granite wall in our Nation’s capital.

Captain John E. Norvell, Udorn RTAFB, Thailand, 1973

Of the men and women who returned, they were never the same. Many suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. While many may think that PTSD is a new condition, it has manifested itself after every war ever fought. In earlier times, men went off to war and were expected to return home as nothing had happened. In my own family, my great grandfather and five of his brothers served in the Civil War. Three of the six exhibited types of PTSD as they struggled to deal with what they had been through. My great grandfather turned to alcohol to deal with what called nervous disorders, one brother had anger management issues, and the youngest committed suicide. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, self medication with alcohol and drugs, depression, anger, and suicide are all classic symptoms of PTSD. Today, they are as prevalent among returning vets from Afghanistan and Iraq as they were in the Vietnam War and earlier.

What was very different for the Vietnam Vets was the exposure to Agent Orange, a tactical herbicide used by the U.S. military from 1962 to 1975. The military sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange on trees and vegetation during the Vietnam War. The VA has recognized certain cancers and other health problems as associated with exposure to Agent Orange or other herbicides during military service. Veterans and their survivors may be eligible for benefits for these diseases. These include cancer, diabetes, Hodgkin’s Disease, a type of Heart Disease, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Parkinson’s Disease, Prostate Cancer and others. The VA offers health registry exams, health care, disability compensation and other benefits to eligible Veterans. Their dependents and survivors also may be eligible for benefits. For a detailed discussion of Agent Orange, see the VA website at . Or contact the your local county Veterans Service Agency which assists veterans and their families to identify and apply for benefits, in which they are entitled to from local, state, and federal agencies as a result of their military service.

On March 29th, we will honor all the Americans served. When they returned home, there were no big celebrations. No parades. No words of welcome from a grateful nation. If you see a Vietnam Veteran that day, simply thank him or her for their service, it is long overdue.


A version of this post appeared as an OpEd in the Geneva, NY Finger Lakes Times, March 24, 2019

Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, American History, Fighter Aircraft, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Vietnam Memorial, Vietnam War | 1 Comment

A Day in the Life

F4 Aircraft over SEA

I  was thinking today about how I would have spent this day during the Vietnam War  My squadron the 13TFS had an air to mud mission, so unlike the 555th which was mostly air to air, we spent a lot of time blowing things up.   

Most days in combat began early.  There was what we called a “Zero Dark Thirty” wake up.

Then it was breakfast.  There were two options. One,  eat at the club which is what I usually did.   For me  the club breakfast  was always Steak and Eggs.  If the brief was too early then I had to eat at the chow hall.  Then breakfast was SOS.   

Today I think my wife finds it funny that at least once a month I have SOS for breakfast on a Saturday.     I wouldn’t have flown a mission without a good breakfast.  Perhaps a ritual, but certainly one of assurance about the day to come. 

Then I had to get to the squadron for the briefing.  There was a base bus we called “the blue bird,’ a typical blue Air Force Bus that could take you to the other side.  The club and Squadron Hootches were on the one side of the runways and the squadron briefing rooms and Intel on the other. 

Squadron Hootches were on the right side of the map and we had to go round the runways to the area above them to brief.

The blue bird was not always on time and after being chewed out twice for being late to brief, I elected to have my parents send me my 3 speed bicycle and after that for the remainder of my time at Udorn – the next 8 months– I usually rode about 2 miles over to the squadron.    


Then an intel briefing where the targets of the day would be covered,  The intel guys gave us the latest ROE, briefed the target threats, and generally put on a dog and pony show about conditions near the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  I was particularly liked hearing them briefing about towns like Snoul, Krek, and Tchepone.  The sound of the towns was so foreign to anything I had ever heard as a kid growing up in rural America. 

Intel was  followed by a crew brief, a stop to pick up our survival vests and helmets,and strap on my 38 which I wore gunslinger style on my right hip. 

Eldridge our mascot being fed.


As we walked by him, a quick  wave to Eldridge the Black Panther, our mascot, as we went from life support  — then on the crew van out to the revetments to pre-flight the bird.




At this point nearly 3 hours would have passed since that early morning call to get up.  

It was on the crew bus that often folks turned introspective, but if they were thinking about what was to come they never discussed it.    Still on many mornings, in those long ago days, I could not help but think about how many men had boarded the crew bus never to return that night.  It was a  thought not entertained for long.  It was an inward acknowledgement of the brotherhood in which I found myself now which would shape me and my life for the years to come.

Years later I raised this with another fighter jock and he said he thought about this as he began a  mission but then “It was pretty quiet on the crew vans. I think most of us were engrossed in tactics, freqs, call signs, headings, settings, etc until the last moment or so at the van approached the jets. Had moment again on the taxiways and arming area after all the checks were done. Then – after that the mission was the only thought.”   It was really an existential moment.   Yet, if I ever thought I might die that day, I never voiced it to anyone.  That was OK.  All, who ever went into combat no matter when or where, has thought that.   It crossed the mind and then was gone as the mission began.  

Most days everything went as planned – TO, rendezvous with the Tank, take on gas – we loved the big gas station in the sky – get the target information.

View from the back seat of tanker

Contact the FAC – drop some surprises on the commies, back to the Tank and then home.

And yet occasionally there could be a surprise that reminded me that flying could be a dangerous occupation. 

One day about 40 combat missions in my tour at Udorn, we took off with a full load of Mark 82 —  500 pound bombs.   Everything seemed normal as we started our  take off roll, I called off 100 knots to the AC and we broke ground.  As we climbed, suddenly the F4 made a violent  right lurch toward the ground.  The AC got very quiet and I could tell he was fighting with the controls as the stick moved back and forth.   After what seemed to be several long minutes, he came back on hot mike and said that the F4 had experienced erroneous flight control inputs.   We hit the checklists and managed to get the bird more or less flying in a normal manner.   That said, we now had a problem of a full load of fuel and a full load of bombs to deal with. 

500 pound Mark 82 bomb load on F4

  After consulting with the SOF and others in charge, it was decided that we burn off the fuel and jettison the bombs off the end of the runway in the area reserved for this. 




So rather than spending two or three hours flying to the target for the day, we drilled holes in the sky and basically flew around Udorn for the next 45 or so minutes to burn off the fuel.    After dumping the bombs, we landed uneventfully,  wrote up the malfunction, left the bird and went back to the squadron to debrief.   

Mission maybe not accomplished, but perhaps tomorrow  when another day in the life of the war lay ahead.


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Welcoming the POWs Home 1973

46 years ago, in 1973, the American POWs that were held captive in North Vietnam were repatriated to the United States. 

On January 27, 1973, the United States and North Vietnam agreed to the release  American prisoners of war. Operation Homecoming, as it came to be known had three phases: 1) POWs held by the Viet Cong were flown to Saigon; 2) POWs held by the North Vietnamese Army were released in Hanoi; and 3) POWs held in China freed in Hong Kong.   On Feb. 12, 1973, three C-141 transports flew to Hanoi, North Vietnam, and one C-9A aircraft was sent to Saigon, South Vietnam to pick up released prisoners of war. A C-141 flight of 40 U.S. prisoners of war left Hanoi and over the next two months, there were 54 C-141 missions bringing the former POWs home. A total of 325 POWs served in the United States Air Force; there were also 138 Navy personnel, 77 Army, 26 Marines, and 25 civilians.

At this time I was at Luke AFB in Arizona, completing my upgrade into the back seat of the F4 with an assignment to Udorn RTAFB in May 1973.  As the POWS were returned home we learned that one of the men held would be arriving at Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix one evening in April.  From 46 years away from the event, I am not sure of the exact date, but we decided to go to the airport that evening and welcome him home.   This was a time when most Americans did not think highly of those of us who were serving.  It was common to hear people ask men in uniform “Have you killed any babies this week.”   Given the hostile attitude to those who served, we felt it was important to be there and give that man a proper welcome home.

We drove out to the airport and joined a small crowd at the gate.  Today it would be huge, but those were different times.

Some folks had flags and signs and while we weren’t exactly sure who the POW was, once he left the arrival area his family greeted him and a cheer went up from the crowd.  Many folks had tears in their eyes and it was so moving I will never forget it.  This was not my first encounter with POWs, being assigned to a fighter unit in SEA and later in Alaska, I often served with many of them.    These were men who kept the faith, they did their duty, they were heroes.   It was so sad that at the time, few Americans were proud of them.   They were heroes and no one can ever take that away from them.

We who were at Sky Harbor that night will never forget this event.

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Suck it Up

I was complaining on line about the cold today, it was 4 degrees when I got up.  A former F4 jock suggested I Suck it Up.  Hadn’t heard that in many years and I replied to him, “Yeah no Puss Game.”   Generally a response to Suck it up.

In other words tough; live with it.    And — Yeah I know it.

This reminded me that most folks wouldn’t have a clue about fighter lingo.

Non flyers are “Groundpounders,”

A hostile aircraft — a “Bandit,”

Speed brakes — ” Boards; ”

Backseater (in two seat cockpits) a Guy in Back or GIB;”

“Bought the Farm” – plowing any aircraft into terra firma;

“Bus Driver” a pilot of  any non fighter — a tanker or bomber or cargo.

“Bag” a flight suit.  

“Carrier Landings” might suggest U.S. Navy and landing on a boat at sea. However, to an AF fighter jock, it would mean a bar game wherein less than sober pilots, GIB’s and others would leap unto a table or the bar and try to catch a rope and hook it with their feet, before they slid off on the floor.

“Dead Bug,” is a similar. When someone called “dead bug,” everyone fell on the ground and put their hands and feet in the air, imitating the look of a dead bug. The person who called “dead bug” remained standing to see who was last assuming the position. That person buys the next round. As I said, this was done when less than sober.

Then there is the “F” word. It is hard to discuss fighter jocks without acknowledging the use of the “F” word.

New guys were always called FNGs.

In the “Right Stuff ” an astronaut says “Don’t let me screw up,” only he didn’t say screw, it was the good old “F” word.

This word is seemingly everywhere today, but forty years ago only fighter pilots, or drunken sailors, could the claim a mastery of it that was beyond compare. It was used as a noun, verb, adverb, adjective, and in every conceivable combination that it could be applied to.

One of my favorites was the Square Root of F’ all.  Generally used when referring to another jock, as in he doesn’t know the Square Root of F’all.  In other words he was  F’ing dumb.

In closing —  if my discussion of the F word offends you, then I suggest you Suck it Up.

Posted in 13 TFS, 43 TFS, Air Force lingo, American History, F-4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, Fighter pilot lingo | Tagged | 8 Comments