May 1973 First F-4 Combat Mission over Cambodia

This year is a significant anniversary for me; it was 50 years ago that I flew my first combat mission.

In May 1973, I flew across Thailand and entered Cambodian airspace. At the time, there was a lot of pressure from the Khmer Rouge Communists in Cambodia to take over the country; it was our job to prevent that. The plan was to allow South Vietnam to achieve stability after the early 1973 cease-fire with the North.

When I arrived at Udorn, I learned that I would be flying bombing missions over Cambodia immediately. GIBs were in demand, and my sponsor told me I could expect to fly three-to-four-hour missions every day. 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. I had my orientation flight down to the combat zone, which my IP referred to as the “South 40,” as we flew across Thailand and briefly entered Cambodian airspace.

After orientation, each combat flight would begin like this one. First, check the flight schedule posted in each hootch the night before a mission to get the brief show time. Then the next day, catch the “bluebird” shuttle bus to the squadron. Then, I met my AC, and we briefed the wingman and his GIB about the mission ahead. Next, we went to Intel (the intelligence section) for a quick threat brief. At this point, about two hours had passed. Then we headed off to life support.

Suiting up, I made sure that I had my Geneva Convention Card, which we carried if we were shot down and taken prisoner. Then I got my survival gear and camouflaged helmet; then checked my survival radios. I removed my wedding ring and name tag from my flight suit and locked them in my locker. I did this to have no information on me if I were shot down, to help the enemy.

Next, I checked out and loaded a .38 cal revolver, which I carried it in a holster strapped to my leg, gunslinger style. Then we all boarded what we called the “bread truck,” along with other crews, to go to the aircraft parked in the revetments. Once at our assigned bird, we did the standard pre-flight walk around. This preflight was just like Luke, except that I had to check real bombs and missiles.

Our standard load was the Mark 82 500-pound dumb bomb, as shown in my 8 mm movie clip on the left. We could carry as many as 18 Mark 82s. We also had two Aim-9 Sidewinder infrared-guided missiles and two Aim-7 Sparrow radar-guided missiles.

As I checked them, I looked for any leaks under the Phantom. I had to be careful as it was easy to bang my head and get a “phantom bite.” Also hanging below were the RHAW and jammer pods. RHAW (Radar Homing and Warning) alerted us if the enemy had locked on our aircraft with SAMS (Surface to Air missiles). Although possible, it was not a significant threat to our missions in the South 40.

Once in the cockpit, I plugged in my G-suit and connected a tape recorder into our intercom that recorded our mission. Later we turned the tape over to the folks in intel if there were questions. Then it was the standard turn-on of the radar, aligning the INS and checking the RHAW. As I sat there, the crew chief helped me with the chute connections and pulled the pins on my ejection seat; now, it was hot and armed to fire. I dialed in the frequency for ground control. We got clearance and taxied out. Then we moved down to the arming area adjacent to the active runway. There the munitions crew pulled the safing pins on the bombs. Then takeoff.

The rains flooded the area around Udorn most of the year, and as we climbed out, I could see rainstorms in the distance. We headed now for our rendezvous with the tanker and the mission of the day.

I wrote home:

We bombed Cambodia–it’s a funny feeling to be using real bombs. The mission was 3 ½ hours, and we had to refuel three times, quite a change from Luke. I am drawing combat pay now. It’s been raining up a storm; we are in the S.W. monsoon season. I had to have three special flight suits made, two for work – green and light weight- and a black party suit. I picked up a cold at Jungle survival…348 days to go.

In my first month, I flew 18 combat missions.

As time passed, I became introspective.

On the early morning crew bus, I often thought about how many men had boarded the crew bus, never to return that night. I never said to anyone that I thought I might die. The mission was more important, and that was all that was important. Perhaps I was not alone in my feelings; all the troops that went into combat, no matter when or where, thought they might die. It was a thought not entertained for long.

I am forever linked to the veterans who served. When I flew combat, fifty years ago, I became part of that combat fraternity. It changed my life forever.

Posted in 13 TFS, American History, Cambodia bombing 1973, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Vietnam War | 4 Comments

Jungle Survival – A Piece of Cake

Clark AB, Philippines—May 1973

Fifty years ago I was en route to combat over Cambodia, but first stop was at Travis AFB. From there, I caught one of the DOD cattle-car contract transport flights to get to SEA. I have few memories of that flight except that we left about 9:00 p.m. I am not sure what I expected. I had not taken many commercial flights, and I remembered that they were not like this. The cabin of the aircraft was packed. It looked as if they had taken a cargo aircraft and put in as many seats as they could. We were at least three abreast, and it was not first-class travel.

We hopped from California to Alaska to Japan and finally to the Philippines, where I would attend jungle survival school, a.k.a.“snake school.” All in all, it took about 24 hours to get there. At this point, I began to write home to my wife. She kept all my letters; I did not keep a journal so the letters will serve that function from this point on.

Friday: We don’t start Jungle Survival School until next Monday. It goes for four days, so I probably won’t be at Ubon until the 25th or 26th. The Philippines are hot and humid and rather dreary. It is an unbelievable world, with many shacks right outside the main gate and people always hassling you to buy things. A common cry is “hey sarge,” it doesn’t matter what your rank is. We were in civilian clothes off base as the country is under martial law. I picked up a set of wings. I am told not to buy much here as there will be a ton of things in Thailand when I get to Ubon, especially gold. Lots of GIs stock up on jewelry.

Angeles City was crowded, hot, and the streets were dirty; moreover, it smelled. It was so foreign, for lack of a better word. The only thing I could remember the closest to this was Hollywood’s version of India in the Nineteenth Century in Gunga Din. I would come back to that vision more than once as I strolled around Clark.

Right outside the gate, shops lined both sides of the street. These catered to Americans, and I assumed that many of the men passing through Clark ventured here to buy souvenirs. There were so many places I literally could have filled my duffel bag, but I held off. Some guys went off searching for some female excitement. I was exhausted and returned to the base, where I crashed. Later my friend Major S and I went to the officers’ club for dinner. I spent the weekend trying to get over jet lag. Finally, I wrote home my impressions of what I had seen.

The base (Clark) basks in a lazy atmosphere, perhaps heightened by the heavy, humid, hot air that seems to overhang everything. It is an old army post going back to the Spanish American war era with a large green parade field surrounded by officers’ bungalows. It reminds me of the British presence in India before WWII, very colonial. The O Club has the same feel as if Gunga Din were going to wait on you any minute. If you put down your glass for a second, a waiter swoops in and refills it. As we got here the Friday before “Snake School,” we have had a leisurely period re-adjusting to the time change. We literally were on planes for 24 hours flying from the US to the Philippines. I am not looking forward to it and will be glad to finish with “Snake School.” The temperature here yesterday was 98 with about equal humidity.

“Snake School,” like the basic and water survival, began with classroom sessions, followed by a trek in the wild. Someone had said that the trek was like a piece of cake. None of the trek experiences were like that. At Fairchild, we had spent three days hiking through dense woods and over clear-cut areas of old-growth forest.

We had the same ordeal in the jungle. But, in the Philippines, the trek also had heat and all kinds of insects. The instructors showed us many ways to get water on the trek, and we learned that much of the jungle wildlife was edible: bananas(including the heart), palm, berries, roots, leaves, ferns, etc. On the other hand, there were almost as many things that could make you sick or kill you: snakes, spiders, vines, berries, and many others too numerous to mention. We learned that if we found berries and were starving, we should rub one on our lips, if they didn’t get numb, then take a small taste, if there was no reaction, wait a while longer and eat one, if then we did not react, they might be safe. Not a ringing endorsement. As we settled down, the instructor warned us to be aware of the rats, another cheery thought. Those life support specialists loved to mess with our heads.

Completing the program, we would participate in a jungle evasion exercise. To illustrate that it was possible to elude capture, the instructors told us about Captain Roger Locher. Locher, an F-4 GIB, evaded capture in North Vietnam for 23 days.

On 10 May 1972, the enemy shot Locher down. No one saw him eject; no one knew whether he had died. No one knew his status. The North Vietnamese had not added his name to the list of captives. For the next two weeks, efforts to contact him had not been successful. On 1 June, Locher successfully reached a flight of F-4 aircraft overhead using his survival radio. He had evaded capture by traveling only at dusk and dawn and living off the land. His rescue was an amazing endorsement of what he had learned in the SERE (Survival, Escape, Resistance, and Evasion) training. Now we would employ these SERE techniques in a jungle setting.

The area near Clark would simulate the conditions we might encounter ejecting over Vietnam. Members of the local Negrito tribe would play a vital role in this scenario. They would be the “North Vietnamese” stalking us. The Negritos were experts at this; we would be their prey. Even the Negrito children got in on the act. For every American found, they received a chit. They used these for rice or other necessities. The instructors bused us out to the training area and gave us a head start to hide.

Everyone had a theory about how to elude the Negritos. Some folks had elaborate plans to fool them, involving false trails and doubling back to confuse the trackers. Some went in pairs hoping that two could do a better job hiding from them. I looked for a small, secure place to hide, which I had done at Fairchild. After all, if it worked there, well, it should work here. Once hidden, so we thought, the Negritos began to hunt for us.

Later I thought about this. The Negritos had been stalking Americans at this point for many years. Most likely, they had divided the territory, where we had hidden, among them. Each family knew their area in depth. We novices didn’t stand a chance. They were very familiar with the terrain. Anything as small as a branch out of place served as a clue that we had passed through it.

And, as the instructors later told us, Americans were easy to stalk. Many things gave us away: aftershave that some GIs wore; the scent of Americans in general, which was different based upon what we ate; or cigarette butts, which the smokers had carelessly thrown away. No one in my group eluded them. They were pros. Not a happy thought if we had to go down over North Vietnam.

I wrote home: I returned from my trek in the jungle to discover that my assignment had been changed from Ubon to Udorn. Hold off on sending me anything. I will have to let you know my address. Meanwhile, I hope I get all my navigation equipment, etc. that I sent off to Ubon. The Survival School was tiresome, not very rough, but enough to keep me tired for 2 days. I hope that I never have to land in the jungle. Today we learned escape and evasion techniques if we get shot down. We tried to hide but the natives quickly found us. It’s good to be back. I really pray that I will never have to go into the jungle again.

The next day it was on to Udorn and ultimately combat over Cambodia to dislodge the Khmer Rouge.


Jungle Survival School photos from

Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Navigator, U Dorn RTAFB, Veterans, Vietnam War | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Leaving Luke For Southeast Asia 1973

An excerpt from my book Fighter ‘Gator

Luke AFB Arizona

In March 1973, my class completed its F-4 training at Luke. Our class photo taken outside the 310th TFTS showed a confident group. It had been a demanding eight months of training, simulators, and flying. And now we were ready.

Leaving Luke, many would go to Southeast Asia to Ubon, Korat, or Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Bases, the primary F-4 units in Thailand. When I picked the F-4, I knew that I was going to combat. It was a fact of life then. My “graduation” photo taken shows a group proud of what we had done. Proud to be serving our country. Proud to join a long line of American flyers such as our Luke IPs.

Our instructor pilots of the 310th may first have suggested the romantic aviators of World War I, but as the months passed, we learned that they were consummate professionals. Our AC IPs were adept and skilled at what they did, proud of their time in the F-4, and more than willing to help us in any way to succeed. I was honored to know them.

As April begain, to celebrate our graduation, we attended a formal Dining Out. The guest speaker was Captain Steve Ritchie, with five MiG kills, the leading pilot ace of the Vietnam War, at the time assigned to Nellis AFB near Las Vegas. Later in Alaska, I would come to know Ritchie’s backseater Chuck DeBellevue, who by then was an AC. I flew with him a couple of times out of Elmendorf. In the small world of F-4 crews, we often encountered men of this stature.

The dinner was an elegant affair. The officers attended in their mess dresses and with their ladies on their arms. This event was the first time we saw these men, our teachers, and role models not in flight suits. It was an eye-opener moment.

Our flight commander Lt. Colonel Bob Pardo – of Pardo’s Push Fame- wore medals which bespoke his time in combat. We looked at him and our other instructors, and could not help to be proud of this select group of men.

We saw distinguished flying crosses, air medals, Vietnam campaign medals, and other signs of what they had done. We had completed months of training, simulators, and training missions in the air with them. Now, their medals were on display, the only time they ever showed us the symbols of their valor.

We were fresh from training and standing on the threshold of this group. It was a very tight community, but we were not yet part of it. In our operational squadrons, we would continue to learn and fly with men like Pardo. Men who had proved themselves in ways we had yet to imagine. However, we had not proved ourselves as they had; those days lay ahead.

Yet, I was not the man I had been two years before. Then at nearly 28, I worked hard to complete nav school. I had come there late as a captain who had escaped a dead end job in Washington DC. Now I was a GIB confident and ready to prove my new skills. As I graduated from F-4 upgrade training, my assignment came down. I would be going to Ubon RTAFB in Thailand and combat.

But, first, I headed home to see the family, and then it was on to the Philippines for jungle survival school. Combat would have to wait.

Posted in Air Force, American History, Arizona, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Luke AFB, Navigator, Veterans, Vietnam War | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The POWs come Home and we welcome one

Fifty years ago, on January 27, 1973, the United States and North Vietnam agreed to a ceasefire to withdraw American military forces from South Vietnam. The agreement also released American prisoners of war (POWs) held by North Vietnam.

Operation Homecoming had three phases: the initial reception of prisoners, the airlift of prisoners to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, and finally, relocation to military hospitals. POWs were released based on the length of time in prison; the first group had spent six to eight years as prisoners of war. The last POWs were turned over to allied hands on March 29, 1973, raising the total number of Americans returned to 591. Of the POWs repatriated to the United States, a total of 325 served in the United States Air Force.  

In 1973, at the time of the release, I was a captain navigator at Luke Air Force Base outside Phoenix, Arizona, going through upgrade training to fly in the backseat of the F-4 Phantom II. I knew that many of the POWs were Air Force fliers who had been shot down and captured. The F-4 fighters were the highest number of fixed-wing aircraft shot down in the Vietnam Air War. Then, I wore a POW bracelet. Then, many aircrew members wore  POW bracelets and Missing in Action (MIA) bracelets. This kept the POWs in our hearts and minds, even if we did not know them personally. I wore this bracelet with the understanding that I would keep it on until the person returned from the war. My bracelet had the name of an Air Force captain lost in 1968 over North Vietnam. I received this bracelet right after I had completed the mock POW camp training part of the basic survival school at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington.  

This training, called SERE (Survival,  Evasion, Resistance, and Escape), taught the basic survival skills of dealing with bailing out over a wilderness area: land navigation, camouflage, communication techniques, and how to improvise needed tools and equipment. 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. Many of the POWs who returned wrote memoirs about the techniques they used to communicate and survive the long, dark days in the Hanoi Hilton. They learned them in this training.

As the POWS returned home, we learned that one of them would arrive at Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix one evening in April 1973.  We decided to go to the airport and welcome him home. This period 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 essential to be there and give that man a proper welcome home. 

We drove 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 we weren’t exactly sure who the POW was. His family greeted him once he left the arrival area, and a cheer rose from the crowd.  Many folks had tears in their eyes.   We who were at Sky Harbor that night will never forget this event.

Later in 1974, when I, too, had flown combat missions over Cambodia and returned home, I met several of these men, some of whom I flew with in the F-4 and later taught with while at the Air Force Academy in the history department. Many called these men heroes. But were these men perfect? Many were flawed, but they kept the faith. They went to war in Vietnam with little concern for themselves and their eyes wide open. They knew what they were getting into. They did their duty when so many did not. It was a very selfless thing to do.

I can think of no better definition of heroes.

Posted in Air Force, American History, Arizona, F4 Phantom II, Luke AFB, POW training, Veterans, Vietnam War | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Greeting the Future in Times Square

In 1969 two of my friends and I went to welcome in the future in Times Square. This is something that everybody has seen on TV year after year, but few have experienced. In those more innocent times there were no metal detectors, no bomb sniffing dogs, and for the most part no restrictions on anything. It was a WILD AND CRAZY TIME. It was the 1960s, but more on that.

I actually had no idea to what to expect. I had grown up in the 1950s and the most exciting thing I remember about New Years Eve was watching Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians and then seeing the ball drop. For those of us, of a certain age, that really was all there was to New Years Eve. If you lived in a small rural town, as I did, there was nothing to do except stay home and watch the festivities on a black and white TV. For me as a kid, the future was 1970 and to find myself in Times Square to welcome the new decade was a great thing.  

I had a good friend from college who was teaching high school math on Long Island, so I took the train to New York from Washington DC to be there for New Years. I had often driven up to New York, but the train took the same amount of time and had the advantage of leaving you in downtown Manhattan, without having to drive in traffic there. So there I was in Penn Station meeting my friends on December 31, 1969 to welcome the future. 

It was an extremely cold New Year’s Eve, about 10 degrees and clear. We decided since we had some time to kill to stop at the bar in the old Americana Hotel for a drink and then it was on to Times Square. We got there about 10 p.m.; the crowd was large but not huge. Once we got there, however, there was no leaving. I guess I had better bladder control in those days as more and more people began to arrive and we literally were trapped there.

Now a funny thing happened: while it was about 10 degrees outside the area, the temperature quickly rose it seemed to about 90 in the Square. We had our heavy winter coats on and we ditched them; some folks stripped down to bare skin. I never thought I would be standing in Times Square at 11:45 at night with half-naked people. It was now a mob, people yelled and screamed and the mob grew and grew. Bottles were passed around, yes it was more innocent time. With no crowd control, people continued to press into the area until you could not move even if you wanted to.

Another funny thing, I don’t remember seeing the ball drop. I think there were so many people it was hard to see the top of the Times building. The crowd roared and then it was over.

Almost as quickly as people pressed in to fill the square — they left.

The temperature dropped.

It was 1970.

The future was here.

Posted in American History | 3 Comments

Up in the Air So Blue

14 October 1972

Luke AFB Arizona

Our bird, F-4C 662, taxied out of its parking space and slowly moved into position. While Hollywood has accustomed Americans to think that there is considerable banter between aircrew members, there is usually strict radio discipline. In the back seat, I finished my checklists as the AC got permission to take off. 

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. By the time I graduated, I was a seasoned navigator and better prepared. That is not to say that I knew how it would be flying in the Phantom.

In many ways, the first flight in a jet fighter is like your first sex. You can see it on the movie screen. You can observe it, but you cannot know what it is like until you do it. If this sounds clichéd, it is not. I was not nervous—I just did my job. That said, nothing prepared me for the emotional experience that lay ahead.

Now on the runway, the AC Instructor Pilot (IP) pushed the throttles to “military power,” past the detente into afterburner, and released the brakes. The Phantom jumped off the runway. In the back, it felt like being strapped to a shell and shot out of a cannon.
I called off 70 knots (KTS) at that speed, the rudder became effective, and the AC came off the nose gear steering. Then we rapidly lifted off. All by the book, at least in my mind. While the T-29 had cruised at about 180 KTS, the F-4 broke ground about that speed and routinely cruised between 350-450 KTS. Things happened so fast that I was playing catch-up right from the start. It was not as bad as my first nav trainers, but I could see I had a lot to master.

Then our wingman joined on us. And I thought that is a big aircraft coming fast and close to me. The rejoin to a formation, where our wingman’s wingtip was just three feet from ours, was an eye-opener for sure. Nothing like that ever happened in the T-29.
Now I had to be aware of the immediate air environment. I became the extra pair of eyes in the backseat. I had to scan the wingman and make sure nothing was out of the ordinary, which was a bit hard to tell for the first time. Over the many missions to come, this would become old hat. However, like so many things on that first flight, it showed me that I had entered a new world.

The best was still to come. As we approached our training area, things finally began to settle down. Once there, we did some maneuvering. The IP demonstrated turns and climbs, the wingman staying in close formation. I was impressed that he was able to match his lead so well. My only exposure to this type of flying had been in movies of WWII dogfights. And, in them, there was never a wingman tucked in tight.

The G-suit filled and grabbed my legs, another new thing. I was wearing the F-4. Strapped tight to the seat, she moved to port, and I went with her. She climbed and dove, and there I was. Wheeling and turning over the Arizona desert, as we moved through the air, the thought came to me that this was the best roller coaster I had ever ridden. Here was the true freedom of flight. I knew now why I had worked so hard to get to flight training. Here was the dancing on the silver wings of “High Flight” that our ROTC instructor Major Ted Shorack had read to us. The promise that Shorack had made to us.

This flight was a far cry from the last nine months in nav school. The T-29 had been necessary drudgery as we learned traditional nav procedures, working for four hours without a break. Now do not get me wrong. Any day flying at Mather was a million percent better than sitting behind a desk in Washington, D.C., where I had been a staff officer. I never regretted the decision to fly. But flying in a Mather T-29 trainer was not even close to the Phantom.

The best thing was that the backseat of the Phantom had no drone work. And there was the bonus of being able to see outside. The absolute joy of flight in a fighter now came to me. I could understand, for the first time, the enthusiasm of our instructor pilots. They loved the bird and all she could do.

As I think back, the child’s poem comes to mind: “How does it feel to go up in the air, up in the air so blue?”

It felt great. It was fun. Flying was fun.

My eyes opened to a whole new world above the earth. Now I learned how the radar operated on real targets. All the time and work in the simulator clicked into place. I was beginning to feel good; my confidence level rose. I could see myself doing this and doing it well. OK, I was a bit cocky and perhaps euphoric. I admit it. I was having a good time. It was good, really good to be a GIB. It was really, really, really good to be in a Phantom above the Arizona desert.

Then we went to an extended formation, and the instructor told me, “You’ve got the stick.”

And I shook the stick, saying, “I’ve got the stick.”

I tried to sound confident—but to be honest, it had never dawned on me that I would be flying the bird on the first ride.

Here I was, a kid from a rural upstate New York with my hands on the stick of a top-level fighter. It’s hard to put into words my feelings at that moment, now many years later. It was a mixture of pride, awe, excitement, and an extreme adrenaline rush that lasted well into the night (as my wife can still attest). In the years to come, I had the stick on almost every mission in the Phantom. I needed to fly the Phantom from the backseat in case there was an emergency where the AC was incapacitated. And I took the opportunity to fly whenever I got the chance.

Posted in Air Force, Air Force lingo, American History, Arizona, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Luke AFB | 1 Comment

60th Reunion

Saturday, July 30, 2022 – I sit with a small group of aging friends at our 60th high school reunion. Let that sink in for a moment – I graduated from high school sixty years ago. 

On a nearby table is a photo of the class lined up in graduation robes, a very formal pose. It’s a far cry from the group I see around me. A woman across from me says, “John, it’s good to see you.” I strain to read her nametag across the ten feet that separate us. Finally, I say sheepishly, “I am sorry; who are you?” She gives me her name; it’s hard to reconcile it with the small, dark-haired girl I remember from long ago. So it is for the rest of the day as I look at these folks now gathered to celebrate the past.

So who were we, this class of 1962? 

We were not the Greatest Generation (GG) or the  Baby Boomers  (Bbers).   Most were born in 1942-44; the majority in 1944 (we picked up some who were held or moved back to our class – yes, that happened when I was in school).   It is interesting to think about that. We were the small group that was never labeled. We, in many ways, had the attitudes of the GG, comfortably moving in the world of our parents and yet able to identify with the BBers who embraced the on-rushing future. We grew up listening to the radio. Our mothers read to us and were homemakers;  TV was not our babysitter. Yet, we were in the group that invited Howdy Doody into our homes.   We were fans of Elvis, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers. And it was our class in 1962, and others, JFK challenged  to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” 

I wish I could say that I had observed the transformation of these folks over the years. I joined the Air Force right after college, so I missed reunions 5-35, joining our high school class for the first time on the 40th. By then, this group of older folks I see in front of me had appeared. I know that each of those earlier reunions had a different flavor. After I retired from the Air Force, I was the alumni director at Hobart,  where I saw that for the first reunions, cliques were still strong, and many were out to impress their classmates. When I rejoined these folks at our 40th, there was still some semblance of cliques, but primarily folks sat with others and talked and shared with their classmates this moment apart from the pressures of the modern world.

By the 60th  reunion, much discussion centered on health issues:  operations, aches, pains, and medications.   Children and grandchildren were a secondary subject, and I witnessed no political discussions.   All in our lives was not positive. We military folks compared our experiences with agent orange.   There were several “new” younger wives but no younger husbands. Several of us had decided long ago to move on from our community to the broader world. For a short time, some served in the military as Vietnam encroached on them, one chose a career in government, and several left to live in larger cities.  

Stay or move on. This was the decision we all faced. About 90 percent of the class seemed to stay in our small town and the local area. There they put down roots and became the folks I see in front of me at the 60th reunion. The ten percent that left seemed to live more glamorous lives as they traveled the country and the world, but here they were back at this reunion—linked to the others by invisible ties that drew them to this moment.

Not all were there. Our class had about 70 folks at graduation– if one counts, those that joined us from previous classes. Over the years,  fifteen had passed on; others had simply disappeared and dropped off the alumni grid. Even today, with all the internet resources, they were invisible to us. Perhaps the bonds for them were not that strong. Or perhaps high school was not a positive experience as it was for those in front of me.    

Americans tend to compare and contrast a lot. I did this, so my life must have been better. I lived in a large city rather than the small town of my youth. I traveled the world and was not stuck in the boring town where I grew up.

Well, who is to say they had a boring life?

The folks I see in front of me at this 60th reunion may not have seen Bangkok as I did, but they served on their local school boards and worked to improve their communities.   They lived lives of consequence and were good citizens who improved our country. Thus, they fulfilled that challenge that JFK made to us so long ago.   

What better thing can one say across the years?

Posted in American History, New York, New York State History | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Silver Wings

Mather Air Force Base—UNT graduation 25 July 1972

It’s hard to believe that it has been 50– 50 years; I repeat this almost in unbelief.

Why? Because I only became a navigator through an odd series of circumstances.

I received my commission in 1966. At the time, the Vietnam war was mainly background noise, so I went to graduate school instead of heading directly to flight training. By 1968, things were scorching in Vietnam, when I was due to go on active duty. I took a flight physical and failed the vision tests. Whether it was two parents with glasses or all the reading I had done in grad school, the Air Force sent me to Washington DC in a non-rated job.   There I became the base training officer at Bolling AFB, usually a job done by an NCO. Stuck in a non-job which entailed a lot of paper pushing and running the monthly base parade (that was a real pain as no one except the Wing Commander liked marching). By 1970, the Air Force was burning through aircrews in Vietnam. I pushed and pushed, and in 1971 finally got into navigator training.

Barely but I passed.   

In November 1971, I arrived at Mather and was assigned to casual status (CS). I probably would have languished there, but I mentioned to the captain IN that I would turn 27 ½ in two weeks – that was the cutoff to enter nav training. So some other stud was moved back to CS, and I took his place.   I was an old captain in a new world about to do things I had never dreamed of. I want to say it all went well, but it didn’t. I failed my first checkride and had to work hard to complete the program. But as it went on, it all clicked, and in July 1972, I found myself graduating as a navigator.

T- 29 Flight line Mather AFB 1971

That long-ago afternoon at Mather, the officers’ club ballroom filled with family and friends gathered to celebrate our graduation. The wives waited in their finest, ready to pin new wings on their husbands. These women had spent long hours alone as their husbands flew for the past nine months. Today they were Mrs. Lieutenant, but they might be Mrs. Colonel in the future. The promise was there; the men had done well. The future lay ahead, but on that afternoon, the wives eagerly waited for the pinning to begin. My fiancée could not be present to pin on my wings, and 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 on 20 August 1972. My sister Linda had flown to California from New York to do the honors.  

We filed in by rank. The chaplain offered an invocation, our 3538th squadron commander and the wing commander spoke, and then the big moment was at hand. We, captains, graduated first and received our certificates of aeronautical rating as navigators. From that point to the end of our service, we 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 “skywalkers,” and we knew it.  

In the words of John Magee’s immortal poem High Flight: “we had slipped the surly bonds of earth.” 

We had flown.

We had fixed our positions by capturing starlight. 

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

The pride in our eyes could have lit the room. 

I walked up, saluted, and received my certificate and a brand-new set of navigator wings. My sister Linda 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 50 years later, it is almost as if it were unreal.   But there I was:

Me an old man of 28.

Me a history major in college who could not do anything more complicated than simple math. 

Me who failed my first check ride but excelled in some of the most complicated navigation taught.

Me who gained confidence in my abilities to do an essential job in the air force.

Me with silver wings on my chest. 

A door had opened for me. Now I was on my way to upgrade to the back seat of an F-4.  I retired in 1989, a Lt Colonel, after flying for six years in the backseat of the F-4 in war and peace, teaching at the Air Force Academy, and serving as a staff weenie in various positions, including an IN on the T-43 at Mather. 

Yet, if I had not gone to Mather in 1971, my life would have been very different.

I was meant to have those silver wings. 


For more stories check out my book, Fighter ‘Gator on Amazon

Posted in 1960s Turmoil, Air Force, Air Force Academy, Air Force lingo, American History, Cambodia bombing 1973, F-4 Phantom II, Mather AFB, Navigator, Navigator Training, NY History, Udorn RTAFB, USAFA, Washington DC | 1 Comment


As flyers one thing we always had to deal with was a checkride. My first checks were in Nav School on the T-29. If all went well, it was straightforward. That was the operative phrase—all went well.   Sadly, for me and others, all did not always go well.   Imagine a clown car filled with 12 clowns, all attempting to leave the car simultaneously. Imagine 12 navigator students trying to use the drift meter, take their fixes, plot them, and keep ahead of the aircraft. The lead instructor would later say it was “all asses and elbows” as we attempted to do what we had learned on the ground in the air. Doing a mission was far different in the air as the plane encountered turbulence and was buffeted from side to side. 

T- 29 Flight line Mather AFB 1971

Asses and Elbows, that about summed it up, and it was often the instructor’s apt description of how we performed. The name of the game was keeping ahead. Anything could sabotage that effort. A math error in computing the speed, a math error in applying drift, getting to the drift meter too late, finding the town or lake you were looking for had moved behind the aircraft, or a combination of these things. It was almost impossible to catch up if you got behind or misidentified a city or other geographical feature.These first missions were a constant game of catch-up for me and others. I was always slightly behind, finding and correcting errors in my computations. There was a lot to do, to do quickly, and to do accurately.  

Having learned the basics of DR navigation, we moved on to the next training phase: using a radar target to establish a fixed position. The target might be a town, lake, mountain, or other geographic feature. With the drift meter, we could see the feature. On the radar, we saw only the ghostly outline of it coming down the radar scope. Radar took some getting used to, but we became proficient at using it after about eight flights. At least, I thought I was.   My first check ride came in what was to be the most straightforward training phase, and I failed it. I cannot remember why; it may have been due to any of the issues I mentioned, or it may have been an instructor navigator who was a harsh grader. From 50 years out, it is hard to recall, but I suspect it was the latter rather than the former, as several people he graded failed. It was my last check ride failure; I was determined to do better in the future. I did; I passed my retake and moved on. I was lucky as some students at this point washed back to another class ending up in the limbo of casual status. How we would do in the air was hard to determine. The pressure was always on, and things were getting more challenging and complicated. Some students went through these early flights and decided to call it quits—they were SIE—self-initiated eliminations. 

That was my first checkride; over the next six months, I improved and did much better.

So much so that by the time I was due for my final checkride at nav school,  I was confident in my abilities as a navigator and ready for the test ahead.   This test of a combined nav check used all that I had learned:  dead reckoning, radar, and celestial on a cross-country mission. I would be the only navigator in charge of all that would happen. There would be an instructor navigator who would observe my performance and grade me. So on the last week of June 1972, I had my final checkride in the T-29. It involved an all-day flight from Mather along a prescribed route to Hamilton AFB near San Francisco, a stopover, and a return to Mather.   In effect, there would be two three-hour legs. I would demonstrate my skills as a navigator and be graded on my abilities.   

Interior T-29

I arrived at mission planning and met my IN.   He looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. I did all the planning, briefed the crew, went to the plane, and flew the mission. All went perfectly, I was at the top of my game.   Only on the way back to Mather I realized who the IN was. I had gone to college with him. When I was a freshman in ROTC, he was one of the seniors leading the detachment.   After we debriefed and he critiqued me, I told him we had gone to college together.   It was a nice moment to share this news of our common time at Hobart, a small men’s college in upstate NY.    

Ahead lay survival school and my first aircraft assignment.  I had filled out my dream sheet putting the F-4 Phantom as my first choice.   My chances of getting it seemed small; then, I began to hear that many of the men at the top of the class had put down SAC assignments to avoid going to South East Asia.  When the rankings were released, I got my Phantom.  I would be going to George AFB in August 1972 to become a back seater – A GIB – Guy in the Back. Having demonstrated my skills on the final check ride, I would never do most of them again.

One thing for sure, I would always have check rides; but seldom would they be given by someone I knew in College. Indeed it was a special moment ending my time at Mather.


For more stories, see my newly published memoir of flying Fighter “Gator

Available on Amazon or directly from the publisher at

Posted in Air Force, Air Force lingo, American History, F-4 Phantom II, Mather AFB, Navigator, Navigator Training | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

On Being a Fighter Jock

In his excellent biography, Robin Olds ponders what it means to have the Right Stuff. He looks back at his time in World War II and the men he flew with. Olds understands that flying a fighter is more than just piloting it. Likewise, Colonel Steve Ladd (USAF, ret.) in his book — From F-4 Phantom to A-10 Warthog: Memoirs of a Cold War Fighter Pilot –– also notes that there are fighter pilots and only men who fly fighters. This was a lesson I, too, learned in my six years in the backseat of the F-4.  You can fly in a fighter, but it takes a lot more to be a Fighter Jock, whether Fighter Pilot or Fighter ‘Gator.

When we entered F-4 upgrade training, we quickly adopted the stance of a fighter jock and began to use many of the phrases that most would recognize:

A hostile aircraft–a “bandit.”
Bought the farm–plowing any aircraft into the ground, a.k.a. augured in.
Tango Uniform–Tits Up when something on the bird had died.
Sierra Hotel–shit hot.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (What the F)
Gear Up, Flaps Up, Lunch Up!
One pass haul ass— and many, many more.

That was in training; it was a very different world when we went to combat. We were still men who flew the F-4. We were not yet Fighter Jocks. We new guys had come were proficient but not yet adept at what we were doing. We crewed with more experienced men. We had to learn from them and grow in flying skills and abilities. They did not give trust easily—just because you joined a group. You needed to work to earn your place in a combat unit. In combat, trust is essential to do your job right. To do it right requires that one fully understand the commitment in three words: Duty, Honor, and Country. These words, not the phrases above, define the true fighter jock and separates him from simply someone who flies a fighter.

Before I entered flying, I had no idea of what duty meant. To me, it seemed duty meant showing up for work daily. I learned that duty meant something more subtle: dedication. Going through F-4 training was one of the hardest things I ever did. I quickly learned that I had to work hard. I had to commit to it in a way that I had not previously experienced in the air force or college. Now my whole life revolved around becoming a WSO in an F-4. I had to do it. I had to make it. To succeed required taking the hard path. Duty then meant not only dedication but work. Work: duty equaled hard work. There is no coasting in combat. No taking the easy way. No giving up. Every time I went up in the F-4 over Cambodia, there was the chance I would not come back. In the short time, I flew combat, my life changed. It defined who I was. I was indeed a fighter navigator—fighter ‘gator. Combat made me a better person; I was doing the job I chose to do. No one forced me to go to the F-4, and I went there with my eyes open. This commitment is something I share with all the men, like Robin Olds, who went off in WWII to serve our nation.

Second comes honor. I have always thought of honor in terms of trust. You must be able to trust the men you serve with, and they must be able to trust you. It is as simple as that. I would not fly in an F-4 with a pilot I did not trust. That is the great gift of honor, the understanding that it is not me; we are in this together. We are a team built on trust.

Country may appear to be last, but it is equally essential in the trinity of values. I define country more broadly than a geographic area. For me, country means loyalty—loyalty to something bigger than oneself. Loyalty is the basis for all the actions that you do. Military members cannot pick and choose what they will do.

The three words: Duty/Dedication, Honor/Trust, and Country/Loyalty ground one. To be a true Fighter Jock, one must adhere to these values, and they guide one for a career and life.

In recent years I have begun to understand the tremendous trust my nation placed on me by allowing me to fly in the back seat of the F-4. It was more than being a good GIB and doing my job, and this trust demanded that I do it without reservation if I had to place my life in danger.

When folks ask me what it was like to fly in the back seat, I tell them: It was the highest honor a man could ever receive.   And that, in the end, was what being a Fighter Jock was all about.


For more stories of my time in the Phantom, see my new book

Fighter’ Gator – Available on Amazon in ebook or print, or from the publisher

Posted in American History | 3 Comments