Speech Given at the First Annual Veterans Dinner at Finger Lakes Community College

A year ago I had the honor of being the first speaker at a dinner honoring veterans at our local college.  As we approach Veterans Day this coming week, I share my talk again — it is good to remind folks of the sacrifices we made and remember those who mentored us.

An American Family

Remarks by  Lt Col John E. Norvell (USAF Ret.)  November 10, 2017

President Nye, Dr. Pierce, ladies and gentleman and members of the College community,  thank you for inviting me to speak tonight.

As a former history professor I routinely lectured for 50 minutes so I asked President Nye how long I should talk – He Said SHORTER ….

In 1966, I was commissioned a Second Lieutenant.

Now admit it some of you may be thinking – , oh great another OLD VET talking about ancient history. And you know what, I probably thought the same thing in 1965 when they trotted out an old veteran to speak to our ROTC class, and I suspect that guy thought the same thing when a veteran from a previous war talked to him.

To be honest, the name of that Vet who spoke to me is long gone. And I suspect that…

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Halloween in a small town

Ten years ago the local ABC affiliate visited us for their morning TV show, we had gotten a local reputation for our annual Halloween displays.  I had often been called Mr. Halloween.  A the bottom of this post there is a link to movies of that broadcast, hard to believe it was so long ago.

An American Family

My father Phil Keith Norvell loved Halloween.  One of my earliest memories is of him carving a huge Jack O’Lantern about 1948.

Growing up in rural upstate New York, Halloween was the biggest holiday of the year.  A small town with old brooding houses, bridges over winding creeks, and old cemeteries full of worn and leaning stones is the perfect setting for Halloween.  Late in the day, as the leaves fell from the trees, the sun would sink low on the horizon bringing the kind of special fall light that sharply etches everything in contrast.  All day long kids would celebrate at school with treats and games.  Even the teachers dressed up.  Costumes for the most part were homemade, there were no big parades of zombies or movie characters, but usually just pirates, clowns, witches, and some small hobos.  If you were lucky your class might go on a hayride…

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A Tale of the 13 TFS – With Gilligan in China

45 years ago, in October 1973, as a member of the 13th TFS,  I had the opportunity to ferry an F4 from Udorn RTAFB in Thailand to Tainan, Taiwan, China.   The Air Force used a system of central depots to perform upgrades that couldn’t be performed at our base.   We were at the time beginning the era of laser guided munitions and several of our F4s were being outfitted to drop laser guided bombs.

Flying there required a stop over at Korat RTAFB, in Central Thailand, where we spent the night and then picked up the birds to go to Tainan, which was located in southern Taiwan on the Strait of Taiwan.


View from the back seat of tanker

From Korat we flew north, refueling several times and constantly monitoring any air activity from Mainland China, in case we were being tracked (of course we were) by Chinese radar.  I could tensely see the coast of China on the radar, but nothing happened and we landed safely.  From Tainan, we took a helicopter north to the capital Taipei where we had a boondoggle good deal – a Chinese national celebration — Double 10 day– would keep us there  three days .  Then we would catch a C-130 back to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, pick up F4s there and return to Thailand.

My pilot was a real fighter pilot if there ever were one.  He didn’t come to Taipei to visit the museums, and  on the first day he went off to Peitou City, the infamous red light district, in pursuit of  the “special pleasures” the orient had to offer.

I was more straight arrow; I had heard too many stories about VD that couldn’t be cured and other bad things that happened to GIs on the loose in a strange city.  Taipei , however, was a safe city to tour and I went off on my own with no problems.   I simply held up a card with a destination printed in English and Chinese to the taxi driver, we called it a Pointee Talkee, and off I went.  I think now that it was a very trusting thing to do, but the country was under martial law at the time.  I guess the red light districts where my pilot chose to go were not a problem either, and if he contracted something he never let on.

I was sitting in my hotel room  on October 10, 1973, the second day of our layover, watching Gilligan’s Island with Chinese subtitles on a small black and white tv, when a news bulletin interrupted the program and there was Spiro Agnew.

The announcers explained the story in Chinese, but I had no clue what was up.  For all I knew he might have become President of the United States, although there were no pictures of Nixon, so that thought quickly faded.     Many, many questions swirled through my mind.

Was Agnew dead?   Would the Professor finally develop a way to get Gilligan and the crew off the Island?  Where did the sexy Ginger get all those amazing dresses?  Why did Thurston Howell III sound like Mr. Magoo?  Why would they interrupt Gilligan’s Island to talk about Spiro Agnew?   Was nothing sacred to these people?

Several days later, back in Thailand I would finally get the news of Agnew’s resignation.

When you are overseas, you are “Out of the World,”   no way around it.  You are not in your own world and not part of the world you are in.  Yes “Out of the World,” clearly captures it.

I guess that’s how Gilligan felt as well.

Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Fighter pilot lingo, Fighter pilot slang, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Veterans | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

At Sleepy Hollow

We have gone to Sleepy Hollow twice in the past.  As the days grow shorter, I am sharing our last visit again.

An American Family

For many years, after we moved back to New York, we wanted to visit Sleepy Hollow at Halloween time.  It probably has to do mostly with the Disney movie version of Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

If you somehow missed this classic, Bing Crosby is the narrator of the tale and does a good job telling the story and in the process poking a bit of fun at his earlier image as a crooner in the 1930s.  But it is the finale of the cartoon when the Headless Horseman pursues the hapless Ichabod Crane that really captures the essence of Halloween and the terrors of the night.  Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

So in 2007 we made our first trip (about 4 hours from where we live) and had such a good time, we returned again five years later.   In addition to many events  centered around the “Headless Horseman,” Old Dutch…

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A Picture worth many words


I have been looking at this picture a lot this week. I posted it to several F4 facebook groups.   It shows me standing in front of an F4C parked on the ramp at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona 45 years ago — spring 1973.

I had just completed nearly two years of flight training, which began in the fall of 1971 at the Navigator Training School at Mather Air Force Base.  When I graduated from Nav school I asked for the F4 and I got it.  By May 1973 when this was taken I had been through additional training to qualify in the Phantom.  This training changed me from a navigator to a Weapons Systems Officer who ran the radar, INS,  navigated, flew the aircraft from the back seat,  conducted complex intercepts of approaching aircraft, and that was only the beginning.

I had come to the F4 late in life, I had been a non rated officer or groundpounder as we called them for 4 years.   While most of the men I was in training with were 22 – I was an old guy at 28,    When I picked the F4 I really knew little about it or the demands it would place on me.   In my six years in the Phantom, I came to realize it was more than just being a Guy in Back — GIB.

It was being admitted to a very special fraternity – the world of the fighter pilot.

The fighter pilot was a direct descendant of the famed aviators of World War I who took on the likes of Red Baron over the battlefields of France.   Fighter Pilots  — they lived life to the fullest, the flew hard, high, and fast.  They were almost to the man, some of the best people I have ever known.  They partied when the job was done and then went back into the air the next day to do it again.

This is not to imply that they were not professional.

I never met an F4 front seater that was anything less than professional in the air.   I came to respect their skills and see that they alone in the Air Force occupied a unique place shared only by their brothers in arms — the F4 recce pilots and the Wild Weasels who lured the enemy into shooting at them–  so that others could attack their position.  As a GIB,  I was right there with them.  If my AC flew high, hard, and fast I was two feet behind him, his partner as we took on all that the enemy had to throw at us.  And there was more to it than this, we understood each other, we knew what each one was going to do almost before he did it.  It was a unique time as a Nav to be so valued as a partner.  I would never feel that again when I left the fighter world.

As I look at that photo, I see someone who is proud and confident.  Yet,  I was  unaware what a year in combat, and four more years in the Phantom would bring.   Of the changes it would bring to me, how my skills would grow, and how I would never be able to forget those days.

How I would never be able to forget those days.

It was the great adventure of my life.   

Posted in 13 TFS, 43 TFS, Air Force, Alaska, American History, Arizona, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Hardest Thing I Ever Did

September 11, 2018 brings back the memories of that day so long ago and how I had to lead the prayers for those who died that day. It is something I will never forget.

An American Family


Lord, guard and guide all those who fly
Through the great spaces in the sky.
Be with them always in the air,
In darkening storms or sunlight fair;
Oh, hear us when we lift our prayer,
For those in peril in the air!

The Air Force Version of Eternal Father Strong to Save

It was an absolutely glorious day today as I walked by Canandaigua Lake. The sky was a clear azure blue, with just a touch of coolness.

A perfect fall day, and it reminded me so much of September 11, 2001, another seemingly at first perfect – yet not– fall day, we will never forget.

I had just arrived at work when the news spread that an airplane had struck one of the World Trade Center towers. We moved to our common area and turned on the television and I was stunned to see the second plane hit…

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Little Orphan Annie and the end of the Air War in SEA August 1973

Lest we forget:  F-4 Phantom II—445 total lost in the SEA Air War,  382 in  combat more than any other fixed wing aircraft

First combat loss F-4C 64-0685 (45th TFS, 15th TFW) shot down Ta Chan, NW NVN on 20 June 1965.  Final loss: F-4D 66-8747 (432d TRW) on 29 June 1973.

Forty-five years ago this month – August 15, 1973– I flew in the backseat of an F4 Phantom II jet on a bombing mission over Cambodia as a member of the 13th TFS out of Udorn RTAFB.

By Congressional order noon  that day the  air war in South East Asia ended; a war that had gone on continuously since 1965.  As I was on alert that morning, my F4 flight was the unofficial last combat mission launched from Udorn for the Vietnam War (although reconnaissance F4 flights would continue).

Right at noon as the war ended, we heard a radio message on Guard:  Little Orphan Annie has crossed the Blue Ridge Bridge. I repeat Little Orphan Annie has crossed the Blue Ridge Bridge, then the sound of a toilet flushing.   This is all that I  remember about that day.  I don’t remember the target or any other details of that last mission.

In his book On War and Writing, Samuel Hynes, a former professor at Princeton and US Marine World War II veteran, writes that there are two major sources for personal war information: remembering and reporting. Remembering takes place in the anecdote I just shared and is often affected by time. Reporting draws on the letters contemporaneous with the events.

During the Civil War, a letter of Union Major Sullivan Ballou, written in July 1861, touches the reader with the strength of his words: “I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter…. And I am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt …”  However, the letters home covering the very brutal battles of Anzio and Monte Casino in World War II,  by Army infrantryman Babe Carlo contain no lofty rhetoric.  He wrote letters designed to spare his family the horrors of war so that they would not know what he was experiencing.

Sadly, both Ballou and Carlo would never return home.  Only the two men knew what they went through.

45 years ago, beginning in May 1973 as a member of the 13 TFS, I flew combat missions almost every day until the war ended.     

My letters are somewhat like Carlo’s, but they do share some of the challenges I was facing. I mention flying in combat, but also talk about my pay records being lost. I complain that my room mate drinks up all my instant coffee and then add almost in passing “We flew to Cambodia where we blew up an enemy gun emplacement.” I talk of an emergency: “22 July 1973: We took off fully loaded with 18 Mark-82 (500 lb) bombs and started to get erroneous flight inputs. The plane lurched toward the ground and I thought that we were going to have to eject…,”then write about a squadron party and that I have less than 300 days until I get “Back to the World.”

500 pound Mark 82 bomb load on F4

And then there is 15 August 1973, I wrote to my wife: “I find it hard to believe that the war is over. Strange to be in combat one day, training the next as if nothing had happened.”  It’s almost as if I didn’t want combat to end.

Reading them now, I understand what the letters sought to convey: I did some amazing things but I am OK –don’t worry.

But in those letters there is always part of them that only speaks to me.  No matter how far I am removed from those events of 45 years ago, they will never go away.   As the years pass, I think most about the men I served with in the 13 TFS in combat. They were some of the best men I will ever know. We shared an amazing adventure. We were tested in combat and we did well. We were changed. And I think I would never have missed this experience for a moment.

Yes, being overseas in combat was bittersweet time.


(To hear the Orphan Annie radio transmission in a dropbox link click here  )

For a another look at this mission on August 15, 1973  see this piece I wrote for the 40th anniversary of the end of the air war click –  https://jenorv66.wordpress.com/2013/06/11/the-last-flight-of-the-vietnam-war/   


A shorter version of this story appeared in the Geneva NY Finger Lakes Times on August 12, 2018

Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, American History, Cambodia bombing 1973, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Family History, Fighter Aircraft, Military history, Norvell Family History, SEA, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Veterans, Vietnam War | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments