Serving in the Vietnam War was in many ways like being in an ongoing episode of M*A*S*H.
Every aircrew member of the squadron had a nickname, some were flattering and some were not. I would tell you mine, but then I would have to kill you – ha ha. It is a name that was special to that time only and one that I will take to the grave or perhaps share at another time (or perhaps not).
Squadrons also had mascots.
Our mascot was a black Asian leopard. Since our unit was the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron and our emblem was a black panther – we were the “Panther Pack.”
We named our mascot Eldridge as a nod to the Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver in the 1960s. One of the back seaters, a vet, took care of the cat. Eldridge was pampered with steak from the O club and would play-attack and rough house with us, but he never ever hurt any aircrew member.
According to squadron lore, Eldridge was picked up by a member of Air America –CIA– in Malaysia in mid 1971 when he was 7 months old. By the time I arrived in SEA he was full grown and treated as if he were a big, read VERY BIG house cat.
At first he slept in the rooms of various members of the Pack, then in the hootch/bar lounge, but when he reached his full growth that was no longer possible; so a chain link fenced enclosure was built to hold him. As a full grown male leopard, Eldridge was quite strong and it was becoming a challenge to handle him. One member of the unit was the official “Kat Keeper,” who walked him and fed him each day and played with him.
Taking Eldridge for a walk was an ordeal. He went where he wanted to go– not necessarily where you wanted him to be. I have home movies of him walking on the hood of the Wing Commander’s official Air Force blue vehicle. He could also be quite frisky. If you have ever played with a male house cat on his back, you know he will reach and out try to grab you. Now multiply that by a factor of 20 and add in the fact that the cat weighs about 200 pounds and you will have an idea of what it was like to play with Eldridge. Everyone loved to rub his tummy and quickly learned to move fast if one of those big paws came at you. I never saw him break any skin, but he could grab you fast and it was always wise to be on your guard.
He also liked to stalk “Nickel,” a dog, who was the mascot of the 555th (Triple Nickel) Tactical Fighter Squadron. Nickel had free range of the base and was often wandering around the squadron buildings. On those occasions when Eldridge and Nickel encountered each other, it was a struggle to keep Eldridge away from him. The Kat Keeper had to really hold on the heavy leather leash as Eldridge assumed the fierce “Jungle Cat” stalking pose and tried to move on his prey. Nickel put his tail between his legs and retreated as fast as possible, knowing that retreat to safety was the wise course of action.
In time, it became clear that Eldridge would have to move on. He was becoming too big to handle, and began to have the urges every healthy American Male feels when he encounters puberty. Since we had no female, it was determined he would move to the Phoenix Arizona zoo, where he could find a mate.
In December 1973, we bid good bye to our old friend. I am told that he died in 1994, having fathered six offspring, and having been visited by generations of fighter pilots, their families, and the general public.
He was in truth the BEST mascot any Air Force Squadron ever had.
On Eldridge leaving there is more to the story shared by 13 TFS member Bob Connelly
To add a bit to your narrative. He had to move on because he got into deep dodo with CSAF because he created some “ international incidents”.
His first big misstep was while out for a walk with his handler he came upon the bus that ran between the cantonment side and flight line side and the end of its run was between the 13th TFS and 14TFS before the moved in early 73 to a new place nearer Wing HQ.
Eldridge indicated his desire to get on the bus and the handler to a glance and the bus appeared empty, so he let him get on. Unfortunately there was a young Thai girl hiding in the back. She saw the cat and panicked and tried to run by. Eldridge stuck out his paw and raked her calf as she went by. She was taken to the base hospital fixed up and the family given some Baht. Shortly afterwords a message came from the CSAF office saying it was an “international incident” and to get rid of the cat.
At that time we began negotiating with Zoos in the US for a home for him. He was constantly tormented by the Thai workers and had a serious dislike for them. His second misadventure came after moving to the new building. One of the hooch maids who was a main tormenter came out of one of the other squadron buildings and Eldridge was in the yard with some of the guys. Quick as a flash he was on her. He didn’t seriously injured her but just enough to let her know she really pissed him off.
As can be expected an immediate message from the Chief arrived at the CCs desk by flaming arrow. Efforts accelerated to move him on. Before he could be moved he had another incident with a hooch maid similar to the previous one and shortly thereafter he was on his way to Phoenix.
He area was dedicated by a couple of 13th former POWs who were in pilot training at Williams. I visited Eldridge right after I retired in early 84 and became a zoo parent along with a number of other 13th guys. The curator explained that he had a female companion but apparently she was to old to conceive.
About this time I was President of the River Rats and we had just come out with a challenge coin, which were numbered and I managed to get the #13 coin. A friend Bob Pardo wanted the #13 coin and offered me so interesting money for it. I told him it wasn’t for sale but that if he could get a new mate for Eldridge I would give him the coin. A few months later I got a call from the Phoenix Zoo informing me that Miss Vickie had arrived and I was supposed to send something to Mr. Pardo. I packed up the coin and off it went. A few months later I got another call from the Zoo informing me that a male cub had been born and that they were naming him BC after me. He had two more living cubs, next was a female named Miss Lillian and lastly another male who was named Pardo. The plaque that was on his Zoo enclosure not resides with the 13th at Misawa.
Additional information on Eldridge was provided by Mike G who was a member of the 13 TFS when the cat arrived in 1971.
To view a movie of Eldridge in 1973 click this link:
To see my account of the 13th’s participation in the Cambodia Bombing campaign of 1973 see
To see the 13th on the last Fighter mission of the Vietnam War see