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.”
In popular myth many in the squadron thought we had named our mascot Eldridge as a nod to the Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver in the 1960s. Years later I learned that he was really named after a member of the 13th, whose last name was Eldridge, who routinely destroyed the hootch lounge/bar after one or two drinks. One of the back seaters, who was also a vet, took good 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. (1)
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.
(1) 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