Questions never answered

Had a great experience over the weekend. I visited David Garbe who lives about ½ hour away and has reconstructed the front part of an F4 D aircraft which had flown with the famed 555th Triple Nickle at Udorn. It took him several years to buy the fuselage and other parts from dealers all over the county and then he clearly, lovingly put the bird back together. He returned it to the state it would have been when I last flew in the F4 nearly 40 years ago.

I sat there in the back seat, my wife was in the front, and talked with David who explained how he had accomplished the restoration. Then I moved to the front and we talked about my time in the F4. It was a very thought provoking discussion. It later struck me as one of those moments out of time – a universal experience that anyone who has been in combat experiences. Me the old warrior sitting there and he the young man asking questions about what it was like.

What it was Like.

As I talked with David for more than two hours my mind drifted back to those long ago days. And we shared some thoughts that I have not shared with many people. Bonnie sat there I sensed hearing these things and perhaps gaining a new understanding of the complexities of flying and being in combat.     

Combat, of course, is one of the things that men never talk about. Oh Fighter Jocks kid each other, and shoot the bull on many flying-related subjects, but they never share their inner most thoughts on going into combat. They sit in the bar after a combat mission and drink and talk late into the night, sometimes too late and too much. But they never share a deeper conversation.

Of the men I flew with I never knew how many combat missions they had flown; if they had a close call, or if they had been decorated. It simply was never discussed. Years later I learned that my old boss in Alaska had flown more than 250 missions over North Vietnam and was highly decorated. But I found it out only when he was featured on the History Channel program Vietnam in HD.

Men never talk about if they are afraid or have even thought about it before a mission. Once a former F4 jock shared with me that on the crew bus he sometimes, as I did, thought briefly about what the day might bring. Then he swept it aside and focused on the tasks at hand. The mission was all important.

Another thing men never ask of fellow fliers who did not go to war: “Did you feel left out?”

This is something that I have always wished to ask; but never did. Of my F4 class, only about 1/3 of us went to SEA and were in combat. I have a good friend who didn’t go to SEA but remained stateside.

I wonder did he feel he missed a great adventure or was he glad.

Americans have always wanted to be part of the great adventures. Going to war in the 19th Century was called “going to see the elephant.” Did my friend in his heart feel that he missed seeing the Elephant? I will never know.   And those of us  who saw the Elephant in the skies over Vietnam seldom talk about it.  All this has come back to me from the weekend; throughout the last few days these thoughts have come and gone.

These are thoughts that will never fade, they are linked to a time and place that changed me and many others. Sitting in David’s wonderfully restored F4 backseat again took me to that place. And I thank him for returning me to a time when I was young and the runway stretched far ahead of me.


To read about David’s work see


About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in 13 TFS, American History, Cambodia bombing 1973, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, SEA, Veterans, Vietnam War and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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