On to SEA in ’73

45 years ago this week,  a new phase of my life began.

On May 15, 1973, I kissed my wife goodbye at the airport.   And set off on what was to be the great adventure of my life – flying the backseat of the F4 in combat.

From Syracuse New York, I flew to San Francisco and then caught a shuttle bus to Travis AFB where I spent a night in transit status.   From  there I flew on one of the cattle-car contract transport flights — from 45 years later I believe it was World Airways.  This took about 24 hours to get to SEA as we hopped from Alaska to Japan to the Philippines where I would attend Jungle Survival School, aka Snake School.

We got to Clark Air Base on May 18, 1973.  My initial reaction was that it was an unbelievable world with shacks  built right outside the main gate and people always  hassling you to buy things.

The Base, an old army post going back to the Spanish American war era, with a large green parade field surrounded by officer’s bungalows,  seemed right out of Kipling.  It reminded me of the British presence in India before WWII, very colonial. I noted in my journal that “the temperature here yesterday was 98 with about equal humidity.”

This was not my first surprise in this new world, nearly a week later as I finished Jungle School, I returned from the trek to discover that my assignment had been changed from Ubon to Udorn.

Then I was off to Thailand arriving there about May 25th.   A new chapter then began in my flying career, no more practice – all real now.

Two days later, I was assigned to the 13 Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS)–the Panther Pack.  I quickly learned that I would be flying bombing missions in Cambodia by the end of the week.  GIBs (Guys in Back–i.e., WSOs) were in demand and I was told that I would be flying at least every day 3 to 4 hour missions.    

One thing for sure, I knew I was not in Kansas anymore. We now flew with survival gear and camouflaged helmets.  We had 38 cal revolvers, which I carried in a holster strapped to my leg, gunslinger style.

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. 1

On May 28, I had my first orientation flight in the combat zone — which my IP referred to as the “South 40,” as we flew across Thailand and entered over Cambodian airspace.

The  next day my first bombing mission occurred.  I wrote in my journal:   “We bombed Cambodia–it’s a funny feeling to be using real bombs. The mission was 3 hours and we had to refuel 3 times. Drawing combat pay now.” The relief and excitement of the moment mixed with the realization: “348 days to go.”

It would be a long time before I would be “Back in the World.”


1 Sadly it would take several months to see this bounty of extra pay as since I went to Udorn at the last minute, all my records and whole baggage went to Ubon.  The baggage arrived relatively quickly, straightening out my pay would take about 3 months.   I was able to get advanced pay until all worked out; it didn’t seem to affect my wife who got a monthly allotment.


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, Air Force, American History, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, Luke AFB, Thailand, Vietnam War and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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