A Day in the Life

F4 Aircraft over SEA

I  was thinking today about how I would have spent this day during the Vietnam War  My squadron the 13TFS had an air to mud mission, so unlike the 555th which was mostly air to air, we spent a lot of time blowing things up.   

Most days in combat began early.  There was what we called a “Zero Dark Thirty” wake up.

Then it was breakfast.  There were two options. One,  eat at the club which is what I usually did.   For me  the club breakfast  was always Steak and Eggs.  If the brief was too early then I had to eat at the chow hall.  Then breakfast was SOS.   

Today I think my wife finds it funny that at least once a month I have SOS for breakfast on a Saturday.     I wouldn’t have flown a mission without a good breakfast.  Perhaps a ritual, but certainly one of assurance about the day to come. 

Then I had to get to the squadron for the briefing.  There was a base bus we called “the blue bird,’ a typical blue Air Force Bus that could take you to the other side.  The club and Squadron Hootches were on the one side of the runways and the squadron briefing rooms and Intel on the other. 

Squadron Hootches were on the right side of the map and we had to go round the runways to the area above them to brief.

The blue bird was not always on time and after being chewed out twice for being late to brief, I elected to have my parents send me my 3 speed bicycle and after that for the remainder of my time at Udorn – the next 8 months– I usually rode about 2 miles over to the squadron.    


Then an intel briefing where the targets of the day would be covered,  The intel guys gave us the latest ROE, briefed the target threats, and generally put on a dog and pony show about conditions near the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  I particularly liked hearing them briefing about towns like Snoul, Krek, and Tchepone.  The sound of the towns was so foreign to anything I had ever heard as a kid growing up in rural America. 

Intel was  followed by a crew brief, a stop to pick up our survival vests and helmets,and strap on my 38 which I wore gunslinger style on my right hip. 

Eldridge our mascot being fed.

As we walked by him, a quick  wave to Eldridge the Black Panther, our mascot, as we went from life support  — then on the crew van out to the revetments to pre-flight the bird.



At this point nearly 3 hours would have passed since that early morning call to get up.  

It was on the crew bus that often folks turned introspective, but if they were thinking about what was to come they never discussed it.    Still on many mornings, in those long ago days, I could not help but think about how many men had boarded the crew bus never to return that night.  It was a  thought not entertained for long.  It was an inward acknowledgement of the brotherhood in which I found myself now which would shape me and my life for the years to come.

Years later I raised this with another fighter jock and he said he thought about this as he began a  mission but then “It was pretty quiet on the crew vans. I think most of us were engrossed in tactics, freqs, call signs, headings, settings, etc until the last moment or so at the van approached the jets. Had moment again on the taxiways and arming area after all the checks were done. Then – after that the mission was the only thought.”   It was really an existential moment.   Yet, if I ever thought I might die that day, I never voiced it to anyone.  That was OK.  All, who ever went into combat no matter when or where, has thought that.   It crossed the mind and then was gone as the mission began.  

Most days everything went as planned – TO, rendezvous with the Tank, take on gas – we loved the big gas station in the sky – get the target information.

View from the back seat of tanker

Contact the FAC – drop some surprises on the commies, back to the Tank and then home.

And yet occasionally there could be a surprise that reminded me that flying could be a dangerous occupation. 

One day about 40 combat missions in my tour at Udorn, we took off with a full load of Mark 82 —  500 pound bombs.   Everything seemed normal as we started our  take off roll, I called off 100 knots to the AC and we broke ground.  As we climbed, suddenly the F4 made a violent  right lurch toward the ground.  The AC got very quiet and I could tell he was fighting with the controls as the stick moved back and forth.   After what seemed to be several long minutes, he came back on hot mike and said that the F4 had experienced erroneous flight control inputs.   We hit the checklists and managed to get the bird more or less flying in a normal manner.   That said, we now had a problem of a full load of fuel and a full load of bombs to deal with.


 After consulting with the SOF and others in charge, it was decided that we burn off the fuel and jettison the bombs off the end of the runway in the area reserved for this. 

So rather than spending two or three hours flying to the target for the day, we drilled holes in the sky and basically flew around Udorn for the next 45 or so minutes to burn off the fuel.    After dumping the bombs, we landed uneventfully,  wrote up the malfunction, left the bird and went back to the squadron to debrief.   

Mission maybe not accomplished, but perhaps tomorrow  when another day in the life of the war lay ahead.


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.
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3 Responses to A Day in the Life

  1. Bobby Schulze says:

    Funny how Aviators in combat roles think. I flew Hueys in the Army and had basically the same thoughts. Thanks for serving your Country. Bless you.

  2. Michael S. Tomasic says:

    John, the rosary started after wheels up and completion of the takeoff checklist. Thereafter, out of Guam or Okinawa, there were another few hours prior to air refueling, mixed with Sarah Vaughn or big band sounds, I had taped at the hobby shop. We had a couple of emergencies that were life threatening, but there was no time to consider dying, it was too late then, instead instinct and training took over. Nonetheless, the last letter was always kept in a safe place, certain to be found if I didn’t come back.

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