Freedom Bird

45 years ago, this week in  April, I boarded a “Freedom Bird” heading home from Thailand after a year-long remote combat tour.

It was a year filled with many things:  honing my flying skills as a backseater in the F4, learning to deal with a whole new world, and being away from my wife —  being  gone from her for a whole year was a very difficult thing to do.

Much of that long-ago year revolved around combat.

The first four months, I was there,  as a member of the 13 Tactical Fighter Squadron, nearly every day, we bombed Cambodia hitting enemy positions.  Then, the bombing halted on August 15, 1973 at the direction of Congress.  Now we were in limbo.  There was always the chance the bombing could be renewed if the peace fell apart.  We wondered what would  happen if we had to “Go North.” We  were experienced combat F4 crews and ready to go into battle immediately, if called upon to do so.   But we never flew combat again.

I have thought about combat now for 45 years. I have worked through my mind my time in combat and read extensively about the experiences of others.    It’s hard to compare combat experiences.  There are many  commonalities, but  every man has a different story to tell.

To be honest, I wished I had gone North.  The men who went North were called upon to do their jobs under the most demanding conditions.  When I arrived in Thailand there were many “Red River Rats” still in the 13th. The Red River Rats had flown combat missions over the “Red River Valley” of North Vietnam.   Our Rats had last flown North during Linebacker II and I held what they did in awe.   They never talked about it, but simply had River Rats patches on their party suits, so we FNGs knew who they were and what they had done. 

My roommate was a special breed of Rat – his nickname was “Fast Eddy.”  He was part of a Fast FAC  F4 Laredo crew that directed other F4s to the target.  The Fast FACs in my mind came close to the mystique of the WWI fliers.  They led the others in, marked the targets, and controlled the air strikes and then moved on to look for more.   They were the hunters on the prowl.  I always wondered how I would have performed as a WSO in that arena.

For 45 years “Going North” has been a siren song in my mind.  If we had gotten the order to go North, so long ago, my friends and I would have gone.  We would have flown and fought to the best of our abilities.  Such was the caliber of all the men who did their duty so long ago.  I will remember men of the 13th TFS the rest of my life.

In a way it was hard to leave these men I had gotten to know so well – we ate together, flew together,  we celebrated together, and shared some amazing adventures in the air.  When the flying was done we shared a few brews together – well maybe more than a few.  I never experienced again a bond like the one we forged in combat.

On the day I left,  my friends in the squadron turned out to see me off as I went back to”The World”–  a ritual that had been done so many times since the war began.

“Sawadee, the Thais said — Goodbye.”  And also “Hello” as if one can never be parted.

Champagne popped and  was passed around,  a Thai Sawadee necklace was placed around my neck, and more quick goodbyes said.

It was all so fast — almost a blur  — and then it was over. 

I boarded our “Freedom Bird,”  the aircraft taking us home, stowed my carry on gear and strapped in.

The aircraft taxied into position and began the take off roll.

Udorn, the place where I had lived for a year,  rushed by the windows.

The bird broke ground.

Like a volcano erupting, a huge cheer went up.

“SAWADEE ,” we were on our way home.

Sawadee and yet I know now that it really doesn’t mean goodbye, it means we will always be together…

SAWADEE to all you Panthers, SAWADEE my friends.

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 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Fighter pilot slang, SEA, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Veterans, Vietnam War and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Freedom Bird

  1. Bill Hacker says:

    As an aircraft electrician in 432nd fms I worked on that bird. Udorn was my pcs 72-73. Living in another world like that I am still amazed as a 22yr old the responsibility laid on me. We had 120 f4s flying 16 electricians to repair them yet only 4 of us had ever worked on phantoms. A very busy hectic time of 12 he days 6 or 7 days a week. An awesome experience

  2. Ed Ferris (Irish Ed) says:

    I was a K9 handler at Udorn during 72-Oct to 73 Oct. Grew up a lot there and came back a better young man. I was in combat working on Oct 3rd when we were attacked. A night I won’t never forget. I would for go n.a. k in a heartbeat if I were able. As I’m sure you would sir. Thank you for your service. Salute.

  3. Barry Landrum says:

    Absolutely loved this article. I understand your closeness and bond for your fellow worriers and appreciate your bravery during the chaotic time. Spent my time at Udorn in 72 during Linebacker1 as a F-4 Weapons Mechanic (loading). 12 hour days humping bombs with the best servicemen in the world. Still have the bond with these guys to this day…. Welcome home brother!

    Udorn 72….31st MMS tdy from Homestead AFB
    Korat 73-74…. 388th MMS

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