Some thoughts on combat

From the end of May to 15 August 1973, I  flew combat missions over Cambodia. That was the focus of every day – combat: brief, refuel, bomb, and RTB. Now it was over. The air war had ended by direction of Congress.

Almost immediately after 15 August, we had a stand-down of the wing for mandatory training not conducted during the war. Moreover, the schedulers now began a program to accomplish all our night, refueling, air intercept, and even practice bombing mission requirements. These are things that we had done automatically during the war on a combat mission. F’ing New Guys continued to arrive, and we, the old, grizzled war vets, welcomed them as much as we were welcomed earlier. Now I flew with a green lieutenant or captain who had just upgraded to the F-4. Now I was the expert on how we did things. Yes – the expert, but even that was changing for me due to the uncertainties of what lay ahead. Training became the name of the game. I thought how odd it is to be in combat one day and then training as if it had never happened.

In the Great Santini, Pat Conroy writes about Marine Lt. Colonel Bull Meacham, a fighter jock who needed a war but had none to fight. In the absence of a war to fight, he engaged in self-destructive behavior—fighting a battle with his family and the Marine Corps. Combat was the centerpiece of his life and defined him. It was not easy to be a warrior. While I was not Santini, my behavior after the war mirrored his. I was a warrior who now found that I missed the war. When we were in combat every day, it seemed as if we had accomplished something. We had a mission, and we did it well. Now every day was filled with mundane and, for the most part, tedious tasks.

For nearly 50 years, “Going North,” flying over North Vietnam, has been a siren song in my mind. The men who went north were called upon to do their jobs under the most demanding conditions. 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. We were experienced combat F-4 crews and ready to go into battle immediately. There would never be a training mission that replicated what we had shared and experienced in the skies over Cambodia. The end of the war, in many ways, was a hard adjustment. Not just for me, but others as well. We were warriors and the close bonds that we had forged in combat as Phantom crews were fraying as old heads now left, and new men arrived.

It makes no sense. I flew combat for nearly four months, yet I longed for more. I wonder if the men who came back from World War II missed the experience. Combat puts one on edge; one performs at a high peak. It is hard to come down from that peak. It can be exhilarating. To suddenly go from this high to nothing is hard. There is nothing that can ever replace it. As a teacher and student of military history, this was an issue I have pondered both professionally and personally. It is something that only those of us who have served in combat can fully appreciate and understand.

The men of the 13 TFS – Panther Pack – loved to fly the F-4, but there was more to it than that. Each time they strapped on an F-4, no matter where they would go, they would be back in combat in the skies above SEA. It was something that only that my generation of fighter pilots and GIBS would experience. Those moments in action defined us. We shared a special bond.

I would never find that bond again in the air force.

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 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, SEA, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Vietnam War. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Some thoughts on combat

  1. Charles Catherman says:

    Sir, thank you for sharing this story. I can totally relate to the feeling you have. I had the privilege to serve in Laos in 1967 as a USAF reciprocating engine mechanic. This was a “covert” assignment, wearing civilian cloths, repairing aircraft doing “special operations” in an area that technically “we were not there.” I found the rest of my 20 year Air Force career to be somewhat less rewarding. One assignment was with the 1001st FMS at Andrew’s AFB. Our mission was to insure the fleet of C131s and T29s was OR for Congressman/Senators to take their weekend trips. I suppose this was important but in my mind, no where near the importance of my Laos mission. Attitude is everything. Thanks for letting me vent 55 years later.

  2. Mark F Davis says:

    66-7463 was one of my aircraft after your time at Kadena in 1975. Thank you sir for your service.

  3. Bob Apgar says:

    I remember many mornings watching the sun rise while waiting for takeoff at the end of the runway at Udorn in a flight of four, with max bomb loads. There was an undeniable rush when the burners lit.
    “It is well that war is so terrible. Otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” Robert E Lee

  4. Jann Colwell Snyder says:

    Thanks for sharing this highly personal perspective.

  5. expatjim says:

    I can relate too. Like Charles Catherman above, I was also an enlisted airman in that war. Not as exciting as a combat pilot, but exciting for a 20 to 23 year old. Served 1,135 consecutive days, first as a technician at Korat saving flights of four F-105s loaded with engines running before launch to the North … with only five minutes to trouble shoot and five to fix … to Ubon, then to the Air Commando unit Detachment 1 56th Special Operations Wing at Udorn & Laos … After Laos I was assigned to Det 1 56th SOW Training Section as liaison to enlisted Lao students we were training on T-28s. My other as needed assignments ranged from being the lowest man in the chain of command and informing one of our students his last two remaining male family members were KIA in separate action in Laos .. to once delivering a CIA paymasters large ammo box filled with money out in the bush on a Honda 350cc motorcycle. I got out with five years …, five of my best. I too needed more, and became a criminal investigator senior deputy U.S. Marshal … 28 years of witness and judicial protection; highest threat level assignments .. On loan to U.S. Dept of State for foreign dignitary protection in USA; did foreign extraditions for DoJ …, and decades of felony warrants to keep the adrenaline rushing. I too needed the FIX .. the felling to stay … in a word … Relevant.

    • jenorv says:

      Thanks for sharing. Those who have been there know. I am reminded of a quote from a great book about WWII: “Nobody in his right mind longs for battle or sudden death. But once you’ve trod the wild ways, you can never get them out of your system.”

      George MacDonald Fraser
      “Quartered Safe out Here:
      A Harrowing Tale of World War II”

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