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.