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.


Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, American History, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, Luke AFB, Thailand, Vietnam War | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

F4 Graduation Day

45 years ago in April 1973,  I left Luke AFB in Arizona en route to South East Asia.  As I graduated from F4 upgrade training, I was a very different person than when I began it.

Actually, I can say that about flying training in general.  When I went to Nav School I had been a non-rated or non-flying officer for 4 years.  That made me much older than the other men in my class.  I was 27 when I began the school, right at the cut off.  If you were older than 27 1/2 the Air Force said you were too old to go to flight training in those days.

As a non-flying officer the most exciting thing I had ever done was push paper.   Now in flight training my whole world changed.  I was now learning to do things that I never would have believed I was able to accomplish.

Whether it was learning to parachute,  mastering the complexities of night celestial navigation, completing a very demanding survival school and POW experience,  or graduating from  upgrading to the F4, I gained new confidence and great insights into what I could do and my abilities to do it.

So in April 1973, my class completed its training at Luke.  Our class photo in the 310th TFTS showed a confident group.  It had been another demanding year of training, simulators, and more training.  And now we were ready.

Sadly some of the men in the group photo are gone now.  I was on the left end in the back row, in front of me was my pilot Capt Don Verdery (second from left kneeling)  who went to Thailand with me and passed away several years ago.  Others went on to be far removed from flying fighters:  today a good friend is a Methodist pastor, something I would never have imagined in those long ago days.

Leaving Luke in 1973,  many would go to South East Asia to Ubon, Korat, or Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Bases, which were the primary F4 units in Thailand.  I was first assigned to Ubon, but during jungle survival in the Philippines, my orders were changed to Udorn, where I joined the members of the 13 TFS, Panther Pack.

To say I was a bit apprehensive is an understatement, but when I picked the F4 I knew that I was going to combat. It was a fact of life then.

Still if you look at what I call my “graduation” photo taken in April 1973, you probably would not guess that I was apprehensive.   I was proud of what I had done.  Proud to be serving our country.  Proud to join a long line of American flyers.

There are only two services that have a romantic tradition of service:  the Marines and the Air Force.  The Marines trace this to a mythic battle in the Halls of Montezuma.  Air Force fliers, especially fighter jocks hearken back to the mythic dog fights over the battlefields of WWI.  To fly a fighter is to walk in the steps of Eddie Rickenbacker and countless others who proved their mettle one on one in the air.  It is a very romanticized idea of warfare going back to the middle ages when knights fought battles in hand-to-hand combat.   All fighter jocks are the proud sons of those knights.

But for me those days were still to come.  So home to see the family, on to the Philippines for Jungle Survival School, and what the future would hold.

And what a future it would be.


Posted in 13 TFS, American History, Arizona, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, Norvell Family History, Thailand, Udorn RTAFB, Veterans, Vietnam War | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Dr. King’s death: 1968 in Washington DC

50 years ago, I heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., give his last public Sunday sermon at the National Cathedral.    

In 1968 I was a brand new Air Force second lieutenant living in Washington DC.   I had only been there about a month when a friend suggested that we go hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preach a Sunday sermon at the National Cathedral.  On Sunday, March 31, 1968, my friend and I, along with a crowd about 4,000 people, went to the Cathedral to hear him speak.   It was an amazing thing to be there.  In that much simpler time, anyone could show up at an event, walk in, and hear a famous American speak.

Dr. King was well known to me for his 1963 “I have a Dream” speech and to be able see him in person and hear him speak was an event not to be missed.  From our seats, Dr. King was a small figure being led up to the Cathedral’s high pulpit, but when he began to speak, there was no mistaking that voice.   Yet after 1963 much had changed in the country.  In the wake of the Kennedy assassination, the country had experienced continual upheaval.    Although President Lyndon Johnson had promised “A Great Society” the escalation of the war had drained money that might have helped the poor.  Between 1964 and 1968, civil disturbances resulted in large numbers of injuries, deaths, and arrests, as well as considerable property damage, in predominantly black areas.

During his remarks in the Cathedral, Dr. King stated to bring attention to this situation, he would bring 3000 poor people to Washington that summer for a nonviolent “Poor People’s Campaign.”  Further, he added that if nothing were done to raise people’s hope, the summer of 1968 would be worse than previous years.  The U.S., he said, spent more than $50,000 to defeat one Vietcong soldier, while spending only $53 for every poor person in this country.  Dr. King knew that poverty could not be successfully dealt with without ending the war.  These twin issues dominated the news and it was not surprising to hear Dr. King link them in this manner.  We left the Cathedral with much to think about.

The following week began well for me.   I was finally going to get a car, after 6 weeks of walking to work and using public transportation in Washington.  I mention the car because that was where I learned of Dr. King’s death on April 4, 1968.  It was late in the day and I was returning from my car dealer in Arlington.   I drove home from Virginia on I-395 which crosses the Potomac near the Pentagon and heads east near the U.S. Capitol.   Then I began to notice smoke on the northern periphery of the city, beyond the Federal area.  I turned on the radio and heard that Dr. King had been killed in Memphis.  I was stunned.   As I approached my exit, I craned my head north to see what was happening and it seemed like a large section of Washington was on fire.

Things quickly spiraled out of control:   huge crowds (some estimated over 20,000) overwhelmed the small DC police force.  President Johnson then ordered nearly 15,000 federal and National Guard troops to restore order in the city.  By the time the calm was restored on Sunday, April 8, some 1,200 buildings had been burned, including over 900 stores.  I had good friends who had owned a store in the riot area.   It had served a neighborhood clientele who had come to rely on it.  Now it was gone.  The owners never re-opened the business.

The restoration of order in Washington seemed to finally bring a moment of calm.   Yet, if there was calm  now, many, many storms were to follow.   1968 was a tough year.

In April we couldn’t begin to realize how tough it would be.


A slightly longer version of this story appeared in the Geneva NY Finger Lakes Times on April 1, 2018 to commemorate the passing of Dr. King.


Posted in American History, Vietnam Protests, Vietnam War, Washington DC | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Not all the Targets were In North Vietnam- A tale of the Panther Pack

As the war in SEA wound down, plans were put into place for an aggressive training schedule. Now schedulers were faced with actually having to plan training, not just assume it would happen in the course of daily events. It was an odd thing to be flying combat one day and the next acting as if it had never happened.

With the end of the war there were few opportunities to see if the entire wing could go through a surge exercise. That is actually generating a combat scenario where all the F4s would be loaded and taxi as if they were being launched for a combat mission. While this had been common during the war in such large scale events as Linebacker II, it hardly happened in the new peacetime environment.

So it came to pass that one evening the entire wing was scheduled to do a surge, or as we called it the “Elephant Walk.”

Members of the 13TFS about the time of the Elephant walk (Photo courtesy of Sidney Thurston)

It got its name from the long line of F4s that were loaded with live ammunition and missiles, taxied down to the arming areas at the end of the runway, and then instead of taking off, taxied down the runway and back to the revetments. It looked like a long line of elephants on the move, large lumbering beasts.

I am not sure why this was held at night. Perhaps to make it more stressful to the crews and the loaders, but any time things occurred at night, Murphy was bound to be there. Yes, if anything could possibly go wrong, it did.

The arming areas were located at the end of the active runways. On the other end there was a location called “Mobil” where an officer was assigned to observe the takeoffs and landings and relay any problems he saw to the tower and ground control. Mobil was essentially a trailer with a generator for power and was manned all the time that flight operations were being conducted.

The night of the Elephant Walk, one of the lieutenants from our squadron was assigned to Mobil. It was his job to basically sit there and simulate the role he would have played in an actual launch. It was a pretty boring thing to do, given that the aircraft were not taking off only lumbering down the length of the runway, turning off and then going back to the revetments where the crews would put them to bed.

After about an hour of this, things took a turn in a very different direction. As the crews pulled the safety pins on the missiles on an F4, a stray voltage surge launched one of the heat seeking “Sidewinder” missiles. The missile flew off the F4 and as the Mobil officer watched it through his binoculars, made a beeline for the generator at Mobil.

Now picture this, you are sitting in Mobil, bored out of your mind, watching one after another F4 lumber down the runway, then one of the Phantoms launches a missile at you.

Needless to say the lieutenant dove out the door of Mobil — expecting the worse. Fortunately for him, the missile didn’t arm. It needed to go a longer distance. but it did guide on the generator, where it hit Mobil.

As I said earlier, not all the targets were in North Vietnam.

Posted in Air Force, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, SEA, Thailand, Vietnam War | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Top Cover for America

Recently had the opportunity to meet with a fellow F4 GIB who had flown with the 43rd in Alaska, so I am sharing my story again of how it was to guard America’s northern air spaces.

An American Family


From 1974-1978 I flew intercepts of Soviet bombers off the coast of Alaska in the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighter. The F-4 was the mainstay of the Vietnam War and I had arrived in Alaska fresh from a combat tour in Thailand, where I flew missions over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  Flying in Alaska was very different, but more on that later .

The importance of Alaska to the defense of America, dated back to when the U.S. Army Air Corps sent Billy Mitchell there in 1901 to supervise the construction of the Washington- Alaska telegraph system. From this Mitchell came to appreciate strategic importance of the territory. Over the 73 years since Mitchell, there had been a major buildup of military forces in the state.   The Cold War engaged America and the U.S.S.R. around the world.  They met also at the top of America.   F-4 Phantom Landing in Alaska

When I…

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Saftety Supplements

Yes there was an Air Force safety supplement to everything, here is the one to  


Air Force Supplement 1

(Surly bond slipping will be performed only by two ship IP-led flights)

(Dancing the skies will be performed on the wing only)

(Aircraft cleared sunward will climb within the horizontal boundaries of their assigned air space)

(when joining the tumbling mirth apply techniques outlined in 55-4, “Rejoins.”)


(Aircraft may disregard use of position lights when entering clouds believed to be sun-split.)


(When wheeling and swinging are combined in one maneuver, 4.1 symmetrical G’s will be kept on the aircraft)

(High in sunlit silence is defined as that airspace above Fight Level (FL) 290 from 1 hour before official sunrise to 1 hour after official sunset.)

(Chasing the shouting wind along is restricted to weather ships with specific DO approval.)

AND FLUNG (Aircraft will be flung subsonic only.)

(Should either crewmember experience delirium while in the burning blue, proceed with emergency oxygen procedures.)

(If windswept heights cannot be topped prior to reaching the area gate advise center.)

(When larks and eagles are flying the SOF will coordinate with RAPCON to insure adequate separation and that bird strike plan is implemented.)

(Nothing prevents VFR civil or military aircraft from transiting the high untresspassed sanctity of space under visual flight rules.)

(Crewmembers will not sacrifice aircraft control or exceed canopy operating limitations attempting to touch God’s face.)

–author unknown, I got the copy of this about 1974 while assigned to the 43rd Tactical Fighter Squadron at Elmendorf AFB Alaska.

Posted in 43 TFS, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Fighter pilot lingo, Fighter pilot slang | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A Whole New World

2018  is a memorable year for me.   

In 1968, after a stint in graduate school, I began my full time Air Force career. My initial duty assignment was to be in Washington, D.C. I had orders to report there on February 15, 1968.

My entry into the Air Force was not without some bumps. I had received permission to go to Syracuse University for graduate school, but during my time there, my vision had deteriorated and I could no longer qualify for any type of flight training. So when I went on active duty, the Air Force assigned me to a Security Police Squadron in Washington DC. This to my surprise turned out to be the Air Force Honor Guard. The Guard serves at the White House, Arlington, the Pentagon, and at all major US ceremonial events. I was assigned to the Air Force Honor Guard for about 15 minutes . Why you may ask, – well – members of the honor guard are very, very – TALL. And I am not.  And oh yes, one more small thing — I wore glasses, AF Honor Guard folks did not.  Other than that I was perfect for the job (made me wonder if the people at the Air Force Military Personnel Center ever looked at the requirements for the job.  Actually it was a good introduction to the wonderful world of AFMPC, whose actions and policies often didn’t make much sense).

In recent years I have tried to imagine how that Captain in charge of the Honor Guard reacted when I walked in the door.  I remember his mouth literally dropped open.  It must have been like the Head of the Emperors Imperial Guard in Star Wars expecting a new storm trooper and in rolled R2D2.    In addition I looked very young.  Although I was 24 most folks thought I was about 16.  They called me the 16-year old lieutenant.  So here I was short (5 foot 5 inches), young, and not the imposing Imperial Trooper that he expected. 1

2nd Lt John E. Norvell

So I became an operations planner and worked in the base command post. It was another surprise in a year filled with many such events.

It was from the command post in DC, where we were charged with coordinating the Air Force responses to events in the city, that I would witness a year of one mind-numbing event after another. These would include the assassinations of both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in April and Senator Robert Kennedy in June. The turmoil of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in the fall and increasingly more and more violent anti-war marches in the streets of Washington.  The election of Richard M. Nixon as the president of the United States and December 1968 trip of Apollo 8 from the earth to the moon and back.

And I had a front row seat to the events that shook the nation’s capital.


1 My height would later be perfect when I went to flying training in 1971 and trained to be a Weapons Systems Officer in the back seat of an F4, I fit it perfectly.


Posted in Air Force, American History, Vietnam Protests, Vietnam War, Washington DC | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments