“One great thing about being a fighter pilot is you have more interesting stories to tell than all the other old farts in your neighborhood.”
The Story …
During World War II, l was really into building model airplanes and l kept track of all the Fighter Pilot “Aces”. After the war, my Dad took me out to our local grass airport and arranged for a pilot to take us for several rides in a Lacombe. I loved it and knew that someday I wanted to be a pilot. The Air Force offered me the opportunity to satisfy my dream. l went to UPT (Undergraduate Pilot Training) at Laughlin in Del Rio, Texas, and then got my first choice of assignments, F-100 training at Luke AFB in Arizona.
After gunnery school, my new wife and I headed off to Hahn Germany. Flying the Hun around Europe and North Africa was my job, but a “perk” of the assignment allowed Carolyn and I to ski almost every major resort in the Alps. Then in Feb. 1968 with a brand-new son I was assigned to PHU CAT AB, South Vietnam, where I flew 238 combat missions in the F-100.
My most memorable story starts out as a scramble from the alert pad leading a flight of two. The target was a Viet Cong unit that was attacking US Army Infantry near the Cambodian border. The Army unit had wounded soldiers and Medivac helicopters could not get in for the rescue. They were pinned down by anti-aircraft fire plus considerable enemy ground units with small arms.
My Flight arrived in the area late in the afternoon, there was a thick undercast of clouds and I could not find a hole to get down under them. l told the ground FAC (Forward Air Control) that I was going to have to return to base because I couldn’t get down. He said, “You’ve got to do something”, and I could tell from his voice that our troops on the ground were in real trouble. After telling my wingman to hold high, I rolled over, put my nose in the clouds, and broke out in a valley between the surrounding hills. Once I was in the clear and got oriented using a prominent bend in a river, I started up the valley and asked the FAC to pop smoke if he heard or saw me. l saw green smoke about the same time that I was passing a cleared off area on a ridge top on the right.
With smoke coming from guns on my right, I broke up and away. I confirmed the green smoke was the friendly ground troops and the FAC confirmed the bad guys were shooting at me. I came back up the valley this time about 100 feet above the ridgeline with my 500 lb. Snake Eyes1 “armed up”. I saw the clearing and pickled singles2. The ground F AC called with a great deal of excitement and told me that the bombs had hit the artillery dugouts and there were pieces and parts flying everywhere. He then relayed that there were Viet Cong in the tree line just under the first target.
I flew up the valley with my napalm armed and the airplane really humming so I could spread the fire along the hillside. I told the FAC to keep their heads down because it was going to get warm3. Between the two ridgelines was some tall grass and the FAC said he thought there were some Viet Cong sneaking around in there. I told him I had some 20mm that I could spray in the valley if he was sure his guys were away from the grass valley floor. He confirmed that they were dug in, so I made one pass through the grass firing all four cannons. I pulled up, rocked my wings, and disappeared into the clouds. The ground FAC called and said, “that is the closest I will ever see to an angel from heaven,” a very impressive compliment. Back on top, I joined up with my wingman, we found a place to jettison his ordnance and headed back to Phu Cat. I learned later that Med Evac choppers were able to pick them up.
My wife Carolyn and son Mike lived in California during the year I was in Vietnam. When I returned, we went to Cannon AFB in Clovis, NM, where our daughter Julie was born and the family now complete. In 1971, we were off to Kansas where I was a fulltime student for a year earning a Math degree. I then became the Air Force advisor to the Oklahoma Air Guard and was there for the Wing transition from C-97’s to F-100’s. This was a great assignment and we met many civilian friends. One of them was a Confederate Air Force Colonel that had several airplanes that he allowed me to fly, including my exclusive mount, a Mark 5 Sabre (Canadian F-86). It had my name painted below the canopy and I was the only one that flew it. It was really a thrill to fly the P-51 and P-38 of my WW II heroes. During my time in Tulsa, I built the Pitts Special S-1 that I flew for 29 years and I still have it. My last Air Force assignment was at Shaw AFB where I was wing DOT and flew the OV-10.
The Man …
I am a 1st generation American, and like my father, who came to this country from Italy, I love being an American. My Grandfather fought on the side of the Allies in WW I. When the war was over, he ended up in France, was offered US citizenship, and boarded a ship to New York. After a year he earned enough money working in a coal mine to bring his wife and two sons to the U.S.
My father was 11, with a 3rd-grade education, and his first job was with a brick mason. He worked with the mason until he was old enough to get a job in the local steel mill. For him, learning about America and speaking English was a primary goal. He went to night school to learn a trade and, after marrying my mother during the early years of the depression, he started a little business on the side making store counters and kitchen cabinets. He worked at his “side job” until he could quit the steel mill and go full time on his own. A brave move at that time and he became very successful.
My parents believed that their children should get the best education possible. We started in a private Catholic school and I graduated from a Catholic college with a degree in Math. Several years later I earned a Masters in Math from the University of South Carolina where I taught Math after retiring from the Air Force.
Our parish priest asked me to take over as Principal of St. Anne Catholic school and I decided it was time to “pay it back” and took over the position at the school for a year. That year led to one more and then one more and l was there l0 years until we found another retired Catholic pilot to take my place.
During this time, I volunteered to serve on the board of the Sumter Historical Society and helped plan the 200th anniversary of its founding. This is where General Thomas Sumter4 and his family are buried. I then was appointed to a volunteer position on the airport commission. I was elected chairman of the commission about two months prior to Hurricane HUGO which destroyed a good part of the facility. Working with national and state politicians we rebuilt the terminal and hangars. It helped that my next-door neighbor was a Senator and ex-fighter pilot. I served as President of the Sumter Board of Realtors for two terms and Chairman of the Multi-List service responsible for the transfer to a computer-driven MLS.
Lt. Col. Leo Mansuetti is currently Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer of the Super Sabre Society.
- 500 lb “Snake Eyes”: the standard Mk-82 General Purpose bomb fitted with a special high-drag tail fin unit. In this configuration, it is referred to as the Snake Eye
- “pickled singles” using the control button that drops ordnance, in this case dropping them one by one.
- ‘get warm” bombs and bullets dropping on a particular area nearby
- General Thomas Sumter: also known as “The Gamecock” for his fierce fighting style during the War of Independence, a friend of the Cherokee, a congressman, and a senator
- 83rd Fighter Interceptor Squadron
- 10th Tactical Fighter Squadron
- 416th Training Support Squadron
- 138th Fighter Wing
Awards & Decorations
Distinguished Flying Cross
Air Medal (13)
Combat Readiness Medal
Air Force Commendation Medal
Army Commendation Medal
Flight Hours: 5000
Military & Civilian Education
- Undergraduate Pilot Training, Laughlin AFB, Del Rio, TX
- Combat Crew Training, Luke AFB, AZ
- BA/Math, St. Mary’s College
- MA/Math Education, University of South Carolina
Super Sabre Society interview with Leo Mansuetti
Intake Articles by Leo Mansuetti
A GREAT RADIO CALL
On 3 July 1966, four Huns of the 10th TFS, 50th TFW, left Hahn AB, Germany, for Torrejon AB, Spain, en route to the States. The pilots and call signs were Ernie Coleman, “Pace 21,” followed by Fredric Fitzsimmons and R.Y. Costain as “22” & “23,” with George Goodall in the front and Leo Mansuetti in the back of an F as “24.” Leg one was uneventful, and the 4th of July was a crew rest day.
Because 1st Aircraft Delivery Group was in control of the flight, their rules were to be followed…the most onerous being that we could have but one drink with dinner. Being clever fighter pilots, we ordered a pitcher of Margaritas each; the KC-135 “buddy takeoff crew” from 1st ADG watched us with interest…if not amusement.
The next morning, George and Leo aborted, so a young captain from the 48thTFW filled in as we blasted off about 9 a.m. following the KC-135 direct to Lajes. About 1 1/2 hours into the flight, the Nav on the KC-135 said, “Pace 21, time to refuel.” Ernie didn’t say a thing, he just moved over and refueled. All four Huns refueled without a word spoken. Hour and a half later, same Nav, same call, but this time he added: “Since you guys are doing so good, this time why don’t you try it inverted?” Without the slightest hitch or pause, Ernie shot back: “OK, roll that big sumbitch on its back, and we’ll give it a shot.” Needless to say it was real quiet until that Tanker turned back to Torrejon. (Contributed by Fred Fitzsimmons)
Would You Believe It? … and Other Amazing Stories
When Stake Your Claim rules changed, limiting submissions to claims that were accomplished in or with the Hun and by an SSS member, we started this new department to publish interesting tales outside the realm of SYC that are of general interest or of particular note. Feedback has been very positive, so here’s another installment. ~Ed.
SYC Claim: Not. Caterpillar Club: Not. Another Amazing Story: Yes! Leo Mansuetti sent us an email looking for the previous password for the SSS website (highkey.) Once he was clued in, he said he should have remembered it easily because he once started a precautionary or simulated flame out pattern (SFO) at “high key” and had written up the adventure for submission. Reading in haste, I thought he was trying to submit a SYC claim and said it might better fit in the Caterpillar Club. He wrote back that because he didn’t have to “unass” the bird, it didn’t fit there either. So guess where it does fit? WYBI?…and OAS Dept. Read on.
I took off from Phu Cat leading a flight of two F-100s in the fall of 1968. The target for this mission was not very far away, in the vicinity of the western border of Vietnam, across the valley west of Pleiku. Arriving in the area, I coordinated with the FAC and proceeded to roll in on my first pass.
Climbing back up to get ready for my second run, I noticed my drop tank light had come on. I thought it was a little early, but was not very concerned. Getting ready to roll in for the second pass, I noticed my fuel gauge had dropped faster than usual, which really got my attention. So I decided to make this my last pass, get rid of the remaining ordnance, break it off and RTB. I hadn’t noticed any ground fire and was still thinking it might be a gauge problem.
The possibility of having to make a nylon letdown hadn’t entered my thought process yet. The FAC reported I was streaming something. Taking up a heading for home, I advised my wingman who then dropped all his bombs and started to rejoin. He reported that I was streaming fuel. Watching my fuel gauge, I thought I still had enough to get to Phu Cat. I rejected the idea of lighting the burner to get altitude and just kept it at full Mil.
Getting close to the Army field at Pleiku, I finally woke up to the reality that Phu Cat was not in the picture. I found the frequency, called an emergency and set up for high key at Pleiku. The gods were with me, and I hit all the SFO points on altitude and airspeed with the engine still running.
Rolling out on final, the gauge was at zero which really looked strange. All kinds of weird thoughts went through my mind: like, “turn away, punch out and hope to land near the base.” I released the RAT, pointed at the numbers and the engine quit on short final, I had enough hydraulics with the RAT to flare, land, pull the chute and hold the brakes until I stopped on the short runway. When I got it stopped, the thing that impressed me most was that my heart wasn’t jumping out of my chest. I guess I hadn’t had time to get excited!
When I got out of the airplane, I noticed that a little bit of fuel had leaked out on the runway, maybe a cup full. It turned out the problem was the fuel line going into and out of the inverted fuel tank had a hole in it. I guess it just wasn’t my day for a stroll in the jungle.
A few weeks later, I was called to the wing commander’s office and was, of course, wondering about what I had done recently to warrant a personal chewing by the boss. I was chagrined when he presented me the PACAF Able Aeronaut Flight Safety Award for “saving a valuable Air Force asset.” I refrained from telling him that the asset I was saving was a little more personal! Leo sent a second message with a hero picture and another of a Pitts Special that he said we could discard. He closed the email by saying, “As for sheer pucker factor, I have a better story [than the Phu Cat one] about having to do a real FO pattern in my Pitts Special on the initial test hop and check out after I built it. It was the first flight for me and the airplane’s engine quit. Hope to see you all at the reunion. Thanks.” When we looked at the Pitts Special picture, there was no way we were going to discard it. Rather it’s a “must share” photograph of Leo in his bird—and his new wingman in his. (A grandson named Will!) PRICELESS!