Fulfilling My Dream
As foolish as it sounds, playing with toy soldiers may have been one of the main reasons I wanted a military career. My father had given me the lead toy Civil War soldiers that he had played with as a boy. I painted the soldiers in Union blue and still have a few of them, the rest having either deserted or gone missing in action. Father also made me two cannons, one of brass and the other of wood both of which I used for shooting marbles at the toy soldiers. Early in elementary school, probably first grade, when my class was asked what we wanted to be when we grew up I said I wanted to go to West Point. My family considered a military career a respected profession because my grandfather Price and other ancestors had served in wars beginning with the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Grandfather Price had fought in the Philippine Insurrection and in World War I had commanded the 46th Infantry Regiment, but the war ended before his regiment could deploy.
Despite my father’s avid interest in boats and sailing (he’d served in the Merchant Marine during World War II), I was fascinated by airplanes. I remember having was a small purple, plastic B-17. Once, when walking through the Five and Dime store, I saw a pressed metal airplane (I think it was supposed to be a C-47) that I wanted and my sister very generously gave me the 50 cents from her allowance to buy it. My father even made me a model of a Piper Cub (powered by a rubber band) whose balsa wood fuselage frame and wing’s ribs he covered with green paper. He even carved its propeller and we flew it in our front yard.
Although I was fascinated with flying, my poor distance eyesight seemed to be an obstacle to becoming a pilot. Mother tried to help by sending me to a local optometrist, who had me perform eye exercises. I faithfully performed these exercises, but they did not improve my vision. However, they did help the doctor pay for his boat.
Prior to my high school graduation, I applied for an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy. Unfortunately, although I qualified as an alternate, I did not receive an appointment. My high school principal then arranged for me to apply at West Point. After visiting there and taking the physical and academic exams, a letter from the Army arrived a few weeks later saying that I was 4F, unfit for military service. The reason for the 4F was that neither of my elbows would lock, though I could still do plenty of pushups, chin-ups, etc. It wasn’t a strength issue, the Army physical was hung up on the fact that both of my arms would not completely straighten out because neither elbow joint would lock. The news was devastating to me so my mother sent me to an orthopedic doctor who told me I could fight the Army’s ruling. Without telling my mother I even wrote former President Eisenhower asking for his help. (Looking back now, I’m very happy with how it all turned out.)
Unable to attend the Academy I entered the University of Rochester. While there, studying Chemical Engineering, I joined Air Force ROTC because I thought it would help when I reapplied for the Air Force Academy. On my Air Force Academy application that year I was less than truthful when I wrote “no” in answer to the question of whether I had ever been rejected for military service. In the spring of 1962, I learned of my acceptance to enter the Air Force Academy which would begin that June. My class was the 8th class and 777 of us entered.
Since I wore glasses to correct my 20/40 vision to 20/20 even before entering the Academy, I had little hope of ever becoming a pilot. However, soon after arriving at the Academy, I learned that the Academy had a waiver program that would allow graduates with vision like mine, correctable to 20/20 with glasses, to go to pilot training. I believe the program existed because the Air Force wanted as many graduates as possible to become pilots since Air Force culture considered pilots the most important position. The waiver program was renewed on a year by year basis so I could not be sure until I was a senior (first classman) that it would be available for me. During my time at the Academy, the war in Vietnam was beginning to heat up. Being young and foolish I was very eager to go to war and can remember lying awake at night at the Academy worrying that the war would be over before I could get there.
Graduating from the Air Force Academy on June 8, 1966, my class had been reduced to 470 and we were eager to, at last, be part of, as we cadets put it, the “real” Air Force. At the time there were 24 squadrons in the wing of cadets and 20 of us were graduating from my cadet squadron, Fighting 4th. Of the 20 all but three served in Southeast Asia. Twelve of us as pilots, five as navigators, and three were medical doctors. Three of us, Ross Detwiler (F-100), Jamie Gough (F-4), and me (F-100) would later eject from our planes in Southeast Asia and Ramsey Vincent was killed flying an A-1.
In September 1966 I drove from Owego to Texas and reported for pilot training at Reese Air Force Base just west of Lubbock, TX as part of the flying class 68B. It was a time when civil rights protests and voter registration efforts were being made in the South and as I drove through Mississippi in my car with New York license plates I noticed a state trooper car was following me. Eventually, he passed me, and soon another state trooper came up behind me and also followed me for a while. If they were doing this to me, I could only wonder what was happening to black men driving through that state.
My class standing was not high enough to get an assignment to one of the few single-seat fighters (F-100 and F-102) that were available for my class. Since I did not want to be in the back seat on an F-4, I chose an EC-47 at England AFB in Louisiana as that would quickly get me to Vietnam. After jungle survival training at Clark AFB in the Philippines, I caught a flight to Vietnam in early January 1968 landing at Tan Son Nhut Air Base on the north edge of Saigon, where I was assigned to fly the EC-47 with the 360th Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (TEWS), part of the 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing. Besides three EC-47 squadrons, the wing had RF-101 Voodoo jets and RF-4C Phantoms. This would be my first trip to Vietnam. I finished my first tour on December 19, 1968, with a total of 679.2 hours in the EC-47.
Like several of my fellow Academy classmates and EC-47 pilots, I volunteered to fly a second tour with the goal of flying a fighter or an attack aircraft like the A-1. Since I had been flying the conventional gear, prop-driven EC-47, I asked for an assignment to the conventional gear, propeller-driven A-1 Skyraider attack aircraft. The Air Force agreed to give me a second flying tour but changed my orders at the last minute to fly the F-100, with training at Luke Air Force Base on the west side of Phoenix, AZ.
On March 11, 1969, I began F-100 training. My class, 70-A, consisted of twelve students and we were assigned to the 4511th Combat Crew Training Squadron which wore a Charlie Brown Snoopy shoulder patch. We greatly enjoyed flying the F-100 Super Sabre. Just climbing the ladder up to the cockpit and strapping into the seat was a thrill. Compared to the EC-47 and even the T-33 and T-38 the F-100 had very sensitive flight controls. As a result, like all new F-100 pilots, on my first couple take-offs, it was difficult to hold the stick gently enough to keep the wings from rocking slightly.
Being at Luke flying fighters was a major step in the fulfillment of my dream. In the years after my last flight as a pilot, my nighttime dreams have often been of flying. I still look up at the weather thinking about its suitability for flying. I also often remember the thrills of flying: the bumpy ride on a low level, coming up initial and pitching out for landing, rolling in on a target, and the hard maneuvering against another plane in simulated air to air combat.
After training at Luke and flying with the 308th at Tuy Hoa my next and last F-100 assignment was with the 494th at RAF Lakenheath. Following that assignment, I went back to Vietnam, not in the F-4 which I had requested following check out at Luke, but as fighter and tanker controller in MACV HQ. This was a fascinating assignment as I saw air operations from a different perspective than the squadron level and the view wasn’t always pretty, but that is another story.