5 December 1956 – A Northrop XSM-62 Snark, 53-8172, N-69D test model, fitted with a new 24-hour stellar inertial guidance system, launches from Cape Canaveral Missile Test Annex, Florida. It wanders off-course, ignores destruct command, disappears over Brazil. It is found by a farmer in January 1983. The Day They Lost the Snark By J.
Robert "Mac" Staples
I have been encouraged by several people, most notably my daughter, Cindy, to record my life experiences. I have given much thought to this, and expect that rather than the normal autobiography, this will turn out to be a collection of vignettes, but to add continuity, I will include autobiographical data where I think appropriate. Since I am also a product of my heritage, I feel I should start there. Let me begin with my matriarchal side:
I was never close to my mother’s kin (at least as compared to my father’s) with one exception: my cousin Jerry Jensen (and perhaps a little less so with his parents, my mother’s sister, Susan (Susie), and her husband Lee Jensen. Jerry has been one of my closest friends throughout my life. He will no doubt appear again in this saga.
My maternal grandfather, Alma F. Bohman, (note the first name) was the first child born in the tiny Mormon settlement of Alma, Utah (later renamed Monroe) ca. 1868. He died at his house near Monroe in 1948. As far as I know, he lived his entire life in and around Monroe, where he became a very prominent citizen. He married Susan Warnock (I know a few Warnocks [in fact, I was named after one], but none of her close relatives) and they had seven children (5 boys, 2 girls) of which my mother, Ve, was the 5th, born in 1907. I remember little of my grandmother, and only remember my grandfather as a stern man who occupied months of my mother’s time nursing him in his final days.
While I am discussing my mother’s family I must relate this part of it: Mother’s youngest brother, Jay, was an engineer who worked on the construction of the Boulder (now Hoover) Dam, near Las Vegas, then served in the army during the big war. After the war he married one Virginia McLeod, worked at the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington, and had two daughters, Marilyn and Kathleen. Virginia died in childbirth with Kathy in 1948 and Jay died only a couple of years later, so the girls came to live with us in 1950. They became a part of our family, I considered them sisters, and they were eventually legally adopted by my parents. However, as happens in many families, the death of my father in 1987 led to a rift in that family relationship, and we have been essentially estranged since that time.
I know a great deal more about the paternal side of my family; let me begin with my great grandfather, George Staples. He was born in England c. 1834, and his emigration to the United States entails a story of family legend. Let me insert the story from a source I don’t remember. As written, the story is much romanticized, and I do not guarantee its total accuracy, but I believe the basic facts are correct:
George Staples-Taken in by the Indians
Fourteen-year-old George Staples was not found nearly so soon. He had been the only one of his family to leave England, sent ahead while his parents lingered to raise money for themselves and the rest of the children. They knew it would be a long time before they could join him and that the boy would have to fend for himself, but a chance to send one of their family was not to be missed. He left in 1848 with a company of Saints [Mormons] and made it as far as the Sioux country, where, delirious and tormented by mountain fever, he could travel no farther. The company was perplexed about what to do for him. Endangered by warring Sioux, they dared not tarry, but it was clear the lurching of the wagon was unbearable to the boy, who seemed only hours from death. It was the kind of dilemma faced by many during the gathering-impossible to stop and just as impossible to leave him behind. Finally, they determined that the kindest thing to do was leave him with a trapper with whom he could spend his last few hours in peace and comfort. The trapper agreed to care for him and then bury him, marking the spot with permanent identification.
That afternoon a friendly band of Sioux greeted the trapper and noticed the sick boy. A squaw, looking at the tormented young man with tenderness, asked if she could take him. In the days that followed, she and the tribal doctor nursed him with Indian remedies, for the mountain fever that was so strange to the settlers was more common to them. The delirious boy rose in and out of consciousness, but finally, the searing pain in his head and the wild expression in his eyes settled down and he realized with some delight where he was.
His loneliness and sickness were replaced by the mothering of a squaw and the attention of a friendly people who seemed delighted to have him among them. They didn’t seem to understand when he told them he had to find the white people, they simply broke camp and moved on.
As the months passed and turned into years, George enjoyed his life among the Sioux. His Indian mother made him beautiful buckskin clothing, and when the braves were on the warpath, they left him behind with the women and children, telling him to take care of the camp. He thought less and less about any other life. Then one day a group of pioneers saw him with the Sioux and carried word to the Salt Lake Valley. Not long after, a group from the valley came looking for him. Among them was a familiar and beloved face. With a wild whoop, he fell into his father’s arms. James Staples had received word in England that his son had died two years before, but when he brought the family to Salt Lake he heard the story about the spotting of the white boy among the Indians, and grasping at a straw, came looking for him. “Could this be my son? Please let this be my son.” It was a sweet reunion for an emotional father and son, but George’s Indian mother was devastated, weeping inconsolably at the loss of her adopted boy. James took him with the promise that he would be back to visit, and four years later the promise was kept. The Indian mother greeted George with all the emotion of a mother who had been deprived.
Recently there has been some controversy raised over whether George was actually ill, or left the wagon train of his own volition, but I suppose we’ll never know for sure. At any rate, my grandfather, Joseph Levi (Lee) Staples was born in 1864, the eldest of some eleven or more (I’m not sure) children. When George was killed by a bull in 1890, Lee became head of the household, a duty which delayed his own marriage until after that of all his siblings; consequently, he did not marry until about age 38. The result of this, of course, is a gap in generations between my own branch of the family and other branches. Lee married Mathilda Anderson, a Danish immigrant. She was a dear person who had a great deal to do with rearing me, and she lived until 1969 (age 97). She was also very tiny, but I remember once when I was misbehaving her taking a stick of kindling and giving the worst whipping I ever had. Lee and Tillie had 3 boys and a girl, of which my father, George William Staples, was the third.
Let me interject here that if I have incited any curiosity about any of these folks, I encourage you to research them. There are all sorts of information about them on the internet.
So that brings me to my parents, George (called “Chug” by his closest friends) and Ve (actually Vendla, a name which she detested). George was a remarkable man who was both intelligent and wise, and probably the best father a man could ask for. He died in 1987, and he will always be my best friend, and I miss him to this day. The story of his run for a Congressional seat in 1952 is a story in itself. He was a wonderful person and mother, loving, intelligent and caring, and I still miss her, too. She died in 1978. George and Ve were married in 1932, and my sister, Sue Ann, was born in 1934. Unfortunately, Sue lost a leg in childbirth (I believe it could easily have been saved with today’s medical procedures). I mention this because I believe it has had a great effect on Sue’s personality, and her refusal to let it greatly hinder her is a testament to her grit and self-determination.
I was born in 1938, at the McGregor (note the name) Hospital in St. George, Utah. My birth was attended by Dr. L. W. (Mac) McGregor, one of my father’s best friends, and I was christened Robert Mac Staples, being named after Robert Warnock, the husband of my father’s sister, Anne, and, guess who, Dr. McGregor.
Okay, with that thumbnail background, I will turn this story into the collection of vignettes I promised at the beginning:
For the first 4 or so years of my life, we lived in Monroe, Utah, where my father was the high school coach. One memory from that time stands out clearly: I guess I was 4 and was playing with my cousin Jerry (2 years older) and several others. Their names are not important, but I think there were one or two other boys and a neighborhood girl. We saw a man on horseback herding some cows near the canal a block or so from my home. Being enamored of cowboys, we ran toward him, but by the time we got there, he had gone on. There was, however, a footbridge across the canal there, and guess what? After crossing the canal, we continued for several miles (remember the oldest among us was 6). I remember we bathed in the creek–that was the first time I had ever seen a girl naked—then re-dressed and continued. We finally got to a place where we could see my Grandfather Bohman’s house, nearly three miles distant, and decided we would go visit him. However, first, we came to the town’s drinking water reservoir (a concrete tank whose cover was at ground level) and decided we ought to take a swim (I’m sure none of us could actually swim). We were attempting to take the cover off the manhole-like entry to the reservoir when a neighbor drove up and herded us all into his car for the return to town. Seems the entire population of the town had been looking for the missing kids. As I look back on it, I think we were lucky that the results of our escapade were so benign!
In, I believe 1943, my father was appointed principal of the Richfield High School, and we moved the approximate of ten miles to that town, where I lived until graduation from high school. I was a good student, blessed with better than average intelligence, but cursed with less than average academic drive. I will relate two stories from my time in elementary school.
The first story might more appropriately belong in the previous section about my heritage, but I will relate it here because it happened, I think, in the third grade—about 1947. My uncle Will (William Henry Staples, my grandfather’s brother; b. 1866, d. 1952) came to visit us for a few days, and he had so many wonderful stories of growing up in pioneer Utah, that I took him to school to relate his stories to my classmates. His stories had such impact on me that I still remember several, but I will relate one because it was not only representative of the time but was also humorous and self-deprecating and both were traits of the man: Seems when Will was about 14 and living in the small southern Utah town of Kanosh, he and three older brothers decided they would go for a ride in the hills above town. Since they had only three horses, Will got the family mule to ride. He said it was a pretty good mule, but it would not react to spurs or even a quirt, and the only way you could get it to keep up with the horses was to hit it in the ears with a switch.
On this day, Will was ticked off at the mule, and instead of a switch, he carried a club “about the size of a piano leg.” After riding into the hills for some time, the boys spotted a group of four or five Ute Indians on ponies watching them from nearby. Since the Indians weren’t always friendly in those days, they all turned back toward town and the boys spurred their horses. Will, being somewhat excited, swung his club at the mule’s ears, but was just a few inches low, knocking the mule out. After he and the mule rolled up in a cloud of dust and Will checked to see the reaction of the Indians, he saw that they were laughing uproariously. After some time, the mule came to and Will mounted him and returned home.
The other story from those days concerns my paper route, which I inherited in 1948 at age 10. I delivered papers to between 50 and 60 homes (I held this job for four years). The papers arrived on the train at a scheduled time of 8:00 a.m. (school started at 9). The winter of 1948-49 is probably still the coldest winter on record in Sevier Valley, and I often found myself riding my bike in a foot or more of snow. I remember one week that winter when the high temperature was -25F and I remember often stopping at the home of my grandmother’s brother to melt the ice off the wool collar of my coat before continuing my route. Naturally, the train was seldom on time, but we paperboys waited for it, sometimes for hours. In the winter of my fifth-grade schooling, I seldom made it to school earlier than a couple of hours late. It’s a good thing that I was a pretty astute student, and that I had a very understanding teacher, or I might have found myself repeating that grade.
I attended Richfield Junior High School, but no events took place during that time that merit inclusion in this story. In 1954 my father was appointed to a fairly high-level position with the Post Office’s Western Region, headquartered in Denver. In ’55, my folks moved to Denver, but I pleaded that I only had one year of high school left and didn’t want to spend it in a new school, so I was allowed to remain in Richfield. I worked first at the Coca-Cola bottling plant, then at a local service station to supplement the help I got from my parents. For most of the year, I lived with a family named Casey, paid my own room and board, and attended school.
One short story from that time: One day I and several of my friends decided we would skip school and go deer hunting. The next day in homeroom my teacher asked about my absence and told me he required a written excuse. I took a piece of paper and wrote, “Please excuse my absence from school on (whatever day). I was hunting deer.” I signed it and gave it to the teacher, who accepted it. I know of no other case where a high school student ever wrote his own excuse for missing school.
After graduating from high school, I moved to Denver (actually the suburb of Lakewood) for the summer before returning to Utah to attend the University thereof. Let me just say my record there was less than distinguished. I returned again to Denver the following spring, where I would live for a little more than a year. I got a job with the Post Office (no nepotism involved), but after a year or so there I realized I was just spinning my wheels so, with the draft looming in the background, I contemplated getting my compulsory military service out of the way. Having forged my father’s signature to join the Utah National Guard the day after my 16th birthday, I had some slight military experience, which I used to choose between the services. When the Air Force recruiter suggested I take the test for flight training leading to a commission, I knew enough to realize that officers live much better than enlisted men.
The Air Force
And so it was that I joined the Air Force in October 1958. Anybody who has experienced it will tell you that officer training, at least at first, is no fun, and my own experience was no exception. Training first at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, then at Harlingen AFB in far south Texas, I eventually graduated with navigator wings and shiny gold bars in October ’59.
After that I attended bombardier training at Mather AFB in Sacramento, then B-47 crew training at McConnell AFB in Wichita and Little Rock AFB, before being assigned to a B-47 wing at Mt. Home AFB, ID. The most significant event of that assignment was that I met the love of my life, Judy Johnson, and married her just at the end of the three-year or so assignment.
One of my favorite tales of my time in Mt. Home concerned a flight to Guam: We departed Mt. Home on the 29th of November, 1962 in a flight of three B-47’s; I was in number three. Formation in bombers was prescribed as a mile in trail and 500 feet above the aircraft ahead. In weather, position was maintained by radar, usually by removing the altitude delay from the air-to-ground radar, and keeping the aircraft ahead within one’s own aircraft and the first ground return (usually about 5 miles or so at 30,000 feet altitude). On this flight, somewhere about Reno, we entered the weather, a fact of which the number two pilot failed to inform his navigator, who was using the radar for other things. At any rate, the number two and three aircraft became separated from the lead and remained so for a couple of hours. Finally, about 1,500 miles into the flight, visual contact was reestablished, and we once again became a formation. I’ve always thought it was probably the longest time for a formation join up in the history of the Air Force.
At any rate, we continued on, met some tankers over Hawaii, took on more fuel than the actual capacity of the airplanes, and headed for Guam. At some time during the flight, my copilot asked me for an ETA to the dateline, and I informed him it was exactly at midnight “Zulu” (meaning Greenwich Mean Time, used by aviators worldwide). At midnight (actually precisely noon local time), my copilot, Dick, informed me that he was changing his transponder code setting to comply with the date of 1 December. It took me a while, but I finally realized what he had said, and I informed him that it was actually 30 November. To shorten the story, this exchange ended with an intra-formation argument about what day it really was, and I bet one of the other navigators in the flight a bottle of whiskey about the actual date. When we finally got to Wake Island, I told my copilot (navigators had no access to radios in the B-47) to ask the controller that what the actual date was. The copilot was very hesitant, but I finally convinced him that the controller had probably heard the question before, so in an almost begging voice, the question was asked. The Wake controller, after laughing out loud, announced that it was indeed 30 November. One of the other pilots then said, “We know it’s the 30th local, what is it zulu?” The Wake controller’s response? “Standby.” He finally responded that it was the 30th in England as well, and, after nearly eighteen hours in flight, we landed in Guam, where I eventually collected my whiskey. In Guam, a free port, the most expensive whiskey was only about three bucks, so I didn’t win much.
In 1963 I was assigned to B-58 training, initially back at Mather AFB, and while there Judy and I married at Stead AFB in Reno on 21 September ‘63. After the training at Mather, we proceeded to Carswell AFB in Ft. Worth for further training. We were there when President Kennedy was assassinated, a very traumatic time for the entire country (even for me, who had little regard for the man). After completing that training, we proceeded to Bunker Hill AFB (now Grissom) at Bunker Hill, Indiana, for our end assignment. While at Bunker Hill our daughter Cindy was born. She was, and always has been, an absolute delight, and I love her very much.
One story about my time in B-58’s: In that airplane, the navigator sat about ten feet behind the pilot and those ten feet were mostly filled with the massive amount of electronic equipment on the airplane. There was a small crawlway from the navigator’s position to a small (maybe a foot square) entry into the pilot’s position. I knew that my pilot did not realize the existence of that crawlway, and once about halfway through a fourteen-hour mission, I announced I was going off interphone and proceeded to crawl up toward the pilot’s cockpit. When I peered through the opening, he was sitting on his heels on the ejection seat, and obviously very bored. When I reached up and grabbed him by the shoulder, the startled look on his face was classic; he had no idea that I could get to him. If his canopy had been fragile, I’m sure he’d have jumped right through it.
I was never very happy flying the B-58; if everything worked, it was no challenge; if things didn’t work it was an insurmountable challenge. In 1964, after the Bay of Tonkin incident, I began to feel that with some of the Air Force engaged in combat, I was sort of backing up to the pay window. Knowing I would continue to feel that way and that if I didn’t get out of my present assignment, and for other reasons, I applied for pilot training. I finally was selected and we moved to Webb AFB, Big Spring, TX, for that training in 1966. While there Cindy entered her “terrible twos” and the stories of her antics are legion, but probably not appropriate for this dissertation.
Upon graduation from pilot training, we proceeded to Cannon AFB in Clovis, NM, for F-100 training. Upon completion, Judy and Cindy moved back to Big Spring while I went to Viet Nam (Phan Rang AB, about 100 miles northeast of Saigon). I arrived there during the Tet Offensive, in early February 1968. My combat tour holds a lot of memories for me, and I will relate a few of them:
I hated this particular airplane; it flew sorta sideways. It was later a combat loss. The pilot survived, and I felt no sorrow.
During the combat checkout, it was procedure to fly in a three-ship formation (normal was two-ship), with the new guy as number two. On one of these missions, with the squadron commander leading and an instructor pilot (IP) as number three. We flew down to the delta and met the forward air controller (FAC) perhaps 50 miles south of Saigon. He was at 9,000 feet, approximately triple his usual altitude, and when we made contact it seemed like he was almost whispering to avoid letting those on the ground know his intentions. He told us that the VC had taken over a school grounds, had been there for about three days, and he had finally received clearance to hit them. He did not want to put down the customary “mark” (usually, a white phosphorous rocket which gave off a great deal of white smoke to use for a reference for the attacking pilots) because he did not want to warn the enemy what was coming. He was finally able to guide us to the school grounds, which consisted of two two-story buildings of maybe 100×50 feet, lying perpendicular to one another. The winds this day were about thirty knots at our release altitude for the “slick” (non-retarded) bombs we carried—very unusual at that latitude. The squadron commander, unable to negotiate the winds to his satisfaction went through “dry” (with no release of ordnance). As number two, I probably had the most discombobulated bomb run of my career, but I finally dropped a pair of 750-pound bombs. Through some miracle, they were right on target, and totally destroyed one of the buildings. Number three, who was a very good bomber, managed to do the same to the other building. I have often wondered how many VC were in those buildings.
A few months later, I was on alert, where our normal ordnance consisted of two 500-pound high-drag bombs (to be dropped in pairs), and two 750-pound cans of napalm, which could be dropped singly. I was not yet a flight leader, but my wingman was an IP, and he allowed me to lead, although he retained command of the flight. While being scrambled from our alert status, I learned the call sign of the FAC, Sidewinder 14, who I knew belonged to an old friend, Dick Arens (Cindy always called him “Favorite Dick”).
As we proceeded to his position we noted that the weather included about a 6/8 overcast at about 1500 feet. After I made contact with the FAC, I asked, “What do you have for us, Dick?” He described the target perfectly: a rectangular clearing in the jungle of maybe 8 or 10 acres, containing 6 dug-in gun positions, arranged symmetrically with 3 positions along each long side of the clearing. All those positioned were manned with single- or dual-mounted .50 Cal (actually 12.7mm) guns. I later learned that he had been almost directly overhead when they opened up on him which explained his actions after our rendezvous—he’d been as close as he was ever going to go! Okay, so we got below the overcast and finally made visual contact with him and he told us to “Follow me.”
Well, in a supersonic fighter it’s a little difficult to “follow” an O-1 Bird Dog, whose speed maxes out at about 90 knots. So we’re back behind him with flaps down and doing S-turns when suddenly I see that little airplane nose-up to about 45 degrees and lose a rocket. After the rocket landed about 5 kilometers farther on, Dick said, “Got that smoke?” When I acknowledged, he said, “Well, it’s about 5 clicks (slang for kilometers) beyond that! As I said, that was as close as he was going! Anyway, we proceeded on, and the target was just as he’d described it, and we began our attack. All the guns were shooting at first, but fewer as the attack progressed. I was dropping bombs or napalm then pulling up through the clouds, finding another hole in the clouds, and then attacking again. Meantime my wingman, another “Dick,” was staying at tree-top level, pulling up underneath the clouds to attain some dive angle, and then pulling off at low altitude again.
After about ten minutes of this, my wingman said, “Mac, how much fuel you got?” I replied that I had 3,500 pounds. He said he only had 2,500. I said, “Dick, I’ve been in afterburner ever since I’ve been here, how can you have that little fuel?” He said, “I think I have a hole in my wing, but there’s one of those sonsabitches is still shooting, and I’m gonna kill him.” So he did, and I ensured that they were dead. As we pulled off to leave, Dick said he was going to Bien Hoa (a base which also had F-100’s and was closer than our home base), and that I was to go back to Phan Rang. I objected (it is doctrine to accompany a wingman who might be in trouble), but he made it clear that he was in command of the flight and I was to do as he said. Well, I later found out the reasoning behind his command: he knew damn well he had a hole in his wing, because it had wood in it! He’d hit a damn tree while down there messing around at low altitude. He wanted to go to Bien Hoa to get the airplane fixed without anybody at the home ‘drome ever finding out about it (in that regard, he was mostly successful). He was a crazy guy, and I have hundreds of stories about him, but this story is not about him.
One day my roommate, Gary Ball, and I were scheduled to go on alert at 0700. I got up about six and there was nobody in the bunk above me. I showered and shaved and was getting dressed when Gary walked into the room wearing civies. I asked where the hell he had been and he said, “Playing Poker.” I reminded him that we were to be on alert in about 15 minutes and he advised me that there had been no activity on the alert pad in several days and that he was going to sleep all day. On the way to the squadron to pick up our gear, we flipped a coin to determine which of us would lead; Gary won. Arriving at our aircraft, I was moving faster than Gary and after finishing with my preflight.
Just as I walked into the alert shack the phone rang and we were scrambled. As I ran for my airplane Gary was just walking away from his and when he saw me running he realized the situation. He got a funny look on his face and said, “You gotta be shitting me!” When I denied that, he turned and started running toward his own airplane. He ran about ten steps, then stopped, turned around, and said to me, “Mac, you got the lead!” So we flew for our normal hour and a half or so, and when we parked in the refueling pits the crew chief came running up the ladder and asked about the condition of the airplane. When I told him it was OK he said, “Fill out the forms quickly; they have two more airplanes ready for you, and you’re already scrambled.” Well, this time Gary led, and we flew another hour and a half, and when we pulled into the refueling pits, the crew chief once again came running up the ladder…Yet another hour and a half, and by now I think Gary was exhausted. I didn’t see him until the next morning. He was certainly glad that we were limited to three combat missions a day.
This flight occurred late in my tour, and I was leading a two-ship flight off alert again. I was loaded with four napes, while my wingman carried four snakes (500-pound high-drag bombs). As we arrived over our rendezvous point, there was another flight of F-100’s being employed by the FAC and I could tell there was a lot of shooting going on, but we were above an undercast and I couldn’t really get the picture. After the previous flight departed and we got below the clouds, the FAC described the target, but even as I began my attack, I had not yet clearly located the target. Shortly, though, I did; it was another .50 cal (once again, Soviet-developed, and probably supplied, 12.7mm, comparable to our own .50 cal) gun position in the middle of a clearing in the jungle. You’d be surprised how much smoke one of those guns firing full-automatic puts out, even using “smokeless” powder. Anyway, on my first pass, I got a little excited and dropped my first napes probably a couple of hundred meters short, no doubt frying some monkeys in the jungle. My wingman did essentially the same thing on his first pass with his bombs.
As I turned to my final approach on the second pass, I lost all my altitude and leveled off about ten feet above the tops of those jungle trees. This loss of altitude, of course, greatly increased my speed. Let me tell you that 550 knots in an F-100 loaded with two external fuel tanks and two napes is smoking! Anyway, I dropped a nape and it went right in the hole! Gun killed! However, perhaps due to adrenaline, or maybe just to celebrate, we continued to attack the position; I dropped my other nape, my wingman, his bombs, and we made a couple of strafing passes each. On my final strafe pass, I pulled out fairly low, pulled out to the left, and looked down to see another gun position. This position was on the edge of the clearing, barely into the jungle trees, and consisted of a pit overlaid with tree trunks.
Sticking up between those trunks were two 12.7’s putting out all that smoke I earlier described. Let me tell you that seeing two of those guns firing at you from less than 200 feet away will raise your adrenalin level even if it’s already high! I told my wingman to abort his attack, told the FAC I was out of bullets (almost the truth), and we went home. I learned a good lesson there: don’t get locked in, keep your head out of your rear, and always look around…these guys had no doubt been shooting at me all the time, and I never even noticed!
There’s one more story I should relate here: very late in my tour my friend Bob Konopka and I were enjoying some late-night beverages in my squadron’s dayroom/bar, when the chief of the command post, whose room was next door, came running out announcing that the VC was attacking the base and he had to get to the command post and left. Bob and I continued to sip our beverages until we started to hear explosions. We walked outside and it seemed the whole flight line was on fire. Bob left for his own squadron, and I sat down on the lawn to watch the fireworks. About that time sirens went off, all the guys in our hooch came running out wearing their steel pots and headed for the bomb shelters. I, however, was so enthralled by the fireworks show (I’m sure you’ve never seen ordnance-loaded airplanes hit by mortars and explode and bullets fire off like Roman candles, but I can assure you that it’s pretty impressive) that I just sat there and continued to observe. At some time during the show alcohol took over and I took a short nap! The next morning I rode my motorcycle past the Air Police shack and there were 13 VC bodies laid out like cordwood. One of them had been the officer’s club barber. Funny War!
Okay, so I finished my combat tour with only bending two airplanes (one by getting too close to my wingman’s bomb and breaking my windscreen with some detritus, and the other landing an airplane whose nosegear refused to extend). Time to go home to Judy and Cindy! One more point: during the tour I spent about 5 days in Bangkok, a week in Hong Kong, a week in Honolulu with Judy, and even a few days in Big Spring with Judy and Cindy. Not a bad tour!
After some thirty days’ leave, we proceeded on to our next assignment, at Torrejon, AB, just outside Madrid. There is no way I can tell this part of my story chronologically, so bear with me. Judy and I had intentionally avoided adding to our family given my intentions to go to war, but we fixed that in our first few weeks in Spain. Clint was born nine months after our arrival. He was a delightful child, and even more so because he was mostly reared by our live-in maid. Maria was also delightful (at the end of our tour we tried to get her to accompany us back to the States, but she refused). Clint was born in January of ’70. When we left Spain in ’73, he was quite articulate for a three-year-old but spoke no English. That didn’t take long to fix once in the states, but the point is made. Judy’s Spanish became very good, Cindy’s was not bad, mine was “able to order off a menu,” but all in all it was a great tour for all of us. Now a few vignettes from that time:
I was assigned to Torrejon, of course, to continue flying the F-100. I had been there only a few weeks when the squadron commander asked me into his office, then asked, “Have you heard of Creek Crap (“Creek” was a word used in USAFE (Europe) to identify plans, but “Crap” is my own invention to portray my feelings). He informed me that Creek Crap was the plan to convert our wing to the F-4 within the year. My first thought was, “How do I get out of this chicken-shit outfit?” I loved the F-100 (more about that later), and I felt (and still do) that the F-4 had to many engines and too many chairs. Anyway, I learned to enjoy the F-4, but never like I had the Hun.
In the fighter business, there were always qualifications and currency to be met. Although I had strafed on nearly every mission in Viet Nam, I was not “current” because I hadn’t strafed on a scorable range, of which at the time, we had none in Spain. So after only a few months in Spain, a group of us were ordered to Aviano AB, Italy to renew our strafe qualifications. I was to lead the flight as my flight lead checkout, and the flight members included the squadron commander and the assistant ops officer. Well, that went OK, although our refueling en route was interesting…another story. Anyway, there was a bartender at the Aviano Officer’s Club who knew every US fighter pilot in Europe, I think (except me, of course). His reunion with the other guys led to probably a little more joviality than was appropriate: the next morning the assistant ops officer was to lead our strafe mission at the range which was only about seven miles from the base.
During the flight briefing, the leader wore dark glasses and mostly hugged the podium. Well, we took off, hustled over to the range; he made two passes (we were authorized five), pulled off, passed the lead to number three, and announced he was going home. In today’s Air Force he’d have probably been court-martialed, but in those days that wasn’t thought too badly about. Anyway, I finished my four or five passes, shot 60%–a pretty damn good score in the Hun—and we went home (and probably back to the bar!). Turns out the assistant ops officer in his two passes shot 80%–stunning. I was glad to pay a nickel a hole (in the target).
During my four years in Spain, by actual count, I spent exactly fifty-two weeks in Turkey (almost entirely at Incirlik AB, in south-central Turkey very near Syria). One time I was to lead a flight of four back to Torrejon, and we had no airlift support. Since I was scheduled to fly an “F” model (two-seater) back and we had no baggage pods, I invited all the flight members to load their B-4 bags into my back seat. I strapped them down, then started engines. When I checked the freedom of the stick I realized that the bags were retarding full stick motion. I unstrapped, crawled in the back seat, and kicked all those bags until I broke their slats (I’m not going to explain a B-4 bag here), then crawled back in the front and checked the stick. It had full freedom of movement, so we proceeded. The story gets worse: we were supposed to meet a tanker over Palermo, in eastern Sicily.
The weather over Sicily was horrible! Our refueling altitude was 26,000 feet, where the Hun has plenty of power at refueling speed. However, because of the weather, the tanker informed us that he was at 34,000 feet. Not only does that limit the power response of a jet engine, the F-model, due to a longer intake, was already a little power-limited. Well, we finally found the guy, and I was able to plug in, but barely. I was bending the throttle as far as it would go, but barely hacking it. Finally, however, the airplane planed out a little and I started to gain. No big deal, until the refueling hose started to curl back over my wing. I knew if I unspooled the engine even a hair, I would end up regretting it, so instead, I simply whipped the stick around all four corners. Just moving those control surfaces added enough drag to slow me enough to back off to the end of the hose, whereupon the entire sequence began again…and again. Anyway, the “D” models all got their gas and we proceeded on.
Somewhere over Sardinia, I realized that when I lost a couple hundred feet (the F-100 had no autopilot, and a couple hundred feet was pretty precise), I lost a few knots of airspeed, while this opposite was true. Immediately my steel-trap mind grasped that this was counter to physics, so I asked the flight for an airspeed check. Sure enough, nobody’s airspeed was reading close to my own, nor to anybody else’s. Now the F-100 had a bleed-air pitot heat system which was automatic, and usually sufficient, but we had been in the clouds at very cold temperatures for a long time, and in this case, it just wasn’t hacking it. So, what the hell, power settings work, right. We proceeded on to Spain. As we approached Torrejon, I checked with the tower and asked if they had any Huns airborne whose wing we might be able to land on (I promise you, I would never want to land a Hun with no airspeed indication). They did, and I requested they stand by. As we descended through 7,000 my airspeed was reading about 120kts and I knew it was really about 300. Suddenly, sure enough, it zinged up to about 300. We had briefed a traditional diamond formation flyby, so after making sure everybody else’s airspeed had recovered, I ordered number four into the slot and we finished the flight as briefed. Nothing horrible, but a very memorable flight!
The F-4 Phantom
So the wing started sending pilots to F-4 upgrade training in the fall of ’69. I had requested to go early so I could be back by the projected time of Clint’s birth, but some stupid bastard decided it would be better if I went after. In fact, in the end, I was the only OR (operationally ready) F-100 pilot on Torrejon AB, although we still had more than a squadron of Huns on the base. Clint was born on Jan 13, and I left for the states (George AFB, in Victorville, CA). It was a fun course, and I finally got to appreciate the F-4 (which still had too many engines and too many chairs). Back to Torrejon.
Although I learned to love it, it was still an airplane flown by committee. I still like a single chair!
During our rotations to Turkey in the Hun when we had no tanker support we had always stopped off at Sigonella Naval Air Station, near Mt Etna in eastern Sicily, for fuel. However, directives proscribed the use of the Navy’s JP-5 in the F-4, so that was no longer a viable option.
Once, after a short stay in Aviano AB, near Venice, I was told to take a flight of F-4’s to investigate the turn-around capability at the Italian Air Force Base of Gioia Del Colle, near the heel of the Italian boot. Seems the base’s capabilities were great, and we turned around in minimum time, having declined invitations to try some fine Italian wines (seems the Italians didn’t frown on drinking before flying like the USAF).
The Italians were flying the F-104, but when the squadron commander offered to take me to base ops to file a flight plan we passed a number of F-86’s covered with tarps. The commander, a large, blond Italian from northern Italy, who spoke English about as well as I did, told me, “The F-104 is fast, and fun to fly but for each pilot there is one airplane. I have 3,700 hours in that F-86 at .8 hours per flight, and it will always be my airplane!” Couldn’t have said it better myself; the Hun will always be my airplane. The flight back to Torrejon went well.
Later I became an instructor pilot in the F-4 and was assigned to the Standardization-Evaluation Division (stan/eval) of the wing. We got a new Deputy Commander for Operations (DO), and he wanted to visit our operations in Turkey. Since he was not terribly proficient in the airplane, he asked for an IP to accompany him; guess who got the job? Our trip down to Turkey was routine except for one thing: from about 30,000 feet over Sicily, one could see what seemed like the entire coast of North Africa. During my tour at Torrejon, I made this trip probably forty times, and I had never seen anything like it. Spectacular!
The return trip the next day, however, was something else. I was leading a four-ship, and during the preflight briefing, we were warned that the weather in Torrejon was terrible and that we might have to divert to Aviano. In fact, as we were preparing to take off I received orders to do exactly that over the radio. Well, shortly after takeoff, I saw the preceding flight returning to Incirlik due to some malfunction with one of the airplanes. What this meant was that we now had two tankers for each of us. We used both tankers fully, and the pilot of my second tanker informed me that the weather in Torrejon was fine. Since he had an HF (long-range) radio, I asked him to confirm that and tell the Torrejon command post that, if that was the case, I was coming home. He led me to believe he had confirmed it, but just in case we stayed with him long past the end of the refueling track and topped off our gas. We nearly had enough gas to make an approach at Torrejon, then go to Aviano. Well, you guessed it; the guy lied to me. When we got to Torrejon the weather was right at minimums. There was a higher headquarters inspection going on, and I’m told the wing commander (who had ordered us to go to Aviano) was driving down the flight line bragging to an inspector about how he had, in an abundance of caution, ordered his returning flights to divert when I appeared out of the mist and rolled down the runway past him. As you can imagine, my name was crap for a while, but I escaped severe career damage after the whole story came out.
In ’72 Judy and I were involved in an automobile accident. Judy wasn’t seriously hurt, and a third person in the car had only minor injuries, but I shattered my kneecap. They eventually removed it in ten pieces. I have always regretted not requesting those pieces to display on the mantle, but oh, well. I relate this story because of an immediately resulting adventure, but it will no doubt come up again later. It took exactly 55 days before I was able to get back on flying status, but since I was assigned to stan/eval I was mostly stuck in the office in the meantime. That was particularly true one day when King Hussein of Jordan landed unexpectedly at our base. It was a weather diversion and he had no diplomatic reception from the Spanish, so our wing entertained him by giving him a tour of the base (he was a former fighter pilot himself). We had a prepared briefing of our function and statistics in stan/eval, and after everybody else fled the building with some excuse about having to fly, guess who got to brief the king? Pretty easy job, actually; his English was excellent and his background allowed a full understanding of the material I was presenting. My one brush with royalty!
Okay, our delightful four years in Spain came to an end, and I was assigned to Reese AFB in Lubbock, Texas. I was a little hacked; I did not picture myself as a training commando! Maybe I had suffered some career damage after all. Anyway, we headed off to Lubbock for a tour that ended up being pretty pleasant despite my misgivings. I remember no flying stories during that tour, but I did get a year off to attend to my long-neglected formal education. I managed to complete my degree requirements in ten months and returned to duty as the operations officer of the T-38 squadron, and was soon promoted to Lt Col. Still smarting over being assigned to Air Training Command, I was able to wrangle an assignment out of it by accepting an assignment to Korea. It was supposed to be a one-year tour, but including about four months of training at bases in Florida for training in joint Air Force-Army operations and qualification in the OV-10 forward-air-control (FAC) airplane, it was nearly a year and a half.
I was assigned as the Air Liaison Officer (ALO) with the Second Infantry Division. I soon learned to be thankful that I had joined the Air Force! Shortly before I assumed the position of Division ALO, my predecessor had arranged for the Division Commander to have an orientation flight in the F-4. The commander was a two-star whose opinion of the Air Force was quite low, which made him difficult to work for. He was also an experienced army aviator, but apparently flying army helicopters did not prepare him for the maneuvers he experienced in that fighter, as he managed to lose his lunch during the flight. No one in the army was told of this, but at his going-away party, I briefed his assistant (a one-star), and asked his permission to present the commander with his oxygen mask from that flight (it had been well-cleaned, as you might imagine). I did that, and only the assistant, the commander, and I understood the significance of the gift! I’ve often wondered about his gut reaction (no pun intended).
Judy managed to visit me in Korea, but her visit was cut short by news that my mother was dying. I took emergency leave, and we returned to the states quickly enough that I was able to be at her side when she died. After her funeral, I returned to Korea while Judy returned to Lubbock.
I completed my tour in Korea having added significantly to my post-graduate resume by taking courses from the University of Southern California taught at Osan AB (I was able to complete my Master’s Degree later at Sembach). Since I was qualified in the OV-10, I requested and received an assignment to Sembach AB, Germany, where the OV-10’s were stationed.
When we arrived at Sembach, I was the senior Lt Col in the flying group and assumed the position of Assistant Deputy Commander for Operations. This had been a non-flying position, and about the time I was able to get that fixed, I became commander of one of the OV-10 squadrons. I loved being the commander, but in retrospect, I think the position went more to my head than I should have allowed.
Late in my German tour, a couple of my young pilots were playing fighter pilot in the low-altitude regime of the FAC, and one of them hit the ground killing both pilots aboard. In the Air Force, the commander is usually found at fault when something like this happens, and I was no exception. I was removed from the promotion list to full colonel and made up my mind to retire. I did not want to do that at the port in the US, however, with no job and no place to go, so I accepted an assignment to Bergstrom AFB in Austin, Texas. I spent a year there, and retired the last day of ’83, with perhaps a little bitterness.
I found that the Reagan Recovery from the doldrums of the Carter Presidency had not yet taken full effect, and it was difficult to find a job. Finally, after about a year of meaningless jobs and a lot of searching, I took a position with the Emergency Management Division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. It, too, was a pretty mundane job and the most enjoyable part of it was the travel. The emergency management plans that we formulated were drawn up by county, and when a plan was being written it was routine to spend some time in the applicable county, where one met and worked with all the elected officials (county judge [in Texas, the chief executive officer of the county], mayors, sheriffs, police chiefs, and other applicable persons. This part of the job was fun, however, I soon realized that I missed associating with people in green bags (flight suits), and the smell of JP-4 (jet fuel).
When the opportunity arose, I took a job with a company that was preparing course materials for the training school of the Arizona Air National Guard in Tucson. They were flying the F-16 and A-7 aircraft at the time. Since Clint was entering his senior year in high school, and Judy had a teaching job she loved in Austin and was completing work on her Master’s Degree, I first moved to Tucson unaccompanied. After nearly a year, Judy joined me and Clint went on with furthering his education. We bought a house in the Tucson mountains, Judy got a teaching position, and life was once again great.
The job with the guard did not last as long as we had anticipated, however, and I soon found myself with a similar job, but now at Luke AFB in Phoenix. I got an apartment and commuted on weekends. I enjoyed that job as well, although commuting and separation were not fun. Consequently, when the company I worked for got a contract to teach simulator and platform instruction at Reese AFB, I was intrigued. I loved Tucson and our house there, but we still owned our house in Lubbock, which by now was nearly paid for. It didn’t take a genius to realize that moving back into that house (which both Judy and I had always loved) would be a wise financial move, so I accepted the assignment. After I spent a couple of months in Denver to prepare for the job, we finally completed the move back to Lubbock.
Back in Lubbock
Judy got another teaching position and I really enjoyed being back to instructing student pilots. It was a great job for a couple of years, but then the decision was made to close Reese (still, in my opinion, a very poor decision). I was offered a chance to resume my employment at Vance AFB in Enid, Oklahoma, but I declined. I got a job with a local construction company which did mostly alterations on existing houses. It, too, was a fun job, but I soon tired of the unreliability of our subcontractors and the resulting position of having to be less than fully candid with customers, so I finally decided to retire. I encouraged Judy to retire with me, thinking we could do some traveling and other adventures together in our advancing years but after finally convincing her a couple of years later, we have done little of that. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed my retirement, and I think Judy has enjoyed hers as well.
A most significant part of my retirement has been my airplane. I bought one that was a twin to one already owned by my old friend (and my commander during my tour at Reese), and we have enjoyed acting like we were forty years younger than we actually are, flying a lot of formation and thoroughly enjoying our adventures together. As I write this we have decided that our age(s) have finally caught up with us, and it’s time to give that up. We have contracts to sell our airplanes but will get to enjoy them for a few more months.
Okay, that’s my story, and I’m sticking with it. There are a thousand other tales I could include, but nobody wants to read a thousand-page book about me. I’ve lived a wonderful life; I continue to love my wife; I’m proud of my kids, and I have very few regrets. Perhaps sometime I will re-read this and add a little here and there, but that’s it for now, folks.