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Fast Movers: Jet Pilots and the Vietnam Experience

Fast Movers: Jet Pilots and the Vietnam Experience

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by John Darrell Sherwood

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The war in the skies above Vietnam still stands as the longest our nation has ever fought. For fourteen years American pilots dropped bombs on the Southeast Asian countryside -- eventually more than eight million tons of them. In doing so, they lost over 8,588 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. They did not win the war.

Ironically, Vietnam, though one of our


The war in the skies above Vietnam still stands as the longest our nation has ever fought. For fourteen years American pilots dropped bombs on the Southeast Asian countryside -- eventually more than eight million tons of them. In doing so, they lost over 8,588 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. They did not win the war.

Ironically, Vietnam, though one of our least popular wars, produced one of the most effective groups of warriors our nation has ever seen -- men of dedication, professionalism, and courage. In Fast Movers, official navy historian John Sherwood offers an authoritative social history of the air war, focused around fourteen of these aviators -- from legends like Robin Olds, Steve Ritchie, and John Nichols to lesser-known but equally heroic fighters like Roger Lerseth and Ted Sienecki.

Sherwood draws on nearly 300 interviews to tell stories of great pilots and great planes in the words of the men themselves. Fliers recall jets such as McDonnell Douglas's famous F-4 Phantom, "a Corvette with wings"; the F-05 Thunderchief, the workhorse of the war; the F-8 Crusader, the last of the gun fighters; and the block-nosed but revolutionary A-6 Intruder with its fully computerized attack systems, terrain mapping radar, and digital all-weather navigation system.

Ultimately, though, it was the men who mattered. Sherwood shows us the brash confidence of famous iconoclast Robin Olds, who does not hide his thrill of the hunt -- and the kill. Roger Sheets looked like Don Knotts but prepped his "Vulture Flight" of Marine A-6s with the simple, unequivocal line, "Gentlemen, let's go out and kill something." But Sherwood lets us know that it wasn't all glory, that pilotssuffered fear just like other soldiers. Ed Rasimus later admitted he thought that an assignment to Thailand was "like getting diagnosed with terminal cancer: everyone is hoping the cure will come before you die."

There were things worse than death, too. Fast Movers offers fascinating portraits -- based on Sherwood's interviews and just-declassified naval archives -- of Vietnam's POWs. Pilots lucky enough to suffer only broken bones and burns from the violence of 1960s-era Martin-Baker ejection seats struggled to find honorable ways to negotiate half-decade-long periods in captivity. Passive resistance, like Commander Jeremiah Denton's famous blinking of TORTURE in Morse Code, was sometimes successful, often brutally reprised. Escape was impossible.

Those who avoided shootdown learned to live with other frustrations. Most wanted to "go downtown" (bomb Hanoi) but were foiled by their civilian superiors, who dictated the numbers and types of aircraft that could be used in a given strike, the kinds of ordnance that could be levied against a target, and even the flight paths that could be flown. Against all odds, the pilots spawned a culture of success in the midst of failure and frustration. Fast Movers captures a hidden and crucial story of America's least successful war.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A staff historian for the U.S. Navy, Sherwood (Officers in Flight Suits) offers this compelling presentation of America's fighter pilots of the Vietnam era. His study, though based heavily on interviews with and narratives of just 14 pilots, is by no means impressionistic. It is a presentation of personalities and mentalities in a military community that is becoming increasingly a band apart from the rest of the armed forces as well as from civilian society. Sherwood effectively conveys a central part of his subjects' Vietnam experience: frustration at not being allowed to wage all-out war. He describes in detail such fierce but futile campaigns as Rolling Thunder and Commando Hunt, which, Sherwood writes, "[f]or its technological wizardry... had little impact on the Communists' ability to wage war." Stress was a constant companion for the pilots. But few resigned their commissions or turned in their wings. Not everyone met the standards, and Sherwood is blunt in naming names. Nor was there a common pattern of behavior. Some fighter pilots were like Robin Olds, leader of one of the top-ranked F-4 wing, larger-than-life figures, charismatic iconoclasts. Others, like navy commander Roger Sheets, took pride in their professionalism. But all fighter pilots describe their common ground: the shared knowledge that they would do almost anything to help each other in need, manifested in high-risk rescue missions and again in the POW camps. It was the final element that cemented a community of warriors fighting what many saw as a senseless war. (Feb.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
From 1965 through 1973, while U.S. and Vietnamese forces in the South dealt with an elusive enemy on the ground, Marine, Navy, and Air Force pilots were pressing a grim series of attacks meant to force the enemy into peace talks. In this kind of warfare, "going Downtown" meant risking life on every mission against the most concentrated antiaircraft fire ever seen. The stories of several of the outstanding pilots of these campaigns, taken from both their recollections and transcripts of their on-site air-to-air conversations, generate a vivid sense of the sort of action they saw and the work they were asked to do. Sherwood, a historian at the Naval Historical Center, has produced an earnest and solid treatment. He presents the all-volunteer flyers as singularly courageous, dedicated, and capable. His book ranks among the best of this type for its sketches of the personalities in the bombing campaigns against North Vietnam. Recommended for public and academic libraries.--Mel D. Lane, Sacramento, CA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Free Press
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6.46(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.02(d)

Read an Excerpt

Fast Movers

Jet Pilots and the Vietnam Experience
By John Sherwood

Free Press

Copyright © 2000 John Darrell Sherwood
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7432-0636-3

Chapter One

Old Lionheart Robin Olds and the Eighth Tactical Fighter Wing, 1966-1967

Ubon, Thailand, October 1966

For the men of the Eighth Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon, the summer of 1966 was a season of bitterness. Mired in the fruitless bombing campaign known as Rolling Thunder, the Eighth Wing pined to strike the North Vietnamese airfields, factories, and command-and-control facilities in Hanoi, but neither the political leadership in Washington nor the local Air Force commanders in Saigon and Ubon would hear of it.

To President Lyndon Johnson and his key advisors, the bombing of North Vietnam was primarily a political tool, its purpose being to convince the North Vietnamese to give up their support of the insurgency in the South. One accomplished this aim, reasoned Johnson, by attacking the North's supply routes to the South, not by waging total war against its urban and industrial areas. But for the U.S. military pilots this strategy proved exasperating. Rolling Thunder's limited portfolio of targets meant that the North Vietnamese military could easily predict where U.S. planes would attack and could concentrate their defenses accordingly, leaving other areas undefended.

If that were not enough, the Eighth Wing's lackluster commander, Colonel Joe Wilson, compelled his pilots to fly standard routes and times, and to carry standard bombloads. Anxious to please his superiors in Saigon and Washington, Wilson believed that such standardization would result in a higher sortie rate for the Eighth Wing. Higher sortie rates, in turn, would allow Air Force Secretary Harold Brown to petition Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara for more money for the Air Force. This program to increase sortie rates, called Rapid Roger, ran from August 1966 through February 1967, and greatly undermined morale at the Eighth Wing.

"It was shitty, it wasn't the way to efficiently win a war," recalled "slick-wing" Captain John Stone about Rapid Roger. (Junior pilots in the Air Force call themselves "slick wings" because their wing insignias didn't have a star above them like those of senior and command pilots.) The predictability of the missions annoyed Stone the most: "There were no tactics, everyone went the same route, the same time of day, the enemy knew we were coming." Another junior captain, Ralph Wetterhahn, complained that to achieve a rate of 1.25 sorties per aircraft per day Rapid Roger compelled the men of the Eighth to fly night missions - dangerous missions usually flown by specialized night squadrons. Moreover daytime sleeping, in un-air-conditioned quarters with no blackout curtains, meant that in the hot, humid, mosquito-ridden conditions of Thailand pilots simply could not get enough sleep.

The extra night sorties also strained the aircraft maintenance system to its breaking point. Airman First Class Robert Clinton, a member of an Eighth Wing load crew, remembered maintenance teams working around the clock and breaking every safety rule in the book to keep up with the demands of Rapid Roger. "We would unload live bombs right on the taxiway and just roll them to the side rather than sending the planes to the ordnance-disarming area."

Colonel Joe Wilson cared little for his maintenance crews and their problems. An administrator more comfortable in a starched tropical khaki uniform than in a flight suit, Wilson could not think very far beyond his career. When Wetterhahn lost four feet off his right engine tailpipe from flak, he got "his ass chewed out" by Wilson. This from a commander who flew so rarely that his subordinate pilots even began to question whether he was flight qualified. How dare someone who never flew chastise a pilot for getting shot at in wartime? Did he not understand that "junior birdmen" like Wetterhahn and Stone were leading flights against some 4,400 guns, 150 surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites, and over 70 MiG fighter aircraft, with no guidance from above and with tactics designed not to save lives and put bombs on target, but to please civilian bureaucrats in the Pentagon and the White House? According to the pilots, Wilson did not; instead, he just sat in his office and "raised hell" when planes got shot down.

There was a lot of hell to be dispensed. In July 1966 North Vietnamese defenses claimed 43 American aircraft, the highest monthly total since the start of Rolling Thunder in March 1965. During the first ten months of 1966 the MiGs alone forced 77 fighter-bombers to jettison their heavy bombs and flee before reaching their targets. More significantly, they shot down nine U.S. aircraft. American pilots, by comparison, only downed 24 MiGs during this period - a favorable kill ratio of 2.6 to 1, but one far lower than the 7 to 1 ratio achieved by the U.S. Air Force in Korea.

Clearly something drastic needed to be done, and in late summer 1966, the Seventh Air Force Commander in Saigon, General William "Spike" Momyer, himself a former fighter pilot, began thinking about replacing Wilson with someone who would lead from the cockpit. Warrior colonels, however, were almost an extinct species in the USAF tactical-fighter community by the summer of 1996. Indeed, 40 percent of the pilots in the Air Force were over forty years old late in that year, and most of these men did not have good enough stamina or reflexes to perform well in a high-performance tactical fighter like the F-4. Many older fighter pilots instead could be found performing crew duties in bombers and transports. Others worked in limited resource specialties such as development, engineering, and procurement, and could not be replaced. Still others were leaving the Air Force to take lucrative jobs with civilian airlines; in the mid-1960s, the U.S. Air Force was losing over 1,400 pilots a year to the rapidly expanding commercial-aviation sector.

There was, however, one iconoclastic colonel left at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina who had no aspirations to be an airline pilot, or even a general officer. This pilot embodied the best and the worst qualities of America's jet-pilot elite. On the one hand, he could inspire young men to kill by leading from the front - a rare skill that can never be overvalued, in a profession dedicated to violence and the force of arms - but he also drank too much, spoke his mind at every opportunity, loved using abusive language, occasionally interpreted orders loosely, and often failed to show appropriate deference towards his superiors. The man, in short, was a loose cannon, and General Momyer knew it. He didn't care. The Eighth Wing needed to be jump-started - and Colonel Robin Olds, with his cockpit style of leadership, might just do the trick.

Robin Olds' story stands out as one of the most interesting examples of true flight-suit leadership in modern air-power history. In 1967 the Eighth Wing did not possess a more talented group of pilots than any other F-4 wing in Vietnam. The 366th Wing, based at Da Nang in South Vietnam, for example, had just as many skilled pilots, but this unit only achieved 18 aerial victories during the war compared to the Eighth Wing's 38.5. What transformed the Eighth from an ordinary line outfit into the premier MiG-killing wing of the period was Robin Olds' leadership and the sheer force of his personality.

Olds' tremendous success as a combat leader stemmed from three elements in his personality: his loyalty to his men, his desire to share danger with his men, and his willingness to socialize and interact casually with his troops. Olds never asked someone else to do something that he wouldn't do himself. He also did his utmost to shield his men from policies and orders that he deemed nonsensical or downright dangerous. This last characteristic made him a controversial figure with his superiors and hurt his career in the long run. His tendency to fraternize with his men also hurt his reputation. The old pilot adage, "Live by the throttle, die by the bottle," certainly applied to Robin Olds. His love for drink bordered on alcoholism. However, given the Zeitgeist of the Vietnam War, where most U.S. servicemen didn't quite understand why they were there or what they were fighting for, seeing their charismatic leader shooting down MiGs in the air and later drinking with them at the bar helped created an esprit de corps difficult for noncombatants to understand. As one aviator put it:

We weren't fighting to defend our country, no one was threatening our country. We weren't fighting to defend the South Vietnamese. On the contrary, we were disgusted by the pictures and stories of those long-haired, Honda-riding, drug-dealing, draft-dodging, duck-legged little bastards living their corrupt lives in Saigon, actually buying their way out of the draft, while our guys were being sent over to die for them. For what actual purpose we were over there, I don't know even today, 26 years later.

Olds, in short, made his men want to fight for him and the unit rather than for the unpopular cause of the war. For his men, he transformed the war from a vague cause to a personal crusade.

A Tradition of Arms: Robin Olds's Childhood and Early Career

Shortly after Robin Olds retired from the Air Force in 1977, he was invited to give a speech at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona to a mixed audience of fighter pilots and Strategic Air Command (SAC) personnel. He began his speech by saying, "My name is Robin Olds and I want to identify myself to everybody in this room: Peace is not my profession!" The SAC members of the audience turned red in the face. In front of them stood one of the most decorated officers from the Vietnam War making fun of their beloved motto, "Peace is our profession." Who was this warmonger, this Prussian, this relic? The answers to these questions lie in Olds' unique background.

Born in Hawaii in 1922, Robin Olds grew up steeped in the culture of American airpower. "The first sounds I remembered," he recalled, "were the cough of Liberty engines warming up at dawn and the slap of the ropes in the night wind against the flagpole on the parade ground." During his childhood, he crossed paths with a veritable Who's Who of American aviation. His father, Major General Robert Olds, was General Billy Mitchell's aide during Mitchell's court-martial in 1925. "General Tooey Spaatz [commander of the Eighth Air Force in World War II], then a major," remembered Robin, "lived nearby, and I used to chase his daughters to the front door and out the back." Robin's greatest childhood memory, his "ultimate thrill," was meeting Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I ace and Medal of Honor recipient who could lay claim to 26 confirmed aerial victories.

Robin Olds, in short, grew up surrounded by a small but very famous group of pilots. To these men, and ultimately to Robin, the air service was not a paycheck, a stepping stone to the airlines, an opportunity to attend schools and gain training, or a bureaucracy dedicated to expanding its empire. Rather, it was a small priesthood of warriors dedicated to fighting and winning America's wars. The 1,200 officers in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the early 1930s served their country with almost no potential for promotion and at half pay because of the Depression. Throughout his life, Olds would take great umbrage at officers of any rank who did not possess this level of dedication to the service.

After high school in 1939, Robin Olds attempted to join the Royal Canadian Air Force to fight in World War II.

"How old are you son?" The recruiter asked him.

"Nineteen, Sir!"

"We need your parents' permission to recruit you."

Robin then went home and petitioned his father to sign his recruitment papers. General Olds hit the roof. For him, there was only one acceptable route to military service - the United States Military Academy at West Point. West Point would guarantee Robin a regular commission, and with it accelerated promotions for the rest of his career.

Robin Olds entered West Point during a unique period in that institution's history. Due to the wartime emergency, cadets who started classes in 1940 would graduate a year early. Furthermore, those destined for the Army Air Corps would earn both their wings and their gold lieutenant's bars in a mere three years. Robin did his basic and advanced flight training at Stewart Field, just 17 miles north of the academy, played football, and passed all his academic courses. "It was a tough schedule but we didn't care," he explained. "All we wanted was a piece of the action before the war ended."

Olds has mixed memories about West Point. He enjoyed flying, his classmates, and playing football as an All-American offensive right tackle in 1942, but he despised the school's tactical officers (the men who taught nonacademic military courses such as drill and marksmanship). "The place was full of nonentity tac officers and other people who thought they were great because they were assigned to West Point. They weren't." Olds wanted to be a fighter pilot; he learned very early in his career to judge people not on their intelligence, rank, or status but for their competence and valor in a combat situation. The staff at West Point disappointed him in this regard - very few had ever heard a shot fired in anger.

Another aspect of the place that left a bitter taste in Olds' mouth was its strong emphasis on alumni networking. When asked if he ever engaged in ring knocking (the practice of showing your class ring to gain special treatment from commanders), Olds recoiled. "Bullshit, no! That might be true with the infantry or the coast artillery or that bunch, but not in my business, which was raw goddamn fighter piloting. Hell, we had to hide the fact that we were West Pointers when I got out of the place because we were detested!" The Army Air Forces during the World War II and Korean War period contained thousands of pilots who had gained their training directly after high school in the Aviation Cadet Program, and therefore had never attended college. In 1948, for example, only 37 percent of regular U.S. Air Force (for such it now was) officers possessed four-year college degrees. In such an environment, a West Point ring could be a source of jealousy and resentment. Olds refused to take advantage of his West Point status simply to please others.

The Army Air Forces trained Olds to fly the P-38 fighter and dispatched him to RAF Wattisham in Suffolk, England to fly with the 479th Group. He flew with the 479th during its roughest month - June of 1944. During this month of the Normandy-invasion, young American pilots fresh from training were thrown up against some of Germany's top aces and paid dearly for their lack of experience. Fourteen pilots went down that month, including the group commander, Colonel K. L. Riddle.

On 11 August, the tide began to turn for 479th.


Excerpted from Fast Movers by John Sherwood Copyright © 2000 by John Darrell Sherwood. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Stephen Coonts
The flying, the flak, the SAMs, the brotherhood of rare and honorable men—John Sherwood captures the raw essence of the great American adventure that was the Vietnam air war in this thoughtful, informative look at some of the legendary aerial warriors of that age. Fast Movers is the next best thing to being there.
— (Stephen Coonts, author of Flight of the Intruder)
Darrel Whitcomb
Desperate men in desperate situations—held together by a special bond. John Sherwood has captured the real stories of some of the finest Air Force, Marine, and Navy aviators of our long war in Southeast Asia. Up close and personal, he reminds us that war is a uniquely human endeavor and that the man, not the aircraft he "straps on," is really the weapon.
— (Darrel Whitcomb, author of The Rescue of BAT 21)
Mark Berent
Fast Movers names names, warriors, and wings. The leadership and dedication of its air warriors are brilliantly brought to heroic life by John Sherwood. He has captured the unadulterated essence of air warriors—what makes them tick, and what makes them stick to missions thought impossible.
— (Mark Berent, author of Eagle Station and Phantom Leader)
Walter J. Boyne
Fast Movers is the best thing ever done on the personalities of the men who flew jet fighters in Vietnam. John Sherwood's trenchant analysis of emotions, motives, triumphs, and defeats of the men who fought the air war belongs on every book shelf.
— (Walter J. Boyne, author of Beyond the Wild Blue: A History of the United States Air Force, 1947-1997)
Barrett Tillman
Fast Movers is one of the most intriguing books to emerge from the Vietnam air war. Having known several of the major players since they returned from combat, I can say that John Sherwood portrays them accurately, candidly, and objectively. His selection of individuals, personalities, and tactical aircraft does credit to the Vietnam generation of aerial tigers: men who willingly went Up North, survived flak, SAMs, MiGs, and their own politicians—and came back for seconds. Fast Movers not only describes what they did, but more importantly, it answers Lord Tennyson's fabled question: The Reason Why.
— (Barrett Tillman, author of MiG Master and co-author of On Yankee Station: The naval Air War Over Vietnam)

Meet the Author

John Sherwood holds a Ph.D. in history from The George Washington University and is the author of the award-winning history of the Korean air war, Officers in Flight Suits. A native of Massachusetts, he now lives in Washington, D.C., where, as Official Historian of the United States Naval Historical Center, he is writing the history of naval air power in Southeast Asia.

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