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Chapter 1: 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.
"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. In an attempt to improve the unit's performance, the Army Air Forces sent Colonel Hubert "Hub" Zemke, already an ace and an experienced group commander, to take over the unit. Before taking over the 479th Group, Zemke led the 56th Fighter Group, a unit credited with 665 air-to-air victories. By the end of the war, Zemke himself would have 17.5 confirmed kills, putting him in the top 25 of all World War II Army Air Forces fighter pilots. On his first day at Wattisham, Zemke sat the whole group down informally on the parade ground and gave them "the speech." From now on he said, "pilots would be expected to show discipline, devotion, and dedication, down to the lowest ranks." Zemke repeated his mantra over and over again until things began to stick. This was the "Zemke way." To Robin Olds and the other young pilots at Wattisham that day, the "hard-bitten, gimlet-eyed" young ace embodied all that a combat leader should be. "He led us, inspired us, trained us, and sparked us," wrote Olds.
Hub Zemke impressed Olds on both a professional and a personal level. Professionally, Hub could fly an airplane better than anyone in the group. Possessing keen situational awareness, Hub would often lead flight right to an attacking squadron of German fighters without once referring to a map during the entire six hour mission. As a leader, he turned the unit around by insisting on basic tactics and instilling discipline into his troops. Under him, pilots were not permitted to strafe a heavily defended target until heavy bombers had softened the defenses with 500-pound bombs. Escort squadrons would provide top cover to prevent enemy fighters from bouncing the group, and wingmen would always support their leaders. But his most significant tactical innovation was the "Zemke Fan." First used on 12 May 1944, the Zemke Fan dramatically altered an Eighth Air Force policy, requiring escort fighters to stay with the bombers at all times. Zemke convinced Lieutenant General William Kepner, the head of the VIII Fighter Command, that if some fighters fanned out well ahead of the bomber force, many German fighters would be shot down while forming up to attack the bomber stream.
On the ground, Zemke held classes on such subjects as fighter tactics, geography, and enemy air defenses. He relentlessly hammered basic concepts into the young minds of his jocks until they finally got it. Was he a disciplinarian? Most certainly -- but one who could instill discipline with panache. When Zemke walked into Wattisham, he put a sign up on his office door that said, "Knock before you enter. I am a bastard too. Let's see you salute." Hub could be firm -- but in the end he was a fighter pilot and a "hell of a nice guy."
As Zemke gained confidence in an individual pilot, he would begin to allow him to act independently on the battlefield, so long as basic Hub principles were not violated. Robin Olds did just that in August 1944. Olds' assignment that day was to bomb the bridge at Châlons sur-Saône in the Burgundy region of France. He left RAF Wattisham before dawn and reached the bridge just as the sun began to poke over the lush vineyards between Dijon and Rhône-Alpes. He blazed over the bridge at 414 miles per hour and knocked one of its spans out with a 500-pound bomb. He made a 180° turn and had just begun to head home above a tree-lined road when two dark specks flashed across his canopy to the left. They were not dust but the silhouettes of two Focke-Wulf 190s -- a highly maneuverable German air-superiority fighter. Rather than retreat, Olds stayed low and surprised the two bogeys from the rear. "I Just pulled up behind them. The dumb shits didn't see me. I shot the wingman and when he blew up that got the leader's attention." Olds and the leader then went around and around in a circle until finally Olds got a clean shot across the bow. The German pilot bailed out and his plane crashed in a field about a hundred yards away from him. In 1948, he would return to Châlons-sur-Saône with his wife to celebrate his first kills over a bottle of local wine at a restaurant near the foot of the bridge. The span still bore signs of his handiwork four years earlier.
With two relatively easy kills under his belt, Robin Olds became cocky and overconfident. Two weeks later, On 25 August 1944, this attitude nearly killed him. On this day Olds, now a flight leader, was leading a four-plane formation in a sweep to Berlin. Zemke's plan called for Olds and the other 64 pilots of the 479th to fly ahead of an American bombing force in an attempt to flush out fighter opposition. The flight would then escort the bombers through the most heavily defended areas near Berlin and then "beat the hell out of anything that flew, rolled, floated, or crawled in Germany." The plan worked.
Several miles south of Muritzgee, Olds' flight ran straight into a huge swarm of 55 Messerschmitt 109s. The ME-109, Germany's most famous fighter of the war, had a maximum speed of 386 mph and carried a 20-mm cannon and two 13-mm machine guns. Olds' twin-engine P-38, by comparison, could reach a top speed of 414 mph and carried one 20-mm cannon and four .50-caliber machine guns, but it was less maneuverable than the agile 109. As Olds remembered it, the hair on his neck began to stand up, so he edged his flight way out to the left of the group. Finally, he spotted his prey.
Frightened, the pilots in his number three and four planes bugged out, leaving Olds and his wingman alone against this massive armada of Nazi fighter power. The ME-109s were in perfect position to wipe out the attacking Allied bomber force. "I remember vividly the exhilaration, the cotton-mouthed excitement," recalled Olds. "I knew all the others had fallen behind, so far behind they didn't have me in sight. I also knew the two of us were about to attack fifty-five enemy aircraft alone."
As his first target grew larger and larger in his sights, Olds placed his finger on the trigger of his four .50-caliber machine guns, ready to squirt a stream of lead into the cockpit of the 109. Suddenly, his engines sputtered and quit. In all the excitement, he had forgotten to switch fuel tanks and his engines had run dry. Without taking his eyes off the target, he switched tanks. The engines erupted and came back to life, and Olds took his shot. "I don't know if anyone ever shot down an enemy aircraft while on a glide slope, but I did. I fired and he sparkled with hits, smoked, dove off on his right wing and promptly bailed out." Olds then continued toward another bogey. He downed this second Messerschmitt with a lucky deflection shot, earning him his second kill for the day and fourth in the war.
Olds then pulled out of his dive at 15,000 feet with both his Allison engines at full boost. The force of this pullout sucked the canopy right off his aircraft. He was now 500 miles from home in enemy territory, low on gas, so cold he was teetering on the edge of hypothermia, and with limited maneuverability due to his open cockpit. If that weren't enough, an ME-109 pulled into Olds' rear quadrant and started to pepper him with its 20- and 13-millimeter gunfire. "I tried to break left and pulled desperately at the yoke. The old P-38 wouldn't turn worth two cents with that canopy gone, and the bullets continued to come home."
He continued to try to jink his aircraft to frustrate the ME-109's gunfire -- but then the tables suddenly and miraculously turned. The ME-109 overestimated Olds' speed and overshot him. "Now I wasn't the crippled prey, I was the hawk. I rolled wings level, sighted, fired a long burst, and caught him square." The ME-109 yawed up and then nosed down into a field, bursting into a ball of fire in sight of the Baltic Sea. He knew then he would survive "for it was a different day; a different day for the rest of my life." Robin Olds was now an ace!
Before the war ended, Olds would get another seven kills in the air and destroy 11.5 enemy aircraft on the ground. He would also leave Europe a squadron commander and a major at the tender age of twenty-two.
Footloose and fancy free, Robin Olds took 45 days of leave after the war and headed to California to visit his stepmother in Beverly Hills. His plan was to spend a month with this delightful, wonderful woman whom he "loved to death," attend some parties, and meet "fabulous people." Instead, he ended up on a collision course with reality. At one party he ran across a colonel named K. O. Desert. The next day Desert, who happened to run the local replacement depot, phoned Olds in an official capacity and told him, in no uncertain terms, that he was already a month late for his new post -- as Ned Blake's assistant football coach at West Point.
Olds jumped into a P-38 and flew clear across the country to assume his new assignment. When he arrived, the academy adjutant immediately buttonholed him in the hall. "This tall, stick-skinny, beady-eyed, hawk-nosed son-of-a-bitch stopped me," recalled Olds. Olds saluted very smartly, but his dress and bearing were not good enough. "Here I am a major," he thought, "with a whole bunch of DFCs [two] and Silver Stars [two] and Air Medals and all that stuff." What Olds failed to realize was that in a status-conscious environment like West Point, a Silver Star above the pocket of a twenty-two-year-old major could be more of a hindrance than an asset. It had taken Olds only two years in wartime to rise three ranks, but it would take him 22 years of peacetime service plus a 14-month tour in Vietnam to gain his next three. He simply could not respect officers who had never experienced the dangerous work of combat. This attitude would nearly derail his entire military career. But promotions never mattered to Robin Olds; throughout his career, the opportunity to fly fighters, fight wars, and command like-minded men meant everything.
For his next assignment, Olds flew the P-80 at March Field in Riverside, California for six months and then accepted a position with the Air Force's first jet aerobatic team. The team, led by a World War II ace named "Pappy" Herbst, barnstormed around the country showing off the Air Force's new jet, the P-80.
During one show near Palm Springs, Olds ran across the most gorgeous woman he had ever laid eyes on -- the actress Ella Raines. Famous for her supporting role in Tall in the Saddle (1944) with John Wayne, Raines had just finished a new film called The Senator Was Indiscreet (1947), and glowed bright with stardom. Fearless in the air, Major Olds didn't do too well on the ground that night. "I kept looking and thinking that girls didn't come that beautiful," Olds remembered, but he couldn't seem to get himself to approach the object of his affections and hold an extended conversation with her. Instead, he invited her to attend an aerobatic show at March Field. A grandstand view of Olds' flying impressed Miss Raines, and soon the two were dating regularly. According to Robin Olds, he met Ella at the air show, but June G. McNaughton, Raines' cousin claims otherwise. According to Ms. McNaughton, Ella met Robin through Kenneth Trout, an Air Force officer who worked for Olds in England. "The air show was Robin's subtle way of blowing her socks off," wrote McNaughton in correspondence with the author, "a common Air Force courtship custom. I was visiting Ella in her Beverly Hills home once when she had a date with Robin. I remember him coming down the steps into her huge, high-ceilinged living room, and absolutely filling it up with his charismatic presence. She seemed so little next to him, but her expression was of amusement and complete control of the situation."
Dinner at Ciro's, skiing at Tahoe, a trip to Lake Arrowhead, and two months later on 6 Feb 1947 the fighter ace and the movie star were married. Pappy also got married that year, but his marriage did not have a happy ending. On 2 July 1947, the members of the aerobatic team got "falling down drunk" at a stag party for Herbst. On 3 July Pappy was married, and by 4 July he was dead. At a show in Del Mar, California Pappy didn't allow enough room for the team to complete a fancy landing pattern and pulled up a split second too late. Olds sensed the disaster a moment sooner than Herbst and pulled up just in time, missing the ground by only ten feet. "That was a pretty deep trauma, 'cause I loved the man," Olds lamented. "Smoothest pilot I ever flew with, but he screwed up."
After Herbst died, Robin Olds became the leader of the team, but that position lasted only a few months. General Glenn O. Barcus, who would later command the Fifth Air Force in Korea, believed that the cocky young Olds set a bad example for the younger pilots and needed to be reined in. Olds consequently ended up in a paper-shuffling job at Twelfth Air Force headquarters at March AFB. Rather than trying to make amends with the powerful general, Olds again looked for a way to buck the chain of command and sneak away from the assignment. His position in the headquarters building facilitated his defiance. When he discovered that Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) was looking for an exchange pilot, Olds put his own name at the top of the list.
In England, the RAF placed Olds in a Gloster Meteor squadron at RAF Tangmere in Chichester in Sussex. By the end of the year, he had been promoted to squadron commander of RAF Number One Squadron. This was the first time a foreigner had ever commanded a regular RAF unit.
Robin Olds' stint in England no doubt improved Anglo-American relations, but it did not help his career. When he got back to March AFB in the fall of 1949, Robin found himself in charge of the 71st Squadron -- a squadron destined not for glory over the skies of Korea, but rather for garrison duty with the Air Defense Command in a delightful place called Greater Pittsburgh Airport, Pennsylvania. At "Greater Armpit," as he affectionately calls the place, Olds not only commanded the 71st but was base commander as well; he found himself converting a reserve transport base into a regular Air Force fighter base while many of his friends were off in Korea shooting down MiGs. "My name headed every list to go over to Korea," claimed Olds, "but the group commander, Colonel Jack Bradley, said 'I ain't going and neither are you.'"
Annoyed and discouraged, Olds got in his car and drove once again to Washington, DC -- this time to submit his resignation papers at Headquarters, USAF. In the Pentagon General Freddie Smith, who later became vice chief of staff of the USAF, got word that Robin Olds was outprocessing, took him by the arm, and talked some sense into the impetuous major.
Olds wound up in General Smith's office, the Eastern Air Defense Force headquarters. "It was a very bad time for me personally," recalled Olds, "Very, very upsetting. But I learned a hell of lot and I worked with some wonderful damn fine people. We were all doing our best." Robin would lick his wounds for ten years before getting another opportunity to serve his country in air combat. In the meantime, Smith at least managed to get Olds promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1951 and full colonel in 1953.
Smith also gave Olds a well-deserved sabbatical from staff assignments in 1955. He sent Olds to Landstuhl, Germany, to command a squadron of F-86s. While assigned there, Olds spent much of his time in North Africa, helping to improve the Air Force gunnery range at Wheelus AFB near Tripoli in Libya. Wheelus became a fighter-pilot safe haven in the 1950s, a place where pilots could escape from staff officers (and meddling wives) and enjoy practice dogfights over the vast expanses of the North African desert. James Salter, a pilot during this period, wrote, "We traveled and lived in tents; we had our time-worn code, our duties, and nothing more: to fly, to sit in the shade of canvas and eat a white-bread sandwich with grimy hands, to fly again."
For Olds, this flight-suit paradise would be interrupted by the great plague of the fighter pilot -- hemorrhoids. Caused by the excessive G-forces to which he subjected his body, his hemorrhoids finally forced him out of the cockpit in Cazaux, France in 1957. After his third gunnery mission of the day, Robin was so weak from loss of blood that a crew chief had to pull him out of the bloody cockpit of his Sabre. For forty days and forty nights, Olds would undergo a battery of painful operations in London. As if to add insult to injury, the Air Force rewarded him at the end of his surgery with another tour in the "five-sided squirrel cage [the Pentagon]."
Robin Olds spent the next five years in Washington, DC: first at Headquarters, USAF in 1958-1960, then with the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1960 to 1963. While in the Pentagon, Olds managed as usual to make many more enemies than friends. During this period, SAC45 generals dominated the entire Air Force staff establishment and they killed fighter-plane projects at every opportunity. Olds, ever the fighter pilot, tried to fight the bomber generals and lost. On one occasion his boss, the deputy chief of staff for operations and a bomber general, called him into his office.
"Olds," he said, "I'm tired of these studies that you keep sending in to me. You're not going to put on your leather jacket, your scarf, your helmet and goggles and go out and do battle with the Red Baron. You've got to get it into your head: we're never again going to fight a conventional war."
To Olds, men like the general were "halter-blinded people from the Strategic Air Command who thought they had the world by the balls." With their nuclear weapons and their nifty slogan, "Peace Is Our Profession," many in SAC thought that conventional war was indeed obsolete. This attitude made Olds angrier with every passing year he spent in the Pentagon. "I was irate because my Air Force, that I loved with all my heart, was acting like a bunch of dumb shits."
The irony of Olds' career is that success was hidden in what appeared to be failure. Olds' staff studies may have been controversial but they were brilliantly written. He spent hours in the Army Department library on the A ring of the Pentagon reading everything from military classics to theology. His paper, "A National Strategy for Space," became the "intellectual basis" for "Star Wars" in the 1980s. No one could accuse Robin Olds of being simply another dumb fighter pilot. The man possessed a keen analytical mind, keen enough for him to be selected to attend the National War College (NWC) in 1964.
Study at NWC was a necessary prerequisite for selection to the rank of general officer, but that didn't mean much to Robin. For him, the assignment meant another year in Washington, DC -- the land of the staff officer and the bureaucrat. "I went to the War College and listened to all these great guys from the State Department and all the other governmental agencies come in and lecture to us and tell us how to run the world, how to think like military people." But Olds stuck with the program, earned his NWC certificate, and left Washington never to return. His next assignment would be a dream come true, a USAF tactical-fighter wing based in England.
The 81st Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Bentwaters was one of the most prestigious wings in the Cold War Air Force. In the event of nuclear war, F-101 Voodoo fighters50 from this unit would fly deep into Communist territory and obliterate airfields and SAM sites with nuclear bombs, thereby paving the way for more massive strikes by B-52 bombers against industrial centers. It was a deep-penetration one-way nuclear strike force: the sharpest point of America's nuclear spear.
Robin Olds arrived at Bentwaters a few weeks after the Kennedy assassination in 1963 and left in the fall of 1965. He brought Colonel Daniel "Chappie" James, Jr., who would later become America's first black four-star general, as his deputy commander. Olds met James in the Pentagon and the two officers immediately hit it off. Chappie James, a self-proclaimed connoisseur of "deep-dish olive pies" (martinis), enjoyed knocking down a few drinks with the always convivial Olds after a long day in the Pentagon. During these gatherings, James would serenade the ace with World War II fighter-pilot songs or tell him tasteless jokes. As their friendship blossomed, Olds quickly recognized that James had talents that he himself lacked. Whereas Olds preferred leading from the cockpit of a fighter, James' strength lay in managing ground operations. James could size up people, bureaucracy, and political factions in a hot minute, and could disarm them completely with his jovial wit and charm. Olds, in short, chose James as his deputy to handle all the issues he hated -- personnel, paperwork, housing issues, community relations, the press, and so forth. In this role James excelled. The 81st Wing won the Daedalion Trophy in 1963 for outstanding maintenance capability, the American ambassador's Anglo-American Community Relations Award for five consecutive years, and the National Safety Council Award of Merit for four consecutive years. Much of the work that went into winning these awards was James' doing, not Olds', and Robin would reward Chappie for his administrative efforts by bringing him to Thailand as deputy commander of the Eighth Wing several years later. Although Olds would never admit it, teaming up with a black officer during a period when the Air Force was struggling to make strides in the area of racial integration also had its benefits: increased media coverage for his unit and more opportunities for Olds to showcase his achievements.
But beyond simply generating good PR, Olds earned his kudos at Bentwaters by working relentlessly to make his nuclear strike force the U.S. Air Force's best. To him, the unit served no purpose unless his men were willing and able to strike hard at the enemy with nuclear weapons. Robin worked relentlessly to achieve that goal. He would stay up all night with the men in the alert shacks, lead three missions a day, and serve on alert status more than any other pilot. He insists that he hated nuclear weapons, but he understood the underlying philosophy behind their existence and played his role in the Cold War nuclear standoff to the best of his abilities. Despite this achievement, the Air Force ultimately removed his name from the brigadier generals' promotion list.
Robin, in any event, did not want to be a general officer. During the 1960s, general officers could not command wings or fly combat sorties. For him, it was a supreme irony of ironies that the Air Force, whose very mission was to "fly and fight," might not allow him to perform these roles as a general officer. Thus, when he discovered that his name was on the generals' list, he quickly developed a scheme to sabotage his promotion prospects -- while at the same time honing his unit's flying skills. With several members of the 81st, he formed the first and last USAF F-101 aerobatic team. The team performed Thunderbird-style stunts around Europe in a plane designed primarily for straight and level flying. The F-101Cs flown by the 81st Wing suffered from skin crack and corrosion problems -- structural problems that were exacerbated by the high-G maneuvers typical of aerobatic flying. Nevertheless, Olds believed in training the way the Air Force fights, and in combat a pilot often had to engage in high-G maneuvers to survive.
Unfortunately for him, his superior in London did not agree with this approach and actually pushed to have Olds court-martialed for his actions. General Gabriel Disosway, the head of USAF Europe, ultimately came up with a quick compromise. He fired Olds as the 81st's commander, tore up his citation for a Legion of Merit, and sent him packing to South Carolina for six months to "cool his heels."
Robin Olds didn't cool for long. The war in Southeast Asia was heating up, and the rules began to change. The Air Force desperately needed proven combat leaders who could fly fast movers, and Olds soon received orders to report to Thailand as the commander of the Eighth Tactical Fighter Wing, nicknamed the "Wolf Pack."
Setting the Stage: The Technology of Air-to-Air Combat During the Vietnam War
Throughout the Vietnam War, the Air Force's workhorse air-to-air fighter was the McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom. The Phantom in many ways embodied the American automobile culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was big, loud, phallic, smoky, and loaded with gee-whiz technical features -- in short, a Corvette with wings. Although not every feature worked on every mission, when things did work nothing in the North Vietnamese inventory could stand up to this mighty machine. For starters, the Phantom could cruise at a maximum sea-level speed of 816 miles per hour, over 115 mph faster than its rival, the MiG-21. Its powerful radar was a supreme technological breakthrough at the time. It could guide radar-homing Sparrow missiles to MiGs up to twelve miles away. The Soviets didn't have anything comparable.
The F-4s carried up to four heat-seeking missiles: either the AIM-9 Sidewinder or its bastard stepchild, the AIM-4 Falcon. These missiles homed in on the hot exhaust of MiGs up to a mile away, thus theoretically eliminating the necessity of having to close within 2,000 feet of a MiG to get a gunshot. Unfortunately for the pilots, the designers of the F-4 failed to realize until too late that most kills had to be made at close range: with friendly aircraft occupying much of North Vietnam's airspace, it was simply too dangerous to fire a missile at a target beyond visual range, because to a radar or infrared seeker an American bomber could look just the same as an enemy fighter. One needed to get very close to an enemy plane to make sure that it was indeed an enemy.
Ted Sienicki almost shot down an EB-66 one day, mistaking it for a MiG-19. "My fangs were hanging out, and I'm thinking, 'We're going to shoot this son of a bitch down in one fucking turn and be out of here. It almost won't cost us any gas. This is great.' And when we got close enough my pilot said, 'It's a goddamn EB-66.' But we had to get close enough to see it, we couldn't tell it was one of our own guys."
In an attempt to rectify this situation, the Air Force early in 1972 sent over a handful of advanced F-4Ds, equipped with Combat Tree sets. Combat Tree enabled the backseat pilot or navigator to interpret North Vietnamese Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) transponders on his radar. The IFF was an electronic device carried by MiGs (as well as by Phantoms) that, when interrogated correctly by a radar, sent back a unique and clearly identifiable return signal. The Tree, in essence, tricked a MiG's IFF into giving out a positive return, which, in turn, the F-4's radar could use to create a fire solution for the long-range Sparrow air-to-air missiles. This was a remarkable coup for the Air Force, but it did not completely solve the technological problems inherent in the F-4.
For all its speed, sexy gadgetry, and awesome power, the design of the F-4 had several major drawbacks. Early models did not carry an internal gun. This meant that targets at 2,000 yards or closer simply could not be engaged. Beginning in 1967, some units began experimenting with the 20-millimeter SUU-16 gun pod, which was carried on the centerline station on the plane's belly. The problem with this configuration is that the gun rested on a station that otherwise could carry 600 gallons of extra fuel -- fuel that was often needed on long-range missions to the Hanoi and Haiphong areas. Additionally, the F-4 did not possess a lead computing gunsight; it relied instead on a simple iron sight. For planes flying over 690 miles per hour in a turning, whizzing three-dimensional gun battle, getting an accurate shot was virtually impossible. Eventually the gun troubles would be eliminated with the introduction of the internal gun in the F-4E in 1972, but early-model F-4s continued to be used for air-to-air missions until the end of that year.
Far more serious than the gun situation were the shortcomings of the Phantom's missiles. Many of the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing's F-4Ds carried AIM-4 Falcon missiles, which had been adopted in 1967 as the Air Force's primary heat-seeking missile. In theory, this missile's internally cooled seeker head could pick up a heat signature from a MiG more efficiently than its predecessor, the AIM-9. In practice the missile was, as Olds succinctly put it, "a piece of shit." Olds had reason to be angry. On 5 June 1967 he would fire six missiles under ideal conditions; five missed and one aborted on the launch rail. All told, the 54 AIM-4s fired during Rolling Thunder generated only five kills, for a miserable 9 percent effectiveness rate. The missile's firing sequence caused most of the problems. A pilot taking a shot with an F-4 had to go through a complicated sequence of switches; moreover, once armed, the missile only had two minutes of cooling available before it went completely dead.
Because of these deficiencies, Air Force fighter pilots eventually adopted the radar-guided AIM-7E-2 Dogfight Sparrow missile in 1972 as their primary air-to-air weapon. The Dogfight Sparrow functioned in two modes, normal and dogfight. As historian Marshall Michel explains it, "If the radar in its normal mode was like a light bulb in a room, when it locked on, the light narrowed to a flashlight beam that stayed on the target. The AIM-7 followed the beam of the radar toward the reflection of the light off the target." In dogfight mode the AIM-7E-2 had a minimum range of 1,500 feet as opposed to the 3,000-foot minimum range of earlier versions. Even with this improved capability, though, the fragile sparrows often malfunctioned. During Linebacker, 281 AIM-7E-2 missiles were fired and 34 kills achieved for a kill rate of only 12 percent.
With all of these shortcomings, it is no wonder that pilots who flew other aircraft often mocked the F-4. One example of this humor can be seen in the song, "F-4 Serenade," sung by rival F-105 pilots:
I'd rather be a pimple on a syphilitic whore,
Than a backseat driver on an old F-4.
Don't put me in an F-4D, 4D
Don't put me in an F-4D.
I'd rather be a hair on a swollen womb,
Than be a pilot in an old Phan-tomb.
I rather be a pimple on a dirty cock,
Than be an F-4 jock.
I'd rather be a bloody scab,
Than to fly with a bent-up slab.
I'd rather be a rotten bum,
Than fly a plane without a gun.
I'd rather be a piss in a bottle,
Than fly a plane with more than one throttle.
I'd rather be a peckerless man,
Than fly a bent-up garbage can.
I'd rather be most anything,
Than to fly with a folding wing.
I'd rather give up all my cheatin'
Than to fly a plane with a rotten beacon.
How much lower can you stoop
Than want to fly a droop?
We don't know how they stay alive,
Flying something heavier than a 105.
Just remember, you phantom flyer
You have twice the chance for fire.
We got one engine, you got two,
As a word of parting, fuck you!
While many of the problems mentioned eventually got fixed, the song does point out some of the Phantom's most glaring defects, namely its lack of a gun, its complicated controls, its folded wing, and its size and weight. The sexual language of the song is not just another crude rant. When pilots talk about "strapping on" a plane with a long pointy nose, a shark's-mouth paint job, and enough missiles to shoot down a small squadron, they are doing something more than flying a combat mission. Firing a missile up another aircraft's tailpipe can mimic the procreative act and can consume a pilot in just the same way. The F-4C even came equipped with its very own penis -- a protrusion under the nose called the "donkey's dick," which housed its cameras. This "pecker," however, didn't necessarily make the F-4's gender male.
Most heterosexual pilots viewed their planes as female. Robin Olds, in an essay entitled "She's a Lady," described the plane as a female bird. "Like a brooding hen, she squats half asleep over her clutch of eggs," he writes. "Her tail feathers droop and her beak juts forward belligerently. Her back looks humped and her wing tips splay upward. Sitting there, she is not a thing of beauty. Far from it. But she is my F-4, and her nest is a steel revetment -- her eggs MK-82 500-pound bombs." Robert Clinton, one of Olds' F-4 crew chiefs at Ubon, portrayed the aircraft in more romantic terms in his poem, "Ode to the Phantom":
I met you many years ago,
You were quite young then...I too.
Known around the world,
Your name instilled fear, respect
To all those who knew.
Together we've fought many battles,
Many places, many times.
We showed them what we can do.
I touched your skin, your soul, felt your heart pound,
I saw you ease, fearless, into the beckoning blue.
I watched when you returned, sometimes I cried.
Each time one of you was lost,
Part of me also died.
Grey, I am now, you too.
Our prime has past, many young anew.
I've known all your kids,
From B to G, the RF too.
I've shined your guns, and armed your tanks,
Loaded your TERS [triple-ejection bomb rack] and MERS [multiple ejection bomb rack]
AIM 9s and 88s adorned your wings,
I remember those times we flew.
Thirty years now. We won't quit,
Tomorrow brings something new,
Always another mission, a unique task,
For us old farts to do!
To Clinton, the F-4 was more like an old girlfriend than a farm hen. It was something he could caress and enjoy in human terms. Ernest Hemingway had earlier put it this way: "You love a lot of things if you live around them, but there isn't any woman and there isn't any home, not any before, nor any after, that is as lovely as a great airplane." The ultimate thrill, Hemingway continues, is to lose your fighter plane "virginity" to a magnificent aircraft because if you do, "there your heart will be forever."
Cultural critic Barbara Ehrenreich defined the late 1960s and early 1970s male culture as the era of the "Playboy rebel." A Playboy rebel is your typical white middle-class guy who works for a Fortune 500 company. During the week he functions as a button-down, strait-laced professional, but on weekends he breaks out of this mold and indulges in big stereos, flashy clothes, cologne, and most important, fast cars. Assignment to Thailand to fly the F-4 represented the ultimate long weekend for an American male officer in the 1960s; a time when he could shed his blue uniform, put on a flight suit studded with colorful patches, and fly the meanest, grooviest plane in the world.
McDonnell-Douglas could not have invented a better vehicle for the Playboy rebel. One Marine unit went so far as to call themselves the "Playboys" and paint the bunny icon on their aircraft. Esquire, the upscale men's magazine, even did a color-pictorial piece on the F-4 appropriately entitled "Hotshot Charlie Rides Again." The lead text for the article boasts of the "impulse of delight" one feels when flying this plane.
If the 58-foot-long F-4, with its 14,000-pound payload of missiles, bombs, and fuel, represents the apogee of late 1960s American male culture, the relatively diminutive MiGs flown by the North Vietnamese can be seen as a reflection of a society with different imperatives. The North Vietnamese aircraft were cheap, rugged, maneuverable, and low-tech; in short, perfectly suited for a guerrilla war against a more advanced foe. Furthermore, when employed correctly these fighters could often defeat state-of-the-art American technology such as the F-4.
The MiG-17, North Vietnam's workhorse fighter during Rolling Thunder, could not fly above the speed of sound, nor did it generally carry air-to-air missiles or an advanced radar system. Instead, it relied on the same armament that the Korean War MiG-15 carried: two 23-mm and one 37-mm cannon. Nevertheless, as a dogfighter, the agile MiG-17 proved to be an impressive adversary for the F-4. An Air Force study of the MiG-17 in 1965 stated that "The light weight of the MiG-17 gave it a significant turn advantage over modern U.S. fighters in a slow, close fight -- commonly known as a 'Knife Fight' -- and the MiG's cannon armament was much more effective in a close engagement." The basic physics of a turning dogfight made this slow-speed turning advantage very significant. As an aircraft turns, gravitational forces make it heavier and slow it down -- the heavier the plane, the more it is slowed. As result, a MiG-17 could gradually gain a maneuverability advantage over the F-4 if it could lure the big American jet into a traditional dogfight encounter as opposed to a long-range missile engagement.
Like its older cousin the more advanced North Vietnamese fighter of the war, the MiG-21, often relied on 30-mm cannon to kill other aircraft. But these newer planes rarely engaged in dogfights like the Mig-17s did. Instead, they preferred conducting hit-and-run "slashing" attacks, relying on their supersonic speed and the skill of their ground-controlled intercept (GCI) operators to direct them quickly to a target and then help them escape from any pursuers. The MiG-21 pilots tended to be conservative, and for good reason: their planes could neither outrun the F-4 at high speeds nor maneuver well in a dogfight. The F-4 could fly as slowly as 130 knots, whereas the MiG-21 essentially lost its maneuverability at under 215 knots. The MiG-21 did not carry radar-guided missiles for long-range attacks. Finally, the heat-seeking Atoll missile, essentially a Soviet copy of the AIM-9B Sidewinder, had many of the same disadvantages: it lacked maneuverability and could only be fired at a target from the rear and at relatively close ranges (3,000 to 10,000 feet).
For all its limitations, the MiG-21 could be a formidable foe. Very small and hard to see, the plane worked wonderfully as an interceptor. North Vietnamese ground controllers could vector the stealthy MiGs to the rear of a flight of U.S. F-4s heavily laden with fuel or bombs. The MiGs could then make a quick gun pass or fire a salvo of missiles before the American pilots had time to react. Even if the U.S. pilots did manage to see these bandits coming or receive warning from air- or sea-based friendly radar, the MiGs generally would be in and out before the F-4s could jettison their loads and pursue them. If the tables did turn and the MiG found itself in a defensive position, an armor-plated cockpit protected the pilot from machine-gun rounds, and a bladder fuel tank provided security against incendiary hits.
The final fighter employed by the North Vietnamese during the war was the MiG-19 "Farmer." Similar to the American F-100 Super Sabre, the MiG-19 was a short-range swept-wing interceptor with three 30-mm guns as its main armament. In many respects a hybrid of the MiG-17 and the MiG-21, this plane proved deadly to the F-4 when well flown. Although its top speed of 620 knots was far below that of the F-4, it could out-accelerate the F-4 to 465 knots, and could easily out-turn the F-4 in a slow- or medium-speed dogfight. Fortunately for the American pilots, the MiG-19 did not begin to challenge American fighter planes until May 1972.
For his F-4 training Robin Olds went to Davis-Monthan AFB, outside of Tucson, Arizona. Bill Kirk, chief of standard evaluation at the base and a former member of the 81st, remembered Olds' F-4 transition training well. Bill, now a retired four-star general, met his old boss on the tarmac that evening and the two fighter jocks stayed up all night filling out pilot questionnaires. As the sun rose over the Arizona desert, the two men launched into the air in an F-4C. Olds' first ride in the Phantom would be a Mach 2 run. The F-4 was the first operational USAF fighter capable of flying at twice the speed of sound. Developed prior to the revolution of ergonomic sciences, the F-4 had extremely complicated analog control switches, which most pilots spent weeks learning before entering the cockpit. Not Robin Olds -- he had to check out in the F-4 and take over the Eighth Wing before his enemies in the Pentagon had the opportunity to kill his assignment. Fortunately for him, Bill Kirk was on the scene to guide him through the process.
A Southerner from Rayville, Louisiana who entered the Air Force in 1951 as a one-stripe airman, Bill Kirk had served with Robin Olds at Bentwaters and respected the man's talents as a pilot. Olds' first test run on the F-4 would be a harrowing near-death experience, but the old ace would soon master the new plane. Kirk would end up training Olds on every aspect of the F-4 weapons system and would travel to George AFB in California to teach Olds how to fire the AIM-7 Sparrow missiles. Kirk, an utterly selfless officer, never once requested to join Olds and the Eighth in Thailand even though he was chafing at the bit to go. Olds sensed this; when he shook Bill's hand goodbye at George, he said, "If you don't think you're on your way to Thailand, you're crazier than hell." Two weeks later Kirk got orders to Thailand.
Olds always worked to reward his subordinates. Loyalty to him went both ways: up and down.
War at Last
The Vietnam War will always be remembered as the war in which civilians hamstrung the military leadership. Yet the appointment of Robin Olds reveals a more complicated story. Although the Air Force's overall commander in Vietnam, General William Momyer, because of his high-profile position had to produce the high sortie counts and other magic numbers that the civilian managers in the Pentagon demanded, his wing commanders could play the game a bit more loosely. Clearly Colonel Joe Wilson, a consummate bureaucrat, was losing too many aircraft in his attempts to please the Pentagon but Olds, Momyer knew, would gladly sacrifice his own career to save aircraft and valuable aircrews. That is not to say that Olds would not expose his men to danger if a target warranted it, but Momyer also knew that Olds would not send an F-4 out against a target with a single 500-pound bomb just to generate a high sortie count: he would wait until enough ordnance was available to send that aircraft out with a full complement of bombs. Similarly, if MiGs became aggressive, Momyer knew that Olds would not be afraid to temporarily halt bombing missions (the most significant missions for the civilian number crunchers) to mount a concerted attack against the MiGs. So despite Momyer's personal dislike of Olds, he fired Wilson and brought in the feisty colonel in the hope of fighting President Johnson's Rolling Thunder campaign at a lower cost to the U.S. Air Force.
Robin Olds arrived at Ubon on 30 September 1966, completely unreceived. Colonel Wilson, who had left that morning, didn't even stick around long enough to greet Olds or give him a proper change-of-command ceremony. When Olds finally got to the headquarters building, his shock turned to dismay. Scanning the mission board, he noticed that Wilson had only flown twelve missions during his entire one-year tour with the Eighth Wing. No wonder none of the pilots of the wing respected commanders. Their leaders knew nothing about flying.
That night, Robin ordered the entire Wing to gather in the wing briefing room for a talk. "The challenge was to earn their respect," recalled Olds, "and you do that by flying with them, not by getting up in front of them and pounding you chest like you knew what was going on." The room was dead quiet when Olds entered.
"My name is Robin Olds and it has been twenty-two years since I last fought in a war. You guys are going to teach me and you better teach me good and you better teach me fast because I am going to fly Green 16 until I think I am qualified to fly Green 8 and then I am going to 4 and then to 2, and finally I am going to be Green 1. One of these days I'm going to be leading and you don't want some dumb shit out front, do ya? So, as long as you know more than I do, we'll get along just fine, but when I start thinking I know more than you do, you're in deep trouble." Olds may have been a cocky and arrogant fighter jock, but he did understand the meritocracy inherent in a combat environment. By allowing junior officers like Stone and Wetterhahn, who grasped the combat environment in Southeast Asia better than he did, to lead combat missions during the first weeks of his tenure at the Eighth Wing, Olds not only gained the instant respect of these veterans but also placed himself in a position to rapidly acquire the skills he would need to eventually lead missions himself.
During the next weeks, Olds began flying with the 433rd Squadron, "Satan's Angels." He loved this outfit and its sporty motto, "Yea, though we fly through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for we are the toughest son of a bitches in the valley." Olds also spent hours in the intelligence shop going over aerial photographs of North Vietnam. "Hell, I spent a good two hours every day in intelligence," he said, "If nothing else, just looking at the new batch of photographs coming in because you might learn something. As a matter of fact, you can learn a hell of a lot." Robin Olds learned where every 85-millimeter anti-aircraft gun position was in North Vietnam. He also learned the geography of North Vietnam so well that he never needed to refer to a map while flying. Knowledge like this contributed immeasurably to his situational awareness in the air. He could jink, do barrel rolls and air combat maneuvers over the skies of the Red River Valley, and still lead his strike force safely home.
Whereas Joe Wilson had distanced himself from his pilots, Robin Olds got to know them intimately by visiting the Officers' Club on almost every night. These club visits helped him pick his varsity team of pilots. Here's what he looked for in a pilot:
I'll tell you what -- I'll tell you what I try to look for in any guy: Is he outgoing? Is he aggressive? In other words, does he like sports? Is he a good party guy? That's part of being outgoing. Is he gregarious? Is he individualistic in the sense of knowing his own mind? Does he have a good grin on his face? Okay?
Hardly a scientific test, but effective nonetheless. From past experience, Olds knew that a pilot's psychological toughness was often the key ingredient of that pilot's success in combat; the best pilot on the training range could be a miserable failure in Vietnam. Therefore, he tended to be partial towards jocks and other "hard-headed" types who could confront the prospect of physical pain and perhaps death with confidence. Ralph Wetterhahn had boxed as a cadet at the Air Force Academy and was proud of having graduated in the bottom half of his 1963 class. John Stone claimed his sister got all the brains in his family; he had enjoyed working as a smoke jumper with the Forest Service before joining the Air Force in 1959. Bill Kirk, described by Robin as a "hell of a stick," didn't even attend college until after the Vietnam War. Everett Raspberry flunked his Georgia Tech ROTC classes in 1954. To Robin, what mattered more than education or social background was raw courage, and all these men possessed that in ample quantity. What these men lacked in academic skills they more than made up for in flying smarts. Stone and Wetterhahn became self-taught electronic-warfare specialists. Bill Kirk became a leading tactician for the wing, and went on to develop a highly classified early-warning MiG detection system called Teaball later in the war.
Time spent in the bar, though, was not all business. Robin Olds loved to drink, and drank too much. Both he and his wife Ella were heavy drinkers, and Olds' attraction to alcohol certainly helped to shorten his postwar Air Force career -- he never made it past the rank of brigadier general. On occasion, it also made him less effective in the F-4 than he could have been. Olds consumed large amounts of liquor the night before Operation Bolo, the largest counter-MiG operation before 1972, and one could speculate that some of the "wild" missile shots that he took during that episode could be traced to his altered mental state. (His inexperience with the F-4 system probably also contributed to these combat errors.) We never got "knee-walking, commode-hugging drunk" that night, remembers Ralph Wetterhahn, "but we partied."
Robin Olds enjoyed locking arms with his fellow pilots and sweeping across the club, destroying everything in his path. He also loved Dead Bug -- a drinking game that required everyone present to lie on the floor and flail his legs and arms in the air like a dead bug whenever someone shouted "Dead bug." The game could get particularly nasty after "MiG sweeps," when broken glass and other "shrapnel" cluttered the floor. According to J. B. Stone, "quite a few injuries were sustained in the bar."
Cheap booze only encouraged such behavior. "You could get a fifth of vodka," recalled Airman Clinton, "for only ninety cents." Robin loved to go down to the NCO club and buy all the enlisted men booze. "Imagine it," said Clinton, "a full colonel and the wing commander, God incarnate, would come down to our club and take time out of his hectic schedule to reward us and get our feedback."
The colonel and a bar full of sergeants would then sit around and drink beer. "You'd never see this in today's politically correct Air Force," Clinton exclaimed. However, these informal meetings served a distinct purpose. They created a comfortable environment where maintenance people could discuss important issues directly with the boss. Solutions could be hammered out in a matter of minutes rather than days.
The opportunity to "beat the shit" out of North Vietnam came in late 1966. From September through December of that year, five Thailand-based USAF fighters were lost to MiGs. Robin Olds, upset by these losses, approached John Stone, the wing tactics officer, and asked him to help come up with a plan for defeating the MiG threat. This plan would be known as Bolo.
Captain John Stone possessed neither the rank nor the background to become the lead planner for the largest, most complex fighter operation in the Vietnam War to date. A country boy from Coffeeville, Mississippi, Stone graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1959 and nearly joined the Forest Service in Montana. He loved the excitement of fighting fires, but figured that flying fighters with the Air Force was probably even more exciting. After an assignment flying the F-102 at Soesterberg RNAFB in Holland, "eating lots of Indonesian food and drinking Indonesian beer," Stone came back to the United States with four other 102 drivers to train in the F-4 and head to Southeast Asia. Of this original group only Stone would escape being shot down or killed.
One should not conclude, however, that John Stone could be characterized as cautious. Before he headed to Thailand, stone's base commander at George AFB in California asked him and another pilot to ferry some F-4s to Nellis AFB. Stone ended up flying an unauthorized low-level flight to Nellis that knocked down a power cable and destroyed a radome on route. Needless to say, his base commander wrote him up for a formal reprimand known as an Article 15. When Stone returned to base, he walked into the commander's office and refused to sign off on the Article 15. Like Olds, this jock hated the "chickenshit" of the peacetime Air Force and refused to play by the rules. The Air Force, desperate for pilots in Southeast Asia, simply threw up its hands and sent the young Turk to Ubon to join the Eighth Wing.
At Ubon, John Stone thrived. Olds allowed his men to raise hell to their hearts' content as long as they fought the war professionally. For aggressive warriors like Stone, such unorthodox leadership was just what they required to succeed; in the end, Stone would end up spending more time in the Wing Operations area than in the bar. It was here that Stone and Olds began to hit it off. As he began to conceptualize the Bolo plan, Stone confronted several major challenges. First, the American rules of engagement during this period did not allow for airfield attacks. All MiG kills would have to be made in the air -- a distinct problem since MiGs rarely came up to challenge flights of F-4s. Instead, they preferred to attack the less maneuverable Air Force F-105 Thunderchief, or "Thud." Heavily laden with bombs, and flying in tight formations with large blind spots in their rear quadrants, the Thuds made perfect bait for the fast, highly maneuverable MiG-17. During December of 1966, 20 percent of all Thud strikes against the Hanoi area had to jettison their bombs before reaching their targets due to MiG attacks.
MiGs could differentiate F-105s from Phantoms from the electronic signature emitted by their QRC-160 jamming pod. The jamming pod, though, was a necessary evil for the 105s because it jammed the Fansong range-finding radar of the SA-2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) battery. According to Stone, the QRC-160 transformed a blip on a SAM operator's radar to a solid line. When a flight of four or more aircraft flew with their pods turned on in a tight formation, these solid lines blurred together and rendered the Fansong technology useless.
Stone believed that if the Eighth Wing installed the QRC-160s on a flight of 28 F-4s, the MiGs could be tricked into thinking that those planes were the more vulnerable F-105s and attack. Along with Major J. D. Covington, Lieutenant Joe Hicks, and Captain Ralph Wetterhahn, Captain John Stone set up shop in a tiny storage room in the rear of the operations shed and worked on the plan for two weeks. He pulled several all-nighters just planning the routes and the timing.
When a coherent plan finally emerged, Olds flew to a commanders' conference in the Philippine mountain resort town of Baguio. The Pacific Air Forces Commander, General Hunter Harris, was conducting a farewell tour of his fiefdom and all Southeast Asia (SEA) commanders were required to appear at Baguio for a series of "stupid briefings by a bunch of staff officers from Hickam AFB, Hawaii." It was just the type of event that under ordinary circumstances Olds would have had little patience for.
During the conference, Olds nervously approached General Momyer, the Seventh Air Force Commander, with his plan, but was in essence told to "get lost." A fighter pilot who had fought in World War II and Korea, Momyer possessed a keen intellect, but had a reputation for being a "terrible people person." Furthermore, his chief of staff, Frank Nichols, despised Robin Olds. "That little bastard bad-mouthed everything we did in the Eighth," Olds complained. Nevertheless, shortly thereafter a call came into Eighth Wing headquarters. "General Momyer wants to talk to you, get your ass down here."
Olds flew down to Saigon with Stone that day and briefed Seventh Air Force on the plan. Major General Donovan F. Smith, Momyer's director of operations, loved it and sold it to the rest of the higher headquarters. "Boy, the whole Air Force jumped through its rear end getting us ready for that," Olds recalled. "It was marvelous. The whole supply system and the whole Air Force turned out to support this Bolo mission."
Bolo, named after a Filipino traditional knife, called for three separate strike forces to attack North Vietnam. An "Iron Hand" force of F-105s from Takhli would go in first and attack the SAM sites near Kep, Cat Bi, and Phuc Yen airfields in North Vietnam. An East Force of F-4s from Da Nang would cover the Kep and Cat Bi airfields east of Hanoi and block any MiGs that attempted to retreat to China. The heart of the ruse, though, would be the pod-equipped F-4Cs of the Eighth Wing. These aircraft, known as the West Force, were to attack MiGs coming from the Phuc Yen and Gia Lam air bases just west of Hanoi. The West Force emulated an F-105 Thud strike in every way imaginable. It followed similar approach routes, flew at F-105 airspeeds, and used F-105 tankers to refuel. Overall the Bolo task force consisted of 56 F-4Cs, 24 F-105s, 16 F-104s, plus numerous supporting aircraft: EB-66s for jamming, KC-135s for refueling, helicopters for rescue.
Like the conductor of a symphony orchestra, Stone was mainly concerned about timing. Each instrument in his elaborate symphony needed to play its part at just the right moment. To prevent the MiGs from landing, Stone wanted a flight of F-4Cs flying over each airfield every five minutes for the entire duration of the operation. The MiGs would either be shot down or run out of fuel; escape was out of the question. For three days prior to the mission, aircrews received special briefings for Bolo, originally scheduled for 1 January 1967.
Airman Clinton and the maintenance crews worked nearly 27 hours straight before the mission. "They made us clean every aircraft, take everything off, every rack, bomb, missile, everything!" Olds and Stone told the crews nothing about the mission, and expected the crews to load the ECM pods on the aircraft with little prior training. "In that period of time," according to Clinton, "the only time you flew ECM on an F-4 was if you were flying with nuclear weapons." Because the pods ran on the F-4s' nuclear circuitry, Olds ordered the crew to do a "GWM-4" test of those circuits -- a test run only in the event of nuclear war. "'What the hell's going on?'" thought Clinton. "Rumors kind of rolled around."
On 1 January, Robin Olds delayed the mission for 24 hours due to poor weather over Hanoi. Annoyed at having stayed sober for New Year's Eve, many of the Eighth's pilots (including Olds, briefly) went directly to the bar and began to party. At "Oh dark thirty" on the night of the first, Stone and Olds decided that the mission was a go. Usually the coolest hand in the outfit, John Stone disgorged his dinner of liver and onions outside the briefing room that evening. With no sleep that night and no food in his stomach, Stone would go up the next day and shoot down a MiG.
The Eighth Wing's flights that day were all named after automobiles such as Ford, Plymouth, Tempest, and Rambler. Robin Olds, naturally flying in "Olds Flight," led the entire stream of fighters that day. The weather remained "shitty," with heavy cloud cover over Hanoi. Olds, knowing he might only get one shot at executing this plan, pressed on. He led the flight to a point twenty miles from Hanoi, and called "Green Up!" -- F-105 jargon for "Arm bombs." Much to Olds' surprise, no MiGs showed up to meet the decoy flight. Olds 3 then picked up a fast radar return about seventeen miles from his 12 o'clock. The MiG was closing at a very high rate, indicating a head-on situation. The MiG zoomed under the flight and ducked into a cloud layer. Olds, continuing to lead the flight toward Thud Ridge, spotted several MiG-21s coming up through the cloud layer. He immediately initiated a hard left turn to gain a firing position. The fight was on. For Olds, this would be his first engagement with an enemy jet; in his excitement he almost "went Winchester" (shot all his missiles) trying to get his first MiG.
First, he salvoed two radar-homing AIM-7Es at minimum range. The missiles failed to guide. Next, he launched two heat-seeking AIM-9 Sidewinders at the MiG-21, now a mile and a half away, but these missiles guided on the clouds instead of the MiG. Meanwhile, another MiG-21 started closing on the flight from the rear quarter and started firing its cannon at Olds 3. Wetterhahn, flying as Olds' wingman in Olds 2, remembered that moment distinctly. "I'm watching this MiG about to kill us," Wetterhahn recalled, "and my backseater's [First Lieutenant Jerry Sharp] getting a little bananas." But he stuck with his leaders.
After Olds' Sidewinders failed to guide, Wetterhahn immediately salvoed two AIM-7Es at the MiG in front. The first missile simply fell off the rail, but the second missile did guide and exploded just behind the MiG. "I saw this fireball behind his tail," Wetterhahn explained, "and I thought, 'God damn, I missed him!'" The MiG continued flying for a few precious seconds, and then went end over end, "shedding large portions of the aft section. The aircraft, now emitting black smoke, went into a flat spin, falling through the clouds like a leaf." The Sparrow's warhead, which consisted of expanding rods, had unfolded like a carpenter's ruler and, in the words of Wetterhahn, "basically cut the ass end off this MiG-21."
"Break left, we've got one at six!" Wetterhahn shouted to Olds as soon as Wetterhahn's missiles launched. All three planes then broke left and the MiG overshot. Olds 4, flown by Captain Walter Raedeker, then blasted this MiG-21 out of the sky with a Sidewinder.
As if this fight were not complex enough, another MiG popped up through clouds at Olds' ten-o'clock position and he again took a shot, this time with AIM-9 Sidewinders. "When the first MiG I fired at disappeared," he explained, "I slammed full afterburner and pulled in hard to gain position on this second MiG. I pulled the nose up high, about 45 degrees, inside his circle. Mind you, he was turning around to the left so I pulled the nose up high and rolled to the right. I got up on top of him and half upside down, hung there, and waited for him to complete more of his turn and timed it so that as I continued to roll down behind him, I'd be about 20 degrees angle off and about 4,500 to 5,000 feet behind him." As Olds pulled up low and behind the shiny MiG-21, he let it have his last two Sidewinders, one of which hit and took the delta-shaped wing off the airplane. What was once an aircraft outlined against a brilliant blue January sky became a twisting, corkscrewing, tumbling hunk of metal. No pilot ejected.
Four other pilots from the Eighth Wing would end up with MiG kills -- Everett Raspberry, Phil Combies, Lawrence Glynn, Jr., and of course John Stone -- for a wing record of seven kills in one day. Stone, flying in the number one slot of the third wave of West Force fighters (Rambler Flight), got his MiG from behind with an AIM-7E. So exhausted was John Stone that he didn't even bother with a victory roll that day. Why push his luck?
In all, Stone's Bolo plan helped raise the Air Force kill ratio from 2.6 to 1 when Olds came on board to 15 to 1 by the end of January 1967. It also whetted Robin Olds' appetite for more MiGs. Perhaps he would emerge as the only two-war ace of the Vietnam War. Robin began to "read every damn combat report written by any outfit that went to Route Pack 6." He even plotted MiG positions at his own desk so he would know "what the hell was happening up there." His hard work would pay off.
Hanging It Out!
Although poor weather prevented Robin Olds from engaging any MiGs until May of 1967, during that month he would shoot down three more MiGs, making him the Air Force's top MiG killer until the summer of 1972, when Richard S. "Steve" Ritchie emerged as an ace with five kills. When asked after the war how killing feels, Olds' answer was remarkably candid: "It feels great, compared to the alternative! Remember, for those truly involved in war, civilians and soldiers alike, emotions run deep. You hurt and you hate." By 20 May the war had indeed consumed him. Many combatants in the Vietnam War dreamed of the day they would return home, but Robin dreaded it. He had lived in peacetime long enough to understand that it offered nothing for him. In the Air Force, there were no flying assignments after wing command, only executive leadership positions -- and Olds knew that his interest and skills centered on flying and fighting, not paperwork and bureaucracy. In early June, he heard a rumor that the Air Force would end his tour as soon as he got a fifth kill. To get to the bottom of it, he flew to Seventh Air Force headquarters in Saigon and ended up talking to the Seventh AF information officer, Major Lou Churchill, who confirmed the rumor.
For the remainder of his tour, Olds deliberately held back, refusing to allow himself to become a mere public-relations tool. In one instance, a MiG-17 came right between him and some F-105s he was escorting. "I would not have even had to move the airplane," to get the kill, he said. "I could have closed my eyes and hosed off a sidewinder. I just sat there and looked at him. If I had squeezed my finger, I would have lost my job." He claims that he had about nine other opportunities to kill, but he didn't because of that standing threat to his job.
While some former pilots in the Eighth Wing question the validity of this story, most stated that Robin Olds started to "hang it out" a little too much after Bolo. As one pilot said, on a few occasions he became dangerous to fly with, especially for his backseater. For example, Olds once led a gaggle of F-4s over the same target near Hanoi for the second time with no bombs -- just to experience the adrenaline rush of being fired at by flak and SAMs for a second time. Perhaps Olds himself realized he had a problem after 20 May and used the job threat as a means of reining himself in. Whatever the case, Olds always emphasized that dropping bombs was his major concern, not downing MiGs. Although he will always be remembered in airpower history as a MiG killer as opposed to a fighter-bomber, he constantly emphasized that, "You're not going to win a war by shooting down a damn MiG, you're going to win a war by bombing the bejesus out of whatever you were sent to bomb. Of course we weren't there to win it anyway, so it was all a waste of time."
Old Lionheart Comes Home
The Air Force finally ended Robin Olds' tour with the Eighth Wing in September 1967. Before leaving, he offered some interesting words of advice to his wing. Standing up in the briefing room wearing the jet-black flight suit of the 497th Night Owls squadron, Robin, looking a bit like Clark Gable, offered these words to his boys:
Now, I won't say good-bye to you. You know we have had some time over here together and I am not going to say good-bye because I know I will see you again. But I just want you to think of something. You have changed! You are not the same young guy that walked onto this base. Things have happened to you inside and you will never be the same for the rest of your life. It's going to take you a while to realize this and it's going to be awfully tough on you when you get home because that little wife that waved good-bye to you is not going to recognize you when you walk back through that front door. She is going to sense immediately that you have changed. And she is going to want to know how you have changed because she wants to know where she stands with this stranger that just walked into the house. So I guarantee you, within the first ten days home, you are going to have a fight. Then you are probably going to go to a party or two in your home town, where they are going to sort of half-ass welcome you back and your best friend from high school or college is going to walk up and tell you what a dumb shit you are for having been there fighting that stupid war. Then you are going to fly off the handle at him. Or you are going to want to tell him or someone what it was all about, and you are going to realize that nobody gives a goddamn.
True to his own words, Robin Olds went home, fought with his wife the first night, and walked out of a party in Georgetown the second night. Not knowing what to do with Olds, the Air Force gave him an Air Force Cross (its highest award next to the Medal of Honor), promoted him to brigadier general, and sent him to the Air Force Academy to be commandant of cadets. On his first day at the academy, he threw a bouquet of red roses to the wing of cadets from a balcony overlooking the dining hall. "Each one of these roses represents a MiG kill made by my wing, the Wolf Pack!" he explained. He then flipped the wing the bird and stormed off. Despite his great love for the Air Force Academy and the United States Air Force, Olds found it difficult to shut his aggression off and transform himself from a MiG hunter to an administrator. Robin Olds would become one of the most popular cadet commandants in the history of the Academy and would influence an entire generation of academy graduates, but his warrior humor and spirit were not appreciated by the academic administration. At a dinner the first night, he got into an argument with the chaplain's wife. After he stormed out of the room Ella Raines, who thought the world of him, offered this as an explanation: "My old lionheart has come home from war."
The old lionheart made several more attempts to roar before his Air Force career finally ended. In 1972, Robin Olds went on an inspection trip to Southeast Asia for the Air Force inspector-general and flew a handful of unauthorized combat missions. When he returned to Washington, Olds not only let General John Ryan, the Air Force Chief of Staff, know that he had flown these missions, but told him that "the fighter forces in Southeast Asia today could not fight their way out of a wet paper bag." Much to Olds' surprise, Ryan agreed with him. "The Navy is shooting down MiGs and the Navy is doing good work," Ryan lamented, "but what's the matter with our goddamn fighter people?" Olds, much to everyone's surprise in the room that day, kept his job.
His luck finally ran out in the spring of 1972. After hearing about the loss of the Air Force's leading air-to-air tactician, Major Bob Lodge, to a MiG on 10 May, Olds immediately flew to Washington and met with his boss the inspector-general, General Lou Wilson.
"Sir, I volunteer to go back. You can bust me to colonel. I want to take about twelve good guys with me. I am going to put them in Korat and Ubon and Da Nang, and we are going to get the show on the road. Then I promise to come home again. But, God, let me do this right now because it's a shambles."
It took Wilson a week to get back to Olds. Wilson's compromise solution was to allow him to travel to Southeast Asia as the head of a missile inspection team. Olds' reply to this offer typified his attitude: "General Wilson, what you are telling me is that you want me to go over there and try to fight that knothead who is the Seventh Air Force Commander [General Vought], all by myself. With no help from the Chief, no support from here, I am supposed to go over and do that all myself, sneak around and do that. You know I am going to fly. You want me to go over and get killed and you guys won't even support me? Nuts!"
Robin turned in his retirement papers that day and left the United States Air Force. Old Lionheart would never again go to war.
Arguably, Robin Olds was the finest Air Force wing commander in the Vietnam War. His wing received two presidential unit citations, and he himself won the Air Force Cross. Overall, he flew 152 missions as wing commander and emerged from the war as the Air Force's fourth leading MiG killer with four MiGs to his credit. The Wing as a whole flew 13,249 sorties over North Vietnam and 1,983 sorties into Laos between 1 October 1966 and 31 August 1967. With all this activity, it only lost 29 aircraft during Olds' tenure. More significant than the numbers, awards, and accolades is what other pilots say about Olds. Ask any Air Force fighter pilot from the Vietnam era who America's greatest air commander was, and inevitably the name Robin Olds will emerge at the top of the list. An informal poll of the 300 pilots interviewed for this book confirms Robin's place in the fraternity of fighter pilots. What was the source of this man's popularity?
Unlike many other leaders during the war, Robin Olds' loyalty extended down to the lowest-ranking man in his outfit. Even if one were only a slick-wing captain, if one had a hot idea Olds would listen, and if one could sell him on that idea, Robin Olds would put his career on the line to see it implemented. Moreover, Olds did not come into the outfit thinking he knew everything. He was willing to learn from others. More significantly, he was willing to share danger with others. That he occasionally made mistakes is evident in this narrative. That his men forgave him when he did had everything to do with his willingness to share risk. Not once in his entire career did Robin Olds ever ask a pilot to do something that he would not do himself.
The most complex element of Olds' character was his warrior ethos. He hated the enemy as much as the youngest lieutenant and allowed the war to consume him in a similar way. He understood how personal and emotional war is: how it often boils down to pure rage and hatred against that person in the other plane who dearly wants to kill you and your best friends. He understood this ethos and believed that a combat leader needed to share it with his men not only in the air but in spirited conversation in the bar. This is what some refer to as the brotherhood of war and it can exact a horrible psychological toll on an individual. Robin Olds lived every day of his life to kill for his country. The rage and anger this attitude created constantly simmered inside him and occasionally came out at the least opportune moments. To unwind, he often needed to drink to excess, even to tear up the bar by leading his men on a "MiG sweep." Certainly Olds' rage, as well as his drinking, often made his marriage with Ella Raines a turbulent one. It also prevented him from rising beyond the rank of brigadier general after the war. That it did not end his career earlier on is a testament to the foresight of a few forward-thinking officers who understood that the Air Force needed leaders who recognized that in an unpopular war like the one in Vietnam, the Air Force needed warriors to take charge and win some victories for the service. The welcome sign over the gate at Ubon read, "The motto of the Air Force is 'to fly and fight' and don't you forget it.'" In war, those skills become of paramount importance, but in peace, they are often more a liability than an asset.
In the end, what made Robin Olds such a fine combat leader was not so much his raw intelligence, his tolerance of drinking and debauchery in the unit, his loyalty to the troops, or his meritocratic approach to combat leadership, although these characteristics certainly helped; rather, it had more to do with his willingness to fight right alongside his men, combined with his extraordinary skills as a pilot. Olds never accompanied a combat flight simply "for the ride," but fought with his men with fierce courage. Despite his initial inexperience with the F-4 system, Olds ultimately mastered the aircraft well enough to become a leading MiG killer in the War. No other wing commander came close to achieving this potent combination of skill and aggression, and that is why Robin Olds is remembered as the finest Wing commander of the Vietnam War.
Copyright © 2000 by John Darrell Sherwood
Robin Olds World War II ace and commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon, 9/66-9/67. The top MiG killer of the Vietnam War until May 1972, with four kills to his credit.
Ed Rasimus A young F-105 Thunderchief pilot who served at Korat, Thailand in 1966. Rasimus flew some of the most difficult Rolling Thunder missions of the war.
Roger Sheets Navy Air Wing 15 commander during the spring of 1972. His unit participated in many significant missions, including the mining of Haiphong Harbor.
William "Charlie" Carr, Jr. A Marine navigator who flew with Roger Sheets in the A-6 Intruder during the mining of Haiphong Harbor as well as the Bai Thuong airfield attack. Carr was a member of VMA (AW)-224, the Marine A-6 unit attached to the aircraft carrier Coral Sea in 1972.
Phil Schuyler An A-6 pilot and Navy liaison officer with VMA (AW)-224, Schuyler often flew as Sheets' wingman.
Bill Angus A young Marine navigator in VMA (AW)-224 who ended up as a POW in Hanoi.
Ted Sienicki An Air Force F-4 backseater and a POW in Hanoi in 1972.
Roger Lerseth A Navy A-6 navigator who suffered significant injuries during his 1972 shootdown.
Jim Latham An Air Force F-4 pilot who flew the fast FAC mission in 1972, and eventually wound up in Hanoi as a POW.
John "Pirate" Nichols, III The Navy's all-time record holder for number of hours flown in an F-8, Nichols was also a MiG killer in Vietnam.
Richard S. "Steve" Ritchie The Air Force's first ace in Vietnam, Ritchie is also the only Air Force pilot to make ace -- the rest were navigators.
Charles "Chuck" DeBellevue Ritchie's backseater and the top ace of the war, with six kills to his credit.
Clar & M. "Patty" Schneider: An Air Force intelligence officer with the 432nd Wing at Udorn, Thailand, 1972 who helped prepare intelligence for the Locher rescue. Locher and Schnieder eventually married after the war.
Roger Locher An F-4 backseater with the 432nd Wing who survived twenty-three days behind enemy lines after being shot down over North Vietnam in 1972.
Copyright © 2000 by John Darrell Sherwood
Prologue: The Only War We Had
The American air war over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia spanned twenty-five years, and included a wide variety of pilots, planes, missions, and bases. By the war's end in 1975, more than half of the money America spent on it had gone to Air Force, Army, and Navy air operations. The United States dropped over eight million tons of bombs on the Southeast Asian countryside, and lost over 8,500 aircraft, both fixed-wing and helicopters. For all this investment, air power, though occasionally influential, did not enable America to win the war.
Although much has been written about the tactics and strategies of the air war, few books examine the individuals who fought it. Fast Movers will attempt to fill this void by revealing the hidden, personal side of the air war as seen by its primary combatants: the "fast movers," the men who flew jet fighters and attack aircraft. The product of nearly three hundred interviews and extensive documentary research, Fast Movers explores the lives and wartime experiences of some of the most famous men of the air war, pilots such as Colonel Robin Olds and Captain Steve Ritchie, as well as a host of unknown but equally intriguing aviators.
The United States Air Force dates its involvement in Vietnam to the summer of 1950, when it sent advisors to help France maintain and operate U.S.-manufactured aircraft in the war with the Viet Minh. After the Viet Minh victory and the partition of the country into North and South Vietnam in 1954, America continued sending air advisors to South Vietnam. By the end of 1961, six South Vietnamese squadrons were ready for combat, supported by an American combat-training detachment known as Farm Gate. By the end of 1962, more than 3,000 Air Force advisors were serving in Vietnam. American pilots not only flew close air support and reconnaissance missions but also transported South Vietnamese troops around the country and defoliated jungle areas with C-123 "Ranch Hand" aircraft. During the latter program, which lasted over ten years, the Air Force sprayed 19.22 million gallons of herbicides and defoliants over nearly six million acres of South Vietnamese jungle and farmland.
The alleged August 1964 attacks on two American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin ushered in a new phase of the air war in Southeast Asia. Then-president Lyndon Johnson called these incidents "open aggression on the high seas" and received broad authorization from Congress to widen the war in Vietnam, beginning with retaliatory naval air strikes against naval facilities and oil storage facilities in North Vietnam. Near the end of 1964, Johnson initiated Operation Barrel Roll, a series of interdiction missions flown along the Communist supply routes developing in the Laotian panhandle. After the Viet Cong attacked the U.S. air base at Pleiku in February 1965, Johnson retaliated with raids against targets just north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Initially known as Flaming Dart, these reprisal missions evolved into a sustained air campaign, Operation Rolling Thunder, beginning in March 1965.
Operation Rolling Thunder was the longest air campaign in American military history. Between 2 March 1965 and 31 October 1968, Navy, Air Force, and Marine aviation flew one million sorties and dropped one-half million tons of bombs on North Vietnam. Rolling Thunder had several objectives. One was to persuade Hanoi to abandon its support of the South's insurgency; another was to raise the morale of the military and political elites in South Vietnam; and a third was interdiction -- strikes against logistics targets such as bridges, roads, and railroads, designed to reduce Hanoi's ability to support the war in the South.
The majority of Rolling Thunder missions were carried out by U.S. Air Force tactical fighters based in Thailand and U.S. Navy fighter and attack squadrons based on carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin (called "Yankee Station"). Pilots and air crew members of these units suffered a disproportionately high share of the armed services' combat losses. Of the 532 prisoners of war (POWs) returned by North Vietnam in 1973, 501 were aviators downed over the North, most of them during Rolling Thunder.
The campaign was marked by a basic dispute between senior American military leaders, who argued for a brief, intense campaign to isolate North Vietnam from external supply sources and destroy its production and transportation systems, and President Johnson and his defense secretary, Robert McNamara, who chose to alternate escalation with bombing halts in the hope of compelling the North Vietnamese to negotiate. During the three years of the campaign, Johnson and McNamara ordered a total of seven such pauses. They also insisted on unprecedented civilian tactical control, dictating the numbers and types of aircraft, kinds of ordnance, and even the flight paths to be flown. Targets were chosen by Johnson, McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and presidential assistant for national security affairs McGeorge Bundy (and his successor Walt Rostow) during Tuesday lunch meetings.
Rolling Thunder strikes were initially limited to southern North Vietnam, just north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The "bomb line," a line just below the city of Vinh, formed the northern boundary of the strike zone, beyond which attacks were forbidden. As the campaign dragged on, the bomb line moved progressively further north, reaching to thirty miles south and west of Hanoi by September 1965, and by July 1966 encompassing all of North Vietnam except the prohibited areas of Hanoi and Haiphong, as well as a buffer zone along North Vietnam's border with the People's Republic of China.
By November of 1965, this system of bomb lines and zones was formalized into six interdiction areas called Route Packages, or "Packs." Most American aircraft losses occurred in Pack 6, the area near Hanoi and Haiphong. Status within the pilot corps became defined by the number of missions one had flown in that zone. Eighth Tactical Wing Commander Robin Olds, for example, boasted of having flown 58 Pack 6 missions -- more than were flown by any other Air Force wing commander in Southeast Asia.
The North Vietnamese used the prohibited areas in and around Hanoi and Haiphong as sanctuaries in which to base surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and Soviet-manufactured MiG fighters. During Rolling Thunder, 919 U.S. aircraft fell victim to SAMs, MiGs, and anti-aircraft guns of various caliber. The North, employing an air-denial strategy, used high-altitude SAMs to compel American aircraft to fly low, thereby bringing them within range of their anti-aircraft guns. MiGs were used very sparingly; usually, they made just one pass at a strike package before retreating home.
Throughout the campaign, American pilots clamored to "go downtown" (i.e., bomb military targets in Hanoi), but President Johnson, his advisors, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff turned down these requests. The Johnson Administration believed that the threat of more intensive destruction implicit in limited, incremental bombing would have a greater impact on Hanoi's willingness to negotiate than would an all-out terror offensive. They also believed that this gradualist approach would forestall possible Chinese intervention.
Rolling Thunder's climax came between August and October 1967 when Johnson, bowing to military pressure, ordered attacks on critical petroleum storage, electrical power generation, and transportation targets in Hanoi and Haiphong. Despite the success of these attacks, Rolling Thunder failed to accomplish its major objectives. The bombing caused an estimated $600 million worth of damage in North Vietnam and killed over 52,000 North Vietnamese civilians, but it did not prevent the Communist forces from launching the Tet offensive early in 1968, nor did it bring North Vietnam's leaders to the negotiating table. It also cost the United States 919 aircraft and over $2 billion. Frustrated by the failure of air power to bring about a peace settlement, President Johnson scaled back the Rolling Thunder campaign after the Tet offensive, and eventually halted all offensive air operations against North Vietnam on 31 October 1968.
Between the fall of 1968 and President Richard Nixon's resumption of offensive air operations against North Vietnam during the spring of 1972, air-strategy planners shifted the focus of the bombing campaign from North Vietnam to the supply traffic moving down the loose network of trails in Laos known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This logistics network eventually became the major target of the post-Rolling Thunder Air Force interdiction strategy known as Commando Hunt. What made Commando Hunt different from earlier efforts was its extensive use of aerial dropped sensors. Commando Hunt covered large stretches of the Ho Chi Minh Trail with acoustical and seismic sensors, with the greatest concentrations being located at the strategic passes into Vietnam: the Nape, Mu Gia, Ban Karai, and Ban Raving passes. The system, code-named Igloo White, consisted of three principal elements: sensors sowed by aircraft along the infiltration routes; the airborne relay aircraft that received and transmitted the signals; and the all-important nerve center of the system, the infiltration surveillance system at Nakhon Phanom, code-named Task Force Alpha. Analysts at Task Force Alpha analyzed sensor data as well as human intelligence from Special Forces teams operating in Laos under the code name Prairie Fire. This voluminous data, in turn, was fed into an IBM mainframe to produce daily interdiction-bombing orders. Each squadron received a fragment of that order, called a "frag." When the system functioned smoothly, the resulting intelligence became part of a targeting process that moved rapidly from an assessment officer manning a scope to another officer who directed the airborne command post and called in strikes on specific targets.
The centerpiece weapon of Commando Hunt was the AC-130 Specter Gunship. Sporting 20-mm Gatling guns and 40-mm Bofors cannons and equipped with low-light television, laser range-finders, and infrared detection systems to seek out hot spots associated with truck systems, the AC-130 boosted the statistical success of Commando Hunt operations. In 1968, for example, the Air Force claimed 7,332 trucks destroyed or damaged, compared to 3,291 the previous year. Another significant weapon in Commando Hunt was the B-52 heavy bomber. B-52 Arc Light strikes cratered road systems and caused landslides in the strategic mountain-pass areas on the border between Laos and Vietnam. Other aircraft (A-1s, F-4s, F-100s, C-130s) laid millions of small gravel mines along roads to hamper the efforts of North Vietnamese repair crews and to disable their vehicles.
For all its technological wizardry, Commando Hunt had little impact upon the Communists' ability to wage war. Every year of the campaign American forces, either alone or with their South Vietnamese allies, had to take drastic action on the ground to prevent them from launching a major offensive. The campaign in the A Shau Valley in 1969 by the U.S. Marines, the Cambodian incursions in the spring of 1970, and the South Vietnamese invasion of Laos in February and March of 1971 all demonstrate that Commando Hunt was not as successful as official Air Force figures led many to believe. But the most serious challenge to the effort was the massive North Vietnamese invasion of South Vietnam in the spring of 1972.
Linebacker I was President Richard Nixon's response to this invasion, known as the Easter offensive. Linebacker's goals were much clearer than those of Rolling Thunder: to halt the invasion of South Vietnam and force North Vietnam to resume peace negotiations. Consequently, unlike during Rolling Thunder, commanders were given wide latitude to achieve those goals. American air power was employed with full intensity from the outset; U.S. military commanders exercised full control of tactics and targeting within broad White House guidelines; laser-guided bombs (LGBs) were available in quantity; and categories of targets previously off limits were attacked.
During Linebacker I, tactical fighters from Thailand attacked transportation, power-generation, and petroleum targets. In particular, the new laser-guided bomb technology proved highly effective against bridges. By mid-October, with war materiél depleted, the North's transportation net in shambles, and the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) forces withdrawing, North Vietnam communicated its willingness to negotiate and Linebacker I was terminated.
Linebacker II, the subsequent Christmas bombings, was Nixon's iron-willed response to the diplomatic unwillingness of the North Vietnamese to come to a peace agreement acceptable to U.S. negotiators. For the first time in the war, B-52s attacked targets near Hanoi. During the first three nights of the campaign, the bombers attacked in three plane formations at evenly spaced intervals using the same altitudes and ground tracks for their approaches. On the first night of the campaign, three B-52s were lost, and on the third night a staggering six planes went down in a 9-hour period. The loss of these aircraft produced discontent among crews stationed in Thailand and Guam, and Strategic Air Command planners in Omaha, Nebraska. For the next four nights the campaign was run at a reduced level while tactics were changed. The strikes on 26 December 1972 decided the entire air war over North Vietnam: 220 air force and navy aircraft hit a variety of targets all within a fifteen minute window. Only two B-52s went down that day, but the North Vietnamese air defense system was shattered. Their largest missile-assembly facility was destroyed, their ground-based radar early warning and intercept system (GCI) was degraded, and their MiG bases were rendered temporarily unusable. North Vietnam was virtually defenseless against further B-52 attacks, and Hanoi quickly proposed a resumption of peace talks in Paris on 8 January 1973. Although the air attacks continued for the next three days and 4 more B-52s went down before the bombing north of the 20th parallel stopped on 29 December, the air battle was essentially won on 26 December. If U.S. losses had proved unacceptable on the 26th, Nixon would have been compelled to cancel the attacks and no negotiated settlement on acceptable terms would have been achieved in Paris.
The general outlines and major difference of the two major strategic air campaigns of the Vietnam War, Rolling Thunder and Linebacker, are well known; less well understood is the fact that beneath the differences between the campaigns lay a common, un-Vietnam-like, fast-mover culture -- a success-oriented culture based on airmanship and membership in an elite group. Far from despising the Vietnam war, most fast movers viewed it as the high point of their careers. The war challenged and affirmed their skills, but more importantly, it united them with a group of like-minded men who shared a common success ethic.
Rolling Thunder was the longest air campaign and the greatest failure of air power in the war. It is this campaign that most aviators think of when they discuss the futility of American air power in Vietnam. During the Gulf war 24 years later, Colonel John Warden, then the Air Force's chief strategist, constantly reminded coalition commander General H. Norman Schwarzkopf during briefings that "This is not your Rolling Thunder. This is real war, and one of the things we want to emphasize right from the beginning is that this is not Vietnam! This is doing it right. This is using airpower!"
The men who flew during Rolling Thunder risked their lives in this futile campaign not because they believed in the cause but because they took pride in their service, their units, and their unique fast-mover culture. By stressing the importance and status of this culture, a World War II veteran named Robin Olds managed to take a unit that had been thoroughly discouraged by the poor management of its previous commander and turn it into one of the Air Force's top MiG-killing outfits. His story, therefore, opens this book.
From there the narrative turns to a very different example, which nonetheless also demonstrates the success of the fast-mover Gemeinschaft or collective culture. Ed Rasimus, a relatively unknown but earnest pilot, joined the Air Force because he loved the idea of flying. He never thought he would end up in Vietnam, however, and when he learned of his assignment to Southeast Asia he became almost paralyzed with dread. What is intriguing about Rasimus's story is that at any point in the process he could have extricated himself from combat status. Unlike members of the other combat arms, pilots are permitted to remove themselves from flight duty and combat at any time and often, after having done so, continue to serve in the military in ground jobs. As one naval aviator aptly put it, "An airman enjoys a luxury which the infantryman never knows. It's the easiest thing in the world to get grounded temporarily or removed from flight status entirely. And it needn't be anything so dramatic as marching into the CO's office and dropping your wings on the desk. All it took was the merest hint that flying had lost some of its appeal, a casual remark at the O Club, or a couple of aborted flights," and you were out.
Like Robin Olds, Ed Rasimus got through the experience of war bolstered by the stimulation of combat and a respect and love for the men with whom he flew. In particular, acceptance within the unit proved to be of paramount importance to Rasimus. To be accepted, a pilot did not have to believe in the war or support the Johnson or Nixon Administrations in a political sense. He did need to be patriotic and love the U.S. military. Even more important, he had to be willing to make his squadron and its well-being his number one priority in life. Careerism and self-interest were the ultimate taboos of this group; the supreme honor was to die for a squadron-mate, or better yet for some poor grunt on the ground. This is what Vietnam-era pilots mean when they refer to themselves as "professionals." "Professional" in their lexicon had nothing to do with their officer status, degrees, or pilot's rating; it had everything to do with their willingness to expose themselves to extreme danger and adversity, even death, to ensure the survival of their comrades and brothers in arms.
To illustrate that this fast-mover culture extended across campaigns and even across services, this narrative next turns to a group of Marine aviators. The collective culture of the Marines who flew off the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea in 1972 was not markedly different from that of the Air Force units who flew similar missions out of Thailand and South Vietnam. Like their Air Force compatriots, the Marines took tremendous pride in their group -- especially after the charismatic naval officer Roger Sheets took command of the Coral Sea's air wing in the middle of its cruise. Different campaigns, a different service branch; yet, again, a charismatic leader made a big difference and inspired a fierce culture of success.
No single event during the war reveals the collective, cross-service nature of the fast-mover Gemeinschaft more vividly than the history of the Fourth Allied POW Wing. When taken prisoner the airmen generally conducted themselves with dignity and heroism. Though often perceived by other arms of the service as spoiled individualists who would fall apart when removed from the creature comforts of their bases and aircraft carriers, these pilots and navigators were as committed to the basic military tenets of organization, leadership, discipline, and unit cohesiveness as any other group of military professionals.
As the POW experience demonstrates, there was a paradoxical quality to the air war that makes its social history very difficult to characterize in general terms. Vietnam War pilots often behaved outrageously in base officers' Clubs but then demonstrated iron discipline while incarcerated or when flying missions. Some of America's best pilots were also notorious drinkers and womanizers. Leadership at the highest levels tended to be inadequate, but wing and squadron leaders often proved to be some of the finest air leaders America has ever sent to war. Pilots hated the war but loved flying individual missions.
No missions were more satisfying to pilots than those they flew against MiGs. MiG engagements allowed a pilot to pit his skill against another aviator just like himself. Admittedly, many kills were straightforward missile shots from the rear quarter, which required very little maneuvering. Nonetheless, some MiG engagements demanded every ounce of a pilot's stick and rudder skills. It also took a profound desire to hunt and kill. Not surprisingly, the war became personal for the MiG killers. Theirs was not simply a tour of duty but a quest for personal excellence. For some, this quest could lead to burnout or -- worse -- death or a bailout. But for the lucky few (like Steve Ritchie from North Carolina, discussed in chapter 6), a quest for personal excellence turned a small-town boy into a world-renowned ace.
But it was the camaraderie more than the killing that kept pilots going. The search-and-rescue missions (SARs) form perhaps the most powerful example of the strength of this bond. As pilot and historian Darrel D. Whitcomb aptly put it, in a "war without end or purpose, there was one mission with which every aircrew member could identify: the rescue of one's own." SAR became a metaphor for the entire air war. The Linebacker II campaign, for example, in the end became nothing but a large-scale SAR effort to secure the release of American POWs in Hanoi -- hence its great popularity with airmen. More than any previous American air war, Vietnam became a war fought for the airmen's buddies. The ultimate irony of the air war in Vietnam was that for all the bitterness and hatred they expressed for the overall war and for campaigns such as Rolling Thunder, these men also loved the war. They loved certain missions and certain unit commanders, but most of all they loved the men they fought beside.
Copyright © 2000 by John Darrell Sherwood