These narratives present in vivid and lively detail many of the incidents and experiences encountered by Major Gibson during his military career. The stories are sometimes poignant and sometimes humorous; but each story presents some insightful lesson Gibson learned about life – even in the midst of war. William Yount, Instructor of History and Philosophy, East Mississippi Community College
From the Marine Corps recruiting office to the challenges of Officer Candidate School; from stateside training as a new Marine attack pilot to harrowing combat experiences during two combat tours of duty in Vietnam; from 3500 hours of jet flight instructor duty to three and a half years as a staff officer at Headquarters, Marine Corps; from nearly passing out while running a sub-three hour marathon to looking back on it all after years of retirement, Major Gibson’s recollections continue to rivet the reader’s attention.
The stories are absent of technical jargon and yet put the reader into the cockpit during moments of triumph as well as those of momentary fear. Possessing an easy-going and comfortable writing style, the author easily holds the reader’s attention while relating a wide variety of experiences. The stories provide a valuable insight into the world of a junior officer serving as a combat attack pilot as well as assignment as an Air Liaison Officer to a battalion of Marines in the jungles of Vietnam.
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RECOLLECTIONS OF A MARINE ATTACK PILOT
By LARRY R. GIBSON
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Larry R. Gibson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE MARINE CORPS LUCKS OUT
It was September of 1960 and I knew I would receive my BS degree in Mechanical Engineering at the end of the coming school year at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. But something had been tugging at my mind for the last several months. For some reason I had always loved airplanes. Some young people want to become doctors; others want to become lawyers, etc. I had loved airplanes. Absolutely none of my friends had any interest in them, whatsoever. Where it had come from, I do not know. But I had loved them since I was a small child.
Although I had not been aware of it, I believe the desire to become a military pilot had been gradually coming to a head as I approached the end of my education. I could never have predicted when it would happen, or even that it would happen, but on that September day I made the firm decision to do something about my desire to be a military pilot. And just as there is a time for a baby to begin its move toward the outside world, such was the desire within my mind as it burst forth that afternoon.
I still remember having the specific thought as I left the university campus to drive back to the hospital where I worked for room and board. It was, "Well, I either have to do something about this desire to fly or forget it forever." I had always lived in Kentucky. If someone from there thought of military aviation, it would have been natural to think of the Air Force. No other branch of service would have even come to mind. So I was off to the Air Force recruiting office as I got into the 1952 Chevrolet my father had bought for my use a few years earlier.
I knew where the recruiting office was although I had never been there. It was on the north side of Main Street right about in the center of town. The university, however, was on the south side of town. For some reason I ended up crossing Main Street and approaching the recruiting office along the street one block north of Main. When I arrived at the correct block, I parked the car, got out and walked to the nearest corner. Now all I had to do was walk one block south to Main, turn left and be there in less than a minute.
Little did I know as I parked my car on that street that afternoon that the location of that parking place was going to determine the path for the remainder of my life. It would determine what branch of service I would enter, where I would be trained, what types of airplanes I would fly, the number and types of combat missions I would fly, whom I would marry, what children I would father, and every other aspect of my life, including possibly how long I would live.
If I had parked on the south side of Main Street or if the parking place had been closer to the other end of the street, I would have been in the Air Force instead of the Marine Corps for those twenty years. Thankfully, God kept all of that hidden from me. I don't think I could have stepped from the car if I had known that so much was riding on what seemed to be such a mundane decision as where I chose to park.
The reason this was such a fateful decision is that as I walked toward Main Street, lo and behold, I walked right by the Marine Corps recruiting office! And they had pictures of young pilots standing beside jet planes in their windows. I did what probably any other red-blooded American boy would have done. I thought, "What the heck! Let's go in and see what they have to say about it." So I opened the door and walked inside.
I am sure I made that recruiter's day just by walking through the door. I suppose they had a quota to meet for the different types of positions they needed to fill. He would not have immediately known I was a potential pilot candidate. But I'm sure he observed that I was a reasonably well-built and seemingly intelligent young man, and that as I approached him, I looked him in the eye as I inquired about the Marine Corps flight training program.
I was probably manna from heaven to him as he found out I was a senior in engineering at the university and was interested in becoming a pilot. After answering some questions he asked me to take some examinations. So for the next hour and a half , I was engrossed in taking two multiple-choice exams. I don't remember much about their contents from those fifty-one years ago. But I'm sure they contained some mathematics and science and I would have done well considering my major in school. They contained a lot of questions about general topics in life as well. When I had completed the exams, he asked me to come back within a day or so for the results.
When I returned he was really pleased that I had done so well on the tests. He told me I had made a score of "eight-eight" which I interpreted as being perhaps 8.8 out of a possible ten. It was another forty years before I found out that those grades were in the Stanine grading system. In that system, a score of eight means the person being tested is in the upper eleven percent of those who have taken the exam.
My scores of eights were obviously far above the minimum acceptable score of five for each test. Still, the grades didn't mean much to me at the time beyond having passed the exams. The next step was to be flown to the Anacostia Naval Air Station at Washington, DC for a flight physical exam. What was really important was that I had commenced my journey to the skies. I knew I was finally on my way. I was going to fly jets for the U.S. Marine Corps!
The U. S. Air Force went to sleep that night having no idea they had just lost a future pilot. By the sheer luck of the location of the Marine recruiting office, and by the good break of an available parking space being closer to their end of the block, the Marine Corps had indeed lucked out in acquiring a future jet pilot. It was a good day for the Corps!
Chapter TwoFAILING THE FLIGHT PHYSICAL
After doing well on the qualifying exams at the Marine Corps recruiting office in Lexington, I was flown to Washington, DC for a flight physical exam by qualified naval medical personnel. The plane left the civilian airport at Lexington, Kentucky for a non-stop flight to DC. I had studied planes nearly all of my life and of course knew the type of plane I was on. It was a Lockheed Super Constellation, a beautiful plane having three vertical stabilizers at the rear, an icon of long-distance passenger flight in its day. I couldn't have known at the time, but ten years later I would watch one crash into the tops of hangars at the Danang Air Base in Vietnam.
We didn't fly very high, perhaps seven or eight thousand feet at the most. I had only been in an airplane twice in my life and one of those times was when I was only eight years old. Our family had lived in Cumberland, Kentucky for the first ten years of my life. After the end of the Second World War, some enterprising young veterans had established an airport a few miles up the river toward Pine Mountain. It wasn't much of an airport, just a long cleared field paralleling the road with perhaps a rough building and wooden hangar.
There were perhaps five or six small airplanes there, with probably all of them being Piper Cubs, Aeronca Champs, and perhaps a Taylorcraft. Little did I know that some twenty-five years later, I would fly them all, and would own a 1946 Taylorcraft for nearly forty years.
My father had also been enchanted with airplanes and would take the family up to the airport occasionally to watch the planes fly. I remember the thrilling day when he gathered me and my nearly four year-old sister and helped place us into the back seat of an Aeronca. Within minutes we had lifted off and were climbing over the hills and valleys of the area. I remember looking down and seeing how small the cars looked.
I even remember who the pilot was. His name was Eddie Dobos. He was a young man, the older brother of Patricia Dobos, one of my classmates at St. Stephens Catholic School, where I attended until the family moved away in 1948. I must have been a reasonably aggressive young aviator, because I remember asking him to do a loop. He declined, saying it was because of my little sister Carol strapped in the seat beside me.
The story I was later told is that my mother suddenly realized we were no longer around and that she asked my Dad if he knew where we were. He pointed up at the little yellow plane in the sky and she was surprised to learn that two of her three children were having their first airplane ride. And soon we returned to the ground. I would not fly again until I was twenty-one years old, when I was taken for a short ride in a Cessna 172.
And now, for the first time, I was on a big airplane that was actually going somewhere. It was a really great thrill to me and I looked out of the window at the ground all the way to DC, like a country boy on his first flight. A meal was served and I was so naive that when it was offered, I initially turned it down because I had next to no money for such perceived and unexpected expense. Fortunately, my seat-mate was more experienced than I and informed me that it was included in the purchase of the ticket. So I was able to enjoy the meal after all.
Some way I made my way to Naval Air Station Anacostia, right on the Potomac River, and spent the night, awaiting my physical exam the next day. The exam went well for a long time, as they prodded me, took a blood sample, and probably did other unkind things to my body. I even passed the eye examination, which was highly noteworthy.
And then I was checked for hernia-and I failed! I couldn't believe it. I thought I had a perfect body, regarding health issues. But the doctor assured me that I had failed the physical exam. When observing my degree of disconsolation, he tried to console me, saying, "Only about two percent of our nation's young men can qualify to become military pilots," and that I shouldn't feel so badly.
I later considered what he had said. Look at the requirements: college education, height between 5'6" and 6'4", appropriate weight, perfect vision, be able to pass a background check and on and on. As those who can't meet each of these individual requirements are removed from consideration, the number that is qualified for training becomes less and less. After all, the perfect vision requirement alone would probably kick out at least 75 percent of the population. Still, I felt badly.
My only consolation was that at least my shortcoming was correctable. I therefore planned to have the hernia corrected at the end of the school year and to attend Officer Candidate School in the fall of 1961. I related this to the recruiter when I returned to Lexington. He was pleased that I still planned to enter the Marine Corps for flight training, even though I had failed the physical on the first attempt.
He then suggested that I enroll in the Marine Corps reserves at that time. He tried to explain that it would be beneficial to me for pay purposes after I entered active duty. I was probably too suspicious and didn't want to obligate myself at that point and declined his offer.
That was a mistake! I was later to learn that the bulk of military pay is determined basically by two things: rank and what was called the pay entry base date. By declining to sign at this time, I lost a whole year of credit regarding this special date. It effectively postponed my qualification for a higher pay check by one year for the duration of my military career. Failure to take his suggestion probably cost me thousands of dollars over my career.
I received my BS degree on a June day in 1961 and entered the hospital for hernia surgery the next day. To do something with my time before entering the Marine Corps in the fall, I commenced graduate school. Then, after much consideration, I decided to complete my master's degree before entering the Corps. The recruiter was fine with it, particularly since I passed my physical exam when flown to Washington again.
And this time I signed the papers to join the Marine Corps Reserves in August of 1961. Establishing my pay entry base date of August 14, 1961 gave me one whole year of extra time for pay purposes during my military career. Now all I had to do was get through graduate school and be ready to join the Marine Corps in the fall of 1962. That is what happened, and getting my master's degree before entering the military was one of the best decisions I ever made.
Chapter ThreeMY FIRST MILITARY FLIGHT
After convalescing from my hernia surgery during the summer of 1961, I was flown for a second time to Naval Air Station Anacostia in Washington, DC. And I found myself once again passing through the same halls and rooms I had traversed the previous fall. But this time I passed the flight physical.
I don't remember details from that day of over fifty years ago, but the exam must have been conducted on a Saturday. The reason I know is that Naval Reserve aircrews arrived at the field that evening for portions of their drill requirements. And these requirements involved flying, night-flying in this instance.
I had meandered over to the flight operations area, looked at the various planes and had entered one of the buildings. That is where I observed several reserve aircrew personnel as they prepared for their evening of training. They had separated into groups of four members each, and one officer, having only three members in his group, looked over at me and asked, "Would you like to go with us?" I was totally ignorant of what was going on and what was involved. But at the same time, I was innocently interested and eager to get to ride in a real Navy airplane. So I responded in the affirmative and was now part of a four-member aircrew!
Within minutes I followed my three fellow crewmembers out to a twin-engine plane designated as an S2F. I later learned that the plane was affectionately called a "Stoof," in typical Navy and Marine Corps fashion. It turned out that the official designation of many aircraft could be similarly altered to come up with some catchy and possibly descriptive title. Another fighter plane of the era, the F4D, was obviously called a "Ford" by its pilots, and so on.
After pre-flighting the aircraft, the pilot and copilot entered the plane first and took the front seats as dusk descended upon the airfield. I was directed to the left seat in the rear compartment and the fourth crewmember sat in the seat to my right. I put on the helmet that I had been loaned and figured out how to strap myself into the seat. Later, I responded when a communications check was made to all of the crewmembers by the lead pilot. Soon, I could hear the pilots going through their checklists as the engines were being started. After both engines were running, various checks of the plane continued, until finally the pilot called Ground Control for clearance to taxi.
As we arrived at the end of the runway, we sat there for a few minutes, awaiting clearance to takeoff. And that is when an interesting conversation commenced as the pilot spoke to me for the first time since asking if I wanted to go along on the flight. He asked, "What unit are you with?" I told him I wasn't with any unit, that I was just visiting the base for a flight physical. That must have been a shock to him, to realize that he had an utter, complete civilian in his plane as he was about to take off for a night training flight.
He quickly determined that I knew absolutely nothing about the plane, including how to bail out if required, or how to cope with any other emergencies that might arise. He told the man on my right to give me some instruction in these matters and we were soon airborne. In hindsight, the pilot should have taxied back to our point of origin and had me exit the plane. But he didn't choose to do so and soon we were taking off into the darkening sky over Washington, DC.
We must have flown for two hours. Most of the training involved using radar to locate a certain small ship in the Chesapeake Bay, and then making a simulated attack upon it. In the final phase of the attack, a brilliant light on the right wing was turned on, illuminating the vessel below.
I was reminded of reading about similar missions against German submarines in the Atlantic Ocean during the Second World War. The submarines ran by battery power when submerged during the day, but would surface at night to recharge their batteries with their generators. Our navy utilized small "Jeep" aircraft carriers to hunt down and destroy these submarines, similar to what our Stoof was training to do that night. I remember reading that the German sailors hated to see that light come on as they were being attacked. They called it "Das verdammte licht!"
Fortunately, our plane suffered no emergency. If I had been required to bail out, I would have been lucky to have gotten the parachute deployed while falling through the dark sky. And if I had come down in the water, I would have surely drowned, having had no survival training whatsoever.
But, like so many times in my life, I was lucky that nothing happened, and I was able to safely spend my first few hours in a military plane. There would be about 5,600 more of them, but that would be a little further down the line!
Chapter FourTHE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS
We officer candidates arrived at Quantico on the evening of Sunday, September 16, 1962, during the middle years of the Cold War. It had been nearly ten years since hostilities had existed between the U.S. and a communist country. That had occurred during the Korean War that lasted from June of 1950 until July of 1953. We all knew that Russia was our mortal enemy, but it never occurred to any of us that hostilities might erupt again at any time.
Excerpted from RECOLLECTIONS OF A MARINE ATTACK PILOT by LARRY R. GIBSON Copyright © 2012 by Larry R. Gibson. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Contents1. The Marine Corps Lucks Out....................1
2. Failing the Flight Physical....................4
3. My First Military Flight....................8
4. The Cuban Missile Crisis....................11
5. Failing The Flight Physical Again....................13
6. Obstacle Course At Quantico....................16
7. The All-Night War....................18
8. A Serious Interruption....................21
9. The Pre-Solo Check Flight....................24
10. "Take It To Another Field"....................27
11. The Assassination Of Jfk....................30
12. Hitting The Boat....................33
13. The Grumman Iron Works....................38
14. My Last Bad Landing....................41
15. Losing A Friend....................43
16. They Call Me "Slick"....................46
17. "You 'Shouda' Been In Th' Cockpit"....................53
18. Two Hundred Feet At Six O'clock....................56
19. Climbing Through Thirty Feet....................60
20. "Remember To Pull Out"....................63
21. "Sam Site" In The Dmz....................67
22. The Day I Was Scared....................69
23. A Moment In Time....................72
24. "I'm Really Tired Tonight"....................76
25. The Official Opening Of Runway 31 Right....................81
26. "I Can't Believe I'm In Vietnam"....................85
27. Assignment To A Battalion....................91
28. An Unexpected Enmity....................94
29. A Dark And Rainy Night....................98
30. Lying In A Rice Paddy....................102
31. A Letter From Home....................106
32. Midnight Medevac....................117
33. "Going By The Book"....................121
34. Hospital Patient Over North Vietnam....................125
35. Ho Chi Minh Was A Fool....................129
36. Tailwheeler Checkout....................134
37. "I Wouldn't Do It Again"....................138
38. Flying The "Hummer"....................142
39. The Great Santini....................146
40. A Terrible Crash....................149
41. U. S. Naval Test Pilot School....................152
42. Colonel Don Anderson....................155
43. "I'm Not Asking You What You Think, Major"....................160
44. A Flight Student Wearing Glasses....................164
45. "Launch The Sergeants"....................167
46. The Boston Marathon And Rosie Ruiz....................170
47. Breaking Three Hours....................175
48. The Praying Dentist....................181
49. "Final Final"....................186
50. "What Might Have Been"....................189