Joe Boyles

About Joe Boyles

Biography of David J. (Joe) Boyles Joe Boyles is a native Floridian, born in the Everglades region in 1948. From Gainesville, he was appointed to the United States Air Force Academy, graduating in 1970 with a degree in economics. He embarked upon a 27 year military career that included 12 assignments, combat flying during the Vietnam War in the F-4 Phantom, and five tours as a commander at squadron and group level. He retired as a colonel in 1997 and moved with his wife Linda to Madison County. Today, Boyles assists his wife with their horse farm near Lee; he manages Boyles Tree Farm, a family owned forestry business located in Suwannee, Hamilton and Madison counties; he is a past president of the Madison Rotary Club and the current Sergeant-at- Arms; and he is the vicar of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church since ordination on December 18, 2013 by the Right Reverend John Howard. Since November 2002, he has written a weekly national security column for the Madison County Carrier. Joe and Linda are the parents of Kimberly (Scott) Naehring, a lawyer and Air Force Reservist in Cincinnati, and Christopher (Salina), a financial risk consultant in Los Angeles, as well as grandparents to Aidan, Fiona and Ian.

Christmas Leave

by Joe Boyles

On occasion, I write an article about my past that is related to the life of military men and women.  That’s what this story is about – more than four decades ago on my first operational assignment.  I was on a remote tour without my family, half a world away in South Korea.  I was only 23 years old and kind of bummed about being away from my young wife and baby daughter.

My assignment would last for 13 months, but (saving grace) I would be allowed to take a 30-day leave during the assignment between the fourth and ninth month.  Linda and I carefully planned this before I left her behind in Florida that I would do my best to be home for Christmas.

I left Tampa on March 10, 1972.  As I recall, I traveled by commercial air to Minneapolis then Seattle; caught a bus to McChord AFB near Tacoma and boarded a military contract flight through Alaska, to Japan and then into Korea.  It was a long, exhausting trip, but … when you’re young, you can put up with almost anything.

I arrived at my new home at Kunsan AB, Korea, and was assigned a room in our squadron dormitory.  I immediately went to sleep.  It was the weekend, so I had a good opportunity to rest.

So Monday morning, I’m refreshed and make my way down the flightline to the south end of “the Kun” and to the operations building of the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron “Panthers.”  I spent the next hour or so walking through the building introducing myself to some fifty aviators who were my new squadron mates.  Since I’m the ‘new guy,’ it is incumbent on me to introduce myself.

At some point, I find my way to the office of my Operations (Ops) Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Mickelson.  The Ops Officer is the number two fellow in a fighter squadron, backing up the commander.  Colonel Mickelson was well liked – the lieutenants referred to him as “Uncle Bill.”

After a couple of minutes of chit-chat, I get to my point: “I’d like to apply for my mid-tour leave.”  Uncle Bill gives me a quizzical look and then breaks into a grin: “You’re getting a little ahead of yourself young fella since this is your first day on the job.”  “Yes sir,” I reply, “but I want to ask for the date now before others do later.”  He repiles, “Okay, I’ll bite: when do you want to go on leave?”

I request to take leave from December 10 to January 9.  Now, if you do the arithmetic, you’ll see that my request fit to the back end of the eligibility period.  Colonel Mickelson duly noted my legitimate request and booted me out of his office with the admonition, “go to work.”

Now, fast forward seven months or so: it is mid-October 1972.  The 35th TFS has been in Southeast Asia nearly the whole time, flying and fighting.  Our period of temporary duty is finished and we have arrived back at Kunsan-by-the Sea.  I’m now one of the ‘old heads.’  Well over half the squadron has turned over.  Colonel Mickelson has moved on; his successor has as well; and my new Ops Officer is John “WC” Keating.

We’re in a squadron meeting and WC says, “A lot of you guys want to go on leave back to the States to see your families over Christmas, and obviously, I can’t let everyone leave during that period, because we have a mission to accomplish here.  So those of you who want to do that, come see me today in my office and we’ll get this figured out.”

I’m standing in line outside the Ops Officer’s office and then it is my turn: “Okay Boyles, you want to go on leave over Christmas, right.”  “Yes sir, I do.”  “Did you ask either Colonel Mickelson or Major Lueders for this before?”  Yes sir I did.”  “When did you request leave for the Christmas period?”  Deep breath: “I asked Colonel Mickelson for Christmas leave on my first day in the squadron, March 13th.”

Needless to say, I had the earliest request for leave of anyone who met with WC that day – and I got it!  My foresight and temerity had paid off.  In actuality, those of us who had been a Panther for that long got to go on leave over the Christmas period.  After all, we were at the end of our eligibility period.

Leave is an important time for military families to reconnect.  The separation has led to growing apart; now they must find a way to reunite and become an integral family again.  In looking back over a 27-year career, while I missed many birthdays, anniversaries, and other holidays, I was with my family for every Christmas but one.  For that, I am grateful.

2016-05-30T07:54:05-07:00By |0 Comments

The Fireball

I’m writing this article for two audiences: my weekly Madison County Carrier readers and a website developed by a lawyer in Phoenix, Rick Keyt. In his website (, Rick has developed an extensive link, “Flying the F-4 Phantom,” primarily about the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron from 1972-73. One of Rick’s articles is called “GIB LADD” about a crash on takeoff that many of us witnessed, so I’m giving you my perspective from what I recall.

It was late March 1973 and our squadron had returned five months earlier from the war in Southeast Asia to our home base at Kunsan, Korea. We (3rd Tactical Fighter Wing) were receiving an ORI – Operational Readiness Inspection – from our parent command, the Pacific Air Forces. On this morning, we were called on to fly a simulated nuclear mission, a single heavy bomb drop at Kooni Range, about a hundred miles north of Kunsan.

I was flying that morning with Gary “Stump” Corbett, a classmate from USAFA 1970. We were just a couple of lieutenants doing our thing on a brisk winter morning. Our F-4D configuration was three external fuel tanks (for a total fuel load of 21,000 pounds) and a 2100 pound BDU-8 practice bomb on the left inboard station. The jet was pretty close to maximum gross takeoff weight of 58,000 pounds.

As I recall, our call sign was Deben 93. Our mission called for us to takeoff to the south and turn left; fly a 20 minute low level route at 500 feet, 420 knots; accelerate to 500 knots at the initial point (IP) south of the range; and attack the scored offshore target with our BDU-8, delivering the bomb from low level. It was a typical attack profile for our nuclear mission.

So Corbett is taxing our jet and I have my head down in the rear cockpit tuning the radar and checking our timing, mission details, etc. Our UHF radio is tuned to the tower frequency, normal for ground operations.

Somewhere along that taxiway near the north end of the airfield, I hear a call from the tower, “Deben 91, you’re on fire.” Now to be honest, I was so engrossed in my work (don’t forget, this is an ORI) that all I heard or registered was the call sign (Deben) and the word “fire.” This is not comforting when you’re riding in an F-4 filled with jet fuel. I might add that JP-4 was a particularly volatile fuel mixed with naphtha (fortunately no longer in use by Air Force fighters).

So I pull my head out of the cockpit and start looking at instruments, warning lights, and mirrors to see if we are the Deben on fire. Then I hear Stump exclaim over the intercom, “Oh my God; they’re going to crash.” I swiveled my head to about 9 o’clock and see a mushrooming fireball of 21,000 pounds of jet fuel being consumed. The conflagration was off the south end of the runway over water and no chutes (parachutes which would indicate the crew ejected) were visible.

I have been to many aircraft accident sites investigating why jets crash, but this is the first and only one I witnessed as it was taking place. It was both eye-watering and sobering. Neither Corbett nor I were enthusiastic about flying at that point.

We taxied our jet out to the end of the runway, 2 miles from where all the action was. Our takeoff was delayed and we listening on Tower to all the discussion. From my lineup card, I figured out that Deben 91 was being flown by Chuck Banks and Ron Price. Ron and I were supposed to have left that day at the conclusion of our 13 month assignment … but our departure was delayed to fly for the ORI.

At some point, we learned from the radio calls that both Chuck and Ron had successfully (but barely) escaped the burning jet and were in their individual life rafts off the south end of the runway. Whew.
After about 20 minutes of waiting, we were given clearance to takeoff and fly our mission. We blasted off to the south overhead of our squadron buddies and turned left to point the jet toward Kooni to the north. Our TOT (time over target) was blown because of the delay. We threw the low level route away and I gave Stump and straight vector to the IP. I swear, he never pulled the throttles out of military (100 percent) power. We streaked over the Korean countryside low level at more than 600 knots. We actually had to slow down in order to drop the bomb, which is counter-intuitive.

How close was our bomb to the target? I have no idea. A couple of days later, I was on the “freedom bird” departing Korea, returning to my young family and getting ready for another overseas assignment. Price was on the same aircraft home. He was OK. Chuck was a little more banged up than Ron. We deduced their centerline tank leaked, pouring raw jet fuel into the engines through the open aux air doors. After several similar accidents, the emergency procedure for fire on takeoff was amended to include jettisoning the centerline tank.

Even after more than forty years, I’m pretty sure of most of the details. You don’t forget things like that.

2016-04-26T07:19:09-07:00By |0 Comments


by Joe Boyles

A while back, a friend suggested that I write a column about dogs, ‘man’s best friend.’  With the replacement of horses by horsepower, I reckon that dogs are man’s most useful and versatile animal.  With that in mind, let me tell you the story of a dog I knew many years ago named Roscoe.

It was late June of 1972 and I had arrived at Korat Airbase in Thailand.  I had about 60 combat missions under my belt from three months of arduous flying at DaNang.  Shortly after arriving, I was introduced to the mascot of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing, namely Roscoe.

Roscoe was a yellow mongrel of no particular breed and above average size.  He didn’t start his life in Thailand but rather, Okinawa.  He was named for an F-105 Thunderchief pilot who died in a landing accident and cared for Major Ray Lewis.  Lewis smuggled Roscoe with him down to Korat.  On July 20, 1966, Ray Lewis was shot down over North Vietnam and Roscoe became an orphan.  (Note: The name of Colonel Merrill Raymond Lewis, Jr. may be found on the Vietnam War Memorial, panel 9E line 048.)  Roscoe was promptly adopted by the wing and given the honorary rank of colonel.

Roscoe had two homes – wing headquarters and the officer’s club.  Those locations were about a mile apart, but Roscoe didn’t walk from one to the other; he rode.  He would stand on the curb and wait for a ride.  If you were driving a vehicle and saw Roscoe waiting for his ride, you had better stop.  Roscoe didn’t ride in the back either; he rode ‘shotgun.’  Whoever was in the front next to the driver needed to open the door and get out because Roscoe was coming in.  That’s just the way it was.  The dog was important and he knew it.

Wing headquarters at Korat was a cluster of buildings called Fort Apache.  The central building contained Intelligence and our flight planning area.  There was one theater-style main briefing room that seated about 80 as I recall.  We used it for our ‘mass-gaggle’ Linebacker briefings in 1972 to learn the details of our missions over North Vietnam.  On the first row was a seat marked for the wing commander.  The seat next to it had Roscoe’s name on it.

The superstition was that if Roscoe slept through the briefing, then it would be a milk run with relatively light enemy opposition.  But, if Roscoe was wide awake and alert, look out.  Everyone would listen to the briefing, glance at the audio-visuals, and keep an eye on Roscoe.  Was the superstition true?  I’m not really sure, but … we didn’t leave anything to chance.  As I recall, Roscoe slept a lot … which was good.

Roscoe’s other ‘home’ was the officer’s club, and he had plenty of girlfriends (in Thai, known as ‘tee loc’) waiting for him.  Roscoe was all male and not shy in the least.

Roscoe had a hankering for ham.  So here’s the scenario: I’ve just finished a nice plate of fresh pineapple and now I’m ready for a hearty breakfast of ham and eggs.  Just as I’m about to bite into my first taste of ham, I hear a “grrr” not far away.  There’s Roscoe next to the table and my ham slice is as good as gone.  No use in trying to fight it – the dog had a direct line to the wing commander.  Just fork it over and get on with what is left of breakfast.  I lost a lot of ham before I figured out that bacon was the answer.

Point of contention here — my good buddy Karl Eschmann claims that Roscoe preferred steak.  Maybe he did at dinner, but for breakfast, it was ham.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  Besides, Karl is an Aggie, so that’s an automatic disqualifier.

A few years later, the war was over and the USAF was pulling out of Korat, turning the base over to the Thai Air Force.  What to do with Roscoe?  If left behind, he might have ended up in a soup pot!  I’m told there was an extensive plan to have him moved through quarantine to Luke Air Force Base just west of Phoenix, but Roscoe died before the plan could be implemented.  Too much rich ham I suppose.

I’m told on good authority (Eschmann?) that Roscoe is buried near the front entrance of the O Club and the Thai Air Force faithfully maintains his grave site to this day.  I’d end this little tale by telling you that Roscoe was a good dog, but since he didn’t know he was a dog, how can that be?  How ‘bout this: he was good people.

For more about Roscoe read “USAF Officer Training School 1970” and “Roscoe – Top Dog at Korat.”  A newspaper published a story in 1975 called “Dog’s Death Saddens Pilots.”

2017-01-20T19:03:11-07:00By |2 Comments

Joe Boyles Remembers Fallen Comrades

Everyone who has been to war has stories they retain for the remainder of their lives.  Some are told; others are just ‘filed away’ in a forgotten part of our mind, maybe to be awakened by a reminder.  Some are tragic; some funny; some ironic.  A friend sent me an e-mail last week with a website called “The Virtual Wall” where more than 58 thousand names of Vietnam casualties are cataloged.  I looked up a couple of names I recall and they reminded me of some “war stories” from long ago.

One name was Captain Tom Amos.  On Saturday, April 1, 1972, the phone rang at an early hour in the upstairs dayroom of the ‘Few Q,’ the modulux dorm that housed the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron Panthers.  Nearly all the Panthers were sound asleep, hung over from a ‘wild and crazy’ party on Friday night.  The fellow who wasn’t hung over was Tom Amos who had just arrived at Kunsan AB, South Korea the day before.

Tom answered the phone and a voice on the other end said, ‘This is the command post.  Wake everyone in your building and have them report to squadron operations in 30 minutes.  This is a silent recall.’

So Tom Amos walks through the building, opening doors (we never locked anything) and informing everyone within earshot of the message.  Now picture this scenario: it’s April Fool’s Day about 5 in the morning; you’re hung over; a stranger just opened your door and said something about a silent recall.  Would you buy this or conclude it was a prank from the neighboring squadron, roll over and go back to sleep?

When no one showed for the recall, the Director of Operations Colonel Tyler G. Goodman stormed into the Few Q and the recall wasn’t silent anymore.  My squadron mates told me (I was off-station in Seoul that weekend and sober as a judge) that his greeting was both loud and traumatic.

The gist of the silent recall was that two days prior, the North Vietnamese had launched their largest ground invasion yet, and the 35th was executing Operation Commando Fly to augment Air Force fighter units in Southeast Asia.  No one I knew of had ever heard of Commando Fly before that morning.

Two weeks or so later, I’m at DaNang Airbase temporarily assigned to the 421st Black Widows along with Tom Amos as fill-ins to replace combat losses.  After a week of hard flying, I’m DNIF (duty not to include flying) for a couple of days and assigned as night duty hog, running the Ops desk at the squadron.  One of my jobs is to check the sign out log which was our method in combat of filing a flight plan.  I notice that Larry “Howdy Doody” Trimble and Mase Burham didn’t sign out when they went to fly.

When Trimble and Burnham return from their mission to sign in, I inform them of their infraction and the penalty – one case of beer for the squadron bar.  This was not a major financial setback since beer cost 10 cents a can in the war zone.  Major whining ensues.  Then Trimble’s light bulb goes off: “Hey Joe, is there any rule that we can’t drink the beer we just bought?”

My cogent reply: “No, but you’ve got two strikes against you.  First, its 7:30 in the morning and second, no way you two are going to down a case of beer.”

Trimble thinks this over for a moment and comes back: “Well, we’re coming off duty so we can start drinking, and three can drink more beer than two.  When’s your shift over?”  “In 30 minutes,” I reply.  “Great says Howdy; Mase and I will get a head start and you can join us when your relief shows up.”

A half hour later, I’m sitting on a bar stool joining my friends for a Budweiser breakfast.  We started strong but gave up after consuming about half the case.  Yawns were followed by heavy slumber.

I realize that these war stories might damage my reputation with my tee-totaling friends.  I would offer in defense that it was a long time ago; I was young; it was war; yada, yada, yada.

Within a week, all three of these fellows were dead.  Larry Trimble’s jet was hit by a SAM over Dong Hoi, North Vietnam.  His backseater was able to eject, survive, captured, and repatriation a year later, but Larry was not so fortunate.  Tom Amos and Mason Burnham were killed during a night bombing mission over Laos.  Their bombs hit the target, followed immediately by a fireball at 12 o’clock.  Our maps for this area were very inaccurate, especially the heights of the surrounding mountains.  Also, it was very easy to become disoriented during night dive-bombing.  It could happen to anyone.

I never had the opportunity to fly with any of these fellows in the short three weeks I knew them.  They were each considered to be excellent aviators.  So there you have a couple of stories from long ago, containing humor, irony and tragedy.  So goes war.

2017-01-20T19:03:11-07:00By |0 Comments

Farewell Sky King

In the military section of the Treasures of Madison County Museum is a group photograph around an F-4D Phantom II. The picture was taken in May 1972 at DaNang Air Base, South Vietnam. About twenty members of the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron “Panthers” are included in the photo including yours truly. In the cockpit of the jet is the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Lyle L. Beckers.

Lyle recently died at the age of 81 in Gainesville, Georgia from the effects of Alzheimer’s. Four decades ago, we knew him by his moniker “Sky King” as a fearless fighter pilot leader. Where did that name come from? Some of you might recall the children’s television adventure Sky King from the 1950s.

I served under a variety of fighter squadron commanders in Korea, Vietnam, England, and Germany as well as a couple stateside. Some were better than others, but as a whole, they were fine leaders and taught me a great deal. Lyle Beckers stands out though. He was a highly experienced fighter pilot in both the F-100 Super Sabre as well as the F-4 Phantom. He was also a graduate of the Fighter Weapons School, literally graduate school for “jet jockeys.”

I arrived at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea in mid-March 1972 for my first duty assignment out of flight training. I spent the next couple of weeks in-processing, and before I knew which way was up, my squadron was sent south to the war in Southeast Asia. What prompted this sudden change of course was the North Vietnamese had launched their Easter Offensive on March 29 with 200 thousand invading troops. The only way to halt this invasion was with air power. We were the first outside unit to respond; many more would follow.

Initially, our people and jets were split between two bases, DaNang in South Vietnam and Ubon in Thailand. We filled in to replace combat losses but before long, the squadron was reunited at DaNang under our own flag. The two lieutenant colonels in the 35th were the commander, Lyle Beckers, and operations officer Bill Mickelson. They were both experienced fighter pilots with previous combat tours and complimented each other well. Beckers was the leader while Mickelson was the ‘people person.’

Lyle Beckers led the toughest missions. In mid-May, Operation Linebacker began and we regularly flew high risk missions into the industrial heartland of North Vietnam. I can never recall a Linebacker mission where Beckers was not the flight lead of our first 4-ship. He led from the front. Frequently, I was on his wing in another jet, usually the number four aircraft. His decision making was precise and flawless.

Do you recall a couple of years ago when some official in the Obama Administration said that the United States was leading the coalition against Libya “from behind?” Lyle Beckers wouldn’t understand that; it wouldn’t compute. A leader is in front and never asks his troops to do anything he isn’t willing to do himself. That was Lyle Beckers’ style of leadership and we all looked up to him.

Most of our missions into North Vietnam were air-to-air missions meaning we were there to protect the strike flights from MiG attacks. On May 23rd, Beckers was leading our squadron when the flight was jumped by MiGs. He used an AIM-7 Sparrow missile to shoot down a MiG-19. The number 3 aircraft shot down a MiG-21 with the 20mm canon. Number 2 registered a probable kill with an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile. Altogether, a very successful mission.

Three months later in September, Beckers registered his second MiG kill, this time against a MiG-21 using an AIM-9 and the gun. MiG kills in the Vietnam War were infrequent and hard to come by. Only a handful of pilots registered more than one kill. Lyle Beckers was one of the few who did.

Colonel Beckers was an imposing fellow, probably taller than 6’1”, and he was possessed with all-American looks. It pains me to think of a strong leader felled by Alzheimer’s, but he is well now and at peace. Let us pray: “Father of all, we pray to you for Lyle, and for all those whom we love but see no longer. Grant to them eternal rest. Let light perpetual shine upon them. May his soul and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”

Read “The Tale of Gator 3” about an F-4 mission lead by Colonel Beckers.

2017-01-20T19:03:11-07:00By |2 Comments

Operation Linebacker

If you’re a regular viewer of CBS’ reality series “Amazing Race,” you know that the current program is being filmed in Vietnam. The show raised the ire of many last week when the contestants visited a war memorial in Hanoi to look for a clue. The war memorial was the wreckage of an American B-52, shot down in December 1972 where two airmen died. Apparently, the program showed little if any regard or reverence for the sacrifice of two American patriots for their country.

The next week, the show and their parent company apologized for their cavalier approach to veterans and those of us who served in Vietnam, in particular. The incident took my memory back to an earlier time four decades ago. It was the spring of 1972 and I was flying combat missions from DaNang Air Base, South Vietnam. In early May, we received the orders to “take the gloves off” and go after the North Vietnamese who had escalated the war by ignoring a cease-fire and invading South Vietnam in late March.

The air offensive was code-named Operation Linebacker and would continue unabated for the next five months. Our targets were key combat infrastructure points that the north used to move war materials to their troops in the south. This included railroads, truck parks, bridges, ferries, airfields, communications, etc. These and the north in general had been off-limits to our airpower since 1968. In that four year hiatus, the North Vietnamese had built up their defensive infrastructure of fighters, missiles, guns and radars so that flying north was much more difficult and hazardous.

My squadron (35th TFS Panthers) was permanently based in Korea and filled with very experienced pilots. Our commander only sent highly experienced crews on Linebacker missions because they were more demanding and dangerous than normal combat flying. The pilot I was crewed with was a North Carolinian named Charlie Cox. Charlie was my flight commander; had a previous combat tour; more than 2000 hours in the Phantom; and was a Fighter Weapons School graduate. In fact, we had eight weapons school grads in the 35th, which might be a record.

Linebacker missions were complicated affairs requiring as many as a hundred or more aircraft flying from as many as five different bases. Most were fighters like the F-4 my unit flew, but there were also air refueling tankers; electronic combat aircraft; airborne weapons controllers; etc. Standing by on alert were rescue helicopters and their escorts in the case of an aircraft loss which frequently occurred.

On one missions I recall, there were 12 flights of four (48) fighters just from our base, not counting support aircraft. I’m sure there were more than 200 aircraft scheduled for that mission. At Korat (the second base we flew from), we had a single taxiway and runway. Anyone with either steering or brake problems was instructed to taxi off the taxiway into the dirt to keep the traffic flow moving.

These missions were flown over long distances and involved flying between 3 to 5 hours depending on the route. Since we couldn’t carry that much fuel, we nearly always refueled before entering North Vietnamese airspace and tapped the tanker upon exit before returning home. The tanker we used was the KC-135 (same design as the old Boeing 707) which incidentally, is still being used by the Air Force.

I have no idea how many Linebacker missions I flew that summer. Of my 121 combat missions, 43 were flown over North Vietnam, but not all of those were in support of Operation Linebacker. All the remainder were flown over South Vietnam, generally close air support (CAS) missions. In my six month tour, I didn’t fly against any targets in either Laos or Cambodia, although we often overflew those inland countries transiting to and from our base in Thailand.

In early October 1972, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger was sure he had a peace accord with all parties. The Linebacker missions were halted and my squadron deployed back to our home base in Korea. It had been more than six months since we deployed. Then the deal fell through. Two months later, Linebacker II began in mid-December, but this was much more intense. Now, B-52 bombers went north to join the fighters in taking the air war to the North Vietnamese.

The campaign lasted only 11 days but did the trick. Fifteen B-52s were shot down including the one that Amazing Race visited, but the bombers packed quite a wallop. At the end of the Linebacker II, the north was literally defenseless. They ran back to the bargaining table to beg for peace and an end to hostilities. We had to wonder – if President Johnson had done this seven years earlier in 1965, how many lives and tragedy on both sides would have been avoided?

2017-01-20T19:03:12-07:00By |2 Comments


In 1964, British pop star Petula Clark went to the top of the charts with her hit song “Downtown.” If you’re my age, then the tune is familiar but the song is a classic and various forms are trotted out periodically. There is a current commercial which uses “Downtown” as its background musical theme.

About the same time that the song was first released, Operation Rolling Thunder was initiated in the skies over North Vietnam. For three years, the Johnson Administration sent Air Force and Navy fighters over North Vietnam to bomb selected targets. The theory behind Rolling Thunder was that we would send a message to Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese communists that we were really serious and if they would stop their aggression against South Vietnam, we would stop the bombing. Rolling Thunder lasted for three years until early 1968 and was unsuccessful in its political objective.

The Pacific Command (PACOM) air planners divided North Vietnam into six regions which they named Route Packages. They were numbered sequentially from south to north. Route Pack VI was the large industrial heartland of North Vietnam, bisected by the Red River Valley. This route package was divided into two sub regions: Route Pack VI Bravo included the port city of Haiphong and was the primary responsibility of the Navy and their 7th Fleet air wings.

Route Pack VI Alpha included the capital of Hanoi and was the primary responsibility of the Air Force wings operating from bases in South Vietnam and Thailand. The fighter pilots who flew into VI Alpha to attack targets around Hanoi referred to this as “Downtown.” It had the reputation as the most heavily defended air space in the history of warfare, protected by a layered system of interceptors, surface to air missiles, and anti-aircraft artillery.

After three years, LBJ halted Rolling Thunder in an effort to bring the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table. Over the next four years, we stayed out of North Vietnamese airspace, however when the Communists launched their Spring Offensive with 200,000 troops in 1972, the only way to stop the onslaught was with airpower.

At the time, I was a lieutenant newly assigned to the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron “Panthers” at Kunsan AB, South Korea. On April Fools Day, our 18 F-4D Phantoms deployed to Southeast Asia, the first of many Air Force, Navy and Marine squadrons to join the fray.

Our supposedly “quick” period of temporary duty lasted 196 days. We flew first from DaNang AB, South Vietnam until mid-June and then moved to Korat AB, Thailand. During that period of time, I flew 121 combat missions, 78 of which were flown over South Vietnam primarily in close air support of ground units in contact with the enemy. I flew 43 missions over North Vietnam including 16 “Downtown.” Without exception, these Linebacker missions over Hanoi were the most hazardous I faced.

Generally we flew at about 15 thousand feet and kept our speed above 480 knots where our energy gave us good maneuverability to defeat the SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missiles. If we carried a centerline fuel tank, we drained that first and jettisoned the sluggish tank. As a result, our jet was cleaner, lighter and more maneuverable.

Most of my missions “Downtown” were escort missions for the bombers, so we were light and maneuverable, ready to tangle with any MiGs that might interfere. On the few occasions where we carried bombs, we were quite heavy until the ordnance was cleaned off the aircraft. We would ripple all twelve 500-pound bombs on a single attack; our motto was “one pass and haul a**.”

My closest encounter with the enemy came during a late summer mission. We escorted Oak Flight from Ubon that dropped seven laser-guided 2000 pound bombs on Gia Lam just east of Hanoi. We made a wide sweeping turn north of Hanoi over the lake where John McCain went swimming five years earlier. The gun positions on the south side of the lake put up a lot of flak, but no one in our flight was hit. Exiting the target area to the southwest, my radar warning receiver lit up indicating a SAM was headed our way. The cumulous clouds below us made picking up the missile difficult. At the last possible moment our lead aircraft saw the streaking SAM and called for Finch 4 (my aircraft) to break right. Our 5-G barrel roll was successful in dodging the missile. Close but no cigar!

So go downtown, things will be great when you’re Downtown – don’t wait a minute for Downtown – everything’s waiting for you.

Petula Clark


2017-01-20T19:03:12-07:00By |2 Comments

The Tale of Gator 3

This is a war story from my service in Vietnam. Although the incident happened 40 years ago, the details are still fresh in my mind. It was June 1972. My fighter squadron, the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron, had just transferred from flying combat at DaNang to Korat Air Base in Thailand. On this day, I was assigned to fly in the rear cockpit of the third aircraft in Gator Flight piloted by my flight commander, Captain Charlie Cox. Our Linebacker target for the day was significant – the Thai Nguyen steel factory located about 30 miles north of Hanoi.

Gator Flight’s responsibility was to bomb the rail marshal yards adjacent to the factory. Each of our four F-4D Phantoms were armed with twelve 500-pound bombs carried on MERs (multiple ejector racks) located on the outboard stations.

Our Phantoms were grossed out at the maximum takeoff weight of 58,000. That meant that our takeoff roll would be longer than usual and because our center of gravity was shifted forward by the bombs on stations 1 and 9, our nose wheel liftoff speed and takeoff speed would be nearly identical and quite fast.

Everything was fairly uneventful through preflight, engine start and taxi. When tower gave us our clearance, we wheeled four aircraft on the runway, checked engines, and released brakes. With combat loads, we took 20 second spacing between aircraft so 40 seconds after our leader released brakes, Gator 3 began to rumble down Korat’s 10,000 foot runway. Even with 34,000 pounds of thrust from our two J-79 engines, it took a while for our speed to build.

As advertised at 185 knots, the nose wheel lifted off the runway. A few seconds later the aircraft began to fly and the main landing gear struts extended. What happened next was not as advertised – stray voltage was sent to the jettison circuits on stations 1 and 9 and both loaded MERs departed the aircraft.

Fighter aircraft have jettison circuits to release external stores in case of an emergency; however these circuits are disabled when the aircraft is on the ground. A squat switch runs through the main landing gear; when the struts extend the jettison circuit is armed.

In the cockpit, we had no idea what was happening behind and underneath the aircraft because the underside of the wing is not visible. But since we had just jettisoned about 15 percent of our gross weight, the aircraft accelerated like a banshee!

There were a lot of puffy cumulous clouds that day, and when we joined formation on our leader’s left wing, no one gave us a look as they navigated around the clouds. A minute or so later, we heard from the fourth aircraft as he joined the flight: “Gator 3, this is 4; you lost all your bombs on takeoff.”

Well, to say that came as a shock would be an understatement. Our leader was squadron commander Lyle “Sky King” Beckers and he immediately snapped his head in our direction and confirmed that we were missing both MERs and their bombs.

About a minute later when Cox and I had sorted out all that we knew and our pulse was under control, we called back to lead, “Boss, there’s not much point in us going with you.” Now that was an understatement – there’s little to be gained by taking a bomber to the target if he can’t do anything more than sight-see.

We got a chuckle out of that logic and Beckers cleared us to leave the formation. I dialed-in the frequency for Fort Apache (Korat’s command post) and we heard quite a commotion in the background. At this point, the incident caused by our takeoff was only about 5 minutes old.

When the noise died down, we called in and requested permission to RTB – return to base. An excited controller called back, “Negative, negative Gator 3, we’ve been bombed. The runway is closed. Divert to another base!”

We patiently explained that we had more than an hour of fuel remaining, that our aircraft would be impounded upon landing and it would be a much better plan to land the jet at our home base rather than another airfield. After some consultation, Korat agreed and about an hour later, they announced that the runway was reopened. We received clearance to land and did so uneventfully.

Of our 12 bombs, three exploded in a low-order detonation which damaged a couple of aircraft on the field but fortunately, no one was hurt. Poor old Gator 4 had been lumbering down the runway at about 60 knots when this entire conflagration occurred in front of his aircraft. He swore that when he took off with his right wheel in the dirt, but we later determined that his tire, although off the runway, was still on asphalt.

Initially, maintenance could not duplicate the stray voltage problem which energized the outboard jettison circuits, and the wing commander ordered the jet sent back to our home base in Korea. About two months after our little incident, the same aircraft jettisoned two 370-gallon wing fuel tanks from stations 1 and 9. Because stray voltage is here one moment and gone the next, it is very difficult to trace.

In retrospect, our saving grace was that the two bomb racks released simultaneously. Had they come off asymmetrically, we would not have been able to stop the roll into the heavy wing at barely 200 knots and … well I wouldn’t be writing this column right now.

So ends the saga of Gator 3 and the day I bombed my own airfield.

2012-04-04T19:40:05-07:00By |6 Comments

Rockin’ Robin

I just finished reading Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds, edited by his daughter Christina along with Ed Rasimus. When my daughter Kim sent it to me for Father’s Day, she had no idea that I had a long association with General Olds.

In the fall of 1967, I was beginning my second year as a cadet at the Air Force Academy. Then Colonel Olds arrived at USAFA to become the commandant of cadets. He took over from BGen Ted Seith, a well respected bomber pilot. Olds brought the swagger and bravado of a fighter pilot to the cadet wing. The change was palpable. General Olds would remain commandant for the remainder of my schooling, nearly three years.

Robin Olds, who died four years ago at age 85, lived a story-book life. He really was “larger than life.” His father Robert was an aviation pioneer from the WW I era so the boy grew up in the company of airpower greats like Hap Arnold, Billy Mitchell, and Tooey Spaatz. Naturally he wanted to follow in their footsteps.

That led 18 year old Robin to West Point in the summer of 1940. Because of the war, his class would graduate a year early in June 1943 and by that time, he had earned his pilot wings during summer training. He also played football, earning All American honors in 1942 as a tackle (he played at 6’2”, 205). Years later, he would be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

The reason Olds attended West Point was to obtain a regular commission and become a fighter pilot which he accomplished. His first fighter was the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. The P-38 flew primarily in the Pacific theater, but Olds’ group, the 479th went to England to join the 8th Air Force. He became an ace (5 enemy kills) in the P-38 before his group transitioned to the better P-51 Mustang. Olds ended the war in Europe with 13 air-to-air kills, 12 by ground strafing, the rank of major (at age 22) and command of a fighter squadron. He was well on his way to a remarkable career.

Robin Olds came of age in the golden age of aviation brought about by so much wartime innovation. Consequently, he flew dozens of different fighters during a time when new aircraft were introduced yearly. One of the most interesting things about this book is his detailed description of the flying characteristics of so many aircraft. For example, there is a great description of the problem of compressibility in the P-38 where the shock wave in a high speed dive renders the tail elevator inoperative. The only way to recover from the dive is for the aircraft to slow down sufficiently to regain control of the elevator. Robin was able to recover from this mistake. How many did not?

Returning from England, Olds was an early entry into the new technology of jets, qualifying to fly the P-80 Shooting Star. At an early air show featuring jet fighters, Robin met Hollywood siren Ella Raines. A year later they married, beginning a tempestuous 29 year relationship. In truth, they never reconciled their differences. Ella was a movie star and her husband, a hard-nosed fighter pilot. It was not a match made in heaven. Love does not always conquer all.

Robin continued his career, flying fighters and leading units and men. Ella would follow him some times, consenting to live in Washington, New York or London while her husband flew in Germany, England and North Africa. Two daughters were caught in the middle of their parent’s troubles.

When Olds was sent to the Pentagon, he was a caged tiger. Suffice it to say that he made just as many enemies as he did friends. After serving as wing commander at RAF Bentwaters in England, he arrived at Ubon, Thailand to command the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing in the fall of 1966. For a year, Olds led the Wolfpack into tough battles against the North Vietnamese. He flew 152 combat missions over the north, knocking down four MiGs with missiles from his F-4C Phantom II. His reward for the brutal year was a general’s star and command of the Academy’s cadet wing.

I learned a lot of things from General Olds, among them leadership by example. Robin led his men from the front. (Trust me; he would do more than sneer at anyone who suggests that you can lead from behind.) He believed that you should not ask anyone to do something you are unwilling to do yourself.

Robin Olds was an imposing man; after all, he was a tackle. He spoke with a raspy voice. He was a heavy drinker, but I observed that more of the whiskey in his glass would be poured over the head of some unsuspecting fellow than actually down his throat. At age 85, it wasn’t his liver that gave out but rather, his heart.

Fighter pilots are amazing, Type A personalities. They charge head-long into the fray, modern day knights of the air. They are masters of their machine. They live life on the edge. Robin Olds was a fighter pilot’s fighter pilot, the leader of the pack. I’ve met many unforgettable men over the years, and Robin Olds was at the head of the list.

2017-01-20T19:03:13-07:00By |1 Comment

Rocket City

Thirty-eight years ago, I stood on the tarmac of DaNang Air Base, the northern-most fighter base in South Vietnam. DaNang had the unenviable reputation of absorbing frequent rocket attacks, hence the nick-name “rocket city.”

My base of assignment was in South Korea, but the North Vietnamese changed that when they began their Easter 1972 offensive by attacking the South with more than 200 thousand troops. Since the American ground presence had been drastically reduced since 1969 and the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) was quickly overwhelmed, the only way to stop the onslaught was with airpower. My squadron, the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) “Panthers,” was the first (of what turned out to be many) to deploy to augment the fighter units already operating from South Vietnam and Thailand.

Initially I was assigned to the 421st TFS “Black Widows” to help replace their combat losses. I quickly learned that the “widows” were appropriately named – their losses resulted in frequent funerals. They were poorly led – the squadron commander was a glory-seeker. I vowed to get out of that unit as quickly as I could. Three weeks after I arrived, the Panthers were reunited as an integral unit. I had survived my short stint with the Black Widows.

As opposed to the home-based units, my squadron was very well led. For one thing, we had far more experience – eight of our pilots were graduates of the Air Force Fighter Weapons School, the graduate school for fighter pilots. Our commander Lyle “Sky King” Beckers was one of those graduates and very professional. Our operations officer Bill Mickelson was extremely good with people. Together, they made a good team.

The fellow I flew most often with was North Carolina State graduate Charlie Cox. Charlie was my flight commander, had 2,000 hours in the Phantom, and a previous war tour. Charlie was a very demanding pilot who pushed me quite hard. I would follow him into a fiery furnace.

I turned 24 shortly after arriving at DaNang. With my 65 hours of Phantom experience, I was pretty typical of the young lieutenants in my squadron. We had to grow up fast.

Our squadron was assigned to the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing “Gunfighters” and we lived in Gunfighter Village. It was pretty crowded – my room was built for two, but I had three other roommates, two of whom were subsequently shot down (but fortunately rescued). The food was rotten. Our dining options were limited and none of them were good. I got food poisoning more than once.

I said that DaNang was often called rocket city. There was a North Vietnamese artillery battalion within a dozen miles of the base and they would launch an attack at least weekly and always at night. A minor attack would be five 122mm Kutyusha rockets and a heavy attack would be 15, all in the span of five minutes. The Kutyusha was an unguided rocket with a five inch warhead – if it ever hit anything, it would cause significant damage. I only recall one ever hitting Gunfighter Village, exploding just outside the building next to mine. It hurt a couple of fellows pretty bad.

I spent 11 weeks at DaNang before our squadron was sent to another base in Thailand. In that time, DaNang lost 13 Phantoms and many other aircraft as well. We flew a lot – in May, I flew 41 missions. In some cases, we were attacking targets within 15 miles of the base; the enemy was that close. All of my missions were flown against targets in either South or North Vietnam; I never flew a single mission into either Cambodia or Laos.

In mid-June, the 35th packed its bags and headed for Korat Air Base in Thailand. It was a huge change. Korat was a paradise – the food was much better; we didn’t have to worry about getting rocketed at night; our living conditions were improved; and the nearby city of the same name was a mecca of exotic sights and sounds. The missions were quite long (some as long as 5+ hours which is a long time to be strapped into an ejection seat) and frequently hazardous, but coming home made it worthwhile.

I spent four more months flying combat until mid-October when the Panthers returned to our home base of Kunsan, South Korea. By that time I had flown 121 combat missions, 43 of which were over North Vietnam. We had helped to blunt the Easter attack and bring the enemy to the negotiating table. A few months later, an armistice was signed and our POWs began to return home. It was a hard job well done.

2017-01-20T19:03:14-07:00By |0 Comments

Gone but Not Forgotten

by Joe Boyles

Today May 30th, is the date originally intended to be Memorial Day. The idea behind this popular holiday is that we are supposed to remember those servicemen that have died in service to our nation safeguarding the liberties we hold dear. In 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans organization, designated this date as “Decoration Day” when the graves of their fallen comrades would be decorated with flowers. Later, the name of the celebration was changed to Memorial Day and when Congress passed the Monday’s Holiday Bill in the early 1970s, the significance of the actual date was lost.

On June 3rd 1970, I was among 745 young men to graduate from the United States Air Force Academy. We had endured four tough years of military training, academics, character building, and athletics to qualify for our degree and a commission as a second lieutenant. We were poised and ready to strike out and conquer the world. Most of us headed off to flight school where we would “slip the surly bonds of earth.”

Within a couple of years, nine of our number had died in the skies over Southeast Asia. They are pictured here as the young men they will forever be — I don’t know that any of them reached their 25th birthday. Let me tell you about my classmates.

Of the nine, I knew “Rocky” Rovito the least. I believe he was a Catholic kid from Pennsylvania. He died in the summer of 1973 (all of the others died in 1972 during the last full year of the war) in a helicopter crash in northwestern Cambodia. The second paragraph of a poem by his name in our 1970 Polaris yearbook is prophetic: “I came to serve my country; to fight the enemy; to die the death – Old soldiers fade.”

Three of the dead were FACs or forward air controllers. They flew light, propeller-driven aircraft to direct fighters in close air support missions. Because their aircraft flew low and slow, they had a dangerous mission. Dick Christy was an Ohio farm boy, excellent athlete and natural leader. If he had survived, his career would have been marked by great distinction. I didn’t know John Haselton very well. He was from Vermont and another excellent athlete. Art Hardy was a married man. I’m not sure if his wife had a baby before Art was lost. My most enduring memory of Hardy was that I was once assigned to guard him in an intramural basketball game – I “held“him to 35 points. He wiped the floor with me. Art planned to become a test pilot — he would have made a good one.

Two of the fellows were in the same fighter squadron flying the A-37 Dragonfly from Bien Hoa. Steve Gravrock was killed in July. He was a quiet, introspective fellow as I recall. Two months earlier, Mike Blassie had been lost. His jet crashed behind enemy lines and his remains were unrecovered … or so we thought. Mike was from St. Louis, a great athlete, and another natural leader. The sky was the limit for this guy.

In a solemn 1984 ceremony, the remains of a Vietnam veteran were interred at Arlington in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. More than a decade later, Mike’s family learned there was a good chance that the remains in that tomb were those of their son and brother. The family waged a long and difficult fight with the Defense Department and Veterans Administration to have the remains exhumed and tested using mitochondrial DNA. When this happened in 1998, the tests proved they belonged to Mike. Today, he is buried in the National Cemetery at Jefferson Barracks near his hometown.

After graduation, I attended navigator training near Sacramento with the last three. Fran Townsend, Bud Hargrove, and Mike Turose were among about seventy students in Class 71-19. We were together in Nav School from August 1970 until May 1971. Fran was a Texan and his graduation assignment was in the reconnaissance version (RF-4C) of the Phantom. He was shot down over Bat Lake, North Vietnam in August 1972. His pilot, Bill Gauntt survived but Fran did not. I do not believe his body has ever been recovered.

Of all these fine fellows, I knew Bud Hargrove and Mike Turose the best. We were among 19 members of D section in Class 71-19. Bud was an easy going fellow from Harlingen, TX and a natural leader. We both took Phantoms for our next assignment and trained together in the first F-4 class at Luke AFB just west of Phoenix. His next assignment was to the famed Triple Nickel (555 TFS) at Udorn, Thailand where he scored two MiG kills before being lost in November returning from a combat mission.

Mike Turose was one of my closest friends at the Academy. He was a fun loving guy from the Cleveland area and smart as a whip. His major was electrical engineering and I swear, he never cracked a book – he aced everything he looked at. He loved muscle cars and baseball. We were both Eagle Scouts and were part of a team that welcomed new Eagles from the Colorado Springs area into the fraternity.

Mike wasn’t married so at Nav School, he was a frequent visitor at our apartment sampling Linda’s cooking. Mike stayed at Mather after Nav School to attend electronic warfare officer training – a natural progression for an electrical engineer. After training in the F-105G Thunderchief, he was off to Korat AB, Thailand. I joined him in June 1972 when my squadron came to Korat, and we resumed our old friendship.

I can still recall the time, place, moment on September 17, 1972 when Mike’s aircraft was reported missing over North Vietnam. Although I had just returned from flying myself, I quickly joined a group planning a rescue mission. The planning hadn’t gone very far when we learned that Navy divers had found the bodies of Turose and Zorn just offshore and confirmed they were dead. Fire from shore batteries prevented the recovery of their bodies. It broke my heart … still does.

These guys are part of my life experience, and I am a better man because I knew them. They are my heroes.

2017-01-20T19:03:28-07:00By |4 Comments
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