red river valley fighter pilots association

Memories of the First River Rats Convention in Las Vegas, 1973

Joe Lee Burns started this collection of memories to capture for his kids and grandkids events of the “REAL” reunion after our POWs came home from captivity in North Vietnam.  If you attended the first convention, please tell us what you remember by making a comment at the end of this post.

Joe Lee Burns

The First “Official” Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association Reunion (our POWs were home!!). Anybody else with better memory than mine????

I remember the fancy (for back then) 4 screen slide show with fade in/out sequenced pictures of America (“America the Beautiful” background music??).

Who opened the party?

About 3,000 seated for dinner????

Who was the Master of Ceremonies from the strip downtown?

What was the program flow???

Didn’t the MC (told jokes?) come on as dessert was served??????

Guys kept taking notes up to the MC, welcoming POWs home from the different units.

Was this when deceased insect was declared???? All the guys in Mess Dress and 75% of the ladies in formal dresses went supine in a flash!!!

The MC said “It was the most amazing thing he had seen in 25 years of show business.”

Wayne Newton and Patti Page (?) were very gracious in their comments. Was there a third singer??

Yellow/gold table napkins tied together and hung from the rafters as Patti sang “Tie A Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree”?????

Was ringing the Rat Freedom Bell the last event of the formal part of the evening????

The First “Official” Red River Valley Association Reunion (our POWs were home!!) 24/25 Aug ’73 at the Las Vegas, NV Convention Center.

Before the activities started for the evening, I had the opportunity to introduce myself as a 8th Wing GIB then and then my wife De Ann to General Robin Olds. He was more impressive than ever – at least, my wife thought so!!!!!

3,000 attendees for the Dining Out in the massive hall room.

Toward the end of the meal service, a 4 screen slide show began with hundreds of scenic pictures of Americana slowly flashed in sequence. Various patriotic songs were played in the background – America the Beautiful was one. Breathtaking.

Different units sent notes to be read by the Master of Ceremonies mostly welcoming their wing/squadron POWs back home from captivity. One Wing had the MC announce “Deceased Insect” and 2500 folks in formal dress go supine immediately!! (For civilians: “A favorite fighter-jock game was called D___ B__. In a bar, when anyone shouted ‘D*e*a*d B*u*g!’ everyone, including generals, had to drop to the floor with hands and feet extended into the air, like a “deceased insect”. Last man down had to buy drinks.”)

One of the entertainers (Patti Page) sang “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree”. Before the song was ended, a couple thousand yellow dinner napkins are spontaneously tied together in about a 100 yard strings and handed from row of tables to row of tables, and eventually the strings are draped from the rafters of the huge hall. (It was the central theme of the popular song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree”, Written by Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown and recorded by Tony Orlando and Dawn among many others, as the sign a released convict (POW) requested from his wife or lover (country), to indicate that she (his family and brothers-in-arms) still wanted him and that he would therefore be welcome to return home (US of A). He would be able to see it from the bus driving by their house, and would stay on the bus in the absence of the ribbon. He (they) turned out to be very welcome: there were a hundred yellow ribbons.)

What a beautifully inspiring night to welcome home our freed brothers.

Neither of these events was scripted – but the emotion of the event, the spontaneous ingenuity of fighter pilots, and the love for our long lost POWs made for an absolutely magical night of revelry.

Joe Moran

Ross Truesdale yelled out, “RING THE F_______ BELL!

Jack Overstreet

What I remember from the first “Real Reunion” about the bell was that, when they rang it (for the first time)… was underwhelming. No clear-pitched tone….sounded more like…. “bonk!” Guess an ops check before the event would have detracted from the claim of ringing it for the first time at the event.

A bunch of us flew in from Holloman with our wives on a C-118…..had to be at least 60 people. They brought coolers on board and we drank beer and bloody marys enroute to Nellis. The cockpit door was open and if you leaned out in the aisle you could see out the front of the plane. When the pilot turned base to final at Nellis, he badly overshot the runway and the plane erupted into catcalls and general declarations of derision for his half-assed performance. When we shut down on the ramp and opened the door, we were met by some Nellis O-6 who yelled up: “Where are you all from?” and some obviously inebriated passenger yelled back: “From? We’re from the IG and this is a no-notice ORI!” Funny, but this O-6 failed to see the humor and withheld the placement of the stairs at the plane to allow us to reassess our behavior before being allowed to deplane onto his ramp.

One post-reunion vignette I heard about probably needs to be verified, because I was not a witness. As you know, when the dining-out broke up….everyone headed for the strip. They probably had never seen so many people in mess-dress in so many bars and casinos. After the fact, I heard that some unnamed captain had given Robin Olds a ration of sh** in a bar and the two of them distinguished themselves by getting into it with each other and rolling around on the floor of the bar in their mess dress!

Carole Thompson

The guest speaker who rang the bell for the first time was General Alexander Haig. He didn’t do a very good job and had to have help. Have other stuff if you are interested.

DeAnn Mitchell (Burns)

Besides the lifting of the tied together yellow napkins, I remember most….the vast hallway outside banquet hall where I say men (long lost friends) see each other from afar and rush to meet & hug & cry. Couldn’t watch for long – it felt intrusive.

Joe Lee Burns responds

Me, too. I remember seeing Larry Chesley (POW 433rd ‘66) from my station in the Welcome/Information Booth. I didn’t quite get to him for a hug before I started crying. And seeing Larry made me remember losing Frank Ralston (Lt 433rd MIA/KIA May ’66 – godfather to my son, Patrick) all over again.

Carole Thompson responds

I certainly remember the deceased insect routine. Had on a beautiful blue gown with lots of cleavage. Went to the floor with the rest of the gang. But I didn’t show dress off to the “fullest” until we left that night and I was carrying a large plastic bag filled with ‘POWs Never Have a Nice Day’ buttons which broke while we were crossing Convention Blvd. Bob (Carole’s husband) went to the sidewalk and watched as I picked up buttons and put them in my gathered skirt and shoved in boobs, picked up buttons, pushed in boobs, picked up buttons and shoved in boobs. He thought it was real funny when the cab drivers stopped, not to help, but just to stare. Needless to say I had better boobs back in those days.

The bell ringing and the tying of the Son Tay tennis shoes was done during the business meeting if I remember correctly. Damn, it has been so long ago.

A couple of good guys to get info from would be JD Allen, now our treasurer, Dale Leatham and Don Harten. Think they were all involved in the First Real One.

Patti Page was wonderful. She didn’t even bat an eyelash while the guys covered her in napkins.

Think your numbers of about 3,000 is correct.

We chartered a Braniff airplane from here (San Antonio) and took the former POWs, their wives, all the MIA wives and the local Rats in SA. Plane sat at the airport in Vegas for the weekend waiting to bring us home and still managed to lose Swede Larson’s luggage!

Don Harten

I don’t think Dale worked on the first reunion with us but JD, Sparkie, Jim Stieber, Sam Bakke, Pete Gamage, Boots Boothby, Bob Anderson and myself, among others, DID work on that first reunion.

I was closest to Patti Page when the napkins started coming forward. The look on her face for about 15 milliseconds was sheer terror but she didn’t miss a beat.

Also, I was Decorations Chairman, among other things, on that first reunion. I ORDERED Red, White and Blue napkins and they were laid out (I think) but when Leslie and I walked into the Convention Center and saw those “puke” yellow, standard hotel napkins sitting there, I threw a fit. Too late. I was sitting front row, far right helping Charley Vanda direct the stars onto the stage in the proper order (sat in front of the 57th Wing CC) and it was only when the napkins began their “sea wave” toward us that I began to understand why the yellow napkins instead of my Red, White and Blue. Some POW beat me to the hotel staff!!!

What a reunion. It will be thoroughly covered in one of my books. . . . . .

Carole Thompson responds

Another fun thing that happened on the way to the reunion was the Braniff pilot knew he was flying a bunch of AF/Navy pilots so he got on the mike and told everyone he was going to fly the plane himself for awhile. Have no clue why he told us all that, but he shouldn’t have. As soon as he got the plane level, we all took off like charging bulls to the back of the plane and she nosed up. He neatly trimmed her back level and – you got it – everyone ran to the front of the plane. He got back on the mike and told us he gave up and was putting it on autopilot.

The poor hostesses tried to serve those little bottles of booze from the cart, but couldn’t do it fast enough to suit all of us; so a few of the guys helped by standing up by the cart, looking at the bottles and yelling, “Who wants scotch?”, (or rum or vodka or bourbon, depending on whatever bottle they had in their hand). They then tossed the bottle in the direction of the first “Here!” and proceeded to the next bottle until the cart was empty.

We kept all the empty bottles in the pillow cases and brought them back to Joyce Perrine’s home. (She is a KIA wife now, but was a MIA wife then, who went with us to the reunion.) We refilled the bottles, not always with the right booze, and had an Easter egg hunt in her backyard a few weeks later.

Loved reading what you have compiled. That all brings back great memories.

Would you like me to put something in the “Sweep” about you looking for people’s memories?

Mary Ellen Nabors

I had never heard of Foster Brooks before and was completely taken in by his pretending to be an Admiral (and a very drunk one). I was horrified that his aide and staff and all the officers there would let an admiral embarrass himself and the US Navy. I kept praying for someone to get him off the stage, and finally was so thankful and relieved to realize it was all an act; and then it was very funny.

I was honored to sit beside Lee Ellis, not only because he was one of the POW returning heroes that night, but because our daughter had worn his POW bracelet throughout his captivity.

The first bracelets were made by a Carol Bates, who worked for the Defense POW-Missing Persons Office. The bracelets came in various finishes, and on each bracelet was engraved, at a minimum, the name, rank, service, loss date, and country of loss of a missing man / POW from the Vietnam War. bracelets.)

Jerry Nabors

I remember very clearly an incident while standing in the registration line. I believe Sam Bakke was registering people at the time. A 3 star general in front of me was bitching about the cost (something like $30). A young Captain in line beside him with a few drinks in his belly told the guy registering him “just tell me how many zeros to put after the 3”.

It was a great night. It was topped off by Patti Page and the yellow napkins. We’ll never forget!

Joe Kittinger

The event was held at the Hilton. The first morning at the opening ceremonies everyone was assembled in the main auditorium. Alexander Haig, the ex Army general, Secretary of State, was the distinguished guest. He had the task of ringing the “Freedom Bell” for the first time, signaling that the POW’s were home. He just gave a light tap with the bell. A Captain in the first row, jumped up and shouted “Ring the God Dam Bell.” It shocked Haig, he wasn’t used to fighter pilots shouting at him. But fortunately, he quickly reacted and rang the bell, several times with vigor, much to the delight of the assembly.

At the banquet, that evening Pat Boone was the master of ceremonies. He started singing a song and a Captain in the first row, stood up and signaled Boone to come to him for a message. At first Boone ignored the Captain but finally he stopped singing and moved over to the edge of the stage where the Captain was waiting. The Captain whispered the message to Boone and Boone told the audience he did not know just what the message meant but he was asked to say “anybody that can’t tap dance is a queer.” With that 3,000 people stood up and tap danced; much to the delight of the entire audience.

Then the laughter died down and everyone was again seated. Boone again started to sing. With that the Captain again stood up and immediately Boone stopped singing and immediately walked up to the Captain at the edge of the stage. There was no delay this time. It was quite apparent that Boone was eagerly awaiting his next message. He leaned over and the Captain again gave him a message. Boone once again said that he didn’t know what the message meant but he said “Dead Bug” and with that 3,000 people pushed their chairs back and tumbled to the floor. The laughter lasted for several minutes. Finally, Boone started signing his song again, looking expectantly in the direction of the Captain for another show stopping message to the gaggle. It was a magic night that lasted until the sun came up. We were all very delighted to be there to celebrate the occasion.

Every fighter pilot in the Air Force, Navy, Marines and Army was there, including several Buff crews. It was a hell’va reunion. There were several fighter pilots widows in attendance that reminder all of us how lucky we were to be there to honor our fallen comrades, that were not as lucky as we were . S.H.

The first morning my good friend Robin Olds walked up to me and said “Kittinger, you let your fangs hang out too far.” He was referring to me getting shot down on my 483rd combat mission chasing a MiG over Hanoi. I shot down a MiG on 1 March 1972 and was looking to increase my score. Robin and I had several adult beverages during the two day event. My book ‘Come Up and Get me‘ will be released in May 2010 which has several exciting stories about flying and fighting in the F-4, my career in the Air Force and other assorted adventures. Check 6!

2017-01-20T19:03:15-07:00By |0 Comments

Red River Valley Fighter Pilot’s Association

Col. Robin Olds, the commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, hosted a Tactics Conference at Ubon Air Force Base, Thailand in November of 1966. It included United States Air Force, Navy and Marine aircrews that were flying combat missions over the “Red River Valley of North Vietnam.”  In May of 1967, the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Korat, RTAFB, Thailand, held the first of 5 practice reunions in Thailand. Others were held at Ubon, in August of 1967, Takhli in November of 1967, Udorn in March of 1968 and Korat in June of 1968.

In 1969, Brig Gen Robin Olds met with Col Scrappy Johnson to discuss the formation of a permanent association for the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association. The association was subsequently incorporated. In 1969, Col Larry Pickett held the first stateside practice reunion at Wichita, KS. It was a great success.

The organization, its purposes and efforts, were directed toward generating awareness of the Prisoners of War (POW), and aircrews Missing in Action/Killed in Action (MIA/KIA) and their families.

The scholarship program is a major priority of this organization.  The fund was established at the San Antonio reunion in 1970 as a result of concern for the families of fellow “River Rats” who were POW/MIA/KIA. The hat was passed and three – $1,000 scholarships were awarded.

In August of 1973, after the Prisoners of War had returned home, the first “real” reunion was held in Las Vegas, NV.

On April 30, 1975, the name was amended to “Red River Valley Association, Inc.” On July 22, 1976, the 501(c)(3) status was granted by the IRS.

In 1998 the scholarship program was expanded to include losses due to non-combat operational accidents.

The association now provides scholarships to children of United States military personnel MIA/KIA in armed conflicts from Southeast Asia through the present. Additionally, dependents of aircrew members killed in aircraft accidents now qualify for scholarships.

Since 1970, “The River Rats” have awarded more than 1,090 scholarship grants with a value of over 1.9 million dollars.

The Red River Valley Association continues to have reunions and award scholarships annually.

Related Links

Membership Qualification

Membership is open to all U.S. military designated aircrew members (all positions). To apply, go to the Rats membership page. New applicants please complete the form, print, sign, and mail with all required enclosures. Mail the completed and signed application to:

RRVA National Office
P.O. Box 1553
Front Royal, VA 22630-0033

How to Donate Money

With the GiveDirect credit card processing service no fees are taken on your VISA or MasterCard donation. The River Rats receive 100% of your gift.  However, a low fee of 2.85% is deducted from donations made with an American Express credit card.

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