Military John Darrell Sherwood Fast Movers

ISBN 13: 9780312979621

Fast Movers

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9780312979621: Fast Movers

The story of the air war in Vietnam is really story of the "fast movers", men who flew the jet fighters and fought in the MiG and SAM infested skies of North Vietnam. In this book, the author John Sherwood, an official historian with the U.S. Navy, draws on more than 300 revealing interviews with these courageous pilots and crews, offering an in-the-cockpit perspective on the Vietnam experience never before possible. He profiles fourteen aviators, including such MiG killers as Robin Olds, Steve Ritchie, and John "Pirate" Nichols, and captures the heroism and sacrifice of this truly elite group of air warriors.

From flying through walls of flak in Operation Rolling Thunder to how it feels to shoot down a MiG to the crushing ordeal of capture and imprisonment in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," every aspect of air combat in Vietnam comes powerfully to life. Fast Movers celebrates these men and their aircraft, chronicling an aspect of the Vietnam conflict too long overlooked.

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About the Author:

John Darrell Sherwood is an official historian at the U.S. Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C., and the author of the award-winning book, Officers in Flight Suits, which tells the remarkable story of the Korean air war. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1: Old Lionheart
Robin Olds and the Eighth Tactical Fighter Wing, 1966-1967

Ubon, Thailand, October 1966

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olds' tremendous success as a combat leader stemmed from three elements in his personality: his loyalty to his men, his desire to share danger with his men, and his willingness to socialize and interact casually with his troops. Olds never asked someone else to do something that he wouldn't do himself. He also did his utmost to shield his men from policies and orders that he deemed nonsensical or downright dangerous. This last characteristic made him a controversial figure with his superiors and hurt his career in the long run. His tendency to fraternize with his men also hurt his reputation. The old

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