Gordon “Gordy” Williams
From the book “Friday Pilots”
“From the Army to the Air Force to the Navy” by Gordon E. “Gordy” Williams
There I was…six-hundred feet above the Pacific Ocean, 200 knots, gear, and flaps down, 30 or 40 miles from land, pitch-black, off the northern California coast, strapped into my Navy F-4B. And, I was having a crisis of confidence, an unusual state of affairs for the average Air Force fighter pilot. To “carrier qual” (be qualified to fly off Navy carriers) one needed 10-day landings and six at night. If all went as programmed, I would get through this in one night. But wait! Let’s step back and see how I got myself into this scary mess:
“Live Free or Die!” – that is the motto for the State of New Hampshire, where I was born in the city of Nashua. I lived mostly in Hudson, a small town of perhaps 3000 people. My family were long-time New Englanders. They didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but it wasn’t too many decades later. I lived with my grandparents full-time from about the sixth grade. My Mom, Doris Williams Smith, who when she married my dad became Doris “Williams Williams,” really “got around.” She and my father were divorced right after WWII. As my Grandma said, “Uh, Gordy, your mother has had a lot of boyfriends.”
My grandfather was quite the guy. He was born at a time that found him ineligible for the WWI draft but he was quite the politician. He was a Town Selectman for 24 years and a force to be reckoned with in the town’s business. He also held a town position that now makes me chuckle when I think how politically incorrect it would be today. He was the: “Overseer of the Poor. “ Folks came to the house to plead their case. He gave them what he thought they needed, and it could only be spent in a few small stores where he was plugged-in (graft anyone? – hey, just New England politics). And, woe to they who tried to buy a little whiskey.
He died of cancer at the then advanced age of 66. I was a plebe at West Point at the time, and it was one of the few reasons one could escape the place for a few days. My Grandma died when I was on the USS Ranger in the Gulf of Tonkin during Vietnam. Both of those are other stories. I wept unabashedly. She outlived him by more than a decade.
I don’t know who brought up the idea of West Point. I knew it was essentially a “free college” if one could qualify. Normally, an applicant must have a congressional appointment; however, I found I was eligible by virtue of my father’s circumstance of death. He had died when I was sophomore in high school. We had only lived together until I was five or six-years-old, but he was my ticket to West Point.
After divorcing my mother, my dad married a southern belle from South Carolina. I stayed one summer with them in Sumter where she had pioneered a school teaching airmen at Shaw AFB clerical skills. She eventually remarried a “good ole boy” and lived in the thriving metropolis of Hagood SC (pop. 600). She was a wonderful lady, and one of my proudest life moments was dropping into Shaw in an F-15. I was a brigadier general at the time. She asked, “Should you really be flying that plane all by yourself?” She bragged on me a lot.
I entered West Point in 1953. For a kid who knew very little about the military, it was a rude awakening. “Live Free or Die!” had been my state motto, but I found very little freedom at the United States Military Academy. In fact, I found myself pretty much only free to study. It was a long four years. I graduated with the Class of 1957 and a general engineering degree. As Gen Douglas MacArthur said in his farewell speech to the cadet corps, “My days of old have vanished – tone and tints.” Yes, my memories of West Point have faded, some intentionally, but I do remember one high point and it had to do with athletics.
I was a baseball player at West Point, outfield and occasionally pitcher. A yearly tradition was for the New York Giants professional baseball team to come to West Point pre-season and play an exhibition game. Gameday I came to bat against a pitcher, Mike McCormick, who was a much-ballyhooed rookie hired in 1956. In fact, he had thrown a no-hitter the previous year. McCormick wound-up and on my first at-bat, I slugged the ball out of the park for a home run. He was visibly pissed. During my remaining at-bats, I don’t think I ever saw the ball. So, my cadet claim to fame is – I am probably the only West Pointer that ever hit a homerun against an eventual Cy Young Award winner.
My class of 1957 included some well-known four-star generals including Carl Vuono, later Army Chief of Staff and Don Kutyna, later head of Air Force Space Command. The famous football player and “Lonesome End,” Pete Dawkins, was two classes behind me.
After graduation, I took my commission in the Air Force. That could be done in those days because the Air Force Academy had not yet been established; remember, in 1957, the Air Force was only 10 years-old. About 15 percent of every West Point graduating class opted for Air Force. I traded-in my Army green for Air Force blue (actually “silver tans,” a handsome uniform we should bring back) and headed for pilot training at Laredo AFB, TX. At Laredo we flew the T-34 and T-28 in Primary and the T-33 in Basic.
Pilot training was a blast and I even learned to enjoy the heat and “Tex-Mex” Mexican food, a big change for a New England boy. Weekend forays into Nuevo Laredo were a definite side benefit and I never spent a night in a Mexican jail. The biggest blast was receiving a graduation assignment to the F-100 Super Sabre in Tactical Air Command (TAC). The F-100 was the USAF’s first truly supersonic fighter.
The “Hun,” as we called it, was meant to replace the F-86 as the frontline air superiority fighter. The first F-100As had significant stability problems and a very high accident rate. Modifications were made and by the time I finished F-100 training at Luke and Top-off at Nellis AFBs in 1959, I was assigned to my first unit, the 510th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Clark Air Base in the Philippines flying F-100Ds. The aircraft had been further modified to assume the role of a fighter-bomber, capable of conventional and nuclear weapons delivery – bombs, rockets, missiles, and guns. This was an exciting time for me – how good could life be? – a young, single fighter pilot flying a supersonic aircraft in the Orient and getting paid to do it!
After a year and one-half in the Philippines flying the F-100, I moved to Louisiana and England AFB. Having grown up in southern New Hampshire, just 50 miles north of Boston, I had an accent like Jack Kennedy. The Cajuns had an accent all their own. I was living in a foreign country. An outsider overhearing a conversation between me and a Cajun would need a translator. Our fighter wing had four squadrons, each equipped with 24 F-100s, at least on paper. A drastic shortage of spare parts led us to perhaps being 50 percent in-commission on any given day. One of our squadrons was deployed overseas at all times. Those were the days of heavy TAC rotations that took a toll on careers, families and marriages.
Our squadron commanders were often of WWII or Korean War vintage. They and we young fighter pilots were from different planets. We were in a training rut. This was the Cold War and most USAF fighters of the day were capable of delivering nuclear weapons. So, we sat nuclear alert all over the world ready to turn parts of the planet and its occupants into “crispy critters.”
Midway through my time at Alex, I was selected to attend the USAF Fighter Weapons School (FWS) at Nellis AFB, NV. This is where you went to get your Ph.D. in the fighter business. The USAF FWS “long” preceded the Navy Top Gun school. It was also far more disciplined and realistic. We spent the weekend in downtown Vegas, but Monday we were back at it “full throttle.” I managed to come away with awards for Academics, Flying, and overall Top Gun. Over time, the plaques and trophies have migrated from living room to den, to office, to garage. Such is life; past glories fade into memories.
I did have a very minor advantage. The year before I attended FWS, the Air Force sponsored, “The World Congress of Flight.” One pilot from each fighter wing in the Air Force competed. I won the shoot-off at Alex and represented the 401st TFW. Although I was a mere 1st Lt, I finished 5th in the world; not bad by almost any standard, but for a fighter pilot, not very fulfilling. My backup pilot for this event was Capt Jim Ryan. After I had won the competition at Alex, the Wing Commander, likely a little nervous about the junior lieutenant brought Jim back from temporary duty in Turkey to go head-to-head with me in one more shoot-out. I was more than a little pissed at having to win twice but didn’t get a vote. I beat Jim by a whisker, validating the previous competition. We’ve been good friends ever since – one helluva’ guy.
One late spring morning, my squadron commander called me in to tell me I had a new assignment. I was going to fly with the U.S. Navy on exchange duty – what a hardship – Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego CA. I was soon off to the first of four assignments in the Golden State, where I was to spend nearly a third of my Air Force career.
The first four or five months were spent in the F-4 Replacement Air Group, or “RAG,” VF-121. A like squadron trained naval aviators on the east coast. The F-4B was an early version of the nearly 5,000 Phantoms produced by McDonnell Douglas Corp. and flown by dozens of countries. Between our Navy and Air Force, “the Phantom,” was in service for nearly 50 years; still is in some foreign countries. There were a few F-4As at Miramar when I first arrived, and I took my first F-4 flight in the backseat of one on the long journey (15 miles as the crow flies) from Miramar to North Island where it wound up on a pole, displayed at the main gate. Over time I checked-out in the F-4C, D, E and G. The aircraft got heavier every passing year. In the tropical atmosphere of the Philippines in the 1980s an F-4G simply would not climb above 25,000 ft. without stroking the afterburner.
A bachelor in San Diego has lots of distractions – think back to the songs of the ‘60s, California Dreamin’. My first pad was bayside on Mission Beach. I could fall off my second-floor patio and land in the sand at $110 a month. Later, I moved into the “Poonderosa,” appropriately named and another “bachelor shack” more inland but with the ocean in sight. Remember Lorne Greene and the Ponderosa? – pool, palms – no telling who you might run across or in what state when the sun came up. It was an eclectic group who lived there over time: a “conventional” submariner who had been in some verrrrry interesting places (these guys did risky things you would not believe); a rookie naval aviator, later to be a rear admiral; and many more. I was only five years out of West Point and my eyes were being opened – WIDE!
When I arrived at Miramar, I was already a combat veteran. I had flown a few F-100 missions from my Alex rotation days into the Plain of Jars and other interesting spots in Southeast Asia (SEA) that would soon become part of the American lexicon. Our USAF squadron had rotated to the Philippines and from there forward deployed into Da Nang. On one mission we were personally briefed by the senior Air Force general in-country. The mission was led by Maj Dave Ward, the 615th TFS Squadron Commander and was in many ways a comedy of errors. The bad guys had shot down a USAF recce bird, an F-101 in the Plain of Jars. Someone in Washington thought that was a bit much, and the perpetrators needed to be punished.
The Wing Commander at Clark, to whom we had ceded operational control, was a WWII veteran with a few kills under his belt, but the intervening years had invalidated the tactics of two decades prior. The Wing King was flamboyant. At George AFB, his personal F-104 was specially painted and had white sidewall tires! He insisted he be on the mission.
We got through the mission without hurting anyone, but I give Lady Luck most of the credit. We made multiple passes on a gun site like we were on a gunnery training range in the U.S. Good grief! Lots of orange tracers came whizzing past. The Colonel’s flight of four hit the wrong target. They also mismanaged their fuel and had to recover in Thailand. My flight got back to Da Nang OK, although my wingman and I had less than 1000 lbs. of JP-4 left between us; within the range of instrument error in the F-100.
Lessons learned? If you go over five years between combat excursions, your tactics are probably amiss. Red Flag and advanced unit training at Nellis and overseas has improved this dilemma, but it is not solved. This was just one of many examples of early “goat rope” tactics in a screwed-up war.
Oh, yes, back to the Navy and the “carrier quals” that elevated my heart rate at the beginning of this story: I made it that night, successfully “qualed” and shortly after, I transferred to my regular Navy squadron that had just returned from a Pacific cruise. After a few weeks of light duty, they began the training cycle work-up for their next trip to the western Pacific and Southeast Asia. This would become my second combat tour, the first being out of Da Nang with the Air Force.
Navy F-4 pilots were trained as interceptor pilots with the primary mission of fleet air defense. The Air Force had operated the F-4 for a few years in both air-to-air and air-to-ground roles. For their mission in Vietnam, the Navy F-4 community needed to learn how to “bomb.” To say the F-4 pilots were less than enthusiastic is an understatement. They viewed themselves as “MiG killers” and dropping bombs was beneath the dignity of an air-to-air fighter pilot with a silk scarf and carrier qual.
Since I was an “old head” in the bombing business I decided to try to help with the introduction to “pointing your nose at the ground.” With the assistance of my friends at Nellis, I got my hands on some invaluable training material. Then, I persuaded the somewhat reluctant (a gross understatement) squadron commander, he needed to get in the game. He wasn’t all in but agreed to give it a go, and his enthusiasm brightened as time passed.
Ground school came first: dive angle; bomb fall line; ballistics – the very basics. As I stood at the blackboard, I too often saw “Xs” or maybe blanks for eyes. Persistence, an important principle in warfare, began to pay off in the training world. We deployed to Yuma to take advantage of nearby training ranges and the pilots began to find out air-to-ground could be fun.
One morning, we were to drop some live ordnance, Mk-82 500 lb. “Snakeye” retarded bombs. I took a stroll through the jets on the ramp and was glad I did. The retarded bombs were grossly miss-wired. They would have dropped from the jets armed, but not retarded, and may have gone off right under the airplane and blown up a jet or two. I got the Squadron Commander to call a halt to flying. Somehow we got through our work-up without hurting anyone and were off to the war on the aircraft carrier, USS Ranger.
The Navy decided we needed a little “warmup” before heading for North Vietnam and copped some missions with FACs down in the Delta area of South Vietnam. It wasn’t pretty, and I’m sure the FACs were in wonderment, less than impressed, but we survived and headed north.
One morning my Skipper (the Squadron Commander) said I needed to take a wingman and go see the Admiral. I knew there was an admiral aboard someplace, but he lived in a world of which I knew not. I took a young LT JG and we finally found where the Admiral spent his time. Only the Admiral and a Captain were there. What happened next sounded like one of those sixties TV shows: “I have a special mission for you, should you choose to accept.” I was probably picked because I was the “mad bomber” from the Air Force.
Intelligence reported a large Vietnamese PT boat regularly left the vicinity of Haiphong and sprinted east to a small harbor perhaps 100 miles distant. On board was reportedly a North Vietnamese Admiral. My “wingy” and I plotted it out. We depended on dead-reckoning because the F-4B didn’t have an inertial navigation set. It was simply “time and distance” on a very big lake.
Occasionally in war, the gods are with you. We flew low to stay off the radar, and the weather was “clear and a million.” As we closed with our predicted target, we drifted-up to a thousand feet, and lo and behold, perhaps 45 degrees left, at a perfect distance, there she was: the PT boat with a roiling wake behind her. Earlier, I had chosen to load out with wall-to-wall Zuni 5-inch rockets. My wingman and I each carried 24.
I let the ripple go, probably a little close, but I had fangs out and these dudes were going to die! My first rocket hit right on the bow and sequenced aft. Bodies flew everywhere. We didn’t stay around to look but beat feet back to the boat (only naval aviators can call a ship “a boat”). To tell the truth, I was shaking like a leaf; what a rush. Post-strike photos, probably from a sub, confirmed our claims.
On return to the States, I had anticipated an assignment to the Air Force Fighter Weapons School, but not so fast, Williams. The Air Force had another idea. Since I already knew how to land on a boat, they would like me to deploy with the Navy’s first A-7 squadron. I wasn’t very interested, but what was a Captain to say? I guess I could have checked out of the Air Force like my good friend John Anderson, and gone on to other things. But I acquiesced.
The A-7A was grossly underpowered and had a primitive bombing-navigation system. The Air Force eventually saved the airplane by insisting on a whole new digital avionics suite that paved the way in tactical aviation for years to come.
There was no way out of another long boat ride, so off I went to NAS Lemoore, an Air Force officer preparing for another trip with the Navy to the Gulf of Tonkin for a third combat tour, two off carrier Ranger. This put me in combat parts of five consecutive years and near the end of the tour, we scrambled to Korea where the North Koreans had captured a US intelligence ship, the Pueblo, and imprisoned its crew. Korea and surrounding waters were cold, and we had to fly with “Poopy suits” in case of over-water ejection.
Climbing into the jet one very cold morning, I strained my back so badly I could neither get up nor down the aircraft ladder. I had back spasms that were no fun at all. Of course, I sought medical help and a prescient Navy Flight Surgeon, a friend to this day, decided I had had enough. He grounded me, and for a while thought it was his duty to notify the Air Force. I told him if he did he was a dead man walking. He relented but that backbites me to this day.
I am often asked how it was flying off a carrier? Well, the rooms were small but air-conditioned; the food pretty good; every officer had a safe that also served as a liquor cabinet because liquor was prohibited on board; and the 12-hour work shifts tiring. We flew once or twice a day and the flying was exciting, challenging, rewarding. In our off time, we slept, read or played poker. We were “on-station” for a cruise about six-seven months. We pulled back into Subic Bay in the P.I. for resupply every 30 days. I am a member of the “Triple Centurion” – 300 hundred arrested carrier landings (called “traps”) on the Ranger. The Navy offered me great experiences. I thank them. They are a professional service with a tough life in a demanding business; however, I must admit I have reached the age there are things I would rather do in life than trap on a small pitching deck at night in the weather.
Unlike many of my cohorts, I escaped my combat tours unscathed. I departed the Navy with mixed emotions and headed for Edwards Flight Test Center as TAC’s project officer for A-7 testing, then to the Pentagon in the Tactical Fighter Division, Ops Requirements. National War College came next followed by Izmir, Turkey where I was Base Commander, then a tour as Director of Operations at Zaragosa, Spain. When the A-10 arrived at the 81st TFW at Royal Air Force Station Bentwaters in the U.K. I was sent first as Vice Commander and later became Wing Commander. It was another great flying assignment in a long list. From Bentwaters I went to Ramstein, Air Base Germany to be the Inspector General for USAFE and completed seven concurrent years in Europe.
I assume, to renew my English, I was sent from Europe to be Director of Aerospace Safety at Norton AFB, CA. I was promoted to two-star and became Center Commander. My stateside tour didn’t last long. A year after becoming Safety Center Commander, I was ordered to Clark Air Base in the Philippines to become Commander, 13th Air Force, Pacific Air Forces.
I’ve always had an appreciation for the Philippines since my first assignment there as a buck fighter pilot, and even before that. In Military History class at West Point the tales of our involvement in the P.I. particularly after the Spanish-American War in the very late nineteenth century had been of great interest to me. My first Fight Commander at Clark was Capt Fred Funston III. He was the grandson of Col Fred Funston who captured President/General Emilio Aguinaldo back in 1902 during the Philippine Insurrection. Aguinaldo defeated the Spanish but was no match for the Americans.
My Philippine tour was interesting, not from an operational standpoint, but from a geopolitical perspective. The political landscape in the P.I. had been dominated by Ferdinand Marcos for a long time, but the natives were restless. His administrations were corrupt by any standard to a point they were almost laughable. This led to what was called, “the People Power Revolution.”
Corazon Aquino became the right lady at the right time. Aquino spent years in the States in quasi-exile but was now ensconced on Hacienda Luisita, a semi-fiefdom not far from Clark Air Base. Her husband had been assassinated on the tarmac at Manila International upon his return from exile a few years earlier. No one of importance was ever brought to justice over that crime, but it was commonly accepted that the Marcos’s were behind it. The revolution was a story unto itself, too long to be detailed here. But, suffice it to say that Aquino courageously toppled the 20-year Marcos regime and saved Philippine democracy. She was Time’s “Woman of the Year” in 1986.
Unrest in Manila burgeoned day-by-day. A key player in the drama was Gen Fidel Ramos, West Point class of 1950. Gen Ramos and I had gotten along very well since my arrival at Clark as West Point “ring knockers” were wont to do. From time-to-time, he came to Clark, and we played golf. In many ways, it was an intelligence dump. I needed to be careful about what I passed on to the Ambassador. I was torn between good friendship and duty.
I had developed a good relationship with U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines, Steve Bosworth who was a “risen” star in the Diplomatic Corps. Bosworth was on his third ambassadorship and younger than me. We met often at the weekly country team meeting at the Embassy on Manila Bay. Steve liked golf, and the Air Force managed a conference center, resort and golf course in Baguio, a delightful small town in the mountains 120 miles north of Clark. It was a great place to escape. One of the perks of command was access to a beautiful villa, with seven bedrooms, and built-in maids and cooks. One could stand on the veranda in the morning and look down on a brilliant white undercast as far as the eye could see. The elevation was 5500 feet. (Mile High Club anyone?)
The Ambassador also had a magnificent residence in Baguio. General Jonathan Wainright, who was cruelly imprisoned by the Japanese during WWII, accepted their surrender in that residence in 1945. When appropriate, we scheduled joint conferences there. That allowed me to use my small twin-turbo support aircraft to pick up the Ambassador in Manila and avoid the long drive. He sometimes seemed a little nervous when I was flying the plane.
The streets of Manila were full of protesters, but the protests were rarely violent. The revolution was in full swing. To all but the blind, this would end soon. President Reagan didn’t want an assassination of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos to end this popular people’s movement. Reagan was persuaded by Secretary of State George Schultz to approve the Marcos’s exile to asylum in Hawaii.
There were three very large U.S. Air Force helicopters at Clark, not under my direct command, but always supportive of our needs. We planned to land just outside the moat surrounding the Philippine Presidential Palace, pickup Marcos and make our way back to Clark, no small feat to pull-off safely in view of the unrest.
I was at the U.S. Embassy. The choppers stopped and picked me up along with Brigadier General Teddy Allen, Chief of JUSMAAG, the assistance group. We then picked up Marcos and his entire entourage just after dark and made our way to Clark. An adventurous six hours later, the Marcos’s were on their way to Guam and thence to Hawaii.
The end of my Philippine tour was filled with medical drama. I met a “bad mosquito” and contracted encephalitis, a viral brain infection that can be life-threatening and mine certainly was. I lost my memory and was really down for the count. It was a horrible experience. I was assigned as Deputy for Programs and Resources in the Pentagon but spent most of the year in medical rehab at John Hopkins. I am not sure I ever totally recovered. When I returned to duty, I went to Stuttgart, Germany as J-5 for European Command. From there I retired with just over 35 years in the military.
Looking back on my career, I am grateful to the Air Force for all the opportunities and challenges they pushed my way. I never had a bad assignment. I met wonderful people, made good friends and held great commands. I got a view of the world few get to see.
What a ride!