Such Heroes are fewJanuary 29, 2011

I just finished reading Fighter Pilot by Robin Olds. That giant of a man (6’4”) was a twenty-four carat Pied Piper who fought his way from being an all American football player at West Point to wearing the star of a brigadier on his shoulder. It took thirty years. In-between those years, some of his flying exploits were enough to scare the very sky he flew in, and force the most dreaded lightning bolts back into the shelter of their clouded sheaths. At lease that’s the way I always thought of him. He shot down 9 German fighters in WW- 2 and flew high cover for the troops as they stormed the beaches at Normandy. He was twenty-two years old.

As I read into his book the story expanded and the pages seemed to turn themselves in my hand. The airplanes he flew in that war are forever indelible in my mind, the P-38 and the P-51. In high school I sketched their pictures endlessly in class and fantasized my most vivid dreams. Robin was only eight years my senior. The weekly news of his exploits told the stories and at night I pretended to fly his wing in a P-38 with my white scarf gallantly flapping in the slipstream. We searched the enemy skies, daring, and singing away to the music of our blazing machine guns as Nazi fighters exploded in the face of our heroic onslaught, their wreckage scattering all across the country side. I fell asleep exhausted.

In Vietnam Robin shot down 4 Migs with his dashing F-4 fighter. He flew 155 combat missions around Hanoi, the most dangerous air of that war. The myriad words required to explain the war deeds that define him are prohibitive in this space, but a hint can be given by looking at the medals he was awarded: The Air Force Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, 4 Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit, 6 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 40 Air Medals, the Distinguished Flying Cross (United Kingdom), 2 Croix de Guerre Medals (France) and the Vietnam Air Gallantry Medal with gold wings. Almost impossible!

In 1958 I flew with Robin at our gunnery camp in Tripoli, Libya and on one mission he allowed me lead our flight of four F-100s, and he flew my wing. It was a religious experience. Twenty years later he visited my gallery in Santa Fe and we went to lunch. We were both retired and proud. Every fighter pilot I know brags about knowing Robin Olds, although most of them didn’t. What greater tribute? We all wanted some of him to rub off on us. 

After Vietnam his battle scars remained because all of his wars had ended and he was left alone on the beach with no enemy to fight except the overpowering military bureaucracy. It turned him into a junk-yard dog and he loved being that dog. Lyndon Johnson said “I must meet that man” and Robin was summoned to the Oval Office. He said the White House and the Pentagon didn’t know how to win a war, and their ten minute visit turned into thirty. His words were not well received and he was ordered to report to the General Staff. Everyone thought he would be fired, but he was an imposing figure and commanding in his briefings. He was promoted to general and became Commandant at the Air Force Academy where he’s buried. The last four words in his book are, “I have flown home.”

When Robin died, in 2007, a story circulated in the Pentagon. They wanted to put his body in a display case outside of Fighter Operations and hang a sign that read,

IN CASE OF WAR – BREAK GLASS.

Google Robin Olds




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