Colonel Bob Scott
It was nearing 0930 hrs and the sun was already bearing down hard on the steamy runways. The humid skies overhead were clear, but with developing rainstorms north and east. Haze below the cloudline rendered the horizon almost invisible. It was a regular morning at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand. The year was 1967.
The day’s first launch of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing’s F-105 strike aircraft had rolled out at 0620 without a hitch. The flightline was empty of planes except for a few under repair and some on “standby alert”. The birds should be due back pretty soon. Subtle evidence of their anticipated arrival could be seen on base. Trailers, some carrying racks of bombs and others with air to air and air to ground missiles had already been parked near the edge of the flightline, ready to be installed on the aircraft when they returned. In the sweltering tropical heat, most of the ground crew personnel were in t-shirts. Crew chiefs, with intercom/ear protectors hanging around their necks were beginning to tidy their areas and place equipment in the correct positions at each parking spot. At the ends of the runways, the de-arm crews began looking toward the skies off to the north. The weapons troops were casually picking up their toolbelts and gathering on the flightline by their “jammers”. The next frag order was already on the greaseboard and the load crews had their work-orders in hand, ready for the turn-around. For most aircraft it would be more of the same: 500 pound bombs on multiple ejection racks centerline and inboard; AIM-9 air-to-air missiles outboard; Check and reload the 20mm M-61 guns.
The mach-2 F-105 Thunderchief was a big, quick fighter-bomber. Originally designed to deliver tactical nuclear weapons, it was doing combat service in Southeast Asia, speeding conventional bomb loads to targets in “Route Package Six”, whose perimeter included North Vietnam’s capitol, Hanoi, and Haiphong Harbor, the country’s largest seaport. It was a speed demon, but not as agile a dogfighter as the Russian MIG-17. Victories in those duels were hard won, due to superior determined pilots who knew how to handle these big fast weapon platforms – “Thud Drivers”, they were dubbed.
Proof of tough work-days was increasingly obvious: frequent battle damage; airplanes “returning winchester” - armament, missiles, and ammunition completely expended; sometimes a crew chief standing at an empty parking spot after flight recovery. It was getting rough up there, and the ground crews, though not in the cockpit, felt a big stake in the game. They did their jobs diligently and well, making sure the pilots were strapped to dependable aircraft and could push the button on dependable weapons. Every day, the smoke of each bird’s main tires hitting Takhli’s runways was a welcome sight.
For the most part, news media back home weren’t paying much respect to the difficulties of these missions or the heroics of the pilots flying out of Thailand into enemy skies filled with flak, MIGs, and telephone-pole sized missiles. The targets they were assigned were as treacherous as any in history to reach and destroy. The strain on the pilots was extreme, but they kept flying. They kept assaulting the enemy deep in his territory. Losses were high, and news of casualties, MIAs, and pilots in the hands of the enemy was arriving back home every day.By the time of the war’s end, almost half the F-105s built would be lost. But this day, here at Takhli, everything just boiled down to the mission. There was work to do to keep the birds in the air and the weapons on the targets.
They could be spotted long before the familiar engine roar began to announce their return. From the haze over the northeastern horizon emerged black dots growing into familiar Thunderchief silhouettes in 4-bird formations. Arriving at about 1000 feet above ground level, the first flight coursed over the length of the runway, the lead plane suddenly banking left and descending in a wide spiral to final approach on runway 18, each aircraft of the flight precisely following in turn. As they touched down, their drogue chutes popped open and trailed like long bridle reins pulling warhorses to a walk.
The commander’s aircraft was clearly recognizable, leading the first flight as the Thuds taxied to the flightline and signaled by the ground crew chiefs to a stop. Engines were shutting down and ground crews immediately setting to work, preparing them for turn-around as the “tire kicker” ran up the ladder to assist the Wing Commander out of the cockpit. The commander told the crew chief he wanted to see the photo troop taking the strike film out of the number 2 aircraft. “Yes sir!” He went down and summoned the photo troop, a young t-shirted GI, who in turn ran up the ladder. “What’s your rank, son?” asked the colonel, pulling his helmet off and unstrapping from the seat. “I’m a sergeant, sir.” “How would you like to make staff?” “I can’t, sir. I’ve just sewed this one on.” “Don’t worry about that”, he said with characteristic calm. Peering at the fighter on his left, he said “Destroy that strike film and you’ll be a staff sergeant tomorrow.” The photo troop backed down the ladder, walked over to the wingman’s bird, popped the film canister out, and accidentally dropped it, the film unrolling across the flightline.
I enlisted in the US Air Force in 1968, restless and in need of a little growing up. Up till then, nothing had been important in my life that was not part of the ranch where I had spent my life. School had been of little interest, having chosen a world surrounded by grama grass and cedar horizons, and believing a good string of horses at hand and good cattle under my care to be enough, I was nevertheless being stalked by unexplainable restlessness – and the Draft Board. I think if a poll were taken the consensus would be that those horizons needed a little broadening, my vote being with the majority. I arrived at Amarillo Air Force Base for basic training, coming off two months of calving out 400 heifers, having pretty much worked around the clock, sleeping and eating when we had a spare chance. Daily drill, PT, three meals a day, and regular sleep put 20 pounds on my frame in six weeks. Military life introduced a lot of new concepts, although discipline and respect for authority were already familiar. My lessons learned at the Cow Outfit School of Hard Knocks were valuable in this new environment: make a hand; pay attention; don’t get in the way; the boss is in charge; stay loyal to the outfit; the job at hand - the mission - is what counts.
After Amarillo, I was stationed at Lowry AFB, Colorado, training as a weapons troop, learning the bombs, guns, and missiles of delivery platforms like the F-100 Super-Saber, the F-4 Phantom, and the F-105 Thunderchief.There, a weapons instructor fresh back from Takhli told the story of the encounter between the colonel and the photo troop who made staff.
I left Lowry with orders for Cannon Air Force base, near Clovis, New Mexico. It was home for the 27th Tactical Fighter Wing, an F-100 outfit. Clovis, a cattle town central to the agricultural economy in Texas and New Mexico, was very familiar to me, and I was glad to have my cultural roots within reach right outside the base security gate, and the home ranch only 150 miles away.
My father, a leader in cattle industry affairs, frequently spent time in Clovis. One day he called me to say he was coming to town to give a talk at the grand opening of the new livestock market and asked if I could meet him there. I would be off duty that day, so I said “sure”. He said there was someone he wanted to introduce to me.The next day I dropped in on the festivities at the new sale ring, dressed like any of the cowboys and cattlemen there. Soon I spotted my dad in the large crowd. “Come with me. I want you to meet somebody.”“Who is it?” I asked. He replied, “Colonel Bob Scott.”
I must have looked like a saddlehorse balking at a badger hole. “I can’t meet him,” I exclaimed. “That’s the Division Commander!” There was no reasonable scenario that would put me face to face with this Commander – at least none I was willing to imagine. The man was high ranking, notorious, and way out of my caste. On Base, he was known as “Colonel God”, having a huge reputation for being demanding, tough, by-the-book, and no sufferer of fools; a mythic Air Force version of George Patton. I had two stripes on my sleeve and didn’t belong in his company; yet there was my father characteristically assuming everything was normal. Well, he insisted in his inimitable good-natured style, so I had the reluctant opportunity to meet Colonel God that day.
Colonel Robert R. Scott was the perfect military representative in that setting, having grown up on a family farm in the midwest, steeped in agricultural heritage. His knowledge and enthusiasm for cattle and agriculture, coming from inside a hero’s uniform, bred enormous respect in a town like Clovis. He was well spoken, confident, and committed to the ties between the military base and the community. We neared the Colonel in the crowd, and when he turned toward my dad and me I got my first closeup look at this man with the iron fisted reputation.
He was not a large man, and lacked the bigger-than-life square jawed features of a stereotypical ‘Steve Canyon’. Without the uniform to give him away I would, at a distance, have picked him to be a professor before I would a fighter pilot. Nevertheless, his straight, slender frame carried the tailored blue testimony of his profession in impeccable order, disclosing “authority” and “duty” in the same visual phrase. Multiple rows of ribbons above the left breast pocket silently spoke stories of battle and honor, and a small silver eagle rested in perfect spacing on each shoulder.Under his flag cap, close-cropped graying hair framed a broad forehead and a face that was both open and authoritative, with a smile that was certain and came quickly. His piercing blue eyes had a far-reaching squint that seemed to be common in combat pilots. As we shook hands his manner was friendly and genuine, with a natural air of respect. He appeared glad to meet me and proud to learn that he and I were, as far as he was concerned, in the same line of work.
Colonel Scott and my father became fast friends, and he was a frequent visitor to the ranch. As a result, the Colonel and I became friends also, traveling on occasion to the Park Springs Ranch for a few days of escape to hunt or ride or simply relax away from the military. Other officers, including 27th Wing Commander Colonel Frank Buzze, would also sometimes join up at the ranch for a respite with the Culbertsons.
Unconventional weakly describes this relationship between the commander and the airman. On base there was none. We were professionals in respective but vastly separate realms of the same world. I was content to load bombs on the flightline and trust Col. Scott with the Division. At the ranch, on the other hand, we would all pour a scotch in the evenings, enjoying steaks and good conversation about politics, philosophy, cattle, and ranching, laced with an occasional understated war story or other remembrance.Then – back to Cannon, back to work.
While on a business trip to Washington DC once, my father was having lunch with New Mexico’s Senator Joe Montoya. “Joe,” he asked. “… You know Colonel Scott, don’t you?” “Sure”, the senator said. Dad continued, “It’s curious. Bob holds sway over five fighter wings in four states. He obviously enjoys a status in the Air Force like few I’ve ever heard of. He is, in my estimation, a great man in every way. The man is an Air Division Commander, and three of his wing commanders are generals; yet he’s a bird colonel. It doesn’t make sense. You have any idea what the story is?” Joe said, “Yes, I do …”
The air war over North Vietnam in 1967 was hot and getting hotter. F-4 and F-105 squadrons attacking from bases in Thailand had their hands full with high mission load, little rest and casualties almost every day. Colonel Scott commanded the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing at Takhli, Thailand. Route Package Six, their assigned target territory, was mean-streets for sure. The heroic pilots were leaving the runway by sunup, refueling inflight before crossing the threshold of enemy territory, then dropping low and fast, breaking over the treetops of a shallow mountain range running northwest to southeast known as Thud Ridge, to strike supply lines and infrastructure near Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor. First in, and last out, were always the “Wild Weasels”, specialized F-105s fitted with electronic gear and weaponry for detecting and destroying surface to air missile launch sites.
Frustration was as high as the tension and fatigue, The city of Hanoi and the port of Haiphong were off limits to attack, so the enemy grouped anti-aircraft assets behind those arbitrary boundaries and pounded the flights with impunity. Political restraint was taking its toll on the opportunities for victory and the men who would, if they could, seize them.The pilots were constantly in the flak, straining to make out their assigned targets while watching for the telltale flash and contrail of the surface-to-air missiles rising out of the protected areas. Evasion of a launched surface-to-air missile required nerve, precision, and luck.Skill, training, courage, and sheer determination were the ingredients in the pilots’ character that brought the weapons to their assigned mark in these conditions. The pilots got it done, but they knew, every day, they were leaving off-limits targets behind that could bring the enemy to his knees and shorten the war. Unfortunately, the DC beltway warriors were in charge of the targeting, not the commanders.
Once the bombs were delivered, the pilots turned their attention to the challenge of getting back home – no small feat. Low on fuel, the flights would head out over the Gulf of Tonkin in search of the Stratotankers that would give them their inflight top-off before turning back for Takhli. Crossing back over North Vietnam, the gamut of deadly obstacles was as menacing as ever.SAMs took aim, and Soviet built MIG-17 fighters would rise like occasional angry hornets. The 105s could simply outrun the Migs like high school kids at a drag race, but they would often turn and fight, in twisting G-laden maneuvers, positioning on their targets for the M-61 ‘Vulcan’ guns or heat seeking missiles. They sealed the last sortie for a lot of those Soviet fighters. Colonel Bob Scott faced off on 26 March 67, marking up a MIG-17 with his 20mm gun.
That was the normal work routine for the 355th, and so it was on one flak infested morning as Wing Commander Scott, call sign “Leech-1”, led his flight, a part of the 333rd Squadron, through the broken clouds on a bombing run near Haiphong. Besides the flak, they were having to out-manage the SAMs that had avoided destruction by the Wild Weasels when, from the harbor, a Russian ‘freighter’ – with a big gun - opened fire. The ship was no stranger, and this wasn’t the first time the interloper had joined in the fray. It was getting to be a frustrating and lethal nuisance. Suddenly, Colonel Scott’s wing-man rolled left, fell into a steep approach toward the harbor, lined up on the Soviet vessel, and released the full destructive force of his 100 rounds-per-second 20mm gun. As he ascended out of the strafing run, the vessel was in flames, stem to stern. The ship’s gun had been silenced, but what would be the cost? It was an unauthorized and “illegal” action. In the days to follow there would be accusations by the Soviets, denial by the United States, film of the strafing produced by the Soviets, embarrassed acknowledgment by the US, and a full scale international incident with all the accoutrements of scandal-hungry media, opportunistic politicians, and a mad-as-hell president and pentagon. The beltway warriors were in a frenzy.
The commander pondered these inevitabilities as his flight made its way back to Takhli. One of his pilots had broken ranks and abandoned all training and discipline, taking matters into his own hands and cutting across all the rules. It was a rash and unacceptable action, and this kid was in real trouble. Colonel Scott would deal with him, and with anybody else who might believe such an action could be tolerated. But he knew another thing he had to do – stay in charge of dealing with the incident. There was going to be trouble in high places, and other people, for other reasons, would want this young officer’s head on a pike.
Back in the old days, before our Lord and Savior came to straighten some of these issues out, it was customary for a village to select a single goat from the herd, go through fear driven rituals, and at the end of the day assign all the citizens’ sins to the goat. Then they would banish the animal from the village, abandoning this sudden and solitary criminal to the wilderness, and to the wolves of the dark. The people then, for a while, felt better about themselves, righteous, with all wrongs comfortably hidden away, and a new sense of innocence in prevail. It wouldn’t be long before the Pentagon would initiate an investigation to support a political cure for the problem. Their charge would be simple: find the pilot and bring down upon him all the sins of the “village”, assuaging the proxy enemy, and helping everybody – but the pilot – to feel better. As soon as his engines were shutting down, Colonel Scott was on a plan to protect the rash young pilot. He was going to make this guy wish he were dead; nevertheless, the kid was a courageous airman and a patriot – not a goat - and didn’t deserve the wolves of the dark.
As predicted, in a few days the investigating team, led by a pentagon general whose name is no longer known nor important, arrived. Encountering the wing commander, they got straight to the point, demanding the name of the pilot of the F-105 in the Russian film.The answer was as pointed in return – “No.” The investigators would not be given the name. The general made the point that Colonel Scott was being ordered to turn the pilot over. Again, the answer was no.
I imagine the conversation may have gone something like, “ … You don’t understand. You are under orders to give us the name!”---“ … I am the Commander of this wing. I am responsible for all the men in it, their discipline and their protection. These young men are flying tough missions under extreme pressure, looking death in the eye every day. I’ll not hand one of them over to a committee looking for a scapegoat. As their commander, it stops with me. You know that.”He was right, and they knew it. They went back to Washington empty handed and furious over their failure to deliver the promised sacrifice on the altar of international politics. Scott would pay.
In the military, to achieve the rank of general, the candidate must first be selected by a committee of generals known as the Promotion Board. A member of that board, the investigating team leader took vindictive opportunity to exact revenge on this commander who chose his men over the expedience of the beltway power structure.The general was overheard to say that, for as long as he was a member of the promotion board, Scott would not get his star.
I left Cannon in late 1969 with orders for Danang Airfield, Republic of Vietnam, with a few months’ stop-over at MacDill AFB, Florida for training on F-4 Phantoms. One morning while at MacDill I was called to the phone by a rather panicky 2nd lieutenant. It was Colonel Scott on the line. He said he would be flying in to MacDill for a couple of days and wanted to know if we could get together for dinner. Near his ETA I went down to base ops where they would be parking his F-100, and where I saw evidence this was no run-of-the-mill colonel. A red carpet was unrolled to his parking spot and a line of senior officers was awaiting his arrival. Looking up, I saw the familiar SuperSabre in the landing pattern, with all the 27th TFW squadron colors arrayed in stripes on its tail. He landed, taxied to the apron, and shut down, and the line of officers came to attention when he dismounted. Each of the men in the reception line saluted and shook his hand. A staff car was available for his use, and as soon as he caught my eye he waved me toward it. As we pulled away, a lot of brass was left standing on the curb, no doubt wondering who the heck I was. It was a good visit that evening over drinks and dinner, talking about things back at Cannon and Clovis, the cattle business, the ranch and the family, and my coming assignment in the war zone.
Equidistant between Saigon and Hanoi, Danang Airfield was known by its well earned nickname, “Rocket City”. By May of 1970, I was on the flightline there, in the 366th TFW “Gunfighters”, loading weapons on F-4Es on 12-hour shifts. Those days in the war zone, letters were the only link with home, except for a single allowed phone call during the tour. In a letter from my folks one day, I read of Colonel Scott’s retirement ceremony at Cannon AFB a few weeks previous. It was said to be big, attended by plenty of military and civilian friends, brothers-in arms, and brass from throughout the Air Force. And, indeed, he was still a Colonel.
Robert R. Scott was a military officer unmatched in experience and credentials. He flew in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, flying more than 300 missions in those three wars, 134 of them over North Vietnam. Between Korea and Vietnam he was test pilot for the F-105 and F-107.All the way, he was trusted with command authority. I doubt that any Air Force officer would have been more solidly qualified to assume high command; the entire department, or for that matter the entire military force, than Bob Scott. A shallow military bureaucrat, a general for reasons unknown, moved to prevent that by withholding a symbol of authority. What he could not cancel was the real greatness, the true power, of the man.
Some might contend the colonel himself was party to a clandestine plot to attack the so-called freighter, ordered by shadowy unaccountable DC players. Were that the truth, then he too had been slated for the wolves of the dark, knowing he was about to be a victim of that war’s political dark side. It didn’t matter. He did what he was called to do, then protected his men while watching his own future disintegrate.
The collision between a superb military career and a small-minded attempt at retribution caused “Colonel Bob Scott” to become a phrase, a title in itself, that in some ways transcended conventional terms of military rank. Generals’ stars did not outweigh its authority, honor, and respect. The real warriors in charge knew the quality of the man, and revealed that respect by entrusting the 832nd Air Division to his charge until the completion of a full and enviable span of service.
In 1972 I left active duty and returned, with the love of my life, to the ranch that had never released its grip on me. The familiar things once again surrounded me – a big open country, good cattle, a good string of horses. Georgia and I made a little rock house on the west side of the ranch our home. I was a cowboy again, doing what I had always wanted, but now, standing on the ground I chose for my life and for my family, I felt a different kind of connection to a much bigger world. During my military hitch I experienced things and made friends, good ones, I would never have expected or predicted, and will never forget. The lessons of a diverse world at war and at peace brought me down a little, hopefully adding a pinch of humility to this character mix.
I saw Bob Scott in California later that same year. He was the Test Site Manager for Fairchild Aircraft, and one Sunday morning he drove Georgia and me from his home in Tehachapi down to Edwards Air Force Base. Pulling a hangar door open, he walked us to his project – the A-10 Thunderbolt, a rough and tough straight-winged tank killer that would soon pick up the nickname “Warthog”, and would finally seize its place in history during Operation Desert Storm almost 20 years later. As we stood under the guarding stance of the A-10 and visited, it was clear his confidence and bearing had not changed since the day we met in that crowd of New Mexico cattlemen. Civilian clothes failed to alter the peer of the combat pilot’s eyes or hide the presence of a real officer.
Eventually, Bob, with bride Dorothy, put together a ranch in California, near Tehachapi, taking on a new life as a cattleman. For a while he added a New Mexico ranch to his operations, and we would on rare occasion see him or hear of his whereabouts, but then, over the years, contact faded. I recently learned of his passing in 2006 - “flew west” as he would have said - joining Dorothy who had gone before, at rest on his final mission. Arlington holds another hero.
Bob Scott was never aware that I, or my father, knew his story. It was not important that he did. Such a thing was not the basis, but simply confirmation, of a friendship and respect grown strong. He never knew his story had become a signpost for me; a reminder that the day might come when standing on principle may cost what we expect from life - a reminder that one must well know those principles when facing a choice between the safety of expediency and the risks of honor, and have the courage to make that choice.
It was a routine morning at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, almost cool in the humid pre-dawn darkness. The sun would soon be up, and the pilots were on their way to the flightline from the preflight briefing. The birds were fueled up and the load crews were covering the final checklist items to make sure the weapons and guns were ready and reliable. The ground crew chiefs were readying their areas and positioning the power units for start-up. A young camera troop was buttoning up the last camera bay on the last aircraft. Sunrise was breaking over the eastern horizon as he reached up to lock the camera door, and the morning light revealed a fresh staff-sergeant chevron on his sleeve.
The new stripe wasn’t all that important to him. This day, here at Takhli, everything just boiled down to the mission. There was work to do to keep the birds in the air and the weapons on the targets.
© Copyright 2016 Myles Culbertson. All rights reserved.
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