The VIP Flight
Gideon D. Asche
This article originally appeared in the Havok Journal.
Morning, 20 February 1966 – Andersen Air Force Base, Guam – Home of the 736th Bomber Squadron – they flew BUFFs and were proud of it.
This particular morning would be no different from any other morning that week. The sky over Andersen was full of B-52s heading out to drop their load over Viet Nam – Each evening a flock of B-52s would return, often smaller than when it left.
USAF Capt. Bob Amos picked up a combat mission for that day. There was nothing unusual about him making a combat run over Viet Nam, but on this mission, the mission order included the fact he was part of a thirty-ship bombing mission on a target near Saigon, that his call-sign was “GREEN-TWO” and that a VIP would be along for the ride.
I think I can guess what the young Captain muttered under his breath – random VIP flights are generally a low point in any aviator’s career. They usually involve baby-sitting some old guy who is completely out of his environment and under the impression that he has some authority.
I can imagine Capt. Amos was less than enthused about having a VIP literally looking over his shoulder during a 12+ hour hot combat mission – the extra seat is just behind the pilot in a BUFF. If it were me, I would just be hoping the VIP had the sense to stay out of the way if things got weird.
At a minimum, having a VIP on board would stifle the shenanigans that naturally go on between six young guys who know they may be sharing the same flying coffin. The pre-flight briefing added a complication – Today’s VIP was a Reserve General, he did have some authority.
Captain Amos recognized the General as a well-known screen actor. That meant his rank was likely just “Hollywood Rank,” similar to what was bestowed on Ronald Reagan and other actors who didn’t actually serve except for PR and War Bond films.
Capt. Amos knew this guy was probably just another Hollywood Whuffo who never served in the military other than as PR stunt. I’m fairly sure the entire crew knew this VIP best for his role as a heroic bomber pilot in a favorite movie.
This guy probably even thought he was a real “Bomber Pilot” – getting stuck with a VIP like this would make any crew cringe.
What Capt. Amos didn’t know about this particular “Hollywood General” was that his rank wasn’t Hollywood – and he really was a “Bomber Pilot.” He didn’t need to do much acting in that movie, and the Captain wouldn’t need to baby-sit this General – He was no fledgling.
It didn’t take long for Capt. Amos and his crew to realize the General was more than capable as an extra Pilot and he fit right in with the flow of the crew. I don’t have a clue what they talked about on the flight but If Capt. Amos had asked, he would have learned that this General was worthy more respect as a warrior, than required by his rank.
He was just one in a long line of Soldiers who served this Republic over the years. Both of the General’s grandfathers served in the Civil War, and his father served in combat during the Spanish-American War. Raised to understand that if his country called – answering was NOT a matter of choice. He passed this on to his own children – His son; a Marine officer was killed on a recon mission in Viet Nam.
Working in his father’s hardware store as a boy sparked an incredible interest in all things mechanical. When Charles Lindbergh made his transatlantic flight, all that mechanical thirst turned to flight. He saved the enormous sum of $15 and purchased a 15-min flight from a local pilot.
That was all it took – he was going to be a Pilot.
The boy’s father convinced him the Naval Academy was a poor choice but neglected to Point out the finest Military Academy in the world was just down the road at West Point, and he ended up at Princeton instead.
He graduated with a degree in Architecture but found his second love after flying. He discovered he was more interested in acting than building. He began performing in plays, eventually gaining popularity to the point that MGM signed him to a multi-movie contract.
Then in 1939, two events changed his life forever – He won New York Film Critics Circle Awards – Best Actor Award and… Adolf Hitler invaded Poland.
He was willing to give up his career as one of Hollywood’s leading actors and tried to enlist. To the great relief of MGM – he was rejected for enlistment because his 143 lbs didn’t meet the height and weight minimum for his 6’3” frame.
Being the hottest actor in town paid well, so he hired a dietician to help him gain enough weight to enlist and in Feb 1941 – Long before the Pearl Harbor Attack and just 7 days after being presented the Academy Award for Best Actor – the 32-year-old actor finally managed to pass his physical – he enlisted as a private.
Even though he kept a low profile; didn’t park his Rolls in the barracks lot or have his driver pick him up after duty hours, no one had any doubt who he was. The private did, however, keep his personal airplane down on the flight line and flew it home to visit anytime he had a pass.
Someone realized he had 41/2 times as much solo flight time as the Army required to become an Army Aviator. He was sent to Flight School. With the additional 200 hours, he flew in training he had more total flight time than most of the instructors.
To his disappointment, they made him one.
As a child he had been taught to do everything he did with all he had, he was a great flight instructor. He had a way of talking and a voice that would calm the most hysterical student. His natural command presence would take over and bring order to chaos, a talent that would come in handy in combat.
He knew his skills were better used in combat than teaching the basics of flight so in the only instance I can find of this man calling in favors or using his friends to pull strings – he forced the Army to send him to a combat unit.
He reported in to the 703rd Bombardment Squadron in England as a B-24 First officer.
Distinguishing himself in Combat over Germany he was given command of his own B-24 and eventually promoted to Major. He participated in twelve Combat missions over NAZI Germany; most as lead aircraft
His unique speech and inherent command presence made it possible for him to keep his squadrons together and calm his crews no matter what the Germans threw at them.
In July 1944 he was promoted to Chief of Staff, 2nd Combat Bombardment wing, 8th Air Force and to the rank of Full Bird Colonel.
Twenty Two years later, GREEN-TWO dropped her load, and the group turned toward home, six hours of dull calm and thanks to one of the crewmen, a breakfast of bacon and eggs cooked on a hot-plate in the Radio Compartment. Return trips were usually upbeat, especially since all 30 birds were headed home – all that was left was to put her on the ground and call it a day.
Final approach and checklist, the aircraft decelerating toward rotation speed, Co-Pilot Lee Meyers, hollered “Flaps are splitting!” – This was NOT a good thing.
The BUFF has a reputation for being an engineering anomaly that is actually incapable of flight. I’ve heard her described with great affection as “A half-million pounds of sheet metal, hydraulics, and ordinance; vibrating with such velocity that the earth revolts it from gravitational pull.”
“Flaps are splitting” means that not all sections of the flaps (required for slow flight – i.e. landing) were extending equally. The textbook result was for the ship to roll hard on approach and crash.
Capt. Amos decided to take GREEN-TWO out to a ditch area and have the crew punch out while he held the aircraft stable then punched out himself – a definite maybe as far as success goes, BUFFS don’t fly well with ejection seat sized holes in her airframe.
“General do you understand? We are probably going to eject”; “My command will be – BAIL OUT – BAIL OUT – BAIL OUT. The Navigator will go first and leave a huge hole in the floor; you will go second.”
The General’s voice came over the intercom with that same calming quality that served him so well over Germany – “Why Suure, Capn’ – Ah, Understaaand.”
Having the general in a down ejecting seat meant if he ejected on approach, it would shoot him directly into the ground and take days to dig him out.
Amos took GREEN–TWO out to an area where Crash Rescue was staged and tested his flaps every way possible. To everyone’s relief, the Split Flaps indication was an instrument failure – not battle damage, Capt. Amos landed her without incident.
In three wars and almost three decades of service General Jimmy Stewart earned: 2 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 4 Air Medals, an ARCOM, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a French Croix de Guerre with Palm; and he climbed the ranks from Pvt. (E-1) to full Colonel (O-6) in just 4 years. He remained a Reserve officer, maintaining SAC flight proficiency ratings as a bomber pilot throughout his career as an Actor.
Gen. Stewart is one of the very few Hollywood celebrities who were targeted by the McCarthy witch hunts yet still came out smelling like a rose
Late in Jimmy Stewart’s life, he commented about how he wanted to be remembered –He said
“I’d like people to remember me as someone who was good at his job and seemed to mean what he said.”
Sorry, Sir… I’ll remember you as the Warrior you are.
“It’s a Wonderful life” will take on a whole new significance to me this year.
US Air Force Brig, General Jimmy Stewart made his final “Post Flight” on 2 July 1997 – don’t ya know the Big Guy’s Air Wing did one hell of a fly-by when the General Reported in.
Does anyone know where I can get “Harvey is my co-pilot” bumper sticker for my Jeep?