Goodbye, Robin, our Once and Future Leader…

Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing Historian

***image1***It was 1967. I was in pilot training, and the air war over North Vietnam, called Rolling Thunder, was raging, and Air Force aircraft were going daily to the flak and SAM filled skies over Hanoi and suffered brutal losses.We young lieutenants listened to the stories of the war from those who had returned with a mix of fear and awe.  The famous names rolled across half a world − Kasler, Risner, Broughton, Richter − but above all was Olds.

Robin Olds. Commander in the Eighth Tactical Fighter Wing, Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, the “Wolfpack.” For us he was bigger than life. We knew the stories − All-American tackle at West Point, ace and squadron commander at 22 in Europe during World War II, married to a movie star (the list went on.)

He led from the front. The story was − and Robin attracted stories − that he walked into the wing his first day of command and told his deputy, “You run the wing, I’m going to fly.”  And fly he did, on every tough mission, leading a low-level attack on the most dangerous of North Vietnamese targets, the Thai Nguyen iron works, and along the way shooting down four MiGs, the most by any American up to that time.  In the evenings, he led in the officers club like he led his combat missions, from the front, whether singing or beginning a rugby scrum. It was the job he was born for, and the guys who flew with him loved him. His appearance contributed to the legend − a huge handlebar mustache that far exceeded Air Force regulations.

At a schizophrenic time in the Air Force – stateside the motto seemed to be “flying safety is paramount to the completion of the mission” – but Olds made things simple. For Olds, it was OK to be a warrior – in fact, he demanded it, saying regularly “Our mission is to fly, fight, and go to the bar.”

I did not meet him until late 1971, when we were fighting a vastly different war, much more low threat, than his war. He came to as the Chief of Air Force Safety, leading an inspection team to our F-4 base, Udorn, in northern Thailand. We, from the youngest aircrew to the wing leaders, were excited – thrilled, actually − at this second coming. The word had come down that his old wing at Ubon had not let him fly and did not even have a party for him. I was one of the project officers for the visit and our wing’s leaders – all of whom, I am happy to say, went on to become multi-star air force leaders – would have none of that.

There was the tricky business of avoiding the appearance that we were trying to influence the outcome of the inspection by doing anything extra for him, so the wing developed an elaborate kabuki to avoid the appearance of impropriety. When Olds arrived, we took him on a tour of the command post and showed him the next days flying schedule, then our wing commander apologetically asked him, “Sir, I was wondering if you could do us a favor. We have a mission into North Vietnam tomorrow, a RF-4 reconnaissance escort, and we are short of flight leads for the four ship fighter escort. You’re still qualified in the F-4 – do you suppose you could possibly help us out … ?”

Olds was no fool. His lip twitched a bit, but he allowed as how, since we were short and he knew how things were in the combat zone, he could probably do that…

***image2***He flew as No. 3, an element lead, and the four-ship flight lead was a young Capt. “Broadway Fred” Olmstead, who sported a mustache as big Olds had sported, which did not go unnoticed. I flew the recce bird, but the rules of engagement at the time were that the fighters could not bomb in North Vietnam unless we were fired upon first. Though I seem to remember we flew a bit slower and lower than normal, the North Vietnamese did not take the bait. After we completed our photo run, Olds and the rest of the F-4s went off to drop their bombs with a forward air controller. Not the most exciting mission he ever flew, but the best we could do at the time.

When he landed, the wing commander met him with another request for a favor. “Sir, tonight is the Thai Water Festival, and we have been planning a big party. Our guest speaker couldn’t make it, we have a spot at the head table, and were hoping… Could you possibly take in and perhaps tell a few stories − safety oriented, of course …”

Again, a twitch of the lip, resigned acquiescence, then it was off to the local tailor – who just happened to have an open appointment − to get a “Party Suit,” the tailored flight suits in squadron colors we all wore to parties. The club was packed for the dinner, and Olds did not disappoint. Tales of flying fighters in the “big war,” how his guys had trapped and shot down half the MiG-21s in the North Vietnamese Air Force … Then, after the dinner, he led into the bar where he stood on the stage and led us in many hours of singing. My last memory if that night was Olds at the bar surrounded by a bunch of young guys – outside of a fighter cockpit, his favorite place.

It may seem he was a product of a past time, but he was a brilliant innovator along the lines of Billy Mitchell, and along with that he left behind another lasting legacy − the warrior ethos of the modern Air Force. But don’t believe it when someone says “We will never see his like again.” I see his shadow every day here at Ramstein.