Change of Command
When Robin Olds arrived in Vietnam, morale soared.
- By Ralph Wetterhahn
- Air & Space magazine, September 1997
SI Photo SI99-42649
(Page 3 of 7)
Those of us who were flying missions would get frags--fragmentation orders from the 7th Air Force headquarters in Saigon--the night before we were to go. They'd give you the target you were to hit, the time on target, and the tankers you'd get fuel from. You'd head over to the intelligence office and get every photo they had. Then you'd have all night to think about it.
There were a lot of mornings when I'd wake up tense and sweating, listening to mosquitoes buzzing around in the dark. I'd kill a few and wonder if they could somehow warn each other about this guy that was splatting them. Then I'd stagger into the latrine. Four bare light bulbs hung above the sinks. Gnats were diving at the lights, and the sinks would be covered with thousands of dead bugs.
Two days after Fitzgerald slammed into the dirt at Dong Ha, Rapid Roger was put on hold. The 7th Air Force Commander in Saigon, General William W. Momyer, had seen enough bad reports from our wing commander, Colonel Joseph Wilson, and he suspended it. On September 30, Olds arrived.
We had heard about Olds. He had flown P-51 Mustangs and P-38 Lightnings over Europe in World War II and had scored 13 kills in dogfights. We'd also heard that he had been on the general's list some years ago, but had been redlined from promotion. We were curious to meet this resurrected bad boy, and soon after his arrival everybody got the opportunity. He ordered all pilots to come to the main briefing room--the first time we'd all been brought together.
I wouldn't have wanted to address that crowd. We had no respect for leaders because they weren't flying and couldn't talk to us about flying. And we had all the discipline (and about half the maturity) of the Los Angeles Dodgers in a dugout brawl. But the room was quiet. And Olds gave the first version of what J.B. Stone, a captain with the outfit and its savviest tactician, came to call the colonel's "I'm-the-new-guy speech."
Stone, who retired this year from Continental Airlines, can recite the speech today. "He got everybody together and just laid down the rules," Stone says. "After he told us how it was going to be, he'd say, 'I'm the new guy. You know a lot that I don't know, and I'm here to learn from you. But in two or three weeks, I'm gonna be better than all of you. And when I know more about your job than you do, you're in trouble.' "
Over the next few weeks, Olds began flying combat missions with the 433rd. He had flown on the first Air Force jet aerobatic team and was a hell of a pilot. "He was pure business in the cockpit," Dick Stultz says. He continued giving the speech every now and then, always ending it with the challenge I'm gonna be better than you. He also visited the other squadrons and all the maintenance areas. He talked to us in the officers' club. Almost overnight, it seemed, he knew all our names.
"I kept running into Robin in Intelligence," says Stultz. "I was a real map nut. I had a background in geography so I wanted to know everything. And Robin would be in there in the late hours.