Guild’s main memory of Takhli is “being tired all the time.”
Behind the wild-bunch reputation, the Thud crews were a pretty serious lot. “I tried not to think big thoughts in those days,” says Cooper, “but I really wondered whether I’d see my kids again.” He also worried about the prisoners of war. “A bunch of good buds up in that hell. I thought about that a lot.” According to former POW Mike McGrath, now historian of a POW organization, of 207 fighters and fighter-bombers downed over North Vietnam, 99 were Thuds.
The Thud experience was not for everyone. “We had people, when it came to the point where they had to fly, they’d quit,” says Rasimus. “One kid got shot down on his first mission, got picked up, came in when he got back, and handed in his wings.”
There was good reason to fear the daily gallop into North Vietnam. “The losses were appalling,” wrote Rasimus in his 2003 memoir, When Thunder Rolled. “The class of nine that had been six weeks ahead of mine at Nellis lost four. The first short-course class of ‘universally assignable’ pilots lost 15 out of 16, all either killed or captured…. For every five pilots that started the tour, three would not complete it.”
Wrote Basel in his book: “I walk the streets and still grieve for them, and for those that did return, for all the others and for myself…. What was it all about? This magnificently orchestrated event that accomplished nothing. Casualties of this monstrous charade, we ask, For What?”
For others, the combat habit acquired in Thuds proved impossible to kick. No one was required to return to the unfriendly skies of Southeast Asia, but many did. Karl Richter flew his 100 missions out of Korat, then signed up for 100 more. Near the end of the second tour, he was killed on a run into PAK I. Several years after their first 100 missions, Rasimus, Cooper, and Guild also came back for another 100, this time in F-4 Phantoms.
Some returnees might have hoped to finish the thwarted work of Rolling Thunder. But most seem to have been drawn back to the metaphorical Balaclava by memories of the adrenaline rush, the camaraderie, the exhausting, exhilarating life spent on the edge, doing work only the brave can do.
At the same time, the Thud pilots understood that they risked everything to achieve results that were often questionable. It reminded Rasimus, who grew up in Chicago, of stealing hubcaps.
Long-time contributor Carl Posey writes from Alexandria, Virginia.