Change of Command

When Robin Olds arrived in Vietnam, morale soared.

Robin Olds (SI Photo SI99-42649)
Air & Space Magazine

(Continued from page 2)

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.

"The real dynamic was he started asking the same kind of questions we were asking," Stultz remembers. "He recognized that for the level of effort being expended the results were marginal. We had some issues--about how we were going in [to a target] in long strings. Everybody would go in at intervals, and as a result, every gunner would get the opportunity to shoot at every one of us."

Tactics slowly started to shift, and communication among wings and bases started to improve. Strike forces began to get over targets faster. Ron Miller, who flew as Olds' backseater on several missions, remembers one highly coordinated strike of aircraft hitting the Thai Nguyen steel mill, northwest of Hanoi. "All 64 airplanes were on and off the target in two minutes," Miller says. "Our biggest worry was not being hit by flak but running into each other."

By November the wing's operationally ready rate had increased nine percent and losses had dropped dramatically. Then General Momyer announced he was reinstituting the Rapid Roger test program. We could only assume that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's obsession with statistics was behind the move. The most infamous statistics, for which McNamara was later vilified, were body counts. In our case the statistics were sortie rates.

Olds protested, and he was overruled. But he made it clear to us that he didn't care much for statistics. He was after results. He stalked onto the stage of the briefing room one morning with a fistful of papers--decoration requests that flight leaders had filled out for his signature. He said there was a lot of interesting reading in the forms about flak, SAMs, and MiGs, but not very much about targets being destroyed. "Some of you want medals for just showing up," he said and dropped the stack of papers in a trash can.

I thought of Olds last April at a celebration of the Air Force's 50th anniversary. During a presentation on the Gulf war, one speaker praised the "1,600 sorties and 455 missiles fired in the first 24 hours of Desert Storm." Not a single word about targets destroyed.

In one of his many lectures after finishing his tour in Vietnam, Olds said, "Our basic job over there is to bomb targets, not chase MiGs. If they happen to get in the way, so much the worse for them'. However, we liked [the MiGs] because they kept our morale up. All fighter pilots have a love for aerial battle. It's a great feeling to launch a missile at a MiG, even if the missile misses. At least you feel useful. After the mission you can tell terrible war stories about what a scrap you had."

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus