By Christina Olds and Ed Rasimus, St. Martin’s Press, May 2010
There are few among us who live their childhood dreams to the fullest, from their beginning to their end, and with Duty, Honor, Country as their true North no matter the personal danger or professional consequences. Robin Olds was one such USAF warrior and he never wavered at the sight of the enemy whether at 50,000’, at tree top level, behind a Pentagon desk, or confronting a ragged group of Vietnam protestors. He was fearless in his resistance to gratuitous attacks upon the men he commanded or the country he defended.
Risk of life was a way of life for Olds as he flew fighters during WWII and Vietnam never shirking as he personally led his men into the thick of an air battle. In spite of constant volunteering he missed Korea because his movie star wife, Ella Raines, secretly persuaded Laurance Rockefeller to use his political influence to take her husband from the list. Even with such a personal setback, Olds became a legendary Fighter Ace during our generation and this is his story compiled by his daughter and dozens of colleagues as they completed his unfinished memoirs. This is not a biography; it is the chronicle of a life in the words of Olds himself; a great man who lived a remarkable life.
Olds’ earliest memories were listening to his father and his pursuit pilot buddies who were “… gods to me, men in planes of wood and cloth…I had to be a fighter pilot….” Born in 1922 by the age of five Olds could name planes by the sound of their engines, by eight his father took him on his first flight in an open-cockpit plane, then he began to meet his father’s “brotherhood of pilots” from the great war, Arnold, Spaatz, Eaker, La Guardia, George, Andrews, and Rickenbacker to name just a very few. Through these initial experiences, Olds began to integrate the dreams of these early pioneers into his growing consciousness.
This small band of WWI Army Air Corp veterans were determined to change the battle of future wars by making air power prevail, to carry the war to the enemy in order to end the horror of trenches, and to eliminate the endless stalemate and thousands of casualties without gain. The visions of these early flyboys were met with scorn and derision as they could not occupy territory nor rule the sea. Billy Mitchell was court-martialed for his determination and Olds’ father was one of the men at his side during the trial. Such bureaucratic “scandals” were commonplace in Olds’ early life and he carried a dislike for “desk jobs” throughout his career. He only wanted to fly and lead men defending our country’s freedoms without constant meddling from those not in the battle. He was an aerial warrior! He was a fighter pilot! He wanted to win!
Olds received an appointment in 1940 to the U.S, Military Academy entering into the class of 1944 and onto the freshman football team where he ultimately became an inductee into the National Football Hall of Fame for his All-American play. He was considered one of the toughest college players of his time playing the full sixty minutes of each game. Because of the outbreak of WWII, the class graduated in June 1943, a full year early, and to the dismay of the old-time infantry who had been running the Point for years over half of the graduates chose the AAC. Olds was off to fly and nothing else mattered. He was on his way!
With his pilot Wings pinned on by General Hap Arnold he was sent for training in the P-38 Lighting with seven other West Point classmates where they all became members of the 479th Fighter Group and went to WWII together. One was killed, two became POW’s, one almost finished a tour but quietly disappeared, two finished and went home, and the remaining member, Olds, went on to fly two tours, become a twenty-two- year-old major, and commander of the 434th Fighter Squadron. He participated in “a small event called D-day”; and, his description of the panoply of war from the coast of Britain to Normandy during the early days of the Invasion are as vivid as any I have encountered. Olds became the 479th first Ace and the last P-38 Ace of the War. The Squadron converted to P-51 Mustangs, and he completed the War with 12 aerial victories.
During the interval between WWII and Vietnam Olds served in various fighter squadrons beginning with the original P-80 “Shooting Star” at March Field, as an RAF exchange pilot in the “Meteor IV”, back to March with F-86’s, to Landstuhl for air defense of Western Europe, to Wheelus which was perfect for aerial combat training, and then to the Pentagon where he began secretly planning an assignment to SEA. His method to obtain the assignment was to aggravate his CO to the point where an SEA tour would be his punishment. And finally he heard the magic words, “And you, Olds, you’re exactly the kind of officer who should be in Southeast Asia!” Music to his ears!
His ruse worked and at last Olds was on his way to Vietnam where he would round out his legend as “…probably the greatest aerial warrior America ever produced”. After much conniving on his part, Olds, 44 years old and 22 years out of WWII, finally arrived at Ubon Royal Thai AFB 30sep66 as CO of the 8thTFW with F-4’s awaiting him. Olds quickly realized he had stepped into a troublesome situation as the commanders flew little, knew little about the missions, never had full Wing pilots’ meeting; and, on the whole, consisted of a low-morale, dejected group of USAF officers. Olds began the process of righting the situation by quickly announcing at a full Wing meeting that they were going to train him to be Green Lead and that he would be on the same flight schedule as they. “My name is Olds, I fly fighters, and I am your new boss.” They immediately sensed that their new CO had come to win!
Being the new ‘boy’ on the block and seeing the air battle beginning to favor the North, he finally was able to convince the ‘brass’ that this threat needed to be confronted and he devised what became the most successful air plan of the War: Bolo. Olds took personal responsibility to lead the first flight into the air battle where they were to simulate a Thud feint all the way in. In an ensuring ten-minute ‘dog fight’ seven MiG’s were destroyed and the ability of the F-4 to effectively engage the enemy aircraft was proven. In Olds’ opinion, the F-4 lacked only guns and they were recommended for future models.
Olds quickly realized that flying into the target area of the North with the missiles and MiG’s to be confronted was so intense that, “Nothing I experienced in WWII matched it.” But, that was the Vietnam War, brutal and soul-searching, without commitment to winning it, and being fought by the U.S. with good manners rather than the will to finish the enemy. During his tour Olds had four air victories and was being threatened by the Pentagon that as an Ace or the completion of 100 missions he would be instructed to return stateside. He would be too valuable a target to fly missions and would have to leave his command. Olds then decided to fly as a wingman and not chalk up his missions until his normal tour was concluded. He finished with 152 missions and passed up several personal opportunities for ‘kills’ leaving them to others. It was during this time that the famed Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association was formed at Korat, a base familiar to many C-133 crewmembers, and Olds instigated the first Officer Club River Rat MiG Sweep, which lasts to this day.
With Olds’ frequent requests to stay at Ubon for another combat tour rebuffed, he was assigned as Commandant, USAF Academy, at the personal request of the Superintendent of the Academy, General Moorman. On his way to the Academy he met with President Johnson suggesting that we should ‘win the war’ by mining Haiphong Harbor and totally destroy the seat of government in Hanoi. The Pentagon considered these public sentiments as insubordinate behavior that could have serious disciplinary consequences and that he should tone down his public utterances. Olds’ tour at the Academy was not without public appearances where he continued to vent his frustration about the War as he saw the people in Washington (especially Kennedy, Johnson, and McNamara) having never grasped the basic objective; and, that human lives were a high price to engage without reason. He accused these men as playing at war without an understanding of its conduct. He would end his public speeches, ”…the way to end the war is to win it.”
During his three-year tour at the Academy, Olds was promoted to BG but then offered to give up his star in return for reassignment to combat in SEA. This request was quickly met with a blunt rejection; and, his next and last USAF assignment was Director of Aerospace Safety at Norton AFB that he found challenging and interesting. During one of his inspection visits to Ubon, the 555th commander was determined to give Olds another chance at getting number five. To the disappointment of Olds and to the great relief of the CO, the North did not send up any MiGs. Their careers were saved!
On June 1, 1973, Olds retired from the USAF exactly thirty years after graduating from West Point. During his career, he received the Distinguished Service Medal, four Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Silver Stars, 20 Air Medals, the Legion of Merit, and the Air Force Medal.
Olds retired to Steamboat Springs, CO, to a home he would never leave. But, clearly, he never retired from being a fighter pilot, and on Thursday evening, June 14th, 2007, Olds made his final flight. Retired Brigadier General Robin Olds, United States Air Force, passed away peacefully from congestive heart failure, one month short of his 85th birthday. Olds, with a life that can never be duplicated was now a legend, and a well deserved one at that. He now lives forever within the annals of USAF history.
My review is meant to provide only a skeletal examination of General Olds’ life as a combat fighter pilot. In fact, to not read his memoirs is a personal disservice if you like first-hand, colorful, and riveting descriptions of modern air battles with supersonic weapons at a time and in a place familiar to C-133 crewmembers. Olds considered himself “one lucky old seat-of-the-pants guy” and never understood how the “kids today can fly with computers.” If you start to read, you will have trouble putting it down.
Lastly, I would like to thank Terry Wall for recommending and assisting me through this review. Enjoy!
39th ATS, Dover AFB, 1962-1965
PS: If you want more info before reading this bio of Robin Olds, just Bing or Google him and you will find 480,000 hits. He had one amazing USAF life that will probably peak your interest. Olds was during our time and you will recognize many of the bases that we flew into where he was stationed. Maybe, some of you knew him!