War Stories from my Career as a Defense Engineer

24 Feb

I was an engineer in the defense industry my entire career.  I met and worked with a lot of engineers and military people of course, many of them brilliant.  An entire career is a long time.  I worked endless hours with government and military people.  I worked on many truly intriguing projects and accumulated a lot of “war stories” from guys (and gals) that I found fascinating.

I worked with WWII, Vietnam and Gulf War vets, even a few from foreign countries.  Although I never actually served in the Armed Forces, I was a good listener and rubbed shoulders with brave, patriotic and tough hombres.  I’ve forgotten many of their names but a lot of them shared their stories with me.  The following represent some of these stories.  This may be old news to some of you warriors but a lot of these guys are still alive and I’m sure they remember their “war” stories.

The soldier who survived D-Day the Hard Way.  Following my graduation from college, my first job put me next to some of these hombres where I listened to riveting tales.  Sitting at a desk near mine, one engineer told me of his experiences on D-Day and D+1, 22 years earlier.  He was a young soldier who waded, crawled and ran across Omaha Beach and managed to reach the cliffs.  He hunkered down under what cover he could find and survived the first day and night.  The next morning, he and his mates cautiously crept inland for about a mile.  As they walked through bushes, a German soldier suddenly leaped out and fired point-blank at him, hitting him right in the middle of his chest.  He showed me the little wrinkly spot right next to his heart.  The German was killed immediately by another Allied soldier.  My friend somehow held out for a day or so and was evacuated to England by boat and eventually to the U.S.  It was a short war for him.  He recovered but received 100% disability for life.  A likeable and interesting man, I had dinner with him a few times and he taught me to drink only Pinot Noir, which I do to this day.

The F-105 Pilot Over Hanoi.  Whether or not you supported the Vietnam war, I recall several courageous men that served in that conflict.  My colleagues and I were discussing the performance of electronic warfare equipment at my company with a group of F-105 fight-bomber pilots who had flown missions over North Vietnam.  One pilot I had lunch with told me he was at about 30,000 feet over Hanoi when he was forced to


perform a violent maneuver to avoid a SAM (SA-4 surface-to-air missile).

NOTE:  During that conflict, it was not generally known by civilians like us that avoiding a missile rising toward your aircraft entailed pushing the stick down hard and diving right at the ascending missile.  In attempting to intercept an aircraft, the missiles were unable to make the sharp turn that was necessary to hit the aircraft.  The missile missed his plane by a little bit but his life-saving maneuver caused a flame-out of his single engine.  He did what he needed to do to restart the engine but was down to about 8,000 feet before it reignited.  He told me his stress level was way, way up there.  I don’t recall if he managed to drop his bombs before he high-tailed it out of there.  He probably did.

When Your Mission is Cancelled In-Flight.  I do remember a super guy named Walt Lifsey.  He was a steely-eyed F-105 pilot who I couldn’t help but admire.  He first proceeded to tell me that a mission to North Vietnam is carefully planned and briefed to a squadron of bomber pilots.  This involved the study of detailed maps, target photographs, radio protocol, entry/egress routes, likely enemy search radar, anti-aircraft (AAA) sites, and SAM locations and types.  Early on the day of the mission, pilots and crew checked operation of flight controls, communications equipment and armament loads.  Quite often, the pilot or the electronic warfare officer (EWO) would vomit on the flight line during this walkaround due to nerves.  It usually took at least a couple of hours or more to fly to the target area.  Sometimes the pentagon would relay a message to aircraft commanders during this period that a specific mission was cancelled.  This was usually due to politicians who would have second thoughts or better intelligence or various other reasons to interrupt a bombing mission, even if it was in progress.

During the flight, aircraft crews would review mission data and build up their strength and courage.  Calling off a mission created anger and frustration.  It also meant that the crews needed to “discard” their armament as they couldn’t land at their home base still loaded with fuel and bombs.  What to do?  Pilots needed to burn off their energy as well.  Walt told me that they would bomb or shoot at wild camels, North Vietnam “soldiers’ pushing bicycles, anything shiny on the ground, even people, of course, who were usually shooting at them with small arms.  They had to come back empty.  I was not then aware of this but I understood it.

I learned this while playing golf with Walt at Eglin AFB a couple of times.

Medal of Honor.  I met several airmen during my career.  In 1967, Capt. Merle Dethlefsen, who I met and talked to at an Air Force base in the Midwest, refused to fly his badly damaged F-105 Thunderchief back to Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand.

Dethlefsen, flying the number three aircraft, and three other F-105s, flew ahead of a strike force of 72 fighter-bombers (F-105 Thunderchiefs from Korat and Takhli, and F-4 Phantoms from Ubon) heading to the Thai Nguyen iron and steel works.

Their job was to attack surface-to-air missile sites, antiaircraft guns and a ring of other automatic weapons guarding the target. On the first pass, his flight leader Maj. David Everson and Capt. Jose Luna, both of whom became POWs) were shot down by 85mm AAA fire and his wing man was forced to withdraw with severe damage.

Capt. Dethlefsen then took command of the flight while fending off MiG attacks and responding to his own battle-damaged aircraft.  As he maneuvered, he evaded an intercepting Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 by flying into heavy enemy antiaircraft fire. His F-105 was severely damaged, but he determined the aircraft could still fly.

Dethlefsen made repeated strikes with his new wingman, Maj. Kenneth Bell, against the enemy’s defensive positions. Evading a second MiG, Dethlefsen dove through the obscuring haze to locate the missile complex when he was again hit by flak. Making a final dive bombing attack and a strafing run with 20 mm cannon fire, Dethlefsen effectively destroyed two missile sites before finally leaving for Takhli, 500 miles away.  The mission was considered a success although two F-4s of the strike force were shot down.

Dethlefsen receives the Medal of Honor

Dethlefsen could have pulled out of the mission with honor many times: when attacked by MiGs, when he and his wingman were hit by flak, or when the smoke of battle made it difficult to locate the enemy.

But he made a conscious choice to make repeated passes, each one more dangerous than the one before.  For his heroic actions, Dethlefsen was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Lyndon B. Johnson on February 1, 1968. He became the third of 12 airmen so honored during the Vietnam War.

Female transport pilot during Gulf War.  I won’t name any names here but it’s a harrowing story.  This transport pilot flew cargo aircraft (probably including wounded troops) from somewhere in the mid-east to Germany during Gulf War I.  Her missions were fairly uneventful until she and a colleague stopped in Italy for a brief layover.  She and a male friend were doing some recreational swimming out in the ocean.  After a relaxing (I presume) swim, they both realized they were too far off the beach.  Due to strong currents, they were unable to make it back to shore.  They both drifted further out to sea and lost sight of land.  Sometime later, she lost contact with her friend.  She used survival techniques to preserve energy.  Night fell and she thought constantly about her husband and children and what was going to happen.  On the second day, she found herself on a coral reef in rough water.  She scraped back and forth on the coral, barely able to maintain a position and suffering nasty injuries.  After another night, she was spotted by an aircraft which was looking for her.  I don’t know the details about her being picked up but she was rescued and eventually recovered, at least physically.  She determined quickly that the Navy life wasn’t for her, with a young family.  She left the Navy soon thereafter.  Her friend was never found.  It’s unusual that her husband was a commercial pilot and still is today.

Flying saucers at WSMR.  I worked part-time at White Sands Missile Range while attending college.  I met and worked with several engineers and military people during the four years I was there.  In conversation, one engineer, who had been working at WSMR several years, told me about a “flying saucer” that he and others had seen over C-Station (Control Station) during the day.  The radar operator at C-Station began tracking this object.  It was stationary for several minutes before it “flew” off.  The radar operator, presumably experienced, said it exceeded the velocity of anything he had ever tracked.  My engineer friend said it was oblong and had circular windows.  When it quickly took off, he said that it disappeared so fast he only saw it briefly.  Now, I was only in my early twenties and he could have been passing along a “war story” that he told to every young engineer who came through our lab.  He seemed credible, however, and I certainly remember his story.  I wonder.  This sighting happened in the mid- to late fifties and there are still unexplained UFO stories from that time.  I don’t have any pictures of this object.


The Landing Craft Operator WWII.  I had a close friend during my college period.  He was a WWII veteran of the war in the Pacific.  Roy and I both worked at White Sands Missile Range and we both loved building and flying model airplanes.  Among other things Roy did during the war, he “drove” a landing craft for transporting and off-loading soldiers on island beaches.  I don’t, unfortunately, recall which island(s) he “landed” on but probably more than one.  The story I remember is an incident he told me about as he approached a beach.  As the operator of a landing craft (of which there were many types), he was not able to see ahead of the boat until he dropped the forward door to let soldiers exit.  One day, as Roy skidded to a stop on the beach and dropped the door, he saw a single armed Japanese soldier run out of the jungle onto the beach, shooting at soldiers.  He said that so many Allied soldiers shot him, he literally came apart.  No way to understand why he did this but he certainly knew what was going to happen.  I don’t mean to offend anyone with this description but this was war.

POW Story.  A carrier pilot I worked with after he had left the Navy told me harrowing stories about being in a few camps as a prisoner, including the Hanoi Hilton, a major POW camp in North Vietnam.  Harry Jenkins flew A-6 bombers off a carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin.  He was a cantankerous guy and early on after being shot down and captured

I believe this is an SA-2 missile

they used to torture him by simply laying a heavy iron pipe across his shins as he was strapped to a slab of wood.  He said it wasn’t too bad at first but after 30 minutes he couldn’t stand it.  After an hour, he would be screaming.  He and several South Vietnamese POWs would tend fields of rice and vegetables every day.  He said prisoners would floss with electrical wire to save their teeth.

One day, after a few years, he noticed that a door in his building was open.  He had never seen it open before.  It led to another section of the “hotel”.  He went through the door, looked to his left and saw an American pilot in a cell like his.  Where most of us would have perhaps been overcome with emotion, he simply looked in the cell and calmly said “Nice little place you got here.”  He was a POW for 5-1/2 years and was involved in developing and using the tapping code that prisoners used to communicate.  I believe he knew John McCain, a future presidential candidate.  I really liked him but I didn’t press him for a lot of details.

F-105 Wild Weasel flies a world-class mission.  Because of what these guys did, I believe I correctly recall their names:  Major Pete Tsouprake and Major William Robinson.  Robinson was the pilot of a specially equipped F-105 fighter bomber and Pete was the EWO (electronic warfare officer). I knew a lot of EWOs having worked in electronic warfare for 10 years.  EWOs were also known as GIBs (guy in back).  It was 1966 and this is how I remember the mission as told to me.

First of all:  The “specially equipped” two-seater F-105 was outfitted with electronic equipment to detect and sometimes jam enemy radars.  This aircraft and its 2-man crew were called Wild Weasels.  These guys would lead a strike force of several (as many as

Pete Tsouprake

70) single-seat F-105s on missions to bomb designated targets.  The Wild Weasel, using its electronics, would go in first to locate search radars, AAA radars and SA-2 Guideline missile control radar systems.  These aircraft would “suppress” these facilities using bombs and rockets and, occasionally, their guns.  The entire strike force depended on the skill and heroism of the Wild Weasel crew.  The Weasels go in ahead of the strike force and then linger in the area until the other aircraft had completed their missions and left.  The motto of the Wild Weasels was “first in, last out”.

Two seater F-105 Wild Weasel

These two Weasels did something unprecedented on that July day in 1966.  They detected and located four SA-2 SAM (surface-to-air missile) sites.  Using bombs, rockets and their Gatling gun (when they ran out of other ordnance) and evading AAA (flak) they destroyed three SAM sites and heavily damaged the fourth.  Four SAM sites destroyed in one day had never been done before.  This performance earned both Robinson and Tsouprake the Air Force Cross, an award which is not casually offered, even in wartime.  During the conflict, both men were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross as well, for similar acts.  A painting was commissioned to commemorate their mission.

Note that in the F-105 photo above a small bulge can be seen just below and behind the nose cone.  There is a similar one at the top rear of the vertical stabilizer (tail).  These “blisters” housed antennas used to detect enemy radar emissions.  I worked on several of these aircraft, checking the antennas but primarily working on electronic equipment in the turtleback compartment just behind the cockpit on the back of the airplane

Two other things:  I played golf with Maj Tsouprake at Eglin AFB a couple of times.  A great guy that I couldn’t help but admire.

The F-105 aircraft was originally designed to carry a nuclear weapon into Europe and although it never did this, it still carried 3000 pounds of gear related to transporting and releasing the weapon.  It was never intended to do the kind of maneuvering it did in Vietnam.  It eventually was replaced by the F-4 Phantom.

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Posted by on February 24, 2018 in Bird Lover


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