Friday, June 13th, 1969 was just another 'day off the tour' for the fighter pilots flying combat sorties out of Takhli Royal Thai Air Base (RTAB). If they would admit it, most of the fraternity of F-105 'Thud' drivers had a few superstitions having to do with their daily routine but none would be bothered by the fact that it was Friday the 13th. Most combat fighter pilots, over time, developed a strong sense of fatalism. It didn’t matter how good you were, how well you tried to avoid danger or how experienced you were. They believed that if it was your day to catch the 'golden BB' you would be powerless to alter your fate.
As Major George Wallace finished an early dinner, he bid adieu to a few of his friends who had joined him on the 'Thud Pilots Only' stage, an elevated section of the bar floor area that was understood to be reserved for fighter guys. He took the short walk from the stage to the bar which was located at the back of the building. George had not flown that day and had not gone by the Squadron to see if he was scheduled for the next day but he knew that the next day’s schedule would eventually end up at the bar. Once you knew the next day’s schedule you could decide how long and how much you could drink before getting some rack. Not all, but most, fighter pilots synchronized their bar time with their next day’s schedule. There were a few who didn’t drink at all and a few more who didn’t give a damn and continued drinking until they were blato.
As George entered the bar there were only a few pilots there. It was still pretty early for the crowd to appear. In fact, George noticed the whine of several Thuds passing overhead as they returned from late afternoon missions. He knew many of these guys would be thirsty as hell and would soon join him at the bar. Looking for anyone he recognized, he was surprised to spot Harold 'Pappy' Kahler seated by himself near the end of the bar.
George had known Pappy since they checked out together in the Thud a year earlier at McConnell AFB in Kansas. George knew Pappy as a pretty light drinker who normally would only have a few drinks with his Squadron mates during the late evening, then retreat to his quarters. Upon graduation from the F105 upgrade program at McConnell AFB, George was assigned to the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) at Takhli. Pappy had originally been assigned to the 34th TFS at Takhli’s sister base Korat RTAB. But in May 1969, as the loss rate of Takhli’s 34th TFS Thuds continued , the USAF converted the 34th Squadron to one populated with brand new F-4Es. Consequently, Pappy was reassigned to Takhli’s 354th TFS, George’s squadron.
Pappy had now been on Base for about a month. Over that period the two men had talked on a few occasions at meals or at the bar but had not gotten beyond the “how’re things going?” stage. They had been pretty good friends at McConnell and George decided to renew acquaintances.
“Hey Papp, how’s it hanging?"
Pappy glanced over his shoulder and with his normal friendly smile gestured George to have a seat next to him.
“Not bad 'Gov,' how about you?”
George had picked up the moniker 'Governor,' or simply 'Gov,' when George Corley Wallace ran for Governor of Alabama. The primary professional training institution for the Air Force, Air University, was situated in Montgomery at Maxwell AFB and as George’s friends attended schools in the late 50’s and early 60’s they were exposed to the numerous political ads for George C. Wallace. When politician George Wallace was elected in 1962, our George Wallace was tagged with the title. The Governor of Alabama was a staunch segregationist so our George was not sure he wanted the tag but his friends persisted and he eventually gave up objecting. For the rest of his career he would be 'Governor.'
George ordered his usual Singha beer and the Thai bartender rapidly produced a bottle of the Thai national brew.
George began, “Not used to seeing you here this early Pappy. Celebrating?”
Pappy did not reply at once. He rarely did. He was not as brash as most of his fighter pilot brethren and, also unlike them, he generally took a little time to think before he spoke.
“Not really celebrating—or I guess just a little. Don’t know if you’ve heard but I’m going home. Just got word a few days ago. Transportation brought some boxes by my trailer today and I’ve been busy packing my stuff.”
Now it was George’s turn to think before he spoke and on this rare occasion he did just that. George already knew that Pappy had some serious family concerns back in Arizona. His wife was an invalid and had been for many years. He also knew that Pappy was one of the oldest pilots pushing Thuds around SEA. By now somewhere in his late forties, Pappy was an old man playing a young man’s game. George decided not to ask about the several month curtailment of Pappy’s tour and instead asked about the future.
“No shit! I didn’t know that. What’s your next assignment?”
Again, Pappy delayed his response. “Not sure. I don’t even know if there will be a next assignment. They’re putting me in a holding pattern for a bit but I suspect I will be retiring. This whole thing came up rather fast and not everything is settled yet. At any rate, I’ll be leaving late tomorrow afternoon or early Sunday morning.”
“Good on you, Pappy. I know you would like to get home to your wife and kids and I’m sure they would all like to see you hang it up. You’re going to miss the Singha and Thai food but at least you will get out of town without getting stuffed."
Pappy was silent for a moment. He took a long swig of his beer and explained, “The Squadron asked me if I wanted an End of Tour (EOT) flight and I told them I would do it. For sure this will be my last flight in the Thud and might end up being my last flight as an Air Force pilot. I thought it might be fun to come back and beat up the field one last time.”
As George listened to Pappy, he was a little puzzled by what he was hearing. If they gave Pappy the option of flying a 'finny' flight, he might have been better off declining and getting on with the rest of his life. But in his mind Pappy had apparently considered what he would do and George knew he would fly.
More pilots were beginning to drift into the bar and they were now beginning to prod the bartender to get them a bi leo (fast) beer. The Thai bartender would good naturedly collect the empty bottles and hand them over a new cold one with a wide grin. The very easy-going Thai culture always was a good blend with the antics of the fun-loving fighter pilots.
Before George could respond to Pappy’s pronouncement, Pappy let George know that the next day’s schedule for the 354th had just been brought over to the bar and he was going to see what it looked like. Pappy got up and began a slow walk to the other end of the bar where a young Captain, the Scheduler, was holding a couple sheets of paper and talking to some other members of the 354th. When it was Pappy’s turn, he took a look at the schedule, talked with the Scheduler for a few minutes, and then headed back toward George.
George watched Pappy walk toward the Scheduler. He was not sure why, but he was bothered by what he saw. Pappy was walking in slow, plodding steps that did not portend a man about to discover how he would complete his last glorious flight in 'This Man’s Air Force.' As he watched Pappy amble back toward his seat there was no energy in his step and his face was expressionless. Suddenly, George had a very uneasy feeling about what he was viewing.
Pappy reassumed his seat next to George and drained the last drop of Singha out of its bottle. “You ready for another one?” he asked and George responded in the affirmative. Pappy simply got the bartender’s attention and using hand signals requested two beers.
“You’re right Gov, I am going to miss the Singha.”
You had to acquire a taste for Singha. When you had your first one soon after arriving in Thailand you could barely get it by your nose. Everyone would ask the same question, “What’s that terrible smell?” Turns out the Thai brewery used formaldehyde as a preservative and, despite its pretty good flavor, the odor was rather offensive. After a couple bottles you got used to it and the rest was easy. It was often said that if you got shot down and killed there was no need to embalm your body because of all the Singha in your blood.
Pappy didn’t bring up the results of his visit with the scheduler so George broke the ice. “So, are you on the schedule tomorrow?”
“Yep, I’m flying a two-ship with Colonel Drew. Scheduler says Colonel Drew called down today and wanted to fly tomorrow and said he would like to be part of my EOT. Guess that’s OK but makes me think he is a babysitter.”
George could sense the lack of enthusiasm in Pappy’s voice. Colonel Drew was the Vice Wing Commander of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing and the number two ranking officer on Base. Normally EOT’s were flown with close friends within your Squadron but, in Pappy’s case, he had only been at Takhli for a very short time and probably had not established many close bonds. As George mulled over his friend’s intentions, the uneasy feeling returned.
“Pappy, I think you should shit-can this whole idea. This silly fucking War doesn’t need you to throw yourself into it again. You’ve had a great career and done everything your country has asked you to do—and more. It’s not like you were ordered to fly this mission or there is a real need to have you do it. There are plenty of young bucks over at the Squadron that would be happy to take your place on the schedule. I think you should catch the next flight to Bangkok and get the hell out of Dodge.”
Pappy took a long drink of his beer and without looking at George replied, “you are probably right. I sure as hell don’t need to do this…” There was a very long pause and, again without looking at George and as if he was talking to himself, “My life has become a mess. I can’t concentrate on my job here and things are not going well at home. I’ve got to get my shit together, but first I want to fly a jet one more time and try to remember why I loved it so much."
Now he looked at George. This time it was George who looked away and was motionless for a moment. Finally he shook his head up and down slowly, indicating his reluctant approval of Pappy’s desire to make one last flight. Issue over.
Now looking back at Pappy he asked, “What time do you launch?"
“It’s about a noon takeoff so I should be back to Takhli around two-thirty or so.”
“Are you going to beat up the field?” George asked.
“Naw, probably just a high speed pass and a closed pattern. I don’t see any sense in pissing off the higher-ups. I just want to get it done and say adios. Good plan?”
Once again George nodded his approval. “I’m not sure what I’m doing tomorrow but I will try to make it down to the flight line when you land. I think you should wait until Sunday to leave so we can celebrate a bit tomorrow night.”
“I’ll probably do that, Gov. I still have a number of old friends here and guess it will be fun to kick around some old war stories. But right now I’m going to get back to my trailer and finish packing those boxes for Transportation to pick up in the morning."
Pappy slowly stood up and extended his hand toward George and the two grasped each other’s hand firmly and looked squarely into the other’s face. Both gave a slight nod and, after several pumps of their handshake, released their grip. George could detect a sense of sorrow in Pappy’s face as Pappy turned away and slowly exited the back door of the bar. Watching Pappy depart, George wondered if he should have tried harder to show Pappy the downside of making that final flight in his visibly uncertain state of mind.
The bar was now beginning to fill up with a number of fellow pilots, all in their 'goatskins' (flight suits) with several of them still wet with the sweat stains from their recently completed afternoon sorties. Most had either a glass or bottle in their hands and most were in small groups taking turns describing their latest adventures in animated terms with hands involved in almost all descriptions.
As George approached a group of pilots form his Squadron someone hailed him and said,
“Hey Gov, the schedule is on the end of the bar."
George grabbed the schedule, now stained with beer, and looked for his name. Turns out he was scheduled for an early morning go and would have plenty of time to make it back for Pappy’s EOT arrival. Now, instead of joining his own Squadron mates he found an opening in a group of guys from the 354th, Pappy’s Squadron. As he entered the group someone exclaimed, “Well, there goes the neighborhood, the fucking Governor of Takhli is here. Hey Gov, what you up too?"
“Not much. Hey, I was just talking with Pappy and he says he is flying his EOT tomorrow. He came over with me and is leaving six months early. What’s the story?"
The five assembled pilots looked at one another waiting for someone to answer. As a group they finally concluded that they didn’t know much about why he was leaving early and retreated to that standard fighter pilot response to ignorance on matters like these, “Above my pay grade.”
They did allow that it probably had to do with Pappy’s concern for his wife’s condition. George nodded and bid the group adieu.
Having an early morning takeoff, George decided to leave the bar and get some sleep. Despite the early flight he would have normally stayed around for another round but tonight was somehow different. Takhli AFB was not well lit at night and the stars glowed bright in the clear, hot, Thai evening sky. Walking back to his hooch he continued to gaze at the stars. Somewhere near the end of the runway he heard a jet engine running up on a maintenance check. As he looked toward the source of the engine noise, he heard the sudden, loud boom as the afterburner ignited. He watched as the glow of the flame lit up the night sky. After a few seconds the engine sound faded as the technician disengaged the afterburner, reduced the power and shut down the engine. Suddenly the night again went dark and all was still. For some reason the loud boom of the afterburner igniting and then rapidly being silenced felt eerily foreboding.
“Damn,” he thought to himself, “I wish I’d stayed for another drink.”