I first posted this in May, 2007. I retold the story at a friend’s retirement party yesterday and forgot a couple of details, so I looked it up this morning to refresh my memory. It’s still a good story, with the added benefit of being true, so I’m putting it back at the top of the blog where perhaps a few new readers will see and enjoy it.
In 1984 I was executive officer to the wing commander at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska. I had two duties – rejecting officer fitness reports that extolled the reportee’s Christianity (you didn’t think evangelicals taking over the Air Force Academy was a new development, did you?), and delivering the wing briefing to visiting high-rollers.
One day I delivered the briefing to a three-star general from US Readiness Command down in Florida. The way it worked, I stood near the conference room screen, flipping PowerPoint slides with a remote as I talked, while my boss, the wing commander (a colonel) and the visiting general sat at the conference table.
In 1984 our fighter wing was the subject of a turf war. Up to then, Alaskan Air Command (now Alaskan Command) owned our jets. We didn’t mix with the rest of the USAF, or even the Canadians – we were all by ourselves, far away and out of mind. We didn’t participate in USAF exercises or fly dissimilar air combat training missions with other units, save for summer visits by New Mexico Air National Guard A-7s. We were Senator Ted Stevens’ personal air force, and the only real action we got was intercepting Soviet bombers and observation aircraft operating from Siberian bases on the other side of the Bering Strait.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, we were being courted by Pacific Air Command, based in Hawaii. If we became part of PACAF, we could fly Team Spirit exercises in Korea. We could fly Cope Thunder exercises in the Philippines. We could deploy to Japan, maybe even Australia! We were all for it, including Colonel Paxton, our wing commander, who asked me to add a new section to the wing briefing addressing the potential training benefits we stood to gain under PACAF. Lieutenant General Harry Goodall – the visiting three-star – would be the first high-ranking officer from outside Alaskan Air Command to receive the new briefing.
General Goodall sat up straight when I got to that part of the briefing, then asked me to stop. He turned to Colonel Paxton and said “You guys have no business going to Korea” (I hadn’t even gotten to The Philippines, or Japan, or Australia). Colonel Paxton motioned for me to leave the room, and as I stood on the other side of the door I could hear a heated discussion. Actually it wasn’t much of a discussion, because the only voice was General Goodall’s.
Colonel Paxton never told me what was said, and life returned to normal. But somehow, and don’t ask me how this ever got past Senator Stevens, six months later we became part of PACAF, and our first out-of-Alaska deployment was to Osan Air Base in Korea, to fly in Team Spirit.
Only half our pilots got to go (along with half our airplanes, half our maintainers, and half our spare parts), because someone had to stay in Alaska to intercept Russians. I was part of the half who stayed home. My boss, Colonel Paxton, was part of the half who went.
A few days after our guys flew out I was up in the Elmendorf tower, pulling supervisor of flying duty for local training missions. The wing commander’s hotline lit up and I picked up the receiver, wondering how the boss could be calling me all the way from Korea. It was Joanne, Colonel Paxton’s secretary: “Have you heard?”
When you pick up the phone and hear that, you know it’s trouble. Colonel Paxton had just splashed in the Yellow Sea off the west coast of Korea. The accident happened just minutes before Joanne called me: our pilots were still flying cover over the oil slick, the rescue helicopter was still en route. Word spread fast, almost unbelievably so – within a few more minutes the wives in Alaska knew someone was down in Korea, and phones started ringing.
Colonel Paxton was dead, the F-15 was lost, no one saw it happen. He’d been flying wing off another F-15, about a mile line abreast, some 5,000 feet above the water. They’d done an in-place 180-degree turn, and when lead rolled out and looked to his left where Colonel Paxton should have been, there was no one there – somewhere in the turn, he’d flown into the water.
I was Colonel Paxton’s summary court officer, which is a story in itself, and one I hope to tell someday. But I’m going in another direction with this one.
Two years later I was at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, working as a joint staff officer for US Readiness Command. I was in charge of a project designed to give upper-level leaders and planners an instant look at the combat readiness of US-based forces that USREDCOM would be responsible for sending to combat overseas, should they ever be needed. This was a new project and I was scheduled to fly to Washington, DC to brief the project to various face cards at Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.
Well, that’s not strictly true. USREDCOM’s vice commander – the very same Lieutenant General Harry Goodall – would give the briefings. I would be there to flip slides, carry backup material, and answer questions. Of course I remembered General Goodall and dreaded our meeting. Would he remember the young captain who’d given him that briefing in Alaska two and a half years ago? Would he say something about what happened in Korea? Nope. When I climbed into his C-21 on the ramp at MacDill, he was already seated and deep in paperwork. He didn’t so much as glance at me, even though my seat faced his and our knees were almost touching.
We landed at Andrews and made the DC rounds, visiting different offices at the Pentagon (where I got to meet Jim Webb, which was cool) and the US Senate (where I sat in the same room with Sam Nunn and Strom Thurmond, which was sort of cool). Later that night the general and I climbed back on the C-21 to fly home. As soon as the general sat down he opened his briefcase and buried his head in paperwork again.
And then, about the time we started our descent into MacDill, he laid his paperwork down, looked up, locked eyes with me, and said “I told you guys you didn’t have any business going to Korea.” Then he looked back down at his paperwork, and that was all he had to say about the matter.
I guess it takes a certain kind of guy to make general. I couldn’t have been so cool. And I probably wouldn’t have remembered someone who’d spent ten minutes with me a long time ago. Generals, though, can do that. Which might just explain why I never made general!
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