By LtCol Mike Christy
Together We Served Dispatches
Deciding on a military career at the age of 12, Olds attended Hampton High School in Hampton Virginia where he became a standout football player. Declining a series of football scholarships, he elected to take a year of study at Millard Preparatory School in 1939 prior to applying to West Point. Learning of the outbreak of World War II while at Millard, he attempted to leave school and enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
This was blocked by his father who forced him to stay at Millard. Completing the course of study, Olds was accepted to West Point in July 1940 and played for the renowned coach Red Blaik, compiling so stellar a record as a tackle on both offense and defense that in 1985 he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Selecting service in the U.S. Army Air Forces, Olds completed his primary flight training in the summer of 1942 at the Spartan School of Aviation in Tulsa, Oklahoma.Returning north, he passed through advanced training at Stewart Field in New York. Receiving his wings from Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, Olds graduated from West Point on June 1, 1943 after completing the academy’s accelerated wartime curriculum. Commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, he received an assignment to report to the West Coast for training on P-38 Lightnings. This done, Olds was posted to the 479th Fighter Group’s 434th Fighter Squadron with orders for Britain.
Arriving in Britain in May 1944, Olds’ squadron quickly entered combat as part of the Allied air offensive prior to the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Dubbing his P-38J aircraft the “Scat II” (every fighter he flew in combat was named “Scat” and numbered sequentially), Olds worked closely with his crew chief to learn about aircraft maintenance. Promoted to Captain on July 24, on a low-level mission over Montmirail, he spotted two bogeys far in front of him, heading to his right, about 200 feet off the deck.
He pulled behind the two FW-190’s and at 400 yards behind the trailing plane, he fired a six-second burst, hitting the left wing and then pulling his gunfire onto the fuselage. Big pieces flew off, flame and smoke poured out, and the airplane rolled off to the right. Turning his attention to the second plane, he did not see the first one hit the ground. As the second plane pulled a full 360 turn, Olds stayed with him. From dead astern, he fired a five-second burst and observed many hits. The Focke Wulf zoomed up and the pilot bailed out.
On August 25, during an escort mission to Wismar, Germany, Olds shot down three Messerschmitt Bf 109s to become the squadron’s first ace, making him the last P-38 ace of the Eighth Air Force and the last in the European Theater of Operations. He also claimed three more unofficial kills that could not be verified by witnesses.
In mid-September, the 434th began converting to the P-51 Mustang. This required some adjustment on Olds’ part as the single-engine Mustang handled differently than the twin-engine Lightning.
After downing a Bf 109 over Berlin on Oct. 6, Olds completed his initial combat tour in November and was given two months leave in the United States. Returning to Europe in January 1945, he was promoted to Major the following month on February 9, and received his seventh aerial victory the same day, using his P-51D’s new K-14 gunsight to calculate the deflection and hit a Bf-109 at 450 yards over Magdeburg with his first burst, a result that surprised even Maj. Olds. He closed in and fired twice more, with his third burst sending the Messerschmitt down in flames. Five days later, on February 14, he claimed three more kills but only received credit for two with the other listed as a “probable.”
On March 25, less than two years out of West Point and at only 22 years of age, Maj. Olds received command of the 434th. He never forgot it. Decades later he said, “As a Major I was responsible for feeding and housing my men, training my men, and rewarding or punishing them. As a Colonel I had to check with some general for permission to visit the latrine.”
Unlike many pilots who regarded airplanes as tools, Olds could be sentimental about his machines. Near the end of the war he was one of six P-51 pilots who attacked a German airdrome and found himself the lone survivor. He nursed his crippled Mustang back to base but found that it stalled at 175 mph, rolling violently. But as he said, “Scat VI had taken me through a lot and I was damned if I was going to give up on her.”
Somehow he got the bird on the runway and kept it in one piece.
Olds was a team player as long as the team wanted to play. When the leaders were only interested in suiting up, he exercised some initiative. In other words, he went freelancing. In his first two dogfights he was alone with his wingman, having left formation to hunt on his own. As he wryly noted long afterward, “When I shot down my first two airplanes I was relieved to see that they had black crosses on their wings.”
Olds used to say that the two best things about World War II were London and Col. Zemke. When the 479th’s first commander was shot down in August 1944, Hub Zemke moved over from the fabled 56th Fighter Group and rejuvenated the Mighty Eighth’s last fighter outfit. Not that Olds needed any rejuvenating, but the group had plodded along in pedestrian fashion.
In a few weeks Zemke turned things around, and added to Robin’s already formidable determination to succeed as a shooter and a leader. The group converted to P-51s in September but on October 30, 1944, while flying in unforecasted turbulence, the wing of Zemke’s P-51 was torn off. Zemke was forced to bail out over enemy territory and was captured. He was liberated when the war with Germany ended.
Olds had made ace in both the P-38 and P-51, probably the only pilot ever to do so. Postwar after VE-Day, he returned to the States and reverted to his permanent rank: a 23-year-old Captain.
With the end of the war in Europe in May, Olds’ tally stood at 12 kills as well as 11.5 destroyed on the ground. Returning to the US, Olds was assigned to West Point to serve as an assistant football coach to Earl “Red” Blaik.
Olds’ time at West Point proved brief as many older officers resented his rapid rise in rank during the war. In February 1946, Olds obtained a transfer to the 412th Fighter Group at March Field, California, and trained on the P-80 Shooting Star. Through the remainder of the year, he flew as part of a jet demonstration team with Lt. Col. John C. “Pappy” Herbst.
In 1946, while based at March Field, Olds met Hollywood actress (and “pin-up girl”) Ella Raines on a blind date in Palm Springs. They married in Beverly Hills on February 6, 1947, and had two daughters, Christina and Susan, and a son, Robert Ernest, who was stillborn in 1958. Most of their 29-year marriage, marked by frequent extended separations and difficult homecomings, was turbulent because of a clash of lifestyles, particularly her refusal to ever live in government housing on base. Olds and Ella Raines separated in 1975 and divorced in 1976. Olds then married Abigail Morgan Sellers Barnett in January 1978, and they divorced after fifteen years of marriage.
Ella Raines died in May 30, 1988 Sherman Oaks, California from throat cancer. She was 67.
Seen as a rising star, Olds was selected for a U.S. Air Force-Royal Air Force exchange program in 1948. Traveling to Britain, he commanded No. 1 Squadron at RAF Tangmere and flew the Gloster Meteor. With the end of this assignment in late 1949, Olds became the operations officer for the F-86 Sabre-equipped 94th Fighter Squadron at March Field in California.
Olds next was given command of the Air Defense Command’s 71st Fighter Squadron based at the Greater Pittsburgh Airport. He remained in this role for much of the Korean War despite repeated requests for combat duty. Increasingly unhappy with the U.S. Air Force, despite promotions to Lieutenant Colonel (1951) and Colonel (1953), he debated retiring but was talked out of it by his friend Maj. Gen. Frederic H. Smith, Jr. Shifting to Smith’s Eastern Air Defense Command, Olds languished in several staff assignments until receiving an assignment to the 86th Fighter-Interceptor Wing at Landstuhl Air Base, Germany in 1955. Remaining abroad for three years, he later oversaw the Weapons Proficiency Center at Wheelus Air Base, Libya.
Made Deputy Chief, Air Defense Division at the Pentagon in 1958, Olds produced as series of prophetic papers calling for improved air-to-air combat training and the increased production of conventional munitions. After assisting in generating the funding for the classified SR-71 Blackbird program, Olds attended the National War College in 1962-1963. Following graduation, he commanded the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Bentwaters. During this time, he brought over former Tuskegee Airman Col. Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. to Britain to serve on his staff. Olds left the 81st in 1965 after forming an aerial demonstration team without command authorization.
After brief service at Shaw AFB in South Carolina, Olds was given command of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base. He knew from his own sources that all was not well in the 8th TFW and resolved to see it from the perspective of the FNG (the “freaking” new guy).
He went through the normal in-processing routine like any other newbie, paid close attention and spoke little. By the time he reached the front office, he reckoned that he knew all he needed to. He began cleaning house.
First he cut loose the deadwood, the ticket punchers and careerists who had “sniveled some counters “- missions that counted toward completion of a tour when in fact they had not gone north. Then he began learning the way the Wolfpack did business so he could improve upon it. He stood before the F-4C Phantom crews and said, “I’m going to start here by flying Green Sixteen (tail-end Charlie) and you guys are going to teach me how. But teach me fast and teach me good, because I’m a quick learner.”
Sitting in the audience was Capt. Ralph Wetterhahn, a future MiG killer. Like so many other pilots and WSOs, he was energized by the new CO’s press-on attitude. Years later, Wetterhahn compared Olds’ arrival with that of Brig. Gen. Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) in Twelve Oâclock High.
The old ways were not only out, they were deceased. A new regime had arisen, and the Wolfpack began showing results. Olds ruled over a fiefdom like a feudal baron, enjoying the excitement of the hunt by day and discussing the great game with his men at arms by night.
Under Olds’ predecessor, who seldom flew combat, the 8th had eked out a meager kill-loss ratio. Like the rest of the Air Force, it had barely broken even with Hanoi’s MiGs, peaking at a 2-1 exchange rate. Under Olds, the Wolfpack shot to the top of the Southeast Asia league, bagging 18 MiGs, and when he left, the wing’s kill ratio stood at 4-1.
The free-wheeling environment at Ubon fueled morale, and the Wolfpack’s was stratospheric. Dedicated consumers of booze and red meat, they reveled in the warrior ethic. In contrast, todays sedate, sober young professionals are superbly educated, highly competent, and terrified that they might say something that somebody would find objectionable. Olds did not want to live in that world.
And he didn’t.
Increasing concerned about F-105 Thunderchief losses to North Vietnamese MiGs during bombing missions, Olds designed “Operation Bolo” in late 1966. This called for 8th TFW F-4s to mimic F-105 operations in an effort to draw enemy aircraft into combat. Implemented in January 1967, the operation saw American aircraft down seven MiG-21s, with Olds shooting down one. The MiG losses were the highest suffered in one day by the North Vietnamese during the war. A stunning success, Operation Bolo effectively eliminated the MiG threat for most of the spring of 1967. After bagging another MiG-21 on May 4, Olds shot down two MiG-17s on the 20th to raise his total to 16, including the four MiGs over Vietnam.
Over the next few months, Olds continued to personally lead his men into combat. In an effort to raise morale in the 8th TFW, he began growing a famed handlebar mustache. Copied by his men, they referred to them as “bulletproof mustaches.” During this time, he avoided shooting down a fifth MiG as he had been alerted that should he become an ace over Vietnam, he would be relieved of command and brought home to conduct publicity events for the Air Force. On August 11, Olds conducted a strike on the Paul Doumer Bridge in Hanoi. For his performance, he was awarded the Air Force Cross.
Upon return to the U.S., Olds was acclaimed as America’s top gun of the war to date, a record he retained for the next five years. But he was contemptuous of the Air Force’s attitude toward air combat, exclaiming, “The best flying job in the world is a MiG-21 pilot at Phuc Yen. Hell, if I was one of them I’d have got 50 of us!”
Despite his MiG-killing fame, he was perhaps proudest of the strike against North Vietnam’s best-defended target: Thai Nguyen steel mill. In an ultra-low-level attack, leaving rooster tails on the paddies behind them, Olds and two wingmen put their bombs on target. He considered it a dangerously wasteful effort, as the mill had been hit repeatedly, but its smoke stacks had remained standing. What he valued most was the courage and skill of his aircrews.
Leaving the 8th TFW in September 1967, Olds was made Commandant of Cadets at the US Air Force Academy. Promoted to brigadier general on June 1, 1968, he worked to restore pride in the school after a large cheating scandal had blackened its reputation. In February 1971, Olds became director of aerospace safety in the Office of the Inspector General. That fall, he was sent back to Southeast Asia to report on the combat readiness of USAF units in the region. While there, he toured bases and flew several unauthorized combat missions.
He found what he feared: most Air Force fighter crews “couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag.” Commander John Nichols, a Navy MiG killer brought to Udorn, Thailand to teach dog fighting to the Air Force blue suits, saw Olds taxi his F-4 into the chocks after a practice mission. “The canopy came open, followed by General Olds’ helmet in a high, lofting arc. He was not happy.” But his report and analysis were not well received, and his recommendations were ignored.
When Operation Linebacker began in May 1972, American fighter jets returned to the offense in the skies over North Vietnam for the first time in nearly four years. Navy and Marine Corps fighters, reaping the benefits of their TOPGUN program, immediately enjoyed considerable success with a 12:1 kill-loss ratio. In contrast, by June, as Olds had predicted, the Air Force’s fighter community was struggling with a nearly 1:1 kill-loss ratio.
To the new Inspector General, Lt. Gen. Ernest C. Hardin, Jr., Olds offered to take a voluntary reduction in rank to Colonel so he could return to operational command and straighten out the situation. Olds decided to leave the Air Force when the offer was refused (he was offered another inspection tour instead) and he retired on June 1, 1973. With 17 career victories (thirteen in WW II plus four in Vietnam) when the triple ace died, he was America’s third-ranking living ace. His 259 total combat missions included 107 in World War II and 152 in Southeast Asia, 105 of those over North Vietnam. Scat XXVII (F-4C-24-MC 64-0829), the plane he flew for his four MiG kills, was retired from operational service and placed on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, with the four red MiG stars representing his four MiG kills in Vietnam painted on the splitter vane of the intake.
Retiring to Steamboat Springs, CO, he became active in public affairs. Enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2001, Olds later died on June 14, 2007. His ashes were interred at the US Air Force Academy.
Far too many military personnel, policemen, and politicians mouth their oath of office as a rote exercise. Not Robin Olds. He thought about the words, absorbed, them, and passed them along. In addressing newly commissioned officers he said, “The airman swears that he will obey the orders of the officers appointed over him. Do you realize what responsibilities that puts on your shoulders? Your orders have to be legal and proper. Think about it, before you give one. But think about how to protect and defend the Constitution. Because do you know what that is? That is by, for, and of The People. It is not the President; it is not the Speaker of the House; nor the Leader of the Senate. It is the People of the United States; who, hopefully in their wisdom will guide their forces properly.”
Olds had been writing a memoir for several years prior to his death. Says F-4 pilot and novelist Mark Berent, “It was well written, as you’d expect from Robin, but it wasn’t really about him. It was more about people he knew.”
Another Air Force officer who read part of the text said that it began as an ethereal discussion with the ghost of Robin’s father. Robert Olds had asked his son the status of the U.S. Air Force and got a detailed debriefing on what’s wrong with the service. It was a long list.
When he died on June 14, not quite 85, Olds left the work incomplete. The fact that his book remains unfinished represents a major loss to aviation literature.
Gen. Robin Olds once said his magnificent mustache represented his defiance. This defiance grew into the modern-day practice called “Mustache March” in the U.S. Air Force, in which Airmen of all ranks grow their mustaches out of regulations for the entire month of March in defiance of AF hair grooming standards.
James Helms Kasler was born on May 2, 1926 in South Bend, Indiana and following 30-years of distinguished military service, retired as a U.S. Air Force Colonel. Three times he went off to war and three times returned home. During his career, he is the only person to be awarded three Air Force Crosses. He also was awarded two Silver Stars, Legion of Merit, nine Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Purple Hearts, eleven Air Medals and Bronze Star with V for valor. Setting aside recipients of the Medal of Honor, he is the 10th most decorated serviceman in U.S. history. For some, he is known as Indiana’s Sgt. Alvin York, the famous hero of World War I.
Shortly after graduating from Shortridge High School, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force in May 1944. He spent his two-year enlistment flying combat missions over Japan as a B-29 Superfortress tail gunner.
Following the war, Kasler attended Butler University in Indianapolis for three years before entering the U.S. Air Force pilot training program in January 1950 and received his wings on March 24, 1951 at Williams AFB, Arizona. Following a brief assignment to Presque Isle, Maine, in November 1951 he was sent to Korea and assigned to the 335th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, 4th Fighter-Interceptor Group.
Flying the F-86 Sabrejet, Kasler was credited with his first aerial victory on April 1, 1952, downing one MiG-15 near Wongsong-dong and damaging a second east of Sinuiju. He shot down another MiG near Okkang-dong on April 21. Action picked up in May, and he was credited with four more MiG-15s – one on the 4th, two on the 15th. It was on April 25 when he got his 6th in MiG Alley.
He and his wingman, 1st Lt. Albert Smiley, caught several MiGs just as they were returning to their Communist air base. Kasler got behind the lead MiG, chasing it for about 50 miles on the deck, refusing flight commander Phil “Casey” Colman’s request to call it a day. On the MiGs tail, Kasler opened up, and his gunfire tore it apart. Its canopy gone, its pilot engulfed in fire, the MiG arched down in a flaming trail before it splattered in the mud flats just below. Kasler pulled back on the stick mightily, to avoid sharing his victim’s fate. He cleared and called triumphantly to Colman, “Casey, I’m an ace.”
MiGs were routinely piloted by Chinese and Soviet pilots and a U.S. intelligence officer later informed Kasler that the three MiGs he and Smiley killed were the only ones recorded that day.
The officer had another bit of information: One of those three planes had been piloted by the son of Mao Zedong, father of the Chinese revolution and principal founder of the People’s Republic of China.
Kasler returned to the United States in July 1952 and during the next 11 years served in Canada, Turner AFB, Georgia, Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina, and Breitburg Air Base, Germany, flying a variety of jet fighters. In 1963 he received his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Nebraska.
In February 1966 he went to Tahkli Air Base, Thailand as the operations officer for the 354th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the 355th Wing. While mission were flying daily over both South and North Vietnam, Hanoi was at that time off-limits to U.S. warplanes. Fearing a wider conflict, Robert McNamara, secretary of defense during the Kennedy and Johnson presidential administrations, drew a 50-mile circle around it and a 30-mile ring around the principal harbor.
That restriction was eliminated in June 1966 as American defense chiefs were slowly escalating the war, and had recently decided to broaden the bombing of North Vietnam to include industrial targets like the Hanoi POL (petroleum, oil, & lubricant) facility.
On June 21, Kasler learned of the impending strike and began to select pilots, draw up the precise navigation plans, and studying Hanoi’s formidable aerial defenses. North Vietnam had the strongest anti-aircraft defenses in history: over 7,000 AA guns of 37mm or larger, and batteries of radar-controlled SAM’s ringing Hanoi.
By midnight on the 28th, their plans were complete, down to detailed route charts, folded accordion-style. Minutes before the 0830 mission briefing, Kasler was invited to lead the mission, much to his surprise, and to the discomfort of Col. Holt, who otherwise would have led the large raid. The briefing focused on weather (clear) and winds (light and variable) – both perfect for fighter operations. Both wings, the 355th and the 388th, would approach the target from the south, to minimize the chances of a bomb ending up in the city of Hanoi. Each Republic F-105 Thunderchief carried eight 750-pound bombs.
Kasler rolled down the runway and lifted off at 235 knots. Airborne, he headed north for the rendezvous with the aerial tankers. They refueled uneventfully and were three minutes ahead of schedule. Kasler led the Thuds in a circle to kill the 180 seconds. Twenty minutes later, they were over the Red River and Kasler began to lose altitude, until they were 300 feet off the ground, at the base of “Thud Ridge,” the landmark mountain range that ran east-west across North Vietnam’s mid-section.
As they dropped tanks, they could see smoke rising up from the POL tanks, already hit by Navy jets. Flak blossomed all around them, even at 300 feet. The NVA gunners must have had their 85mm and 100mm pieces at zero elevation. Amidst the smoke from the target and puffs of anti-aircraft fire, Kasler called for afterburners and went into his bomb run. Big fat oil tanks filled his view; he dropped his bombs and rolled away to the right. Turning back, he saw the fuel tanks erupting into huge billowing fireballs, thousands of feet high.
His flight crossed the Red River and the flak gunners switched to fighter-bombers behind him. Flying west, looking for targets of opportunity, he found a convoy of twenty-five trucks. The Thuds blasted them with 20mm cannon fire, destroying at least half of them. He glanced back at Hanoi, now 35 miles behind. A pillar of black smoke towered up, over six miles high.
The Hanoi POL strike was very successful. Over 90 percent of the facility was destroyed and the Vietnamese abandoned it altogether.
On August 8, 1966, on his 91st combat mission, he was leading the formation when his wingman, Fred Flom was shot down. Kasler dropped down and flew low-level cover while awaiting the arrival of a combat rescue patrol. Running low on fuel with just enough to return to base, he instead hooked up with a KC-135 midair refueler and return to look for Flom.
Kasler’s F-105 was also shot down over North Vietnam that same day and captured by the North Vietnamese. He was a POW until 4 March 1973. So began six years and seven months of imprisonment by an enemy who knew exactly who he was and why to hate him.
Oddly, it was Kasler’s notoriety that saved his life, but it also exposed him to unspeakable torture. His captors gloated. They singled him out. They almost immediately put Kasler on television, so they couldn’t kill him without losing face, but they were particularly eager to force a confession or any capitulation, so great would have been its propaganda value.
It was testimony to the ferocity of the air war that another of Kasler’s closest friends, Lewis Shattuck, was shot down and rescued on Aug 1st and was shot down again, and this time captured, on Aug 11th. And that his friend John Brodak went down Aug 14th.
That’s three buddies down within 35 days of one another and serving as POWs from 1966 until 1973.
At one point, during the fall of 1967, Kasler’s captors took his clothes and his mosquito net. For three days, they denied him food and water and they beat his back and buttocks with a truck fan belt, every hour on the hour, 6 a.m. until 10 or 11 p.m.
He was tortured repeatedly by his Communist captors, in an effort to get him to cooperate with their propaganda claims. In the early years, the prisoners were kept in isolation and rarely let out of their cells. The Vietnamese used isolation, sleep deprivation, starvation, as well as physical pain to try to break Kasler down. His worst session came in June 1968:
âThe Vietnamese were attempting to force me to meet a delegation and appear before TV cameras on the occasion of the supposed 30000th American airplane ever North Vietnam. I couldn’t say the things they were trying to force me to say. I was tortured for six weeks. I went through the ropes and irons ten times. I was denied sleep for five days and during three of these was beaten every hour on the hour with a fan belt. During the entire period I was on a starvation diet. I was very sick during this period. I had contacted osteomyelitis in early 1967 and had a massive bone infection in my right leg.
“They would wrap my leg before each torture session so I wouldn’t get pus or blood all over the floor of the interrogation room. During this time they beat my face to a pulp. I couldn’t get my teeth apart for five days. My ear drum was ruptured, one of my ribs broken and the pin in my right leg was broken loose and driven up into my hip.”
“I lay in agony for six months until I was given an operation in January of 1969.”
[Excerpted from pownetwork.org]
Kasler shared the infamous Room 7 of the “Hanoi Hilton” with other great heroes like Robinson Risner, James Stockdale, Bud Day, John McCain, Larry Guarino, and Jeremiah Denton. He never cooperated with the North Vietnamese and survived to return home in March, 1973, after six and one-half years in captivity.
For seven long years, his wife Martha, daughter Suzanne and twins Jim and Nanette awaited Kasler’s return from Vietnam. It came, joyfully and tearfully, on March 8, 1973 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
The twins were 12 when their father left for Vietnam. They were 19 when the family was reunited. Kasler momentarily mistook his son Jim for Suzanne’s husband, John Morris.
The confusion was understandable but short-lived. It is testimony to Kasler’s enormous strength, and that of Martha and the kids, that normalcy was incredibly, and almost immediately, restored.
In July 1974 Kasler was assigned as vice commander of the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho and remained in that capacity until his retirement as aColonel on 1 May 1975, in spite of him being in line for an Air Wing command and a brigadier general’s star.
He spent the last 39 years of his life as a resident of Momence, an Illinois-Indiana border town where he owned South Shore Golf Course and had interests in banking and real estate, served on a number of boards and received a variety of civic and service awards.
He died on April 24, 2014, at the age of 87, in West Palm Beach, Florida. One obituary read, he joined what Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg called ‘our honored dead.’
Kasler’s former cell-mates at Hanoi Hilton, Lewis Shattuck and John Brodak, were in Indianapolis for the May 16, 2014 memorial service at Crown Hill Cemetery that saluted Kasler in death. It was a grim, gray day, but the rain eased and the sky brightened a bit for the F-15 Eagle flyover, when there was a lump in every throat and a tear in almost every eye. Kasler was more than a hero. He was a husband to Martha for 65 years, a father and grandfather.
At his funeral, John Brodak, his voice flush with feeling, said, ‘The colonel was my mentor and my hero, the most courageous man I’ve ever known. He was a fierce warriors and a patriot and I’m proud he called me his friend.’
Brodak is a retired Air Force colonel who flew with Kasler. And for 15 months of the six and a half years both were North Vietnamese prisoners of war, he was Kasler’s cellmate at ‘The Zoo’ and the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton.’
Kasler’s happiest occupation was Grandpa. His six grandchildren served as greeters at his Crown Hill memorial celebration. Each spoke.
One, Ashley Hurley, recalled grandpa’s infectious sense of humor and how, when she was little, he would get down on the floor with her and laugh and laugh.
James Kasler was nicknamed “Stoneface” by his Air Force peers, testimony to his toughness, his seriousness of purpose and his mission commitment. But men like Brodak and Shattuck, his wife Martha, kids and grandkids
CMSgt Richard Hardesty
U.S. Air Force (Ret)
(Veterans – record and share your own service story with friends and family by joining www.togetherweserved.com. This is a free service)
PLEASE DESCRIBE WHO OR WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO JOIN THE AIR FORCE?
I graduated from high school at 17 and enrolled in college the following fall of 1951. I also joined ROTC program at the school and two fraternities–ah, the marvels of college life. By the end of the first semester and getting several D grades I decided college wasn’t for me and joined the Air Force in February of 1952.
WHETHER YOU WERE IN THE SERVICE FOR SEVERAL YEARS OR AS A CAREER, PLEASE DESCRIBE THE DIRECTION OR PATH YOU TOOK.
My basic training was at Lackland AFB, Texas followed by nearly 10 months going through the Electronics School at Scott AFB, Illinois. Getting there was a bit of a thrill. I wasn’t sure why or how but I ended up on my first airplane ride aboard a C-46 from San Antonio to Scott AFB, Illinois.
I graduated from the school in November 1952 with orders to Japan. I went on a 30-day leave to my hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa where I enjoyed time away from military life. When it ended I made my way to Chicago where I’d be taking a train to the west coast and hopping a ship to Japan. In Chicago I met up with several buddies right after the New Year. Having them along as company on the trip made the journey a lot more fun. Since we were travelling in uniform every old soldier on board the train insisted on buying us drinks and regaling us with their stories of how they helped win the war…World War II that is.
Several days after arriving at Camp Pendleton we were taken to where our ship, the USS General W. H. Gordon (AP-117), was docked. The day we left port–January 19, 1953–is a date I will never forget: My idol Hank Williams died on that date.
The highlight of the voyage was crossing the Equator on the International Date Line. In this ancient tradition Sailors and Marines crossing the Equator for the first time are subject to all kinds of weird rituals. This rite of passage is a daylong affair where pollywogs–those being initiated–are put through many embarrassing obstacles such as being locked in a salt-water coffin, hair chopping, digging through rotting garbage, locked in the stocks while shellbacks–the initiators–throw mushy fruit at them, and other degrading behavior. It was a lot of fun to watch.
We arrived at the port of Yokohama 28 days later and took a 4 hour train ride to the Replacement Depot. On the ride there a sergeant came through the car and read off a list of names and where those called would be assigned. He then bellows out, “Anyone whose name I did not call…you guys will be heading to Korea tomorrow morning.” Welcome to the war!!
I was sent to Chinhae AFB (called K-10) to the 102nd Comm Squadron. Less than a month later, the 75th ADW Air Police Squadron got their first mobile communications, and a buddy of mine and me were transferred to the AP Squadron. We lived in a pretty secure environment since he North Korean army had been pushed out the area years ago so the actual shooting war was far off. We had some A-26 twin-engine small bombers based at Chinhae and they made quite a racket on take-off and landing–mainly because we had a PSP (Pierced Steel Planking) runway. We slept in tents on canvas cots and in the winter used sleeping bags. We were always envious of the Army guys based not too far from us. We figured they probably had it better since they had steel cots, sheets and blankets.
Of significance in that tour, my buddy and I were called down to Chinhae port to work on some HF radio gear located on a boat belonging to Sigmund Rhee, the President of South Korea. We did an excellent job of repairs and had him out of the port in under an hour. The gear we worked on was a Collins Radio manufactured in my home town of Cedar Rapids.
One funny story was when our main switchboard reported an outage with the Navy unit in town and asked us to investigate. We got about halfway to town and found a ROK Army unit calmly cutting loose the tie-downs and rolling up our telephone cable connecting us to the Navy base. We never understood why.
And who could ever forget the “Twelve-Holer” at the bottom of the hill from our tents. It was a wonderful experience in the winter time, as we wore the old one-piece fatigue uniform and had to half undress to go to the bathroom.
Then there were the steel canteen cups we used for everything drinkable including cereal soaked in that wonderful reconstituted milk. It worked well for cool water and orange juice too but not hot liquids. Every time I tried drinking hot coffee my mouth would burn and when the cup finally cooled enough for my lips to touch the metal, the coffee was too cold to enjoy. Oh the joys of Korea!
The final armistice agreement was signed on July 27, 1953 and when it was announced there was wild jubilation throughout our base. I rotated out in December 1953 and was the third ship to dock in Seattle, Washington on December 24th. When I and many other returnees tried to get home we found that all ground transportation and air was booked solid. Somehow the military found a train going to Chicago so most of us got out. I remember the one conductor playing cards with a large group of us. As we arrived near Minneapolis we caught him cheating. After the train starting moving we threw him off the train as it left town. The Air Police was waiting for us in Chicago but didn’t take any action. My parents met me and we made the long drive to Iowa, celebrating Christmas on the 30th of December!!
DID YOU PARTICIPATE IN COMBAT OPERATIONS? IF SO, COULD YOU DESCRIBE THOSE WHICH WERE SIGNIFICANT TO YOU?
In Vietnam I was stationed at Tan Son Nhut AB near Saigon. I remember the medic almost taking pleasure in showing us the 3 and 5/8 inches long needle used to administer the Hepatitis shot. He then jabbed me in the left cheek of my buttocks. The pain of the serum flowing into my system hurt more than anything I can remember. That shot disabled me for two or three days making it hard to sit or lay down.
In December 1966 and again in early 1967 we came under several attacks by Communist Vietnam Peoples’ Army (VPA aka NVA). I was the communications superintendent in charge of a transmitter site and receiver site located on the north perimeter fence. When the enemy made a second assault the .50 caliber machine we had set up on the roof kept them at bay as they tried to breech the fence-line. I was taken aback a day or two later when I saw some of the bodies laid out on the flight line and among them all of the barbers from the base. They were the guys that snapped our necks and gave us a razor cut haircut!! They could have taken us out at any time. It was the only determined enemy attack on the base while I was in-country. I do recall the VPA threw a bomb under our work bus two days after I rotated back to CONUS and several guys were either killed or severely injured.
This is what a “crazy and wild” guy does on R&R in Thailand. The snake was 17 foot long and very heavy.