Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Jim's History

jim.jpg I had a wonderful time in the Air Force and am very grateful to USAFA for leading me into that career. During my 23 years of active duty I accumulated over 1650 combat hours during 654 combat missions, managed and executed air ops in an important wartime theater, flew the F-105 and F-15 and worked at the highest level of the Department of Defense. It was a tremendous experience and I enjoyed it all immensely.

After pilot training I was assigned to Naha AB, Okinawa as a C-130 co-pilot. It was 1965 and the war in Vietnam was revving up. I flew frequent trips to Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines as well as shuttle missions around Vietnam and Thailand. It was a great way to see that part of the world! I also flew C-130 night FAC/Flare missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in North Vietnam (PAC I/II area south of Vinh) and in eastern Laos.

After 15 months flying C-130s I was given the opportunity to volunteer for a forward air control slot. I checked out in the O-1 and was assigned to Nakhon Phanom in eastern Thailand. I spent 4 of the next 5 months flying missions out of Khe Sahn in the northwest corner of South Vietnam due to problems in that area. The missions included defending the base of Khe Sahn, reconnaissance of the Ho Chi Minh Trail (20 miles west of the base) and infiltration/monitoring/exfiltration of Special Forces road watch teams and Marine recon teams. These tasks required a lot of flying and frequently involved very challenging missions.

In June '67 Truman (TR) Young (AFA '64/19th Sq) and I were called back to Nakhon Phanom and given the opportunity to volunteer for a special program—Project 404—frequently called “Steve Canyon”. We were to become the first Ravens in America's secret war in Laos. (ref: The Ravens by Christopher Robbins) We flew to Udorn and spent the afternoon obtaining civilian flying clothing. There were no identification labels, no insignias and no patches of any kind. All of our military ID and equipment were put into storage. The next morning we caught an Air America C-123 to Vientiane where I was assigned as the only in-country FAC in northern Laos and TR the only FAC in southern Laos. *

I had the privilege of working for Major General Vang Pao, an ethnic Hmong and the Lao Army General in charge of Military Region II, the northeast corner of Laos that borders North Vietnam. I lived in Long Cheng immediately south of the Plain of Jars where VP had his headquarters. There were several CIA para-military officers there as well as a few Thais. Everyone else was Hmong or Lao. Each evening I would go to dinner at VP's home where he and his commanders would plan the next day's activities and make assignments. In the morning I would take off at first light, usually with a backseater who could talk to the General's ground troops, and we would spend 10 of the next 14 hours putting in strikes against the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces fighting VP's guerilla army.

I frequently used more than 100 strike aircraft a day to attack targets in northeastern Laos. Thanks to the work of those strike aircraft 10,000 Hmong soldiers were able to fight 40,000 North Vietnamese and 10,000 Pathet Lao to a standstill. My aircraft was hit 18 times while flying the Raven mission. After I left Laos in February '68 and before the end of air operations in 1973 the Raven program expanded to as many as 21 FACs at one time. Forty percent of the Ravens were lost to enemy action. I believe some were captured and spent the rest of their lives as prisoners along with many of the other 600+ American airmen who were shot down in Laos. Some of those men were our classmates.

After a short R&R I transitioned into the F-105. This was a different way to fly! The max speed in an O-1 is 110 knots; the landing speed of an F-105 is 175. My assignment to Takhli, though, was dull in comparison to the Raven tour. The U.S. stopped bombing North Vietnam after I had been there several months. From that point on I became a popular flight lead since no one else at Takhli knew northern Laos and the Ho Chi Minh Trail the way I did. I could always find good targets and never had a problem finding the FAC who often was flying the same aircraft I had been flying a year earlier.

I flew the F-105 for the next 4 years out of Okinawa, Korea, and Nellis AFB with a 4- month TDY to Korat, Thailand in 1972. It was while I was stationed at Kadena AFB in 1970 that I met Lenore who worked as a Red Cross recreation director at the Army hospital. We were married at Travis AFB and spent the first 2 years of married life in Las Vegas where I taught other F-105 pilots how to kill surface-to-air missile sites in the Wild Weasel program.

Then it was my turn for a staff tour at Langley AFB, VA where our two daughters, Bonnie and Amy, were born. I worked in the Requirements Division on the TAC Staff. In 1975 I received a dream assignment to the first operational F-15 squadron at Langley. The family moved to Norfolk for the Armed Forces Staff College, then on to Luke AFB for F-15 training, and back to Langley. In 1979 I was assigned as Director of Operations at the 30 F-15 base at Soesterberg Holland. This was a wonderful 3-year assignment and we found many good friends among the Dutch. We truly enjoyed our unofficial role as one of the Queen's top air defense squadrons.

In 1982 I was appointed Chief of the Defense Tac Eval Team at NATO HQ., Ramstein AFB. My team roamed northern Europe pulling surprise evaluations of the air defense units of 7 NATO nations. It was an interesting and fun year of travel and skiing opportunities. After 4 years in Europe it was time to return to the U.S. and attend Air War College.

My last 3 years in the Air Force were spent at the Pentagon. My first assignment on the Air Staff was in one of the operational divisions working out of the basement. I kept a large coffee can on my desk to catch oil drips from the motor pool located one floor above me. One day I was asked to interview with the Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, for the job of Executive Secretary of the Department of Defense.

I was promoted from an office with no windows to an immense office with 4 enormous windows overlooking the Potomac! While working for Mr. Weinberger I received a thorough education about Washington including the workings of the Pentagon, the overall operation of the federal government, and Washington politics. In June of 1987 it was time to put my family first. I retired from the Air Force and we headed back to my home state of California. Our girls were entering high school and Manhattan Beach was a good place to be. Between 1987 and 2005 I worked for Hughes Aircraft Company (and the Raytheon Company which bought that section of Hughes in the late ‘90's) in southern California.

Lenore and I are retired now and live in the ski resort town of Mammoth Lakes, CA. We both love the skiing, hiking, and biking. Our 2 young granddaughters live in the Bay Area and I'm enjoying my role as grandpa. Looking back I think I gave the Air Force a good return on its investment in my education. For my part, the friendships I made at the Academy were as valuable as the lessons I learned both in and out of the classroom.

Jim Lemon 16th Sq.

lemonjl AT
* For those in '64 who knew TR Young I want to add that is was a pleasure to know and fly with him. He also successfully finished his Raven assignment and went to Williams as a T-38 instructor. He resigned from the Air Force a few years later and became an attorney working for the District Attorney's office in Phoenix. TR was killed in the crash of an Air Reserve KC-135 south of Luke AFB in 1981. His aircraft was on an instrument approach to Luke when it collided with a Cessna violating controlled airspace
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