Class Of 1964 USAF Academy


by Nick Lacey

(written in December 2010)

During my Air Force career, no other group of Air Force warriors embodied the “fighting spirit” of the American combat fighter pilot more than the USAFA Class of 1964 classmates with whom, in the F-105, I had the supreme privilege to “fly and fight.” The challenges, risks and loses associated with our combat experience, rivaled World War II.

In the autumn of 1965, nine of us came together at Nellis AFB to start training in the F-105. Except for Milt Rutter and me who attended Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) together at Moody AFB, all won their Air Force pilot wings at separate UPT bases. All of us stood very high in the graduate ranking of our UPT class (66-B) to be assigned to the F-105. Very likely, our F-105 class at Nellis AFB was the only F-105 Combat Crew Training class with all USAFA graduates, and certainly the only F-105 training class with everyone from the USAFA Class of 1964.

It did not register with me at the time, but as I look back, I had the enormous honor to be with eight outstanding USAFA classmates, fellow Air Force officers, and fellow Air Force fighter pilots who were extraordinarily talented individuals and airmen, immensely courageous and “just plain good guys.”


Other USAFA classmates were in the F-105 class ahead of us, with a mix of commissioning sources. –Karl Richter, Dick Hackford, Nels Running, Ed Harvey, Ken Hallmark and Wayne Spelius - Additional classmates checked out in the F-105 later. But our F-105 class was unique and a special group, as an all USAFA Class of 1964.

The F-105 training at Nellis in 1965/66 followed a syllabus that emphasized nuclear weapons training, preparing F-105 pilots for nuclear alert missions in Europe, Japan and Korea. Naively, I thought that was where we likely would be headed after completing F-105 training. The course required 124 flying hours in the F-105. The syllabus had a fair number of conventional weapons sorties, but insufficient for conventional weapons combat missions.

Just a few weeks after returning from Christmas leave in January 1966 and with about ¼ of our training behind us, we received our PCS orders. All nine of us were assigned to the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing at Takhli Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand, Southeast Asia. We completed our training at Nellis AFB in May 1966.

During 1966, the F-105s based at Takhli RTAB and Korat RTAB were the primary Air Force aircraft for bombing targets in North Vietnam, particularly around Hanoi (Route Pack VI). The US Navy launched missions from carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin, and other Air Force aircraft participated in bombing North Vietnam, as well. Rolling Thunder, the campaign to bomb North Vietnam, started in March 1965, “gradually” evolved and ended in October 1968. The years of 1966 and 1967 were the height of bombing intensity during Rolling Thunder.

During the first months of Rolling Thunder campaign, the North Vietnamese, with the help of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, built a formidable air defense system around Hanoi, while we watched. –overwhelming anti-aircraft artillery, surface-to-air-missiles (SAM), MiGs and an integrated/coordinated radar, command and control network-- US air strikes in the Hanoi area were tightly controlled and restricted by the highest levels of our civilian Government. Targets were assigned for political reasons, with very little consideration and understanding of the hard-earned operational requirements for the effective employment of airpower.

All nine of us arrived at Takhli RTAB by June 1966, at a time of increased bombing in Route Pack VI and at a time of a disconnect between target selection in Route Pack VI and operational reality. By early August 1966, Ron Bliss and I had completed about 20 combat missions, many in Route Pack VI. We were starting to understand a little about the air war. I will always remember Ron saying to me as we walked from the Officers’ Club to our hooch (living quarters), “This war is f_____ up!” It was one of those exceptionally unusual moments in my life when everything around me stopped, except for the focus of the moment. He said exactly what I felt!

If lieutenants understood that the war over North Vietnam was not being conducted wisely, surely those above us with far more experience and understanding knew, as well. These extraordinarily difficult operational conditions and the high loss rates of the F-105s required enormous courage of the F-105 pilots and the “bears” in the Wild Weasels (the two-seat F-105F SAM killers).

In less than 4 months from June 1966 to early September 1966, five of the nine of us were shot down, of which four remained Prisoners of War for over 6 ½ years, until released in March 1973.

--Tom Browning shot down near Hanoi on July 8, 1966; POW.
--Marti Neuens shot down near Hanoi on August 12, 1966; POW.
--Ron Bliss shot down near Hanoi on September 4, 1966; POW.
--Tom McNish shot down near Hanoi on September 4, 1966; POW.

(Ron and Tom were in the same strike package and were shot down within a few minutes of each other and less than 10 miles apart.)

--Al Rogers nursed his damaged aircraft back to Thailand where he bailed out on August 4, 1966. He was picked up and returned to flying.

Forever, I will hold the utmost admiration and the deepest respect for the four in our group “who continued the fight” in the POW camps of North Vietnam, along with our other USAFA Class of 1964 classmates who were POWs. They endured, with honor, the longest, and among the most inhumane, wartime captivity of American prisoners in United States history.

Five of us completed 100 combat missions over North Vietnam by late 1966 and early 1967. (One hundred combat missions over North Vietnam or one year in theater constituted a complete tour.) Overall, the lost rate for the F-105 pilots during 1966 was about 40%. Regrettably, our statistic exceeded that average. After completing 100 missions over North Vietnam, I always felt that I would rather be “lucky” than “good!” The five of us who completed our tours with 100 combat missions over North Vietnam, I can assure you, were “lucky!”

Post Script: In the USAFA Class of 1964 Ring Dining-In Program of June 3, 1963 is an explanation of our Class motto and our Class goal, which also is written on our Class Ring. The explanation reads as follows:

Our motto, πρσΣ APETHN, is unique. Pronounced “pros aretain,” it means in short “Toward Arete.” “Arete” is an ancient Greek word which is the embodiment of the principles of the intelligent citizen-warrior of Athens –excellence, valor, virtue, manliness; the sum of good qualities that make character. Because of the ideals which it represents, we have chosen it for both our motto and our goal – as cadets, as officers, and as gentlemen.

I trust that this group of nine USAFA Class of 1964 F-105 fighter pilots met the challenge of our Class motto and goal.
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