Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Willie's, aka Bill or Saki, Bio


willie.gif I was born on September 12, 1942 in Fresno, California, and my parents named me William Takashi Sakahara. No one, other than salespeople who don't know me, ever called me William. I grew up as a child, teen, high school student and cadet as Willie. So everyone who knew me then, including all my USAFA classmates, called me Willie.

Around 1963, my future wife, Janet, convinced me "Willie" was not an appropriate name for a, soon to be professional, Air Force officer. So I became "Bill". I think she was also kind of embarrassed to introduce me to her extended family as "Willie". Around 1969, after I had been in the fighter community for a time, I picked up a nickname and unofficial call sign as "Saki". It gets rather confusing to some acquaintances when I go to functions where some friends from one age era meet others from another time frame not knowing they are talking about the same guy. So I now respond to all those names, including some that are not printable here. "Hey you" works too.

I spent the first four years of my life incarcerated. Within a couple of weeks of my birth, my mom and I joined my father and older sister who had earlier been sent to the Fresno Assembly Center, as guests of the United States government. We joined thousands of other people of Japanese ancestry, citizens and non-citizens alike, rooted from homes on the West Coast and placed in internment camps during WW II, in really colorful places around this country. We spent the next four years first in Gila Relocation Camp, Arizona and then Tule Lake Relocation Center, California. I don't recall any of that time, but I probably thought it was like year-round summer camp. My parents never talked to us of that time. We were released in 1946.

My life since then is a classic example of the American dream come true with the Academy and the Air Force the central theme. Our family literally started with nothing. We moved around in the California central valley and farming communities. We eventually settled in Gilroy, 'the Garlic Capital of the World" where on a clear day you can smell it for miles. My father started as a farm laborer, later was a share-cropper and then saved enough money to lease and then buy a small farm of his own. Of course, I was required to help even as a child, growing strawberries and vegetable. We lived in a house that he and I built. It wasn't fancy but it kept the rain out, had indoor plumbing, and it was home. I quickly realized farming was very hard work, being successful involved a lot of luck, especially with the weather, and there was little time for anything else. I really didn't want to stay in farming, and I knew the way out was through education. I also knew my family would not be able to help financially, and I would have to do it on my own.

Flying was the furthest thing in my mind then. I thought about it as a kid, but only as a fantasy dream, not a goal. It was something that would be really cool and fun but could never get. Then one day, I picked up a National Geographic magazine in the library and saw the spread on this brand new school in Colorado. What a beautiful location with great new facilities. I loved the bright blue uniforms. The best part was that it was free!!! I could go to school, not have to work on the side to pay for it and my living expenses, didn't have to spend extra money on clothes since I would wear free, great looking uniforms and gracefully leave farming!! My school counselor advised against it. No one from our little town had ever been accepted to a military academy. Besides, he said, with my being a quiet farm boy without any military background or knowledge, he thought I didn't have the temperament to survive, much less succeed in a military environment. That assessment more than anything put me on the path I took. "I'll show him!" I vowed.

In June 1960, two weeks after my high school graduation at age 17, I flew to Denver Stapleton Airport with a Congressional appointment to the USAF Academy in hand. I was a third alternate but the other guys took appointments to West Point and Annapolis. Luck and fate were on my side. There were a whole bunch of us there at Stapleton trying to get on Academy buses for the trip south. I only remember the bus being full and being told we could wait for another bus that would be there later. But we were all eager to get started and climbed on. A lot of us stood in the aisle all the way there. Dumb!!

Doolie summer is a blur. I do recall being in the 46th Provisional Squadron and I roomed with Jim Sue. During the first days, I seriously thought I had made a mistake. I started to believe my counselor was right, and I wanted to quit. No one had ever yelled at me before, and everyone was so mean! What did I ever do to them to deserve this? Yet, the one thing that kept me going was knowing I could never return home if I quit. Everyone in my little town had made such a big deal of my being the first appointment to an academy, the shame and dishonor to my family would have been devastating. Realizing that quitting was not an option, things got easier to handle. I entered at about 130 pounds, but by the end of basic cadet summer, I weighed 117 pounds. It didn't seem to bother me though. I was in good physical shape, had good stamina and found that my weight really helped on the long runs since I didn't have to carry much weight. I felt good, even helping some of the big guys. I developed strong stomach muscles and could do leg lifts forever. I was pitted against Al Tuck, the leg lift champ from one of the other squadrons, and we had some interesting and intense competitions. Al was still trying to challenge me at our last reunion.

ball.jpg After that summer, I joined the 17th Cadet Squadron which later changed to the 22nd Cadet Squadron when the wing expanded from 18 to 24 squadrons. With few exceptions, the members of the 17th/22nd remained the same, and what a great group of guys they were. I roomed with Jim Stewart, Ed Mechenbier, and Tom Browning, but all of us from '64 in the squadron were very close and did lots together. I wasn't big enough nor skilled enough to participate in intercollegiate sports, but I enjoyed intramurals, especially lacrosse. As first classmen, we were the wing champs and I was most proud to be on that team. As a doolie, I was a member of the Saber Drill Team, practicing for just one performance, the first class graduation ball. I still remember the hundreds of times I tried and failed to flip the saber by the blade tip and catch it by the handle in front of my face. My room ceiling had multiple nicks where the saber had hit and I'd try to duck or protect myself from the saber as it bounced every which way. I did okay academically, but didn't excel in areas I thought I would. I arrived thinking I could do well in math but found I was just average. I found my niche in history and political science since I was pretty good in writing BS and graduated with a major in International Affairs. I left the Academy with mixed feeling as I enjoyed life there, particularly the comradery of all my friends, but I looked forward to joining the real Air Force, especially trying my hand at flying.

After graduation, I attended pilot training at Vance AFB, Oklahoma in Class 66B. Both A and B classes were comprised mostly of USAFA, class of '64 graduates, so it was like old home week. But now I got to work and associate with guys from other parts of the cadet wing that I previously only knew slightly. It was a fun time with more new and great friendships developed. The bachelors who lived in the BOQ, of which I was one, were a handful. The married guys and their new wives took pity on us bachelors and often had us over for dinner. Pilot training was a great time and there were a lot of gifted pilots that came from those classes. I wasn't a natural pilot, but I did well enough to garner a fighter, well sort of, as an F-4 pilot WSO. At least I had a foot in the door to upgrade.

A week after getting my wings, I married Janet, who I met a few years earlier on a blind date arranged by Mrs. Barmettler, the 24th Squadron AOC's wife. We got married in Denver, and we drove to the west coast for our honeymoon, spent a couple of days in San Francisco, and I sent her back to Denver as I attended Basic Survival Training at Stead AFB in Reno, NV. I remember one morning, during the E & E exercise, sitting with Ron Bliss on top of one of the mountains watching the sun come up. It was a beautiful and crisp morning, and we discussed what a great time we were having on our respective honeymoons as he and Charlene and Jan and I got married on the same day just a week and a half earlier.

Following survival training, I drove to Davis Monthan AFB, AZ where Jan joined me for F-4 Combat Crew Training. We lived in infamous Escalante Gardens, amongst more class of '64 grads, both married and bachelors, all training to be F-4 WSOs. The training schedule was really easy and there seemed to be parties every weekend. Jan began to wonder what kind of life she had married into. We trained with our new fighter squadron aircraft commanders of the 22nd TFS from Bitburg, Germany. These were former Thud drivers, who, in the beginning, didn't appreciate having a passenger in their planes. Their first comments to us were generally like, “Just shut up and don't touch the stick!” Luckily I had a great AC, Jerry North, who gave me a lot of stick time, and really taught me to fly the F-4, especially weather flying with crummy back seat instruments. It was a great time and experience in Germany. Ron Hulting and I were both in the 22. We were actually the first two of our class to land an F-4 in Germany, since we were in the first ferry flight of F-4Ds from the St. Louis factory to Spangdahlem/Bitburg AB. Ron and Linda and Janet and I became fast friends.

After about 9 months in Germany, word came down asking for volunteers to upgrade to the F-4 front seat and then go to Vietnam. The whole lot of us raised our hands. Luckily, Ron and I were in the first group, as soon after, they stopped that pipeline. It was a short but full European tour with TDYs to Wheelus AB, Libya for gunnery training, cross countries around Europe, nuclear alert and weekend trips around the Mosel wine country. We left for RTU at George AFB, followed by a fun stop for Jungle Survival training at Clark AB, PI. I finally arrived at Cam Ranh Bay, RVN in October 1967.

combat.jpg I spent my tour in Cam Ranh Bay as an F-4 aircraft commander in the 558th TFS and 557th TFS. See My Memories of Vietnam for details and highlights. I ended up that tour with 137 combat missions with 37 missions north, all in either RP I and II. A TDY to Korea in the middle of the assignment, for what we thought was going to be another combat area, actually reduced my time in the shooting combat zone. Consequently, I was a bit disappointed in the number of combat missions I actually flew. Still, I left Cam Ranh satisfied I did as well as I could. I know I was a much wiser person with a bag full of experience and stories.

I was looking forward to returning to the land of the big BX, but instead, I received an assignment to the 391st TFS, 475th TFW, Misawa AB, Japan in October 1968. It was a fortuitous assignment. As one of the few unit aircraft commanders with combat experience, I was tasked as the squadron weapons officer, an assignment that was to guide my future Air Force career. In the summer of 1969, I was given the wing slot to the F-4 Fighter Weapons School. I joined John Wiles in that class. Following a strenuous four month TDY to Nellis, I returned to Japan with the coveted bullet patch on my shoulder. Back with the 391TFS, I didn't see much of Japan as we spent a lot of TDY in Korea. Our mission was nuclear and conventional defense of ROK at Kunsan AB and Taegu AB, ROK. Despite the extended TDYs, it was a very satisfying assignment with lots of good and challenging flying.

I also worked in the weapons and tactics area, something I was really enjoying. We lived in a small Japanese built house just outside the back gate of Misawa and we had some wonderful neighbors and friends including Doug and Lois Jenkins and Bob and Sherry Beverly. I recall Rich Bedarf was a bachelor then in Wing Plans, but he got to enjoy Korean TDY just like the rest of us. I especially enjoyed training the younger guys in the squadron. One of my assistant weapons officer WSOs was Jeff Feinstein before he got famous. In 1971 we sadly ceased F-4 operations at Misawa with the various squadrons and aircrews transferred to Korea and Kadena. Those of us with more than two years in country returned to the land of the big BX.

As luck would have it again, I was asked to return to Nellis AFB, NV. as an instructor pilot in the 414FWS, 57th FWW, the Fighter Weapons School. I was in awe to be amongst some of the world's best fighter pilots and tacticians. These were pilots who were real war heroes and MiG killers. I humbly started at the bottom as a platform and flight instructor in the Nuclear Weapons Flight. I slowly worked my way up, into the Air-Ground Flight, and finally was accepted into the Air-Air Flight.

From 1971 to 1975, I was in the Weapons School when great strides were taken to revamp USAF air to air philosophy and tactics and when the grand concepts of the ultimate training tool, Red Flag and the Aggressor Squadron were put into fruition. I was extremely fortunate to be working for visionary men, like Moody Suter, who had the courage to sell these grand ideas. I worked for Moody and with some of the best pilots and aerial combat tacticians in the world and recall sitting around his office on Friday afternoons drinking beer and brainstorming those crazy ideas.

It started with Moody's air to air instructor cadre actually changing USAF air to air tactics from the old fighting wing concept to the expanded tactical two, engaged and free fighter concept. About the same time, Moody, Boots Boothby, Randy O'Neil, and Pappy Frick sold and started the concept of the Aggressor Squadron, a specialized USAF unit specifically trained to emulate the enemy. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to help train the initial cadre of Aggressor Squadron pilots. With the formation of the first Aggressor squadron, I found myself, along with the other Weapons School instructors, on endless TDYs around the country on air to air road shows with the Aggressor Squadron, acting as the F-4 instructor teaching USAF aircrews how to combat the Aggressors. It was hard work, but it was also some of the best flying available. Moody left for the Pentagon and finally sold his ideas on Red Flag that we had envisioned during those Friday afternoon sessions. I was to see this concept again later in my career.

In those years in the F-4 Weapons School as well as working with the 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons, I was extremely fortunate to be able to work with lots of really talented and exceptional pilots. Also lots of good guys and talented pilots came through the School at that time, including Joe Bob Phillips, Dick Meyers, and John Jumper to name a few. It was the best flying job and best group of people I ever worked with in my career. In the summer of 1975, the system finally forced me from the cockpit and I headed to Command and Staff School in Montgomery AFB, AL. While I missed flying, it was a good time to rest. I made some new friends and got reacquainted with a number of other '64 grads. Dick Hackford and Byron Hooten and I were in the same Seminar group. With extra time on my hands, I also picked up a Master's Degree in Political Science on the side. Lee Downer was a good study buddy in those poli sci classes.

After Command and Staff, I thought I'd have to join my former classmates in a staff job. Isn't that why we went to staff school? But I lucked out again getting another flying assignment. Personnel said I was due for another remote assignment so I ended up (again) in Korea. I went through a short recurrency course at Homestead AFB, FL. before heading back overseas.

I arrived at Osan AB, ROK in August 1976, assigned as an instructor pilot and Wing Weapons Officer, 51st Comp WG. It was a one year, remote unaccompanied tour. I arrived in country less than a week before the tree cutting incident. A couple of US Army lieutenants were assigned to supervise the trimming of a large tree in the DMZ. The branches were obstructing the view of observation posts. The group was attacked by North Koreans and the lieutenants was killed.

The attack soon exploded into a huge international incident, similar to the previous action that I saw with the USS Pueblo. The US response was called Operation Paul Bunyan. When normally a "newby" (new guy) checkout would take several weeks, I received the fastest in-country orientation and check out and helped plan the 51st Wing air ops. It was really tough to coordinate with our other units in Kunsan AB without secure comm. It helped tremendously that there were weapons officers who were recent graduates or former instructors from Nellis already in country. Gary Rubus, a fellow instructor at Nellis, preceded me by about a month at Osan as a squadron weapons officer, so he knew ops at Osan well. Dave Cooper, another former instructor, was in Kunsan and a squadron weapons officer. We kept the plans sweet and simple. The Army sent in a bunch of burly men to chop down the tree, Coop's guys from Kunsan provided air to ground CAP. Of course, we also had the big stick, SAC B-52s flying obits south of the DMZ. The Osan group provided air superiority cover for everyone. As with the previous Pueblo incident, this one also quieted down after a few weeks. But it was an exciting way to start a one year tour. After that, it was a typical remote tour. But it was also a fun time working with a group of young, eager pilots and WSOs.

I left Korea in the fall of 1977, and Personnel finally stuck me with a staff job. I was assigned as a staff officer, Tac Division AF/XOOTT, Pentagon, just around the corner from the infamous purple water fountain. The good news was that with a weapons instructor AFSC, I was assigned to work on tactical weapons projects and I was again surrounded by the same guys from Nellis. The fighter Mafia and specifically the Weapons School Mafia was strong indeed, and I worked with fellow former weapons school instructors like Gail Peck, Joe Hurd, Joe Henderson, and John Jumper .

Among other projects, I was the Program Manager of Red Flag, now a fully functioning training program at Nellis AFB. I soon found out that Red Flag was such a coveted program, it was being used by senior Air Force and State Department personnel as a quid pro with international allies. One Red Flag I remember planning and coordinating was an Iranian Red Flag, where Iranian Air Force fighters, with USAF tanker support, would deploy with USAF and Iranian transports to Nellis. I wasn't too keen on the idea since we hadn't yet had all USAF units participate, but it was decided for me that it would happen. About a month before the deployment, the Shah was overthrown and Iranian Red Flag was cancelled. I was really happy then, but it's ironic how that situation has changed so drastically. I also handled a number of highly classified Special Projects. It was challenging work and I often reported directly to Gen Charlie Gabriel and Gen O'Malley on numerous close hold classified programs. As General Chain, who was actually in my direct chain of command told me when I left, " I guess you were an okay staff officer, even though I didn't know what you did, since I never had to bail you out." One such program that was recently declassified was the Red Eagle MiG squadron in Tonapah, NV. Gail Peck, class of '62 actually started and sold the program. I just followed through his plans to get it running when he left to become the first Red Eagle Commander.

In 1980 I left the Pentagon and returned to Nellis. I was promised a flying slot if I would organize the operation of the Nellis ranges for a year. So as Chief, Ops Planning Div., 554 Range Group, I became the chief scheduler. My sole job was to coordinate and schedule the daily use of the entire Nevada test and training ranges, between multiple TAC, other AF, DoE and DoD user. With my Pentagon experience and numerous contacts within the various classified communities, I became the arbitrator for numerous agencies for use of the ranges. No one was completely satisfied, but all got their missions completed. It was a most stressful but ultimately satisfying job.

After the year on the ranges, I returned to a flying job as Division Chief of the F-4 Fighter Weapons School. I got the job as it was changing from individual F-4, F-15, F-16, A-10 and F-111 squadrons into integrated Divisions within the Fighter Weapons School. It was a tough transition with lots of resistance from "old school" mentality, coupled with the general wind-down of F-4s in the USAF inventory. We had old planes with lots of maintenance issues and the really outstanding student pilots had already transition to the newer F-15s and F-16s. We still graduated good products.

goulet.jpg It wasn't all work and no play. We got to do some interesting things. This is a picture of Robert Goulet and me in 1982 at Nellis AFB when I was the Division Chief of the F-4 Fighter Weapons School. That picture was taken right after I had taken him for an orientation ride, a time when those kind of things were permitted.

In the summer of 1983, the F-4 Division experienced a mid-air accident during a 4 vs. 4 air to air training mission involving some of my IPs during a period between classes. We lost an airplane but luckily no one was injured. We took some hits for poor supervision. There were a number of extenuating circumstances, but ultimately I was responsible and was relieved. Sometimes it may seem unfair, but I was fully aware of how the system worked. I had a19 year career blown by one "aw shit". Doug Jenkins replaced me and did an outstanding job of leading the unit I left in such disarray with my departure. I had a number of friends from the fighter mafia call to offer help to salvage my Air Force career, but I realized it was time to move on. I completed my Nellis assignment in the 57th Test and Training Analysis group working for my good friend from the Aggressors, Earl “Obie” Henderson. I retired from the Air Force in July 1984.

I stayed in the Las Vegas area for a year working classified stuff for EG & G Special Projects. It gave me a opportunity to work and develop skills in other areas besides flying fighters. It also gave me time to try to learn things more marketable to the civilian world, so I went back to school and earned another master's degree in Management Information Systems.

In 1986, an old fighter pilot friend and former boss from Pentagon days, Bob Konopka, called to offer me a position at Ford Aerospace, Aeronutronic Division in Newport Beach, California, working with Sidewinder missiles and targeting systems (Pave Tack). It was a timely change of pace and great opportunity. I worked as an Air Force programs analyst in the Mission Analysis Department performing ops analysis and marketing tasks. From 1986 to 1997, Aeronutronic was sold from Ford to Loral and thence to Lockheed Martin. As Bob moved on, I eventually took over the department surviving the cuts during the multiple takeovers and inevitable downsizings. I did a lot of international traveling, to NATO countries, Asia, and the Middle East, selling international Sidewinders FMS. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and working with fighter pilots from other countries around the world, instructing them how to employ our equipment. I found their skills varied, but ultimately they all were similar with that aggressive, confident, and yes, cocky, attitude. As my company continued to downsize, I assumed other responsibilities and positions, in areas far removed from my Air Force training, but the leadership and management skills I had previously learned were important in all these roles. When Lockheed decided to finally move our division from California to Orlando, Florida, I decided that was it and took an early retirement in1997.

After that, for a short time, I became a private consultant completing some international work for the USAF that Lockheed decided not to retain. I also became a small private business owner operating a coffee shop on El Toro MCAS until it closed. The Marines were good guys and it was loads of fun. Since then I've worn many hats, a parent caregiver, community volunteer, middle school math and science class volunteer and substitute teacher, and church volunteer.

Today we are blessed to be relatively healthy and to have an expanded family with three grown married daughters, successful in their own professions and with their families. Luckily they live fairly close by, so we have our four granddaughters and one grandson also near. Quite naturally then, Janet and I have assumed more grandchildren caregiver duties. We are spending more time with them than I ever did with my own children, and it's been great to watch them grow and be a big part of their lives. We are indeed fortunate with our family and are keeping quite busy and active in our retired status. And its always great to visit old friends on occasions.

I owe my life's experiences to the Academy, my outstanding classmates from the class of '64, and the Air Force and its great people. My Air Force career may not have ended the way I would have wanted, but I don't ever regret the time I spent in it. It let me fly fighters far longer than I probably deserved, and it helped prepare me for life afterwards too. I fully appreciate the many opportunities it provided me to serve my country.

whistler.jpg

Janet and me in Whistler, Canada in 2008. Ron Hulting actually took the picture for us. We were on a reunion vacation together.
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