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13640 Brig. Gen. Robin Olds
July 14, 1922 - June 14, 2007


Personal Eulogy

Barrett Tillman

"There are pilots and there are pilots; with the good ones, it is inborn. You can't teach it. If you are a fighter pilot, you have to be willing to take risks."

Brig. Gen. Robin Olds.

Fighter pilots used to say that there was a glass case in the A Ring of the Pentagon. It was built to the precise dimensions of then-Colonel Robin Olds, who would be frozen and displayed wearing his rankless flight suit, crushed fore and aft cap, gloves, and torso harness with .38 and survival knife. Beside the case was a fire ax beneath a sign reading: "In case of war, break glass."

It was something of an exaggeration, but it contained an element of truth. Robin Olds was built for war.

And he was born to fly. It was imprinted in his genes. Born in July 1922, Robin was the son of the influential airman Robert Olds. As a disciple of Billy Mitchell, the elder Olds became a prominent advocate of strategic bombing and did more than anyone to make the B-17 an operational reality before World War II. Olds' influence was acknowledged by no less an authority than Curtis LeMay.

A big, strapping kid, Robin had drawn attention when his high school football team won the Virginia state championship in 1937. He turned down athletic scholarships in favor of West Point and entered the corps of cadets in 1940, destined for the Class of '44.

Among his classmates was later Colonel William J. Hovde of World War II and Korean fame. Billy Hovde used to insist, "I was Robin's ballroom partner because I was the only one in the class who could dance backwards."

At West Point Robin made All-American as a tackle and was named lineman of the year in 1942. Such was his success that he was inducted into the college football hall of fame in 1985.

But more than anything, Robin wanted to fly-and he wanted fighters. He got his wish. He became one of only a dozen West Pointers to make ace (in comparison to 30 Annapolis alumni.)

Robin was commissioned and rated a pilot on June 1, 1943. a 20-year-old second lieutenant. He joined the 479th Fighter Group in February '44, and upon arrival in England that May he had 640 hours total time. Twelve months later he was a major leading a squadron.

Robin 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."

Robin used to say that the two best things about World War II were London and Colonel 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 Robin 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 Zemke's Mustang broke up in a storm over Germany the next month and he became a POW. However, the lesson had been learned and absorbed.

Robin became commanding officer of the 434th Fighter Squadron at age 22, and 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, Robin 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.

When the European war ended, Robin had made ace in both the P-38 and P-51, probably the only pilot ever to do so.


After VE-Day Robin returned to the States and reverted to his
permanent rank: a 23-year-old captain. He married Ella Raines, one of the most glamorous actresses of the era, and got on with his career.

He briefly returned to West Point as assistant football coach but
chafed at the thought of missing the new jets entering service. Therefore, he arranged a transfer to March Field, flying P-80 Shooting Stars. He thrived there, becoming a member of the first jet flight demonstration team and that same year, 1946, was second in the jet phase of the Thompson Trophy Race.

Robin went to England as an exchange pilot in 1948, flying No. 1
Squadron's Gloster Meteors. The American major commanded the prestigious British squadron in 1949, enjoying the high jinks typical of an RAF mess: a mixture of drinking and physicality that appealed to him.

Upon return to the States, Robin commanded the 71st Fighter Squadron at Pittsburgh. He was thoroughly unhappy in Air Defense Command, protecting Steel Town from Soviet bombers when friends were bagging MiGs in Korea. Almost beside himself, he wrangled a temporary assignment to the Far East, and the world looked good again. As he explained, "I had to go behind my boss's back, but I thought it was worth it. My wife even had induced labor so I could see my daughter before I left, and I was on the way out the door when the phone rang. It was my CO. He said, 'Gotcha. If I don't go, you don't go.'"

The CO was another ETO triple ace, Colonel Jack Bradley, who was equally eager to hassle with MiGs. Robin missed Korea, and he never got over it. He made full colonel April 1953, which made him eligible to command a group, but the war was winding down.

Robin served penance in the Pentagon 1958-1962, waging a notably unsuccessful campaign to keep guns in new fighter aircraft. "Missiles were immature technology for years and years after that," he insisted, not without reason. His pet project was an F-102 with bubble canopy and a gun, which came to naught.

Robin also had other ideas. While visiting an aircraft storage
facility he noticed some Navy piston airplanes "with all these lovely hardpoints under their wings." He figured that if the "squids" weren't using all their Douglas Skyraiders, the Air Force should take up the slack. Eventually the Air Commandos were flying A-1s as the fabulous Sandys, providing close air support in Southeast Asia.

From1963 to '65 Robin assumed command of the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Bentwaters. There he formed an F-101 aerobatic team, demonstrating the Voodoo's low-level performance across Europe-without official approval. Accounts vary, but if Robin truly broke regulations as a way of getting kicked out of Europe, it worked. Third Air Force wanted to court martial him but General Gabe Disosway of USAFE took pity and dispatched him to ponder his evil ways at Shaw AFB, South Carolina.

Robin later said that a rotund star wearer had intoned, "Olds, you're the kind mof Air Force officer who should be sent to Southeast Asia." As if that were a bad thing.

The Wolfpack

Robin got exactly what he wanted: command of an air-to-air fighter
wing, hunting MiGs. The disappointment of Korea drifted a dozen years astern.

Robin's arrival at Ubon, Thailand, was uncharacteristically low key. 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 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 Captain 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 Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) in Twelve O'Clock High. The old ways were not only out, they were deceased. A new regime had arisen, and the Wolfpack began showing results. 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 Robin, 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.

Robin entered his second war with over 4,000 hours, mostly in fighters. At 44 he was flying against Vietnamese pilots probably half his age. But he came into his own at Ubon. He 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. He would have been completely at home in Arthurian England; better yet in Arthurian legend.

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, today's sedate, sober young professionals are superbly educated, highly competent, and terrified that they might say something that somebody would find objectionable. Robin did not want to live in that world, and he didn't.

Unsatisfied with the restrictive rules of engagement, Robin began seeking a way around them. He found it in the realm of deception and began planning Operation Bolo. On January 2, 1967, he led the Wolfpack into an aerial ambush of MiG-21s expecting to jump a formation of F-105s. Instead of laden "Thuds" the Vietnamese found a passel of hungry Phantoms.

Bolo's seven credited kills exceeded the 8th's tally during all the
previous CO's tenure. Robin got one himself, becoming the only pilot to score in WW II and Vietnam. Over the next year he added three more.

Upon return to the U.S., Robin 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, Robin 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 the smoke stacks remained standing. What he valued most was the courage and skill of his aircrews.

After Vietnam

Having promoted Robin to general, the Air Force sought a safe place to stash him. For reasons both ironic and obscure, he was assigned as commandant of cadets at the Air Force Academy, where his brand of irreverent individualism could infect hundreds of future officers.

Robin's influence on the cadets was profound. One who became a FAC and author was Darrel Whitcomb, who recalls, "In the fall of 1968, I was a first class cadet at the Academy when he was our commandant. Every Friday evening he would have the first classmen from a different squadron to his house for dinner. I was in Seventh Squadron. The evening of our visit, I was late to arrive because...I had my very first solo. I walked in as he was telling a war story. Seeing me in my flight suit, he asked if I had just had a flight. Needless to say, I had to share my big event. He listened and then said, 'This deserves something special.' He left the room and came back about five minutes later with one of his flying scarves. It reeked of whiskey and cigars. He put it around my neck and said, 'Well, now we have another new Wolf cub.'

"I was absolutely blown away by his act and felt at that moment,
that if he had asked, I would have flown that T-41 to Hanoi for him."

After Colorado Springs, Robin was packed off as Director of
Aerospace Safety to finish his career but got an unexpected reprieve. When the Vietnam war heated up again in 1972, his four MiGs remained the U.S. record. Offering to take a reduction to colonel for a chance at the fifth MiG, Robin instead was dispatched to learn why the Navy was running up a 12-1 kill ratio while the Air Force struggled to maintain parity.

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 dogfighting to the blue suits, saw Robin 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."

Robin retired in June 1973. With 17 career victories (13 in WW II plus four in Vietnam) when he died this year he was America's third-ranking living ace. Thetop three now are Walker "Bud" Mahurin (24.25), Alexander Vraciu (19) and Clarence "Bud" Anderson (16.25.)

In Retrospect

I'll never forget the first time I met Robin in the late '70s. He wore a Nehru jacket with what resembled a peace symbol pendant. Looking closer, I saw that it was a stylized rendition of "the track of the Great American Chicken" that actually said "War."

Robin cultivated image of the warmongering fighter jock, but just beneath the barbarian façade lurked a powerful intellect. In unguarded moments he allowed the esthete to pop up for a quick look-see before pulling the manhole cover back over his head. On one occasion we were discussing history and Robin smiled. "In 416 BC. Hannibal conducted the first recorded battle of encirclement." He looked at me from slitted eyes. "You know, someday I'd love to tell old Hannibal how Cannae became the basis for Operation Bolo."

That was what detectives call A Clue. Robin Olds, who some regarded as an alcohol-fueled throttle jockey, had the gray matter to reach back 2,383 years and apply the lesson of antiquity to the jet age.

But there was more. 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 willobey 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 I 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."

Robin had been writing a memoir for several years, and those who saw portions were disappointed. 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, Robin left the work incomplete. The fact that his book remains unfinished represents a major loss to aviation literature.

However, I bet that by now Robin has cornered Hannibal in some
corner of Valhalla and thanked him for the example of Cannae.


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