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Brig. Gen. Robin Olds: WWII & Vietnam Pilot (Part I)
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Olds talks about his experiences in WWII and about managing fear, and describes the craziest coincidence you’ve ever heard of.
Brigadier General Robin Olds is a triple ace fighter pilot who shot down 17 enemy aircraft during World War II and Vietnam. He flew P-38s, P-51s, P-80s, F-4s and other aircraft during his service. By the time he retired, Olds had won numerous medals, including the Air Force Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, the French Croix de Guerre, and the British Distinguished Flying Cross.
Hi, I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. If you love listening to this show as much as I love hosting it, I think you’ll really like the Medal of Honor Podcast, produced in partnership with the Medal of Honor Museum. Each episode talks about a genuine American hero, and the actions that led to their receiving our nation’s highest award for valor. They’re just a few minutes each, so if you’re looking for a show to fill time between these warriors episodes, I think you’ll love the Medal of Honor Podcast. Search for the ‘Medal of Honor Podcast’ wherever you get your shows. Thanks.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, in the first of a two-part episode, we’ll hear from Brigadier General Robin Olds.
Olds is a triple ace fighter pilot who shot down 17 enemy aircraft during WWII and Vietnam. By the time he retired, Olds had won the Air Force Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, the French Croix de Guerre, and the British Distinguished Flying Cross.
My name is Robin Olds. Fighter pilot, 30 years or a little more. And I retired in 1973 as a brigadier general, baby general.
Fighter vs. Transport Pilots:
Basically, going through pilot training, a youngster is singled out to either go on a fighter pilot route, or transport bombers, okay? I've often asked the training command people, "How do you tell?" And for as many questions as you ask, there are as many answers, but it's the same thing for any of you. If you get in a car and you're sitting in the front seat on the right side, and somebody's driving down the street, you get a pretty darn good idea, right away, of what they're like, of how good they are, of the degree of situational awareness, of driving ability, of attitude, if you really pay attention. So, I think that's how the training command instructors pick the kids that are going to go with the fighter route, or the bomber transport route. Now, there's nothing wrong with those guys. I mean, they are perfectly capable and well trained, but they just lack a certain spark.
There was an old newspaper, the Air Force, I think they still put it out, I don't know anymore, but they would have, every week, pictures of five or six colonels, who were getting a new assignment. And I would cover the names and show this to my wife, and say, "Show me the fighter pilots." Invariably, just looking at the pictures, she would pick out the fighter pilot. Now, something in the eyes, something in the set of the jaw, something in the contour of the face, I don't know, but it's different.
So, fighter squadron in peacetime, well, the manning varies. You can have, let's say 32 pilots, that includes a commander and the ops officer, and flight commander, maybe 28, 32 pilots. And they vary as I told you, but the lowest man on the totem pole is better than the highest man on the other totem pole.
The Experience of Flying:
You're asking me about an open cockpit, about fighting in an open cockpit, about flying those old birds. Obviously, I can know the answer in generalities. I've been plenty cold, that P-38 in World War Two, was a coldest thing you ever wanted to fly in. Had very little heat. So, that's uncomfortable.
The War One pilots, according to pictures my dad had, flew with heavy fleece-lined jackets and boots. And they were... The cold, where they had fleece-lined helmets, and the goggles, it was uncomfortable, but it was manageable, and everything is relative. They didn't know that they should have parachutes. They didn't... They had probably wanted them, but they probably didn't know what it was. They didn't know that maybe they ought to have armor plating. Because, hell, the airplane couldn’t have carried it.
So, everything was new except the sensation of flying, and that has not changed over the years. The first time you are in the control, at the control, by yourself, and depart mother earth, you're changed forever. Forever. You are not one of the earth, as long as you're airborne. It's a sensation that is very, very difficult to describe unless you've done it. Freedom, joy, movement, beauty, aloneness.
I could describe for you a night flight etched in my memory, coming back across country from the east to west at night in a jet. The stars seemingly touchable through your canopy, little lights gleaming down below on a velvet carpet like jewels, thrown with a light on them. Way off to the right, a line of thunderstorms with lightning flashing across the clouds, and into the ground, just there for your benefit. And you're proceeding over the countryside, and the towns become very scattered across. The Colorado is gleaming. You can see the river, the desert, then the lights of Los Angeles beckoning you through the Banning Pass. Then you land, taxi in, you're met by crew chief. After an experience like that, who doesn't climb out of the airplane and sort of touch the side of the airplane. A gesture of thanks.
Transitioning to the P-51s:
As I told you, we were in P-38s, went overseas, lots of training. Then the rumor went around, we were going to convert to P-51s. Some of the guys were very unhappy cause they loved the 38. I was ecstatic. 'Cause I wanted to fly this different airplane. They landed. Great tight traffic pattern. We were all there watching taxied in spun around, opened the canopy, off went their helmets, blonde hair, WACs, women flying.
Well, I was jumping up and down and said, "Let me fly it. Let me fly it, boss." "Wait till they put fuel in it." "Yes, sir. Yes, sir." And I said, "Okay, now." He said, "Now my checkout. Look out for the torque." Meaning we didn't have to bother with torque in the P-38. But in the 51, that big engine and the propeller created torque, which you had to compensate for with rudder. He said, "Look out for the torque." So I went to the bird, jumped in, crew chief showed me how to start it. And the way I went for a very short couple of landings. I had a total flying time of 4 hours and 15 minutes in a P-51 and I was shooting at a Focke-Wulf 190. That was my checkout.
Maybe you've noticed when you sit with your car's an idle, if you rev the engine, you can feel the frame of the car reacting if you're sensitive to it. It's because the rotating parts of the car established torque. And a torque is like, when you were a child, you played with a gyroscope and it would stand on end because of that moving wheel. It would react to being moved.
Well the torque in a single engine aircraft is very much the same. The engine parts and the propeller are going round and round and round. The aircraft body wants to react in an opposite way or in that way anyway. So when we took off in the 51, you had to crank in full right rudder trim to counteract the torque. And as you went down the runway and got faster and faster, the tail became more and more effective and you could come off on the trim. And those of us who loved the 51 and I must say flew it well. You flew with your hand on the trim tab because every change in speed, changed the torque and the rudder had to compensate for it. And you have a needle ball. And if you didn't compensate, you could see that ball slip off to one side, which meant you were going like this. Because the airplane was reacting to the power of the rotating parts of the propeller and the engine. So you compensated with the rudder trim.
P-38 Cockpit vs. P-51 Cockpit:
Getting into the cockpit, let's say of a P-38 was a very difficult task. Only done by young men or an old man with a forklift. It was when you had to wear a dinghy backpack. For me, the 38 cockpit was very cramped. I was young, didn't notice it at the time. It was cold. But the engines, those engines were smooth. They had a turbo supercharge and they purred. No crackle, pop. You climbed into a P-51, the cockpit was far more comfortable. Heating system. Excellent. You started that engine. The prop would turn over, if you did it properly, maybe 3 or 4 times, and all of a sudden bang, crackle, pop, cough, cloud of smoke. And it would settle into idle. But very noisy because those 12 stacks were right in front of you on either side of the cowling and nothing to interfere with the noise of the exhaust. It was a wonderful sound. You've heard it, probably, how unique the P-51 sounds at an airshow. It still sends shivers in my tummy here. I love the airplane. The cockpit was comfortable. Everything was in reach.
I’ll tell you a funny story. I came back once, I had to land short in Belgium and cause well, something had happened and I lost all my hydraulics. So I fixed it. I ‘fixed’ it. I took off after replenishing the hydraulic and fixing the leak, but the gear handle wouldn't move. So I had to fly back to England with the gear down. My engineering officer met me and I told him what went wrong. He said, "Well, we'll fix that. But what was your hydraulic pressure?" I said, "My hydraulic pressure?" He said, "Yeah. You know the-" I said, "Well, no, I didn't have any!" He said, "What did the gauge say?" I said, "Gauge? Where is it?" He said, "It's that one down between." I said, "Oh, is that what that is?" Oh boy.
His Second Fight:
The second fight I was ever in. We had a new group commander named Hub Zemke, famous man, wonderful man, great leader. Took the place of our old group commander who was shot down. He was leading us on what we called a sweep. That meant he had 3 squadrons of, I think, 4 flights each. That's 24 airplanes per squadron, spread out line abreast on a sweep into Germany.
Well, I was leading D-flight on the left and I moved my flight way out to the left. As far as I thought I could get away with it without being shouted at. All of a sudden, there were all these specs. He didn't say anything. They're mine, ours. So I eased over and pretty soon I was in full pursuit, full power. And I could see my number 3 and number 4 engines were detonating. 'Cause the Allison engine in the P-38 was not all that good. And I could see the black smoke coming out. So I knew that they would never catch me.
As we closed, I saw that this was a huge gaggle of 109s. There were 3 Vs or Vics, we called them. Large, with a lot of scattered all around, high and above around. So I lined up on poor tail end Charlie on the highest Vic. In the meantime, I had screamed to my wingman, "Drop tanks." So we dropped our external tanks. So I'm closing on poor old tail end Charlie. And I was about to squeeze the trigger and both engines quit in my P-38. I had forgot to switch tanks. Well, I was in good position. I was within range. So I fired anyway and I got him with both engines dead.
So I dove away and got the engines restarted and then went back and joined the fight. And my wingman had stuck with me, B.E. Hollister. As we were headed for the Baltic, I could see it in the distance. And I came across the main bulk of these huge, massive airplanes that just disappeared everybody by himself. Bang, bang, bang. There were three headed down to the left. We closed on them. B.E. took the two in the most prettiest piece of shooting I ever saw. He went, boom, boom. Boom, boom. Got both. I followed this one. I managed to get him.
Then there was nobody around, not even B.E. I don't know where he went. And I looked down, there was a P-51 way down below me chasing a 109 with another 109 on his tail. So without thinking, I rolled that 38 over and dove. You do not do that in a P-38. It hits compressibility. We didn't know what it was in those days. But the shockwave from the nose and the engines section blank out my elevators. So you're headed straight down with a useless control stick. You’ve got nothing to control. They're in the vacuum back there and your head is straight down. And you're going too fast to bail out. So it's a matter of luck. Are you going to be able to pull out? Would you hit the thicker air or not?
Well, to make a horrifying couple of seconds shorter, I managed to pull out just barely. Just barely missed the ground. And in pulling out, I pulled so many Gs, I popped the canopy of my P-38, which frightened me. You never heard so much noise. And I said, I'm going home. I've had it. This is enough. So I headed for England, which is about 350, 400 miles away. And I look back over my shoulder to see if that canopy had done any damage to my airplane. And there was a 109 shooting at me. And of course I reacted immediately and threw it into a violent left bank. Did a high speed stall, thinking, "It's not fair, dammit. Can't you see all I'd wanted to do was go home. Leave me alone." Well, the poor guy over shot, cause I almost stopped and went right out in front of me and I rolled the wings level, squeeze the trigger, down he went. That was 3 that day.
109s vs. P-51s:
A damn good 109 pilot could whip a mediocre 51 pilot. One of the things I've heard people say, I said, "Well, you outnumbered them." Sure. But never in the same piece of sky. Every engagement I've ever had, except I think one, they outnumbered us in that piece of sky. Now we may have had 900 fighters, but they were off somewhere else.
It Depends on the Pilot:
109, 51, Focke-Wulf 190 is it depended on the pilot. Good experienced pilot was a handful. You knew it. Some of their pilots were not experienced. They were just kids. It was sad at the end of the war. But it depended upon experience and talent. The airplanes were very similar, very closely similar. I think the biggest disparity in aircraft performance was one, the long nose FW, Focke-Wulf 190 and the British Typhoon. Yeah. I got to fly that and I was quite impressed.
An Incredible Coincidence:
I was stationed in Germany and would take my dinner at the old officer's club, most evenings. Family was in London. And I got to know the German bartender and I'll call him Hans. Then one night I said, "Hans, what did you do during the war?" He said, "Was Messerschmitt pilot." I said, "Oh? You ever get shot down?" "Oh yeah." I said, "Oh. When?" He said, "Was in February. February 13th, 1945." I said, "Hans, were you in a squadron that was proceeding along the frontal loft and headed for the bombers. You got hit by a bunch of Red Tail Mustangs." "Oh yeah." And I just thought this can't be true. And I said, "Did you pop a panel in your shoot when you bailed out?" "Yeah." Oh my God. I said, "You want to see a picture of yourself?" I shot him down and had gun camera film to prove it. And I came around with the guns off, switches off, and took a picture of him hanging in his shoot.
Oh, he didn't wave. That made me sad. But he said, "You come around at me, I think you're going to shoot me." I said, "No, I was just angry 'cause you didn't wave at me."
How He Flew His First Jet:
We had encountered the German jets frequently with very little success because of their speed. I think Hitler was an absolute idiot and misusing them. But that's another subject. So we knew all of us knew that the jets now existed. I was very happily commanding my squadron at the end of the war in Europe. And we sat around. We were given P-47s because we were slated to go to the Pacific, if needed. We had a wonderful summer doing nothing but flying, raising hell, chasing the girls. And suddenly a wire arrived at the base that “Major Olds were to report to the commanding General at the nearest port of aerial debarkation immediately.” I thought, "Boy, somebody really needs old Robin."
Well, I arrived the aerial port of debarkation, which happened to be Ford Hamilton in Brooklyn. And I walked into this office and there was a Lieutenant behind the counter and I showed him a copy of this telegram. And I said, "Here I am." He said, "Who are you?" I said, "Hm." He said, "Those aren't proper orders." And I'm getting a little irate now. And I said, "Well, they've got me here. What are you going to do? What does the general want me to..." He said, "We don't have a general." So now I'm really getting incensed. And a Lieutenant Colonel walked out from behind a petition. "What's going on?" He started chewing on me. Well, we didn't exactly shout. But I said, "This is what brought me here." He said, "Those aren't proper orders." I said, "Well, call the general. Call whoever originated this message." "Well, we can't do that." Then I said, "Okay, what are you going to do with me?" He said, "You got 45 days of R&R, rest and recuperation coming." Or 40 something like that. I said, "Oh, what's that?" He told me. I said, "Where can I go?" He said, "Anywhere you like." I said, "Send me to California. That's as far from this Goddamn place that I can think of."
So back I went to California where I trained in 38s. I had an aunt and uncle who lived here in Van Nuys. And I had a stepmother, whom I adored, who lived in the cottage at the Beverly Hills Hotel. So as a young Major, I was set up. I'll tell you it was wonderful. Parties on the one hand and quiet on the other and bought an old Buick. Having a wonderful time.
At a party. I ran into a Colonel KO Desert, who'd been an West Point graduate lacrosse player. So I knew him as an underclassman. I introduced myself and he said, "Oh, yes." And I told him my sad story. Well, he happened to be in command of the replacement depot at Santa Ana. He said, "Give a copy of that wire," which I had in my pocket. And I said, "Yes, sir." "Where can I get hold of you?" I told him. He called the next day. And I could hear the chuckle in his voice. And he said, "Are you ready?" And I said, "Yes, sir." This was the end of September. He said, "On the 1st of September, you were supposed to have reported to West Point to work as an assistant football coach for Colonel Red Blake, who was a football coach. And I thought, "Oh no, oh no." He said, "Get down here. We'll cut you some proper orders." And so I said goodbye and drove down. And I'm on my way.
I got to West Point in three days, found a temporary place to live in the visiting officer's quarters right next to their old air officer's mess. So the next morning I was walking with 50 yards between the building to have some breakfast. And this Colonel came out of the building. He was tall. He was skinny. He was immaculate. His hat looked like it had a stove, lid in it. So I saluted very smartly, "Good morning, Sir." And kept walking. And this voice screamed, "You man, halt." I hadn't been spoken to like that since I was a pleb at West Point. And I turned around and stood at half attention. 'Cause I wasn't too happy with this situation. And he said, "What's your name? Are you stationed here? Who do you work for?" Well, I thought 1, 2, 3. "Sir, yes. I'm stationed here." "Well, that's the most disreputable, disgraceful uniform I have ever seen." He’s looking at me from head to toe and back. He said, "That hat." "Well, it's like that all of us wore our hats. It took 50 missions to get it, to look like that." He said, "That collar is frayed." "Yes, sir." "That neck tie is non-regulation." Well, heck I bought it on Bond Street. I liked it. And he said, "You got spots on your blouse. And those pants look like they'd never been pressed." He was right. We didn't have tailors, dry cleaning establishments. We washed our clothes in hundred octane gasoline. He said, "And those shoes, what are those things on your feet?" Well, they were Wellingtons. And I'd bought those on Bond Street in London. And I was very proud of them. He said, "You will report to me." And he told me his office. He was the base adjutant, "At four o'clock this afternoon, properly dressed." "Yes, sir." So I spent the rest of the day buying a new uniform and I thought, "He's right. Here I am at West Point, this is the way they do things. Don't fight the system." And he was right on almost every count on my uniform.
So I reported in proper attire and then went to work for Colonel Red Blake as about the 18th assistant football coach, for which I was qualified like a mountain... I was not qualified to be a football coach. I'd been a football player. But coaching is not my bag. So mostly I flew scouting trips and recruited lots of good flying, lots of fun. But I was just marking time.
So at the end of football season, I went into this old Colonel's office [inaudible] and said, "Sir, I'm ready for my next assignment." And he looked at me as though I were crazy. He said, "You're going to be here for 4 years." "Yes, sir." I left the office and thought to myself “Like hell."
So I got in my car. I drove to Washington, went into the Pentagon. And very luckily ran into a man I knew who was in personnel. We'd been in the same company together at West Point. He was an upperclassman. I said, "Ham..." I told him my story. "I've got to get out of there." He said, "Well, where do you want to go?" I said, "For God sake, send me back to Europe. Let me take over my squadron again or anything." He said, "No, Robin the situation there is all... We don't know what we're doing yet. And we're trying to get people home. We're not sure if we're going to... We don't know what we're going to do. What else?" I said, "Well, I've heard that outfit out in California just got that brand new jet. That P-80 thing. How about that?" About 30 minutes later, I had orders. So I drove back to West Point. The next day, I very quietly cleared base. I waited till I knew in the evening that Colonel was not in his office. And I walked in, I placed one copy of my order on the center of his desk. I got in my car, drove out the north gate, turned left, and sang all the way to California.
So I joined the old, then it was called, the 412 became the first fighter group. I reported into a wonderful man named Tex Hill. Legendary figure. Tasked with AVG, later commanded a group there in the China Burma, Ace, character, real character. But now he is a full Colonel and he was the group commander.
So I went into his office, knocked sharply, went in, saluted, said, "Major Olds reporting for duty, sir." And he looked at me, wonderful, Texas troll. He looked at me, he said, "How in the hell do you get in this outfit?" And I said, "Sir, I use pull." I didn't tell he was a Lieutenant Colonel. He said, "God, all mighty," he said, "I got so damn many majors running around this place, I stumble over them getting to work every day. Go find yourself something to do." So I went down the hall and here was a sign that said “Group Operations”. And I walked in, there's a Lieutenant Colonel sitting there and I said, "Morning, Colonel. Colonel Hell sent me down to work for you." So I hung around that office all that day with nothing to do.
Part of the next day and I finally said to the secretary, I said, "Phyllis, hold all my calls. I'm going to go fly." Of course, nobody knew I was there. Nobody called me what the hell? So I went down to one of the squadrons and drew equipment and got my own stuff that I had in a bag and walked out on the flight line. And there was a Sergeant buttoning up a P-80. And that's the first jet I'd ever been anywhere close to. I said, "Is she ready? Sarge, is she ready to go?" "Yes, sir. Major." I said, “I tell you what, I want you to make sure I followed the starting procedure properly." Because in those days, if you messed it up, excuse me, you get what we call a hot start, which meant at least tailpipe change, but mostly engine change. So he climbed up the ladder, I strapped in and he showed me how to get it started properly. I thanked him, he got off the ladder, pulled the ladder and I taxed it off and took off. That was my check out in jets.
How Jets Changed Combat:
How did jets change combat? Now when you say combat and I think combat, they're two different things. Airplane versus airplane, pilot versus pilot. It's not time versus time really until later, which I'll talk about later. Jets changed it in that one, you were restricted in range compared to your P 51 in War II. Things happen at greater range, faster closure rates, turn radius larger. You are maneuvering envelope, much bigger. Enemy? Same. Same for him. Same for you. So eyesight helped a lot because of the greater ranges of interception of detection, of looking out for the guy, the faster closure rates made it critical armament. Same. These are the early days.
Fear is something that probably starts in any age, but it starts with a scare, a fright, and grows, and goes deep inside you, for a given circumstance or for any circumstances, or for whatever, you name it. You're afraid of something because it's grown in you.
A pilot who is afraid, fearful, is not very good to himself or to the unit. You quietly, if you recognize it, and a good commander should, quietly get rid of the person. Now, you can be scared, startled, but you get over it. But fear? No. If something else happens to you in combat, you as a person change mentally. You don't realize it, but it's going on constantly. The longer you're there, I could say, the deeper the change.
There was a time back in War Two, when one of my two roommates, Wally Wallace, used to moan, cry in his sleep and call out his wife's name. And I was keeping a journal at the time. I confessed writing in it that I considered him a coward. He was frightened. Scared.
Now mind you, I was very young then, and well, of course I still am, but Wally and my roommate were shot down, same time, one day. And I remember sitting down and writing in my log that night about them, and castigating myself for having called Wally, or thought of him, as a coward. He's one of the bravest men I ever knew. Why? I had found out that what he was afraid of was the North Sea, because he was a bad swimmer, but he never turned back from a mission, he was always there, he was as good as the average guy, but his fear was that water. And I had called him a coward for all the wrong reasons. And I learned a hell of a lesson about my own assumptions, my own attitudes, my own beliefs about people. Don't be a judge.
War Changes You:
But I was going on to tell you about how a man changes under prolonged combat, and the best illustration I could give you is over there in Thailand. When my younger pilots finished their 100 missions, to the extent that I could do it for all of them, I would have them in the office, the one on one, thank them for their contribution and tell them how wonderful it was to know them, to work with them, assure them that we'd be seeing each other over the years in the future. And then I'd say, "But I have some advice for you. The first thing that's going to happen to you when you get home is you're going to fight with your wife. The second thing is, you're going to go to a welcome home party and your best friend from college are going to come up to you, and you're going to want to kill him. You're going to arrive at your base, your new base, and you're going to make an ass of yourself. Why? You don't realize how much you have changed in the time you've been here, six months, nine months, whatever it took. Your wife is going to be the first one that sees this. You are not the same one she kissed goodbye. You've changed. She'll sense it right away. And it's going to lead to a bitter situation betw-... She wants to find out who you are. You're going to go to that party and this friend is going to come up and say, "What are you doing? Fighting that stupid war." Then you're going to go to your base. Friday night, you're going to go to the club, beer call, you're looking for someone you can talk to. Someone with whom you can share. Be careful, because the guy you picked might be some major, who's been there for three or four years, and every morning when he shaves, he looks in the mirror and says, "Dear God, please don't send me." He's going to hate your guts. So, be careful."
Well, I got home in about a year later, we had our first big reunion of those that had been there when I was there. And I can't tell you how many of the youngsters came up to me and said, "You know, boss, I didn't really listen to all that stuff you told me when I left, but you know it happened just that way." I said, "Yeah, me too."
That was Brig. Gen. Robin Olds. Next time on Warriors In Their Own Words, we’ll hear the rest of his story as he describes his experiences in Vietnam.
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