River Rats Remember

Ordinarily, being named 'Rat of the Year' would seem a dubious honor. However, members of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, also known as the Red River Valley Association or RRVA, call themselves 'River Rats.' To be named River Rat of the Year and get a standing ovation from this group of military aviators, most with combat experience, is a recognition given to but a few.

This year's recipient was selected because of his continuing support and care of wounded troops at the Walter Reed Army and Bethesda Naval Hospitals — doing so voluntarily and on his own time. He also helped establish scholarship funds for the children of aviators killed in the line of duty in both Afghanistan and Iraq. This may seem a simple task. However, in his unavoidable dealings with segments of the military bureaucracy, "straightforward" was not always the operative term.

Since its inception in 1970, the RRVA scholarship program has awarded 1003 grants totaling over $1,640,000 to the children and spouses of Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Army Aviators. RRVA members also provide assistance to military families through the Air Warrior Courage Foundation (AWCF) that was founded in 1998. The AWCF is a charitable organization, originated by, and affiliated with, the RRVA. This Foundation supports active, guard, reserve, retired or former military and Coast Guard personnel and dependent family members. AWCF provides assistance to those with needs unmet by insurance programs, community support or other service agencies.

Support, financial and otherwise, for the families of POWs, the MIA (Missing in Action) or KIA (Killed in Action) was part of the organization from the very beginning. In some cases those who had been POWs from early in the air war received news, from those who were later shot down and captured, that the River Rats were helping their families. Welcome news, indeed, to those burdened by long separation from and no communication with their loved ones.

Formed during the Vietnam war, RRVA membership was at first limited to those who had flown the Route Pack Six missions over North Vietnam. The organization's name comes from the Red River in North Vietnam that is navigable from the Chinese border, through Hanoi, and into the Gulf of Tonkin. The first Rats were for the most part pilots of the Republic F—105 Thunderchief, affectionately if irreverently known as the 'Thud,' and the McDonnell F—4 Phantom II. Later, membership eligibility was expanded to include any person who has flown as a U.S. military designated aircrew member. Though combat experience is no longer a membership requirement, most Rats do share this bond.

The work of the RRVA goes on throughout the year, but the recognition of the Rat of the Year took place at the recent River Rat reunion in Tucson. The hub of reunion activity, planned or spontaneous, was the hospitality suite that was open from early in the morning to late in the evening. Here Rats would gather and renew old acquaintances with a hearty greeting, broad smile, and a firm handshake or embrace. Many of these men share the bond of having been in combat together. Some had been shot down and rescued. Some had been prisoners of war. But they never forget those who were killed or lost in a war that many Americans continue to believe should have never been waged.

'We who came home must never forget those who could not.' That's the driving force behind the River Rats as stated at the top of the RRVA home page. And part of not forgetting is getting together, sharing experiences, and bringing back to mind — back to life in a way — their fallen comrades. The conversations are not tinged with bravado. The 'war stories' are not an opportunity to assert one's own prowess as a fighter pilot. Rather, the words that come to mind are reverence and respect. Reverence for those who could not come home. Respect for their fellow pilots, their courage and deeds.

But this is by no means a somber crowd. Laughter is frequent. Tall tales are told. The camaraderie is obvious. Thousands of stories are retold and experiences once again shared. If only they could all be captured and saved for history. But, for better or worse, many stories will be told only to those who have had similar experiences. For those who are not so experienced, it seems, often do not appreciate or understand the tales of those who fought a war from the sky or in the cell of a enemy prison. Yes, they are a band of brothers and this is family business.

One small bit of that history was told by a former POW who had been shot down and captured later in the war. He related how he, being endowed with an excellent memory for detail, would create news notes about a variety of subjects on the inside of unrolled cigarette papers. The re—rolled cigarette would then be passed along, un—smoked of course, to be read, re—rolled and sent on to the next man. Comparatively recent news would thereby be made available to fellow prisoners. And, what with many of the captured pilots being avid golfers, the sports section included news about play on the PGA tour.

On Thursday, before the scheduled dinner party at the Davis—Monthan Air Force Base officers' club, there was a memorial service for the fallen and missing at Warrior Park which is located on the base. The area includes a number of Vietnam era military aircraft on static display. Among them is the F—4 that RRVA founding member Col. Robin Olds flew when he shot down four migs, including two in one day, but one shy of making him an 'ace.' He's busy having his picture taken by that plane with other former members of the 8th Tac Fighter Wing 'Wolf Pack' that he had commanded.

The memorial service itself consists of a 'retreat' ceremony wherein the flag is lowered and formally folded while the 'Star Spangled Banner' is played. The National Anthem ends just as the flag is fully down. At that precise moment a flight of four A—10s passes overhead in a 'missing man' formation. This is enough to wet the eye of all but the most cynical. If you've never personally witnessed this, in silence but for the roar overhead, it's difficult to appreciate the emotional impact.

On Friday the Rats enjoyed a VIP tour of the Davis—Monthan Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC). More popularly known as the 'Boneyard,' AMARC is a storage area for 'mothballed' aircraft that have been retired from the active inventory. Some are kept nearly intact for short—term storage, while others have had the engines and other equipment removed and stored separately. Some of the aircraft are eventually returned to flying status even if it's only as a drone for air—to—air missile target practice. Just visualize row upon row of old or early model aircraft that will be cannibalized for parts or converted into aluminum scrap. It does break one's heart to see what they do to some perfectly good, well, almost perfectly good aircraft.

One former F—4 Weapons System Officer (WSO — pronounced 'whiz—oh') even noticed that one tail number was that of a plane he had frequently flown. He also had a patch on his flight suit that across its top declared 'WSO Union,' while on the bottom was the admonition, intended for the pilots, to 'Shut Up and Drive.' Navigators take a lot of guff from pilots and this was his chance at some payback. On the other hand, fighter pilots often do refer to themselves as 'drivers.' 'Thud Driver' being one of the more popular amongst River Rats. Though he was long out of the service, the WSO was wearing a flight suit since after the Boneyard tour the Rats were on their way to the Pima Air and Space Museum for a 'flight suit party.'

Flight suit party? That's where the pilots and their wives or girlfriends all dress up in flight suits and go, usually to an officers' club, to eat, drink and be merry. Flight suits have proven to be durable party—wear and are conveniently always in style. (PC note: nowadays the gender of a pilot and companion might be pilot—female, companion—male, but that was not the case on this occasion.) This evenings festivities were held in Pima Hanger 4 that holds a Curtiss C—46D 'Commando' transport and, most appropriately, the B—29 Superfortress 'Sentimental Journey' that originally flew with the 330th Bomb Group, 20th Air Force from Guam.

Though not all participants were in flight suits, the range of suit colors and the kaleidoscope of patches was dazzling — and impressive. Lots of '100 Missions North Vietnam' patches. There was even a '295 Missions' patch. Must have been a Navy jock. They recycled those guys mercilessly. And then there was the seemingly endless array of aircraft and squadron patches. As a group, these guys had flown just about everything, everywhere one could imagine.

It was party time. And a skosh louder than the hospitality suite.

Perhaps on Memorial Day you could take some time to remember the men and women who couldn't make it to the party.

The River Rats will.

Dennis Sevakis is a former Air Force fighter pilot.