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Interview with Frank J. Tomlinson [10/13/2003]

Kimberley Mould:

My name is Kimberley T. Mould, and tOday is October 13, 2003. I am interviewing my father, retired Air Force Colonel Frank J. Tomlinson, at his home at [address redacted]. I am interviewing Colonel Tomlinson as part of the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center's Veterans History Project. This oral history will also become an important part of the Tomlinson Family Archive and will be reproduced and published in a family history document. Colonel Tomlinson was born in Texarkana, Texas, on 10 October 1929. Colonel Tomlinson will be sharing personal experiences and insights into the life of a combat fighter pilot during the Korean War, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. Thank you Colonel Tomlinson for taking the time to speak with us today and for sharing your experiences and insights with us.

Frank J. Tomlinson:

You are quite welcome.

Kimberley Mould:

Let's start out by speaking about the very beginning. Were you drafted or did you enlist in the military?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

When the Korean War started in the summer of 1950, I was living at home in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. I had taken a sabbatical from college to earn some money. So when the war started I knew I was about to be drafted. So rather than allow them to determine my fate, I enlisted in the United States Air Force and applied to become a pilot through the Aviation Cadet Program.

Kimberley Mould:

What year was that?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

1950. I completed all my medical processing and the application process and was sent back home to await the call for an Aviation Cadet Class. After waiting for some four months, they said "you are going to have to go in as an enlisted man to await your assignment to pilot training." I did that, served as an enlisted man until November of 1951 when I entered pilot training at Bainbridge, Georgia in Aviation Cadet Class 52H.

Kimberley Mould:

Why did you pick the branch of the service that you did?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

I had never been in an airplane, but I thought that flying airplanes would be a lot better than being an infantryman on the ground. It turned out that was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life. Flying airplanes is something that a lot of people don't know that they are good at or want to do it until they get involved in it. I found out that it was something I enjoyed, and I was pretty good at. So the years that I spent in primary, basic, and advanced flying training were some of the most memorable years of my life. After graduating as a pilot, in November of 1952, I went to Nellis Air Force Base, in Nevada, for F-86 fighter training, lead in to being deployed overseas during the Korean War. I completed my fighter training in April of 1953 and went to join the 16th Fighter Squadron in Suwon, Korea flying missions in support of the United Nations' operations going on in Korea at the time. I did get to Korea in the later stages of the war and since the war was over in July of 1953 I did fly only six combat missions. The training that I took was interesting, because I started out flying propeller driven airplanes and then progressed through the old F-80's, T-33's, F-86A's and E's. These were airplanes that were vastly different from the highly sophisticated, marvelous flying aircraft that we have today. The service to me was interesting, particularly when I first went in as an enlisted man, because I went to training down in San Antonio, Texas, and there were some 70,000 of us living in tents. A lot of people complained about it, but I, quite frankly, thought it was great because it got me out of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. I got to see my first T.V. down there, since we didn't have that in Arkansas! And I got to meet a lot of really neat people. Even though doing KP and other things were not fun, the food, I thought, was excellent. In any case, I thought the training I received was excellent. We ultimately proved that the aircraft that we flew during the Korean War, and subsequently, were the finest in the world. Suwon Air Force Base in Korea during the Korean War. .. living conditions were somewhat primitive. In fact, the sheet metal buildings that we lived in had been there since the Second World War when the Japanese originally built the base. They were heated by a coal stove. Obviously, there was no air conditioning. But we all thought that was the way war time conditions were supposed to be. The flying over there was intense.

Kimberley Mould:

What type of aircraft did you fly?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

The F-86. We were in the air-to-air business. And the squadron I was in, the 16th, was one of the leading MiG killers during the war. We had a number of people who achieved substantial kills, and the Wing that I was in, the 51st Wing, is still stationed in Korea. It never came home. Since it was the tail end of the war, one of the more interesting aspects of my tour over there, which I spent thirteen months during and after the war, was the fact that after the war was over the process of reconstruction commenced, and it is still going on today, because the Korean War is not officially over. We met an awful lot of very wonderful people over there. I got to fly with people from South Africa and a number of other countries, since this was the United Nations' first war. It was not as harrowing as other peoples' experiences, but I found it to be rewarding. And it subsequently laid the groundwork for my deciding to become a career Air Force officer after I returned home from Korea.

Kimberley Mould:

What was your rank in Korea?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

I was a Second Lieutenant, a "Butter Bar Lieutenant." One of the major things that I found out in Korea was that the Korean War was really the transition between the way the Air Force flew and fought during the Second World War and then subsequently during the Cold War and then during the Vietnam War. It was the first jet war. Not only that, it led to some of the technology innovations which have subsequently proven to be so successful. In those days, there were no global positioning systems or precision weapons, it was still up to the individual, but a lot of the tactics and a lot of the technology have led us to where we are today. I think it is important for us to remember that the Korean War is not over. The truce that was signed in 1953 is still in effect. The North and the South are still two armed camps. The reconstruction efforts in the South have been nothing short of miraculous, where as the North is still mired in poverty and backwardness, and I think it is indicative of the fact that the North is still a communist society. Very reclusive. The South is a full-fledged democracy. In fact, it is one of the young tigers of the Far East. And I think that it is due to the fact the South has embraced democracy where the North has refused to.

Kimberley Mould:

Colonel Tomlinson, what was your next assignment after returning from Korea, and in what year was that?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

When I returned from Korea, in the summer of 1954, I was assigned to, at that time it was Grandview Air Force Base, in Grandview, Missouri, and subsequently it was renamed to Richards Gebaur. The base had just been opened as an Air Defense Command Base. There were F-86D's established there, but I was assigned there ... although I was a fighter pilot fresh out of Korea, I was assigned there to be the base finance officer! It took them about thirty seconds for them to figure out that they did not want me as the base finance officer, so I went to a job in group operations. I stayed there for about a year, where I was fortunate enough to meet my future wife, Sally. Interesting enough, we met on a blind date! But we got married, and then I was transferred shortly there after down to the fighter squadron where I was flying F-86D's in an air defense role.

Kimberley Mould:

What year was that?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

That was 1955. I stayed there as an air defense pilot flying F-86D's and we transitioned to the F-102. We were fortunate enough to be selected to be the Central Air Defense Force's F-102 Weapons Meet Team. We were fortunate enough to go down to Tyndall Air Force Base that year, and we won the weapons meet, which was kind of an enlightening and fun thing to do. The years that I spent there laid the basic foundation for my subsequent assignment which was to the 317th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Elmendorf, Alaska, in a Cold War air defense mode, because the Russians were just across the Bering Strait, and they were flying surveillance and probing missions into Alaska and Canadian and International air space. The 317th was an interesting squadron. It was the largest fighter squadron in the world. We had some forty-eight F-102's. We had thirteen T-33's and three EBB57's. We were also a nuclear capable organization, and we pulled five minute and fifteen minute round the clock alert at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks, Alaska, Galena, Alaska, and King Salmon, Alaska. Those years, which were from 1960 to 1964, were extremely interesting. The Russians were flying Elint Badger aircraft, which were two engine jet bomber type aircraft. They were flying four engine turbo-prop Bear aircraft from places like Petropavlovsk, Provideniya, and Anadyr over in Siberia. Those were the years of the U-2's, "fun and games," scrambles in the middle of the night, sometimes the temperature was forty degrees below zero! They knew what we were doing, and we knew what they were doing. And although a lot of those years are still classified, there are a lot of memorable photographs of Russian aircraft, of which I am sure that they have a lot of us. I am also sure that we provided a very real mission, that although a lot of it, as I say, remains classified, it produced a lot of "thrills and chills" on both sides.

Kimberley Mould:

Colonel Tomlinson, you mentioned "being on alert and scrambling." Could you please describe what that was?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Yes, we maintained two F-102's on what we called "five minute alert," which were all set up ready to be ... from the time you got the "scramble order" you had to be airborne in five minutes, and then two that were on "fifteen minute" for the two that had been scrambled. Our normal mission or rotation was we were home a week and then we were gone a week, on alert locally either at Elmendorf or one of the other three bases. So the entire four years that I was up there we were gone somewhere every other week, which put a lot of pressure and a lot of hard work on the wives and families that were there. And I give them all the credit in the world, because the wives took care of the families, they kept the kids going to school, and although a lot of times they missed some of the parties, we managed to catch up when we were at home! It was also a marvelous place for children.

Kimberley Mould:

How many children do you have?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

We have three children. Our older daughter, Kim, our middle daughter Lou Ann, and our son, Robert.

Kimberley Mould:

Where was Kim born?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Kim was born in Kansas City, Missouri, Lou Ann was born in Alaska, and Robert was born in Alaska.

Kimberley Mould:

At Elmendorf Air Force Base?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

At Elmendorf Air Force Base. One of the more interesting aspects of flying in Alaska was the fact that the Russians were monitoring all of our communications. So, they knew when we took off. We would have to call the ground control intercept site and tell them that we were airborne and where we were going ... so in order to get around the fact that we knew that they were listening to us we had a procedure called a "silent scramble." We had a pre-determined profile that we would fly and we would tell the ground control intercept site "this is the one we are going on." So when we got the scramble order, which was over a secure line, we would take off and maintain radio silence until we made contact with the Russian aircraft usually some 200 to 250 miles from the base over the Bering Sea or over the Arctic Ocean. The first time that we did this, and we showed up on their wing, they were amazed. Of course, we monitored their communications also. It was one of the little games that we played. There were a lot of others, but that is kind of sensitive information, and I probably shouldn't get into that.

Kimberley Mould:

What rank were you when you were stationed in Alaska?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

When I went out there I was a Captain and then I was promoted to Major, subsequently after we left Alaska I was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. We left Alaska in 1964, and we were assigned to a year school down at the Air Command and Staff School in Montgomery, Alabama. From there, we were reassigned to the Air Force Inspector General's Safety Center at Norton Air Force Base in California. My duties there were to be a safety desk officer, as we called them. There were various aircraft assigned to us. My aircraft were the soocalled "Antique Air Force," the A-1's, the 0-1's, the 0-2's, all the prop-driven aircraft which were used at that time by the Air Force Special Operations Forces. Our job was to monitor accidents, incidents, trends, engine failures, things that would impact our combat capability, because all of them were being used extensively during the Viet Nam War at that time. A couple of the more important projects that I did over there was the Yankee Extraction System for the A-1 system. The A-1 being a World War" prop-driven aircraft did not have the typical ejection systems that the modern jet aircraft have, so in order to provide the escape capability for the A-1, we tested and installed the Yankee Extraction System which consisted of ... you were hooked up to a harness that was hooked up by some static lines to a rocket and when you pulled the handle the rocket would fire back of you, extend out forty feet of shot line, and literally pull you out of the cockpit, because if you used an ejection seat it would cut off your knees. The nice thing about this system was it was a 0-0, 0 air speed, 0 altitude system, and it saved an awful lot of lives. The other thing that we did for the A-1 was that we were able to improve the logistics overhaul system on the engines. We also perfected a lot of the maintenance techniques. We worked on the tactics and were substantially able to improve the mission capable rate of the A-1's that had been deployed to Southeast Asia.

Kimberley Mould:

Where is Norton Air Force Base?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

It is in San Bernardino, California, which is in Southern California. Toward the end of my tour, which was in 1968, because I had been associated with the A-1 Skyraider, I volunteered to serve a combat tour in Southeast Asia. My training was conducted down at Hurlburt Field, at Fort Walton Beach, Florida. The family went with me, because I felt it would be marvelous experience for them, and since they were going to return to San Bernardino when I went overseas, they would meet a lot of the people, the other families of the people that I was training with. We finished training at Hurlbert in November of 1968.

Kimberley Mould:

Colonel Tomlinson, I have a photograph here that will be included with this package that we are submitting to the Library of Congress. It appears that this is your training class. Could you tell me about some of the people? I think you are third from the right, in the back row.

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Let me put my glasses on! That is correct. This is the class of those of us undergoing Skyraider training at the time. It is interesting, because these were rather senior people. They were Captains, Majors, and I think there was one Lieutenant Colonel. There was a reason for this. Because the Skyraider was a big prop-driven aircraft, the majority of the people that were new in the Air Force at that time had never flown this type of airplane. It was a marvelous aircraft, but it was also a very unforgiving one. If you didn't pay attention to it, and if you didn't understand it, it would kill you in a heart beat. Looking at the people that were in that class, they all went with me to our assignment to Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base (NKP) in Thailand. It was the home of the 56th Special Operations Wing, and, at that time, its existence was not admitted. And there was a reason for this, and that was because it was from there that we conducted the Sandy, or the Search and Rescue missions, the rescue of downed pilots, aircrews, all through Southeast Asia. It was also the base that we conducted the armed reconnaissance and armed interdiction against the Ho Chi Minh Trail. And, in fact, the first squadron that I was in over there was the 22nd Special Operations Squadron, that had just been formed in late 1968 to perform the night interdiction mission on the Trail because there were no other assets to do it.

Kimberley Mould:

Colonel Tomlinson, what type of training did you have after Hurlbert, and where was your family when you went to Thailand?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

I did go to Escape and Evasion School up in Washington, which was required. You learned techniques on how to avoid being captured, and if you were captured how to resist interrogation, etc. After that, I was supposed to go to what we call Snake School in the Philippines, which was jungle survival school, but I very adroitly decided that I really didn't want to go there so I went directly to NKP in Thailand. The family stayed behind in San Bernardino. We decided to do this because there were a lot of other families that were there, and the children were familiar with the schools. It was the least disruptive of everything. I will say that during the year that I was in Southeast Asia, it was at the height of the anti-war movement, so the family was harassed by people who were against the war. It also made a real impression on those of us who were over there. We did not appreciate the fact that our families were being subjected to this.

Kimberley Mould:

Do you feel that the military family took care of your family while you were over there?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Absolutely, and that has always been the hallmark of the military community ... we have always hung together. The women provided great support to each other. As I have said before, it was the wives that kept the family together and deserve the appreciation of all of us that were over there.

Kimberley Mould:

Colonel Tomlinson, could you please give us a feel of how you felt when you first arrived in Thailand, and when was that?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Interesting enough, while I was in San Bernardino at Norton, I had gone on two temporary duty assignments that included visits to NKP, which at that time was just being developed as the key clandestine base for the conduct for the pursuit of The Secret War in Laos. So by the time I arrived in November of 1968, the base was well underrdevelopment. We still had a steel pierced, steel planked runway, not like the concrete runways that we currently have on most of our bases. The buildings were just being developed. We had a club, but most of us preferred to eat at the Thai restaurant on base, because the food was a lot better. We did have individual"hooches" that we lived in that were air conditioned. But actually my first impression when I got there was "well, this is remarkably similar to where I served in Korea." But the really interesting part of the whole base was the flight line, which substantiated the fact that it was the home of the Antique Air Force, all of the clandestine operations, the SOG Team, the Special Operations Group, Road Watch Teams, all the support for The Secret War in Laos that was being conducted on our behalf by the Hmong, General Vang Pao and his people up there, and of course one of our major missions was the support of his operations in Northern Laos. The first squadron that I was in when I got there was the 22nd Special Operations Zorro Squadron. Our mission was to provide night interdiction all along the Ho Chi Minh Trail from the Mugia Pass to Tchepone. At that time, the major push was on in South Vietnam by the North Vietnamese and we didn't have a lot of good night interdiction aircraft. The Skyraider was ideally suited for this because it could fly and stay on target for a long time. Our normal missions were three to five hours. We carried a vast array of ordinance from napalm to rockets, to cluster bomb units, to bombs. We had 20 millimeter guns and little mini guns. We also carried flares. And although we had no radar or forward looking infra-red, with the combination of "eye balls" and people used to flying at night over there, we developed a lot of the tactics and indeed helped set the stage for the marvelous night capabilities that we currently have. During this time, the other members of my class that were at Hurlbert had gone over to the 602nd Fighter Squadron, which was the Sandy dedicated squadron, that was the squadron that was dedicated to the search and rescue of downed aircrews and other people all through out Vietnam. There was another A-1 squadron there, it was called the Hobos. It was the first Special Ops squadron. Their main mission was in support of Operation Prairie Fire, which was the insertion, extraction, and support of the Special Operations Group, the Road Watch Teams, the teams that were inserted well behind the lines all along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and into North Vietnam, who conducted all sort of very heroic clandestine operations all throughout the duration of the war. We also had the A-26 Nimrod Squadron, which was also a night dedicated interdiction squadron and close air support organization. We had Nails, which were airborne night forward air controllers. Ultimately, we also had Candles, which were C-123 flare ships, and all of these aircraft ... although some were specifically oriented to specific missions, we all ultimately flew everyone else's mission. Every mission over there was a combat mission. While some were not very exciting, others were extremely exciting! But they all were dedicated in support of the war that had been going on since after the Second World War in Laos and in all of Indo-China. The main reason why we were at Nakhon Phanom was that because of the treaty that settled the war between the French and the North Vietnamese foreign forces were not supposed to be stationed anywhere in Indo-China. And, although I think the world probably knew about it, the most famous of course is the Air America and the other support "contractors" that were providing support to the indigenous forces up there, providing people on the ground ...

Kimberley Mould:

Air America. That was the civilian run flying operation funded by whom?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Yes, you will have to ask the State Department about thatl (laughter)

Kimberley Mould:

Were they at Nakhon Phanom also?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Their principal rear operating base was at Udorn Air Force Base. There was an operation called Waterpump up there, but they operated out of Vinh Chin, Savanaket, and a lot of other places throughout North and South Laos. They also provided flight training and support to the loyal Laotian pilots and other pilots who were flying the T -23, because they were authorized to operate in country in Laos, where we were not. The initial missions flown by the Zorros, the 22nd Special Ops Squadron, were at night. We would fly to designated points along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, all the way from Napa Pass up in the North all way down past Tchepone, down toward Cambodia. And it was actually at Tchepone, which was the key intersection, where all of the various roads of the Ho Chi Minh Trail intersected before they branched off to go down into Cambodia or South Vietnam. T chepone was one of the most heavily defended areas, comparable in a lot of respects to Vinh and Hanoi in the North, and it was the scene of a lot of U.S losses of all types of aircraft. 1968, '69, '70. The North Vietnamese were determined that we were not going to choke off the flow of weapons and men and material down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and subsequent to that decision, which they made in as early as late 1967, there were an awful lot of anti-aircraft, including surface-to-air missiles, all along the Trail. After flying approximately half of my tour until early April of 1969, those were all done along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and a few up in Northern Laos. But, in 1969, the battle for North Laos between the North Vietnamese, ostensibly the Pathet Lao, but really they were North Vietnamese troops, regular troops, and General Vang Pao's Hmong irregulars, was not going well. After late 1968, the North Vietnamese shifted a substantial number of their forces, regular North Vietnamese forces, to invade North Laos down Route 6, which came out of Hanoi and went through Sam Neue down towards Central Laos and along Route 7, which came out of Vinh, and they intersected in a little valley, Ban Ban. From there the road ran westward to the Plains des Jars, which was really the heart of the loyalists and the "good guy country," so to speak. Because the war was not going well up there, it was decided to take all of the A-1 forces and redirect a lot of their effort into day and night strikes, in interdiction [impede or hinder the enemy by firepower or bombing], close air support, in infiltration, ex-filtration, we actually mined the roads up there, we installed surveillance sensors, whatever the mission needed to be, we did it, in an effort to destroy, or at least slow down, the North Vietnamese invasion of Northern Laos. Because of this redirection of mission, the three A-1 squadrons, since the 602nd, which was the Sandy squadron, had very limited night experience, I went over to get them night qualified to fly in Northern Laos, and also the 22nd and the 1 st were also crossed trained and given Sandy missions, so that we all shared in all of the most hazardous missions and got a chance to perform whatever requirement would happen to come up on that day. After moving over to the 602nd, I still flew the majority of my missions in support of "the good guys" that were on the ground, we called them "ground forward air controllers." We would hunt for trucks. We would perform interdiction. We would also hunt for anti-aircraft weapons. What ever happened to be there we would go hunting for them.

Kimberley Mould:

What capabilities did your plane have?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Essentially the same capabilities that we had down south. We had napalm, we had rockets, we had bombs, and we had cluster bomb-lets. We used riot gas during the Sandy missions. We had iron bombs, 750, 500, 250 pound bombs, 20 millimeter cannon, mini guns. Since we were the only qualified night forward air controllers up there, they would send F-4's, F-105's, assign them to us, and we would go up and find a good target, then we would provide forward air control for their strikes up there. They were not allowed to strike on their own. So we would have to go find out where the good targets were, mark the ground targets, and then give them directions for their strikes.

Kimberley Mould:

Can you tell us a little bit about the A-1 aircraft itself? Is it a fast plane or a slowing moving plane? What are the pros and cons of it?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

The A-1 was probably ... it was the last of the big, famous aircraft. During the Second World War, we had P-51's and P-47's. The A-1 was a Navy aircraft. It was developed ... it did not see service during the Second World War, but it saw extensive service with the Navy during the Korean War. And the Air Force adopted it from the Navy because it was a perfect aircraft for Special Air Operations. It was slow when it was fully loaded. It would go at about 140 knots straight and level, as compared to 500 knots of the F-4. But there was a big advantage to that. The advantage was that we could fly a long time. We carried a big bomb load. We could search the ground and pick up things that a fast moving aircraft couldn't. And it would absorb an unbelievable amount of destruction and still get home, or at least get the pilot out to where he could get out.

Kimberley Mould:

Why do you think these planes were used for rescue missions?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Well, it was the Sandy mission, after we found out that somebody had bailed out, Sandy Lead, Sandy 1's mission was to go find him. Sometime other people knew where they were, sometimes they didn't. We would gO ... we always determined if the person was alive. Everybody carried a survival radio, so they could talk to him. They would talk to the guy, and without having to have him give his position, we would identify him. Everybody had a code word that we could use. You would ask the pilot..which was a classified code word ... "what did you do on the 19th hole at such and such a golf course?" And he said, "I got a birdie" or whatever they used to make sure that was the right person.

Kimberley Mould:

Do you remember your code?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

That was thirty-five years ago, and I can't remember that! Any case, it was very important to one, determine that if the person was alive and, two, that it was not one the "bad guys" on the radio to sucker the rescue forces in to shoot them down. After Sandy 1 would identify the person, identify his location, Sandy 1 would plot how we were going to rescue him. This took a lot of coordination with the other ... there were usually four Sandys, Sandy 1, 2, 3, 4, that were usually clustered around the person, picking out where the defenses were, where the bad people were, the easiest way to get in and out, because we had to bring the Jolly Green helicopters in and they were slow, slow and very vulnerable. So after everything was done, and when we felt that the defenses had been suppressed, then we would go make the pick up, or attempt the pick up. We would lead in, and the first four, Sandy 1, 2, 3, and 4, would perform what we called a "daisy chain." We would fly in a big circle around the pilot, and we would lay down white phosphorus smoke, which provided a smoke screen that would screen the pilot and rescue operations from the enemy. Then the helicopters would come in, and we would provide support on either side, strafing, whatever required. Para-rescue men would go down on a sling, pick up the person, hoist them back into the helicopter, and then we would all continue the protective circle around the helicopter until they got out to a safe territory. Sometimes we were successful and sometimes we weren't. I was on one Sandy mission that was in the area of Mugia Pass. There was a F-4, the crew had bailed out. We had heard and talked to the pilot, but the backkseater, the weapons systems operator, we don't know whether he got out, or whether he was captured or killed, but we made an attempt to pick up the pilot, actually it ran about thirty-six hours, and numerous missions had been flown in there, and finally, when we were getting down to where we thought we had the guns suppressed, he went off the air. We did make one attempt to pick him up, but the ground fire was so intense that the Sandys and the Jolly Greens had to pull out. We had two airplanes that had gotten shot up pretty bad, and we never heard from him again. So, that was an unsuccessful mission.

Kimberley Mould:

About when was that, an approximate date?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

I think that was in the summer of 1969. There was another mission, a night mission, probably one of the more spectacular ones. Down at Tchepone, this was in March 1969, there had been a big buildup of troops, people, in the staging areas around Tchepone, and they were preparing to move into Vietnam. There were a lot of sorties expended in that area. We had gotten a report from one of our night forward air controllers that there was a big convoy moving down the road at a ford just north of Tchepone. So we were diverted, me and my wing man, down there. There were fires going, there was some ground fire coming up. The forward air controller gave us an idea of where these trucks were, and so I told my wing man that I would go in and make the first pass and he could look to see where the guns were or if there were other indications where trucks were, and I went in. I had just released some napalm, and it looked like there was a whole cloud of red bumblebees coming at me. I pulled off, and that was, I think, the first time that they [Americans] had ever seen four barrel, 23 millimeter, mobile guns in that part of the world! These guns would fire some 4,000 rounds a minute. And I must say it was the most spectacular display of fireworks I had ever seen! We completed our missions, since all the results of these missions were classified at this time, I don't remember the results, but I knew that when we left there weren't as many guns firing at us at the end of our passes, and there were lots of things burning up and down the road. So, it does get your attention, but that is what it was all about! The interesting part about the shift in operations as to Northern laos, it was because we had not an awful lot of assets, whether jets or whatever, that could fly at night, during the monsoon rains. The tops of the mountains were, in some cases, upwards 9,000 feet high. All the roads went down through valleys, there was Karst, and not only that there were good people up there, so you just didn't go indiscriminately bombing anything that you saw up there. So those of us that were authorized to be the airborne FACS, the forward air controllers, we also knew the good guys who were on the ground, with the Hmong, places like Muong Soui, up in the North, they had these little camps up on top of the mountain tops that were fortified and they had little, short landing strips. And this was where the Air America people flew in and out of to support the indigenous people that were there fighting on the ground for us. There were a number of them, lima Site 26, 36, 85, and a lot of our effort was flying at night supporting them, because they were coming under increasing attack. It is kind of spectacular flying in and out of the clouds, at night, no radar, no ground positioning assistance. It was your eyeballs and what you could do, but after a while you got rather adept at it. There were some people that never did, in fact we lost a number of people that flew into mountains, lost control of the airplane, got shot down, but we literally, all through 1969, kept Northern laos from being overrun.

Kimberley Mould:

You mentioned that flying A-1's took a particular type of pilot.

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Yes, and that is why at the initial stages of the war it was the older guys that flew the A-1 's, because we had trained in propeller driven airplanes. Most of us had extensive experience in other types of airplanes; whether it was flying at night...We knew how to feel an airplane. And the A-1 was an airplane ... I always said, "They had a soul." It was a marvelous airplane, and you could feel what it was going to do. It had a real tendency to, if you gave it too much power on take off, it would ground loop and you would blow up. On landing, if you didn't pay attention to what you were doing you would run off the runway. When you were f1ying ... since you always flew very close to the stall speed of it, because of the ordinance hung on it, it was easy to stall it and lose control. But after you had some experience it, you got the feel for it, and you knew what each individual aircraft would do. I guess it was kind of funny to say, but sometimes on long missions at night it would actually talk to you! But you could discern the sounds that it would make, and it was a good ... it was a fun airplane to fly. It did a mission that there were no other aircraft available, at that time, to do. Now days, they have the A-10, which is nothing more than a jet A-1. They're doing the same mission, Sandys and otherwise, during the Gulf Wars, Bosnia, Kosovo, that we did during Vietnam.

Kimberley Mould:

How many combat missions did you fly?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

I flew 168. Zorro, Firefly, Sandy. Since any ordinance that they had, we could drop. So they cleaned out all of the stores, we got a lot of strange munitions, but they all had a purpose, and they all did well. We did, in '69, begin to run out of airplanes. So they began to consolidate missions after I left in late '69 - '70. Still at NKP, but they were having to take A-1's, the South Vietnamese also flew them, to provide continuing assets to us.

Kimberley Mould:

Previously you described an engagement at Tchepone. I understand that you are the recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and the date on that is 5 February 1969. I know that you are very humble and that you won't describe it in detail, but could you give a few details of why you were bestowed this honor?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Well, if you notice on the citation that they don't go into any details and that is because of the nature of the secret war in Laos. I don't know what the citation says. As I mentioned, because the mission report was classified, I can say that there was an awful lot of anti-aircraft fire. We did silence a number of guns, destroy a number of guns. We destroyed a number of other war munitions trucks, etc. But because the citation was classified, and those missions were classified, my major remembrance of that day was "Yeah, I got shot at a lot."

Kimberley Mould:

And you survived.

Frank J. Tomlinson:

And I survived.

Kimberley Mould:

I would like to read now a detailed description of the Distinguished Flying Cross, of which you were awarded: The Distinguished Flying Cross is awarded to any persons who, while serving in the capacity with the Armed Forces of the United States, distinguishes himself by heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight. The performance of the act of heroism must be evidenced by voluntary action above and beyond the call of duty, and the extraordinary achievement must have resulted in an accomplishment that is exceptional and outstanding as to clearly set the individual apart from comrades or from other persons in similar circumstances. So, while you are reluctant to give yourself credit, I would like to congratulate you Colonel Tomlinson, Dad. Obviously, you must have done something extraordinary to set yourself apart on that day, and I thank you.

Frank J. Tomlinson:

You are quite welcome. It was kind of spectacular.

Kimberley Mould:

And I know you won't tell anymore details, so we will move on! In George Marrett's book, Cheating Death: Combat Air Rescues in Vietnam and Laos, he has the quote, "Every Skyraider pilot in the 6020d will have a real bad day sometime in their year tour" (page 35). Could you tell us about your really bad day?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Well, as compared to some people's bad days, this wasn't the worst, but early one morning up on the Plains des Jars, in Northern Laos, in the summer of 1969, we were attacking some rather heavily defended areas right outside Xien Xhouang. There had been some rather intensive ground fire there. And I had just started one run to bomb this anti-aircraft position, when I noticed there was a lot of ground fire in front of me, and I released the weapons. About that time, a sump light came on. Now a sump light was a red light that indicated metallic particles in the engine oil system, and it usually it indicated there was an imminent engine failure or you had taken battle damage. I had also noticed that there was a lot of oil coming out of the front of the aircraft, and I knew that I had been hit at that time. So I said, "Well, I think what I will do as long as the airplane is flying, I will try to get out of here." So, I pulled the manual release to get rid of all the ordinance, bombs and stuff on the wings, pulled the engine power back to minimum power and headed towards Udorn, Thailand, which was some ninety miles away. I knew that what had probably happened, that I had taken a round in the propeller governor reservoir up in front, which provided oil to change the pitch on the propeller. Udorn had an overcast ceiling. The tops were at about two thousand feet and the bottoms were at about eight hundred, which meant that I would have to land through an over cast or, if the engine quit, I was going to bail out. So, I arrived over the station, the engine still at minimum power, arrived over Udorn, made a two hundred seventy degree turn, and came out below the eight hundred foot overcast. I lined up on final approach, put the gear down, and the engine oil pressure started to go, to fail. So, I flared out and shut the engine off, to keep the engine from seizing itself, and rolled off the runway, and that was it.

Kimberley Mould:

Good flying!

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Well, it was either that or jump out some place! We all had a rule that as long as the engine was running and the plane was not. .. even if it was on fire, you would try to get someplace that the bad guys were not, so that was my whole game plan, and it worked. But it is a testament to the ruggedness of that airplane that it would take a lot of punishment and you could still ... but that was probably my worst bad air day.

Kimberley Mould:

I've read that the North Vietnamese used downed pilots as bait.

Frank J. Tomlinson:

That was particularly true during Sandy missions, when they knew the pilot was still alive. Or even if they could get hold of his radio, they would still try to make you think that he was still alive. They were very clever setting traps, because they really didn't like the Sandys, the Zorros, they didn't like the A-1 pilots. And we didn't like them. So, they would ... if they knew where the pilot was, sometimes they would back off away from him. They would put people in trees. They would camouflage heavy machine guns. They would leave an area open that you couldn't find any people, so they wouldn't fire at you as you were going in, but then they would fire at you going back out again. Every pick up ... not only of the pilots, we did lot of clandestine team insertions and pick up of good people that were up with the Hmong, the irregular forces, the pick up of a lot of people, I have no idea who they were.

Kimberley Mould:

Colonel Tomlinson, what type of survival equipment did you have while you flew?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

We all had a standard Air Force issue survival vests that had radios, batteries, first aid kit, flares. We all carried a pistol, and then you would augment it with what ever you wanted. Most of us carried ... we weren't allowed to carry any identification. So we didn't have watches or anything like that. Some people carried little pieces of gold to use to pay people to help you get out. I n the extraction system, there were some survival items. We also carried two plastic canteens that were frozen, because they were long missions, anywhere from three to six hours, or longer. So, by the time you got around to drinking one canteen the other one was thawed out. There weren't any other special things. In the flares that we carried, there was a flare tube that would spit the flares out, but we used to wrap magazines around bottles of Scotch whiskey, attach the flare parachute to it, and then drop them to the good guys that were up in the mountains. That's some of the things that we did ...

Kimberley Mould:

That is a necessary part of a survival kit!

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Ah yes, there were a lot of individual things, but the basic survival things were there that were enough to keep you going until you were either captured or picked up.

Kimberley Mould:

Could you please describe the difference between flying missions in the rainy season versus the dry season?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

The rainy season was when the visibility was a lot better. It would rain, but there was always time that you could work between the monsoon thunderstorms and rain showers, and usually if it was raining down south it wasn't raining up north, and vice versa. But the dry season was the time that the hill people would practice their "slash and burn," dry land rice culture, and so the smoke from the burning fires ... it was so bad that we did not use flares at that time, because the flares would create a situation that could get you extremely disoriented, because you couldn't tell up, down, sideways, or whatever, and a lot of people ... that is what happened to them. So the visibility during the dry season was, with the fires and the smoke, you couldn't see an awful lot.

Kimberley Mould:

Colonel Tomlinson, could you tell us a little bit of what life was like at the base, off-duty life?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Actually, it wasn't all that bad. We didn't live in the mud or anything like the poor guys out in the field did. We all had ... we called them "hooches." I believe that there were twelve rooms in each hooch, and there was a central latrine separating the two wings. Each room had two people in it. They were air conditioned. We had a refrigerator with a freezer. There was an on-base telephone and a desk.

Kimberley Mould:

Did you get to call home very often?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

No, not from there. We were assigned a room mate, but we hardly ever saw much of them, because they were flying someplace, gone someplace. And then a lot of times, if we didn't have somebody, somebody would be there for just a couple of days. There were two young women, actually they were teenagers, sixteen, seventeen year olds, Thai women that cleaned the rooms, washed your clothes, did those things like that. A few of them spoke a little English, but they were really marvelous, sweet people. Through them we got to know people who lived down in NKP village. We didn't get an awful lot of time off. Every couple of months we would get three days down in Bangkok. Most of the time, I went and stayed at the Siam InterrContinental Hotel. They gave us a pretty decent rate, and we went and lived by the swimming pool and the bar. We also had a pretty decent club that had reasonable food. Unfortunately, with the nature of the pilots that were there, the Special Operations people, the spooks, and who knows who else, there was a lot of rowdiness. There were a few fisticuffs! But, by and large, we managed to keep occupied when we weren't doing something. The 602nd, the Sandys, had a separate sort of room that we called The Sandybox. They would sort of stick to themselves, talk over things, talk to each other, talk to their peers. The other squadrons had similar type things. We, ultimately, toward the tail end of my tour, we built a big hooch in the center of the quadrangle where ... it provided a ... we hired our own bartenders, and it was good because we ultimately got banned from the Officers Club, because it kind of got out of hand sometimes. So, the Wing Commander said, "Go to your hooches, do whatever you want to, just stay out of the club!"

Kimberley Mould:

Do you think that is how people dealt with the stress of their jobs, by being rowdy?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Yeah, yeah. You had a tendency to do that, and since there were a lot of diverse people, there were spooks, there were Army Road Watch team people (SOG), there were people living under an awful. .. as well as ourselves, it was good to corral them all in one place.

Kimberley Mould:

When did you wear the orange party suits?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Each one of the organizations had what we called a "party suit," so periodically, if there were enough people not flying, enough people around, we would have individual parties, and we would wear these specific "party suits." We also had them because after your last mission they would have a party for you. In each one of the squadrons I was in, I had a party suit. And I also had a little one made for my son, who was at that time three or four. He had his own little party suit. He would stand with his mother and protect his mother. He was very proud of that! I do remember one interesting entertainment that we had ... it was in the Christmas of 1968. Bob Hope, Ann-Margaret, and a lot of other very attractive women visited NKP. It was the first time they had ever been there. NKP was the place that no one ever came to. No press, no outside visitors. So when they arrived with their entourage and the subsequent show that they put on, we were very appreciative. They did a marvelous job. That was probably one of the high times of his long and illustrious career as an usa entertainer, and of course, Ann-Margaret and the other young women provided a brief respite.

Kimberley Mould:

Were you given the opportunity to visit with your wife during your tour?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Yes, we were given two opportunities. I got to come back home for two weeks, actually about ten days, in the middle of my tour. I also met Sally, my wife, in Hawaii for R and R. We had three days there together. It was good. You could take the R and R's, or leaves, where ever you wanted, but I decided the family was where to go, so it provided a welcome respite for them, and for me as well.

Kimberley Mould:

Was there anything special that you did for good luck before you flew?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Well, most of us, as we taxied out for take off, would give a little prayer. Then from then on out there was no time for prayers, but "somebody" was flying with us. There were a lot of times that you can't explain what happened any other way. We weren't very regular church goers ... because we were always flying on ...

Kimberley Mould:

.... on "a wing and a prayer?"

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Yeah, yeah.

Kimberley Mould:

Do you have any photographs from that time?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

I took quite a few. I did not take photographs during flight operations, there were a few, but because it was a secret war and we had signed an agreement not to divulge anything about it. I didn't keep any journals, logs. The pictures that I have are life around the base, life in Bangkok, down in NKP village, some of the people. I felt those were things that you want to remember too, as well as the rest of it.

Kimberley Mould:

When did your tour of duty end?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

I came back in November of 1969.

Kimberley Mould:

How did you feel both when you left Thailand and when you landed on American soil?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Well, I was perhaps a little different than a lot of other guys, because I was a career Air Force officer. That was my job. I hadn't been drafted. I volunteered to go. I felt that we did what our country asked us to do. We did it extremely well. Whether we won or lost will be debated, but that wasn't the point. I must admit I was very happy to return to California, having made it through, as I think most everyone felt. But it was not like the people that were terribly bitter. People that. .. although the anti-war movement was at its height during those times, and we did get a lot of harassment, it was our job. We did it. We knew what we were doing. The politicians did their job and the generals did their job, and we cleaned up the mess that was left over after them.

Kimberley Mould:

I would like to make a personal observation as your daughter. I vividly remember the day that you left to go to Vietnam, or Thailand, and you getting in a taxi and simply driving away. I even more remember the day you came home. It was just like all of sudden you showed up at the front door, and it was overl I just want to take a moment and say a personal "thank you" for performing such a great service, and I thank God for bringing you back. After you returned from your tour of duty, where did you continue your career?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

We were very fortunate. I had received orders when I was in Thailand that we would have a NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) tour in Oslo, Norway, which was an absolutely marvelous tour after Southeast Asia. It was really great for the family. I worked for a Norwegian three-star general. We did a lot of good things for, not only the Norwegian Air Force, but in support of NATO and the Cold War that was still going on at that time. But, we also skied and had a lot of fun over there! It was a good tour. We got to travel a lot through Europe and places like that.

Kimberley Mould:

What was your final military assignment before you retired?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

After Norway, we were stationed at Andrews Air Force Base, outside of Washington, D. C. I went there to be the Base Commander, and we reorganized and I got another job. Then we reorganized again, and I got another job.

Kimberley Mould:

What was the mission of Andrews AFB?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Andrews is a very interesting base. It is the home of the Presidential Support Wing, the 89th Military Airlift Wing, which flies Air Force 1, as well as all of the other Air Force airplanes that transport diplomats, foreign dignitaries. It also has had a number of other support missions. There is a Navy base on the other side of the field. There is an Air National Guard F-16 organization there. We spent five years there, and then after I left Andrews, I was detailed to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Kimberley Mould:

You are retired now. What was the date of your retirement?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

I retired on 1 February 1981.

Kimberley Mould:

Do you belong to any organizations ... veterans, pilots, Skyraiders?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Yes, I am a member of the Air Commando Association and also the Skyraider Association. Through the Air Commando Association, we continue to support a humanitarian foundation, the McCrosky Foundation. We provide medical, humanitarian, clothing, books for school children. In conjunction with Honduras, Laos, we continue each year to provide a number of medical teams that go in and support. We send them all over Central America, Africa, the Far East, natural disasters and humanitarian things here in the U. S. It is a very good organization. There are a couple of thousand of us. And is strongly supported by ... we work in close conjunction with USAID and other international, medical, humanitarian organizations ... Doctors Without Borders, etc. I think one thing that a lot of people forget when wars "are over" is the fact of the reconstruction process. I know that there are big debates now about "Hey, how long is going to take in Iraq" or Afghanistan, but people need to remember that the Civil War took twelve years of reconstruction. After the Second World War ... there are still reconstruction efforts going on in Germany and other places. People forget the war is not over because the hostilities are over. .. the reconstruction process still goes on. I think that is one of the things people forget. People have a short attention span sometimes, but you can't forget the people that are left over there. You have to continue to help them.

Kimberley Mould:

Do you attend any reunions now of any fighter pilot. ..

Frank J. Tomlinson:

The only ones we continue to attend are the reunions of the 31 th Fighter Interceptor Squadron which we were stationed with up in Alaska, which we discussed. We still go to those. How many more we will have ... because our numbers do dwindle ... but the others I don't go to ... but this one we were particularly close to, because not only of up there, but subsequently a number of us went to Southeast Asia. Some we lost. We will still keep up with some of the families of those people too.

Kimberley Mould:

[backtracking a bit!] Could you take a moment and describe your last mission?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

The last mission that you flew up there [in NKP] was typically what we called "the Firefly missions." It was during daylight hours. It was one where there was not likely to be many people shooting at you. And it was designed to fly over some of the old areas that you had been ... to wave good-bye, and it was sort of a grand finale tour. I was fortunate enough to be able to fly my final tour with a Major that I had gone through A-1 training at Hurlbert with, and he had been in the 602nd all during the time that I was there and he was a good friend of mine. So we flew this and we flew up into Northern Laos. We visited all the places ... Sam Neua, Ban Ban, Xien Khouang, Road Runner Lake, Long Tieng, Muong SouL All the familiar places, nobody shot at us. We fired off some rockets, some ... whatever. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining. We came back, shut the engines off. They sprayed us with a fire hose and poured champagne over our heads. Then we had a marvelous party.

Kimberley Mould:

I know, Colonel Tomlinson, that seldom in years past have you spoken of your exploits and of your experiences in the war. There was a quote that I read somewhere that says, "Like the good warriors that we were we kept our mouths shut." What is the reason why you are reluctant to talk, and in the past haven't spoken much about your experiences?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

You have to remember that The Secret War in Laos started during the Second World War. Without getting into all the political reasoning, but because of the peace accords that ultimately led to our pull out of Vietnam, there were to be no U.S. forces stationed in Laos. That's why we flew out of Thailand, and that is why it is called The Secret War. All of our operations were classified. Our mission reports were classified. And so now, I don't know what has been declassified. I don't know what is well-known. You have to be still reluctant. .. you can talk in general terms of places and stuff, because they were on the map. But other than that, whether or not it will all come out, who knows?

Kimberley Mould:

So, it is somewhat true then ... the sad fact is that only the people that were actually there can truly understand the depth of sacrifice and valor of the people who were there ... because the stories have not been told.

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Well, I think that is fair. And as time goes by there will be books written that focus on a specific thing. There are other articles and stories that have been written about specifiC aspects of all of this. And I am sure that the Air Force, Army, Navy historians have put together ... and State Department historians, they have all put together composite reviews and historical archives. But usually when you are doing a specific job some place, your war is limited to what you see and you don't really get into the big debates about what's going on at the United Nations or someplace else. There are enough other things to think about. But I also think it is because ... in general, most people that had been there had done it, and it was time to move on to do other things.

Kimberley Mould:

Do you feel the American public is growing in their appreciation of the efforts of the military in such conflicts as Korea, of which we recently had a fifty-year anniversary, and the Vietnam War?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Well, I think it is getting a lot better. But remember, people age. New people come along that have never been involved. And we see some of the anti-war demonstrations now against Iraq and other places. Some of the same old rhetoric is being poured back. The old anti-war people are getting a little "more mellow" than they used to be. One of the big things ... it is an all volunteer force now. We don't have the draft any more, which has a tendency to mute a lot of things. But I think, by and large, the American people are strongly supportive of the U.S. military. Sometimes they may not be supportive of what it is used for, but we have got the finest young people that we have ever had around, and they do an outstanding job.

Kimberley Mould:

In closing, how would you say your military service and your experiences in the military, how did it affect your life?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

It was probably the defining moment in my life, because ... if I had not gone into the Air Force I never would have gotten out my hometown of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. I never would have found what I wanted to do and had a great, marvelous career. I would have never met my wife, and we wouldn't have our great family. We ... or I would not have had all the jobs that I've had, marvelous places where we've lived, and the fun that we've had. So, it was the watershed. Either I got out of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, or I would have stayed there forever.

Kimberley Mould:

Do you fly today?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

I leave that to my son and the young people today! They are young, they enjoy it, they are extremely good at it, and I am too old!

Kimberley Mould:

What does your son do?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Robert, he is an airline captain and is a pilot that flies up in Alaska for a little Native American airline that flies into the bush country. It is a little company called PenAir. He was born up there, and he always wanted to go back, and he loves it. So we go up and visit him, and we went fishing, and my wife caught the biggest fish, and I didn't catch anything! (Laughter!)

Kimberley Mould:

Is there anything that you would like to add that we have not covered in this interview?

Frank J. Tomlinson:

I think this project is extremely worthwhile, because I think it gets some of the personal little things that come out that normally don't get written into books or histories, formal things like that. I think getting individual little insights; it helps all of us if we have to do it again sometime.

Kimberley Mould:

In closing, I would like to thank you, Colonel Tomlinson, for taking the time to share some of your experiences with us. I know that you will be a wonderful contribution to the overall project. And, personally, I would like to say "thank you" from our family to you for everything that you have provided for us and for the experiences that we have had as military dependents. It was one of the best lives you could have offered a [wife and] child. We are so glad that you came back safely, and I love you.

Frank J. Tomlinson:

Well, Kim, I appreciate you doing this not only for our family, but for everybody. We do have a marvelous family. We have enjoyed moving every couple of years and living in such "terrible" places as California, Florida, Norway. I think what you are doing ... not only in this aspect, but we will continue to do it, because it is a work in progress, and you are doing an outstanding job. And thanks so much, and I love you, too.

Kimberley Mould:

And may I close by saying God bless the United States, and God Bless America.

Frank J. Tomlinson:

I agree.

 
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