I was asked by a millionaire civilian if I would rather trade my flying career for his millions. I said you don't have enough money to do what I do in one week, 10 to 15 hours in a jet, and I get paid to do what I love.
I enlisted in the armed forces in 1943 and spent the next two years in basic training, cadet training, radar training and then gunnery school as a navigator. (The other cadets thought my name was too long and shortened it to Waxie, which has stuck with me all these years later.)
Upon graduating I was transferred to Hondo Air Base in Texas for navigator training on the B-29, a four-engine propeller-driven bomber.
In January 1945 our crew was deployed to Saipan (1,200 miles south of Japan) to fly bombing missions over Japan. The B-29 was designed as a high-altitude daytime bomber, but then Air Force leaders ordered the bombers to fly lower at night and drop incendiary bombs.
We flew over 35 missions, five over Tokyo and the others over cities or significant plants. The most significant mission combined over 300 B-29s dropping fire bombs in 50 mph winds that destroyed 16 square miles of Tokyo. Estimates of the number killed ranged between 80,000 and 200,000, a higher death toll than that produced by the atomic bomb on Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
On one mission, 1,000 miles from Saipan, one of the prop engines caught on fire and we had to land at Iwo Jima (700 miles south of Japan). Iwo Jima had been declared secure by American forces just two days before.
We were flown back to Saipan. During our daylight missions, we were escorted by P-51 fighters and once were attacked by Japanese Zero fighter planes. We made it back to base with only the window on the gunner's side shattered, and no one hurt. In the last months of the war, many of the Japanese Zeros were turned into kamikaze aircraft.
Upon returning to the states, I was stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz., with a crew designated to be the only combat-ready squadron of B-29s, reduced from 200 down to 20.
After the war I decided to stay in the service and went for pilot training at Randolph AFB in San Antonio. Over the next 12 years I flew and trained other pilots in the F-102 (maximum speed of 825 mph), F-104 (max. speed 1,328 mph), F-94 (max. speed 640 mph) and F-89 (first combat aircraft armed with air-to-air nuclear weapons).
In those 12 years, my wife, five children and I were stationed at five different bases from Florida to Alaska to Michigan, and then in 1962 to Homestead AFB in Florida during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In late 1962, Homestead was a major staging base for the contemplated invasion of Cuba. I was the commander of a detachment that was on alert with four F-102 planes and then 24 at the threat of war. We flew several missions a day and were under high alert until Kennedy and Khrushchev reached an agreement in October.
In 1969 I was assigned to Wheelus AFB in Tripoli, Libya, which was the weapons training center for Europe. This was my first overseas assignment, and after a few weeks of training my wife and 19-year-old daughter accompanied me. I had two objectives: (1) I needed more flying time in the F-4 Phantom to drop bombs in Vietnam, which is where I hoped to go next; and (2) to work under Col. Daniel "Chappie" James.
En route to Tripoli, Muammar Gaddafi overthrew King Idris and wanted the military base closed and turned over to the Libyans. We were told our belongings would be diverted and we would be in temporary quarters while my job was overseeing the closing of the base and all the F-4's were being sent elsewhere. I was disappointed about not getting the F-4 flying time, but not with Col. James.
On Oct. 18, Gaddafi rode in a group of armored vehicles to the main gate of Wheelus and ordered them to drive through the base in a show of force. Instead of leading the invasion, Gaddafi dismounted outside the gate and waited for their return.
Col. James, alerted to the intrusion, strapped on a .45 and raced to the gate. In a scene straight out of the western movie era, James and Gaddafi faced off in the dusty road. Gaddafi's hand rested on the butt of the pistol at his side.
James ordered Gaddafi, "Move your hand away from that gun." Gaddafi blinked and complied. James was later quoted as saying that if Gaddafi had tried to pull his gun, "it would never have cleared the holster." Col. Chappie James was promoted to general and later in his career promoted to four-star general - the first black in U.S. history.
My daughter was working at the Base Exchange helping with its closure and one evening a Libyan man came to our quarters and said he would like my daughter to be his fifth wife. She would have her own apartment, car and be his social wife. He would give me sheep, goats and a camel (or two). If I'd known what to do with the animals, I might have considered his proposal. Meanwhile, my daughter was sweating bullets and promising to be good.
The next two years were spent at Incirlik, Turkey, and Bentwaters, England, as wing commander. Both bases had failed operation readiness and my task was to get them ready in 30 days. I initiated a program called "Points with Pride" that enlisted the personnel to be part of the solution. It was successful and we passed all inspections under my command. Upon my departure, the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing at Bentwaters presented me with a Points with Pride award for my "unselfish efforts devoted to improve the morale of all personnel."
I spent my last year as chief of staff of the United States Air Forces in Europe, at Wiesbaden, and retired in April 1973.
Years of service: 30 years, three months and 16 days
Number of moves: 31
Number of air bases: 17
Hours of flight time 9,200 (with a landing for every take-off, never having to eject)
Injuries sustained: Zero
Living the dream: Priceless
After my wife died, I moved from Denver to be near my daughter in Blaine and currently reside at Merrill Gardens in Bellingham.
- Told to, and written by, his daughter, Nancy Hamilton.
Reach DEAN KAHN at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2291.