The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds
By Robin Olds,
with Christina Olds and Ed Rasimus
St. Martin’s, $26.99, 400 pp.
It’s hard to imagine a life story more overdue for the full book treatment than that of Robin Olds, one of the great American warriors of the 20th century.
His career ran the gamut of the development of modern air war and makes one heck of a story. If you enjoyed Chuck Yeager’s autobiography in the slightest, Fighter Pilot is about to become one of your all time favorite books.
It’s not just that Olds had an extraordinary career as a near-triple ace flying P-38s and P-51s in World War II, then finished his combat flying days as the top fighter pilot of the Vietnam War. The story of Olds’ larger-than life reads like the plot of an overreaching TV miniseries based on one of those fat Herman Wouk novels where the hero is involved in an impossible amount of history.
An All-American football player at West Point, Olds assumed command of his WWII squadron in Europe after a mere nine months of service. He was part of the first jet demo team, placed second in the Thompson Trophy Race, was the only American ever to command an RAF squadron, had more kills than any other Air Force pilot in Vietnam, commanded the Air Force Academy, told LBJ off on Vietnam and married movie star Ella Raines, whose most famous role was costarring in Tall in the Saddle with John Wayne (who probably would have been the ideal choice to play the flamboyant and oversized fighter pilot in a film bio).
Olds lusted for combat, pulling every string to get into the fight and chafing when he missed out. He would hate his commander in the 1950s for decades until he found out it was his wife’s lobbying, not his CO, that kept him out of the Korea War. As the commander of the famed Wolfpack in Vietnam, Olds was told that once he either became an ace or logged 100 missions, he was going to be taken out of combat and sent on a PR tour; as a result, he began flying off the books and setting up his wingmen to log the kills.
How much did Olds long to be a fighter pilot? When he was assigned to flight training in 1942, the base finance office had to seek the young second lieutenant out. He was happy flying for room and board; it never occurred to him he would be paid money to fly.
Like biographies of such great fighter pilots as Robert Johnson, Dick Bong and Douglas Bader, Olds’ is filled with great air combat stories. The one that stood out for me, however, was a tale of an air-to-ground attack. While Olds’ squadron was still flying P-38s, it was assigned to take out a bridge in Holland. Although separated from his mates in bad weather, Olds completed the mission and took out the bridge. The rest of the squadron never found the target.
Olds finished his career as a brigadier general, but he was perhaps the least promotion-oriented officer in the Army and later Air Force. Several times, he refers to himself as being “threatened” with a promotion, and he dreaded the idea of flying a desk.
Furthermore, Olds was a maverick who was impatient with bureaucracy, especially if it kept him out of the air or got between him and the enemy. When he was assigned to a jet squadron after the war, he was not slotted for flying time. Without even being checked out in the plane, he walked onto the tarmac, bluffed his way into an F-80 Shooting Star and learned to fly it on his own before anyone realized what he had done.
In Vietnam, Olds bucked the system constantly, fighting for effective tactics and effective weapons. He constantly lobbied to put guns on his F-4 Phantom jets — which the desk jockeys had dumped because they thought the old days of dogfighting were over. Then, when the Pentagon changed from the very effective Sidewinder missile to the Sparrow (which malfunctioned about as often as early WWII torpedoes), Olds had his planes refitted against regulations to carry the older missile.
But there were two things he was powerless to change: the targets selected by Washington and the rules of engagement. Thus, his men went on missions to take out power plants that powered the factories they weren’t allowed to bomb, and they engaged MiGs only under proscribed circumstances.
He confesses in the book that his famed RAF-style mustache was not a style choice but his little act of rebellion, a “middle finger I couldn’t raise in PR photographs” to the brass that was choking the war effort with all its restrictions on targets and tactics.
Perhaps the most maddening example of how the pencil-pushers cost American lives and hindered the war effort came when Olds found out that intelligence learned the North Vietnamese did not fire SAMs below a certain altitude but never shared that with American pilots so they would operate at the right altitude. Another time, after a mission in which Olds lost six pilots, he found that intelligence knew MiGs had been practicing a certain tactic for weeks but never notified him. When he demanded to know why, he was told, “It’s too sensitive. It’s classified.” That very nearly earned a cowed intel geek a beating.
But despite his heroism in combat, Olds came to the public’s attention mostly because of his outspoken nature when he was forced to return home to do his victory roll publicity tour as America’s top (near) ace.
When President Johnson asked Olds about what to do about Vietnam, he didn’t give the standard rah-rah pap usually delivered to the commander-in-chief; instead, he offered a detailed list of the targets being neglected and the tactics not being employed.
He ended by telling a startled LBJ, “It’s simple sir, and with all due respect, the way to end this war is to just win the damned thing!” Then he went out and told a hostile and combative press corps the same thing.
Olds never finished his manuscript before his death in 2007. He had tinkered with it for years, however, and left his daughter Christina plenty of material to work with. She partnered with author Ed Rasimus — an F-105 pilot whose Vietnam air combat memoirs are classics in their own right — to complete this superb memoir. Olds’ unforgettable voice comes through loud and clear on every page of Fighter Pilot.
And regardless of the book’s unique perspective, breadth of scope and historical value, Olds’ voice is what makes this book one of the greatest pilot memoirs ever published.