By Howard E. Halvorsen, 7th Air Force Historian
/ Published August 24, 2011
KUNSAN AIR BASE, South Korea --
KUNSAN AIR BASE, South Korea (AFNS) -- This historian is hardly the first to declare former Brig. Gen. Robin Olds as the greatest aerial warrior and leader in American history.
When learning about his life, it is as if he was made to be the perfect Airman. He was a triple ace who had ideas about tactical air power that were as big as his physique. He was constantly arguing -- not always tactfully -- for better fighters, better pilot training, new tactics and the like. This he did his entire career and afterwards as an after-dinner speaker and in TV interviews. And, of course, I don't know of another fighter pilot who was ever married to a beautiful movie star. Robin Olds was bigger than life.
Olds was born at Luke Field Hospital in Honolulu on Bastille Day, July 14, 1922 to Army Air Corps Capt. Robert Olds and Eloise Wichman Olds. His mother came from a line of Hawaiian landowners. His father's family from Virginia traced its roots back to the American Revolution, with one family member serving as Gen. George Washington's aide-de-camp. The family was then stationed in Virginia, and Olds' father became aide to Gen. Billy Mitchell before moving on to Langley.
Initially, you might think the young Olds would become successful due to association. Frequent family guests included Hap Arnold, Carl Spaatz, Ira Eaker, Fiorello La Guardia, Harold George, Frank Andrews, Bob Williams, Ernst Udet, Roscoe Turner, Edward Mannock, Elliott White Springs, Jimmy Mattern, Beirne Lay and even Eddie Rickenbacker.
However, Olds' success was not achieved by great association, but rather by his dreams of air power. His ideas were shaped from these World War I heroes and early air pioneers. He heard them discuss making air power prevail in future battles, the horror of trench warfare and an endless stalemate.
Considering how far ahead they were looking into the future beyond the then-current air abilities, it is almost no wonder these ideas were disregarded as impossible. Billy Mitchell was court-martialed for his outspoken belief in the future of air power with Olds' father at his side. Mitchell died in 1936, but World War II proved his ideas and theories to be right.
All of these ideas were things Olds carried with him into the future. But now it was up to a new generation of fighter pilots to win in the air. After Lieutenant Olds entered World War II, he was quickly promoted to captain in the 434th Fighter Squadron, flying a P-38J Lightning named "Scat 1." He became an ace in his first two combat missions, shooting down two FW-190s on Aug. 14, 1944, and three ME-109s nine days later. The 479th re-equipped with P-51 Mustangs in September and Olds scored his first kill in "Scat V" on Oct. 6, 1944.
Promoted to major in February 1945, he claimed his seventh victory southeast of Magdeburg, Germany, the same day. He recorded three confirmed victories Feb. 14: two ME-109s and an FW-190. By the end of his tour, he had shot down 13 German planes, destroyed 11 others on the ground and become commander of the 434th.
Before leaving Europe at the end of the war, the still-young Major Olds was given direct orders to report to U.S. Strategic Air Forces near Paris. On arrival, he was to report to Spaatz's office for further instructions. The good major arrived, and the room slowly filled with names that are now known to the world: Eaker, Vandenberg, Stratemeyer, Quesada, Norstadt, Doolittle, Patridge, Strothers and others.
When Spaatz arrived, he greeted everyone and then ignored them all to take Olds to a private room for a chat. In meetings like this and through personal experience, Olds grew to learn what was important:
"Know the mission, what is expected of you and your people. Get to know those people, their attitudes and expectations. Visit all the shops and sections. Ask questions. Don't be shy. Learn what each does, how the parts fit into the whole. Don't try to bullshit the troops, but make sure they know the buck stops with you, that you'll shoulder the blame when things go wrong. Correct without revenge or anger. Recognize accomplishment. Reward accordingly. Foster spirit through self-pride, not slogans and never at the expense of another unit.
"It won't take long, but only your genuine interest and concern, plus follow-up on your promises, will earn you respect. Out of that you gain loyalty and obedience. Your outfit will be a standout. But for God's sake, don't try to be popular! That weakens your position, makes you vulnerable. Again, make clear to your troops you are the one who will take the heat."
His most famous operation, the one that gave the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing its name -- the Wolf Pack -- was Operation Bolo, a masterpiece of planning and execution. His tactics, along with another great Airman, Vice Commander Col. Daniel "Chappie" James, were the wonder of the world and grounded the communist foe's air force for months.
Olds shot down four MiGs rather quickly and then never shot down another. He had been told if he became an ace he would lose his command, because his capture would be a public relations coup. He was also told he could only fly 100 missions in the Vietnam War. We now know his final mission was his 152nd, and as much as we know about the man, we can safely say he did not kill only four MiGs. Olds was almost certainly an ace in Vietnam, but being an ace mattered far less than leading his men and getting them home safely.
When Olds came home it was to brief the President and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His words with then-President Lyndon B. Johnson were few: "Get us out of this goddamn war!" When LBJ asked how, Olds replied, "It's simple, sir -- win it!"
Olds was promoted to brigadier general but never held a major command. He spent the remainder of his career in non-operational positions, as commandant of cadets at the Air Force Academy and as a bureaucrat in the Air Force Inspector General's Office.
His ideas, however, have survived him. Modern fighters like the F-15 and F-16 "have capabilities we never knew in speed, range and accuracy," he said. Accuracy, stealth and range are the most important differences, according to the venerable fighter pilot. A few tactical planes now have the ability to do the job in one mission with surgical precision -- just as Olds imagined might be done with P-51s in World War II.
"And that's what the old boys dreamed of in World War I," he said. "It was the basis of their doctrine. So I guess it's true: What goes around, comes around."
Olds, known for the flamboyantly waxed, regimental mustache he sported in Vietnam, talked openly about his individuality. An oil painting of him grinning through his illegal mustache is featured prominently in the lobby of the Air Force Wargaming Institute at Maxwell AFB, Ala.
"Generals visiting Vietnam would kind of laugh at the mustache," Olds said. "I was far away from home. It was a gesture of defiance. The kids on base loved it. Most everybody grew a mustache."
Returning home, however, he discovered not everyone was fond of his maverick behavior.
"I remember my first interview with (Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P.) McConnell," Olds said. "I walked briskly through the door, stopped and snapped a salute. He walked up to me, stuck a finger under my nose and said, 'Take it off!' And I said, 'Yes, sir!' And that was the end of that."
Are there other great Air Force men in the Air Force's short history? Of course. There are many. But it was Robin Olds who was so persistent during all of those inter-war years, constantly asking for better planes and better training when it would have been better for his career if he had toed the line more often. Vietnam proved him correct, and the Air Force finally came to his way of thinking through Red Flag and more.
What does this teach us? Do what is right and be ready to fight.