Almeria, Spain 1964

The pilots in VMF(AW) 451during the period 1963-1965 were arguably the most qualified F-8 pilots in the World. The Warlords were assigned many tasks which were firsts for the Crusader and for Marine Aviation.  Our wives felt like widows because we existed out of our sea bags and dop kits.  We lived in zoom suits, puffing into rubber jock straps that slid down our sweaty faces while we pulled, rolled and strained for advantage in our high G environment. Our dedicated and industrious troops maintained safe and operationally ready F-8s for pilots to abuse. Virtually every month the Warlords were deployed as a squadron or in flight detachments aboard carriers, on joint exercises, Hot Pad alerts in Guantanamo or Key West, weapons training and Trans-Atlantic Flights. Constantly preparing for people to pieces programs! Three Skippers during the 30 months that the F-8 Squadron excelled in work and play were, Tom Nichols, Fox Dempster, and Tasmanian Devil Davis.

451 was ordered to Europe on the Highboy VII translant to support Operation Steel Pike--an Oct-Nov 1964 amphibious landing exercise to install and operate a SATS site at Almeria, Spain. 451 departed on 18 October on the 3700 NM trip. VMGR KC-130s refueled the twenty F-8s 500 miles east of Bermuda on the 1900 NM leg. RONs were made at Bermuda, the Azores and Rota. Three days of Rota reveling followed. The Warlord F-8s flew into Almeria SATS on Oct 24. The 4000 ft runway with Morest was constructed in just six days. Lobo Orson Swindle was the Marine Air Base officer in charge of building the Marine Air Base. The tent camp was our introduction to Vietnam type duty. Instead of two-step vipers, we had Scorpions. Pilots crawled into their fart sacks and were painfully stung by angry critters. The Tetanus shots hurt as well. Lobo Swindle created a virtual Oasis compared to the Grunt duty in the field tent camps normally experienced.

Reach Smith was our Supply Officer. He loved the Skipper and his band of F-8 drivers. He was named Reach after accompanying the pilots out to a traveling carnival with a strip show. A one-armed dancer was writhing just out of reach of the hooting spectators who strained against the rope barrier as they tried to touch her lower personal parts. The dancer teased them by saying no one could reach her. Suddenly, a long arm snaked out of the crowd and cupped her most private part. The stripper jumped back shouting, "What a reach!" Thus Reach was named.

One night Reach consumed too much Mateus, regurgitated on himself and his fart sack, and then passed out with his head resting on his right hand propped up by his elbow. Long candles hung from his nostrils. Joe Smart, Tiny Wanless and I picked up Reach's cot and toted him 50 yards to the senior officer tents. We could hear the voice of Tazz resounding from the O'Club tent as we deposited the untidy Reach and his cot inside the skipper's tent. We hurried back to our 12 man tent. In about ten minutes, the night quiet was broken by shouts, curses and screams as Reach was tossed from Tazz's tent. Moments later, Reach stumbled into our tent dragging his cot and fart sack. We could hear sniffling and figured Reach was suffering distress after being assaulted by his hero. Reach eventually became an F-4 RIO and was shot down and rescued in North Vietnam. He died years later in a farm tractor mishap.

The day of the actual Huelva landing, Tazz designated himself lead with Norm Marshall as his wingman. I had the second section with Fly Cunningham as my wingmen. Dust and blowing sand were a problem at the SATS. On post-flights, tape was put over the static ports and pitot covers were tied on. It was dark as a cave when we manned our aircraft. From my cockpit I could dimly see the Tazz with one hand on the back of a plane captain's collar and the other hand gripping the pants seat as he tossed the E-3 toward the tent camp lights. Tazz could be heard roaring over the TUD-80 din. Doug Lawrence climbed up to tell me that Tazz asked the lineman if his F-8 was ready. The plane captain answered affirmative while the flashlight revealed the pitot cover flapping in the wind and the static port tape glowing. Not the way for a plane captain to kiss up to the Tasmanian Devil.

The afterburners lit up the blackness while booming reveille to the tent camp. During climb out Tazz lost his radio and passed me the lead. Then he was gone. We proceeded as a three plane and arrived overhead the Landing Zone. Nosing the F-8s over, we commenced the attack at H-Hour. A Crusader zipped by with wings rocking violently. It was the Tazz! We slipped into tail chase and Tazz led us through some 600kt low passes down the beach which sent Amtracs, troops and choppers scrambling and dodging for cover. Tazz was unique! He passed the lead back to me and flew off in burner. We returned to Almeria to find the Morest fouled. We diverted to Malaga and gave them an air show. We landed and taxied by the waving crowds.  We extended our long refueling probes like huge phallic devices for the crowd to ponder.  We parked and strolled across the runway to the restaurant/terminal. There we were, happily teaching the Spanish tourists how to drink, when a KC-130 landed and taxied to our Crusaders. Damn! Tazz outsmarted us again! We ran to our F8s, quickly ground refueled from the tanker, and then launched back to the SATS and the scorpions.

The exercise was accident free and only one aircraft incident occurred. A static fuel leak from an F-8 dump valve created concern. The Super-Safes kept bitching about the dripping wingtip. Finally, the Tazz got worried about a fire while all the VIPs were watching us. The brain dead Tech Rep said F-8s had two wing fuel dumps and two pressure relief valves so just plug the dump valve hole at the wing fold while at Almeria. During refueling after the next flight, the center wing tank on 148657 erupted and spewed fuel throughout the pits. The Tech Rep went AWOL before the Tasmanian Devil could rearrange his body. Juan Lara put a temporary metal patch across the huge hole and I flew the damaged F-8 to Rota with Jim McRoberts as chase. Tazz wanted desperately to have the crippled F-8 flown home. There was talk of an Air Medal award if I flew the F-8 back on internal fuel using repeated plugs or staying plugged in for a long, slow trip west. The Air Wing leaders intervened and the F-8 went by ship. Tazz was not happy. The old tiger would be flying one less F8D back home.

The Trans-Lant back to Beaufort was uneventful. The F-8s arrived home on 4 Nov. The Warlords were eager for some stateside ass and primed for the Marine Ball. 451 proved that combat operations from SATS would succeed. 46 F-8 sorties were flown during the week of operations from the SATS site in support of the Huelva amphibious landing. Steel Pike was the shakedown for Chu Lai, Vietnam.


Back to Back We Face the Past

Donald Cathcart LtCol USMC Ret.