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Exhibit Review: Southeast Asia War Gallery at USAF Museum

By Luann Grosscup 
Originally published on Published Online: September 19, 2011 
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At the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, the Southeast Asia War section is seeing some changes. According to curator Jeff Duford, preparations have been underway since 2010 for updating and augmenting gallery displays to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. Air Force campaign in Southeast Asia.

In May of this year, the museum opened its newest exhibit, the story of the legendary Brig. Gen. Robin Olds. Olds grew up among military aviators, attending West Point and later becoming a World War II ace and Air Force Cross recipient. He was credited with 12 aerial victories and given a squadron command at age 22.

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Olds eventually became the commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base in 1966. A charismatic and respected leader, he was a participant in Operation Bolo, an air battle fought on January 2, 1967, within the context of Operation Rolling Thunder's bombardment campaign. The McDonnell F-4 Phantom II fighters from Olds' fighter wing destroyed more than half of the MiG-21 interceptors that came to meet them that day.

Olds' F-4C, the plane in which he and Lieutenant Stephen Croker destroyed two MiG-17s in a single day, commands the center of the exhibit. Also displayed are Olds' flight suit, helmet and maps. A touch-screen video shows Olds, sporting his nonregulation, "bulletproof" mustache, describing his missions in his own words.

Tracing the Olds legacy is another new display dedicated to the "River Rats." Olds and his comrade-in-arms Colonel Howard "Scrappy" Johnson founded the Red River Valley Pilots' Association (RRVPA) in Thailand in 1967. The organization was formed to discuss and debate tactics, and improve communications between the bases in Southeast Asia, as well as being a tradition-rich social association. The RRVPA eventually became a fraternal foundation to provide assistance to active or retired military personnel.

Additional exhibits are scheduled to debut in 2011. Scheduled to open in August will be a depiction of the heroics and tragedy at Lima Site 85, incorporating the story of Medal of Honor recipient Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger, and in October, an Air Base Defense display. The renovations in the gallery are expected to be completed by late 2012.

Newly displayed in the forward exhibit area, which encompasses the earlier days of the war, is the story of the Misty FACs (forward air controllers). "The Misty FACs actually came later in the war, 1967-1970," said Duford, "but we have the exhibit placed in the gallery near the plane they flew, the F-100F." The volunteer group of fighter pilots flew over enemy territory with the goal of locating the transfers of enemy supplies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and calling in airstrikes to disrupt them.

The museum exhibits added within the last two years are largely included within the area of Operation Rolling Thunder, including "100 Missions Up North," which honors the pilots who flew them. The proud symbol of 100 missions—the patch worn by those who earned it—along with the tradition of the celebratory "hose downs," are depicted. The heroic story of the first to reach 100 "counters," in 1965, Captain Donald Beck of the 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, begins the exhibit. A photo of Beck climbing out of his McDonnell RF-101C Voodoo sits near the touch screen video display that entertainingly tells the tale of the dog Roscoe, mascot of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW). Roscoe sat in on mission briefings and, the story goes, he predicted the outcome. "If he sleeps, it's going to be an easy mission. If his ears perk up, watch out!"

The exhibit also honors 1st Lt. Karl Richter, 388th TFW, who flew 100 missions, then requested and received permission to fly 100 more. He was killed in 1967 when his Republic F-105D was hit by enemy fire and he ejected, hitting a limestone karst when he landed.

"As part of our renovation," curator Duford notes, "the aircraft layout has been reshuffled. The Fairchild C-123 has nearly been restored, and several others have been repainted." Recent updates have also seen the Martin B-57B Canberra and a de Havilland C-7A restored and returned to the gallery.

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