Thunderchief pilots of the Vietnam War

Iwas 7 years old when the Vietnam War ended. I know about the war, as most my age do, from movies and documentaries. And most of what I encountered was about the ground troops, rarely about the pilots. So I jumped at the chance to attend a reunion in San Antonio for pilots who flew F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bombers on missions over North Vietnam during Operation Rolling Thunder, 1965-1968.

These reunions are where the Thunderchief pilots have maintained their shared past and let each other into the lives they’ve lived in the years since. I set up my camera in a hotel room. As the veterans talked to each other and later told their stories in our interviews, the things they said were echoed in what I saw through
my lens.

Once jet-powered cowboys, they are still walking with a swagger born of knowing themselves. While there are not many Thunderchief pilots left to give us a window through which to view and learn from their experiences, it is important that we do whatever we can to help future generations accurately see the war.

This project, “Over War,” evolved from what I had envisioned as a series of Air Force pilot portraits—50 in all—into a web collection (cademartin.com/overwar) that will be an enduring voice for these men whose experiences gave them a unique vantage point for observations on the Vietnam War. —Cade Martin is an award-winning photographer specializing in people and location photography. He has traveled around the globe on assignments for a variety of brands, including Starbucks, Target, the Food and Drug Administration and NPR.

  • “I finished first in my class, giving me first choice of assignment. I went to ‘Gun School’ at Luke AFB in Phoenix. There, I was in a class of seven. Three years later only three of us were still alive…and this was before the war had begun.”––John Morrissey, U.S. Air Force
  • “My heroes growing up were soldiers and pilots. They played big roles in the movies and stories of the time, making aviation look exciting and romantic. I daydreamed and sketched airplanes through my early childhood. This led to building and flying models until finally in high school, I got a chance to take flying lessons.”––Ed “Moose” Skowron, U.S.Air Force
  • “We have since learned that our target list was shared through Switzerland with the enemy to ensure no civilians were harmed. Well, that’s no way to win a war. The enemy would move out and set up somewhere else, ready to hit us on our way in and out. And, sometimes… chiefs of staff would send us in five days in a row.”––John Poowaty, U.S. Air Force
  • “I put my life on the line for freedom, democracy and peace. The same things the protesters in the streets at home wanted.”––Tony Cushenberry, U.S. Air Force
  • “I arrived in sunny Vietnam with nine hours of [Wild] Weasel training [for strikes against enemy air defenses]. During the prior two weeks, my new squadron had lost two planes and one crew. I remember drinking a beer at the O’ Club [officers’ club] bar in the midst of about 50 young warriors, wondering if I’d really have the guts to do what they were doing day in and day out.”––Frosty Sheridan, U.S. Air Force
  • “Finally, on Dec. 19, 1972, we were allowed to take off our gloves and fight. The North was stalling on attending the Paris peace talks, so we were ordered to go ‘downtown,’[Hanoi], and hit them with everything we had. After 11 days, their white flags went up, and they agreed to the terms of the peace accords. I still feel we let them off too easily.”––Bob Gadd, U.S. Air Force
  • “Operation Rolling Thunder… the top brass had a list of the 250 most strategic targets, numbered and prioritized. They started us on No. 250 and worked their way up to the most strategically important target that would be the last one to strike. In my opinion, that’s a totally defeatist mindset.”––Robert Nesbitt, U.S. Air Force

 

 

This feature originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Vietnam magazineTo subscribe, click here.