The tattered plastic box had an Army post office box number from Vietnam that didn’t exist anymore. Inside was a tape recording of an F-100 Super Saber pilot flying out of Bien Hoa (pronounced Ben Waah) Air Base in that country; it was a way of keeping the pilot’s wife and family current with his combat tour activities.
It was Jan. 13, 1970, the pilot with the call sign “Bobcat 2” was Air Force Col. Robert Laliberté (La-liber-tay), and this was his third war. The oil pressure of his F-100 had just started a precipitous dive, and he was preparing for a possible bailout.
He and his flight leader, Col. Bob Denny, had already aborted their mission assisting ground troops at the Song Bei River in the IV Corps combat area of Vietnam and headed back to Bien Hoa. Laliberté’s fighter-bomber was still fully loaded with bombs intended for the target he was now unable to reach; he also had 7,000 pounds of fuel left. If he bailed out, the aircraft would make a hell of an explosion, if not kill someone unintended, when it hit the green rice paddies. The colonel still carried shrapnel in his right shoulder and right knee from combat in World War II.
“Be sure to zip up your pockets,” the flight leader comments over the radio. “It helps you reach the ground with what you left the cockpit with, especially your water bottle.”
“Roger. Understood,” is Laliberté’s laconic reply. Ejecting from a high-speed aircraft almost always causes some sort of damage to the person ejecting, the most common being compression fractures of the spin from the thrust of the explosion under the ejection seat on which the pilot is strapped.
“Get me an American controller,” Col. Laliberté quietly orders Approach Control at Bien Hoa.
“Yes, sir, I’m an American. We have you at 60 miles incoming on the zero nine zero radial.”
His F-100 is covering six miles a minute, and he’s slowing down to the bailout speed of 150 mph. He’s no longer worried about the weather over the target, which was marginal for bombing due to having to descend too low for dive bomb accuracy—which, in turn, raised the possibility of his F-100 being damaged by the explosion of his own bombs.
Laliberté’s F-100 was still flying regardless of what the oil pressure gauge indicated, and the controller gave him altimeter setting, wind direction and in-bound radial. The controller directed Laliberté’s descent, telling him to land on Runway 09 Left.
He decided not to bail and “to ride this bear in.” After a few tense moments, he and the flight leader aircraft landed “holding hands,” i.e., in formation, without incident. The oil gauge was apparently faulty.
Laliberté was born in Sioux Falls, S.D., to a father who had been an enlisted pilot in World War I, flying Spads and Jennies. His mother died when he was 12, and the family moved to Massachusetts in 1934 where Bob graduated from high school.
He married Catherine Clifford in 1941, and a year later entered the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program. Becoming a pilot and commissioned a second lieutenant in August 1943, Laliberté then had two months of Heavy Bomber Air Combat Crew Training in B-24s, the combat aircraft he would fly in the Central Pacific.
Becoming a pilot during the fledging air arm of the military in World War II wasn’t easy. The difficulty and degree of danger is reflected in the numbers: Of the 324,647 cadets entering training between January 1941 and the end of the war, 132,993 washed out or were killed during training. The attrition rate of nearly 40 percent was due primarily to physical problems, accidents or academic shortcomings in a training process that involved several phases; a cadet could “wash out” anywhere along the line. One of Laliberté’s fellow cadets lost an arm to a spinning propeller, ending his flying career.
At first, pilot cadets had to be between the ages of 19 and 25, athletic, honest, and single, with a promise not to marry. Many of the young men had never even driven an automobile, much less flown an airplane.
For those who did earn their wings and go on to fly combat missions, the reality of aerial combat was anything but glamorous. The 8th Air Force had more than 47,000 casualties just in Europe during the course of the war. This alarmingly high loss rate resulted in a sense of superstition and fatalism among pilots and aircrews, which led to the popular pub song of the day, “I wanted wings, till I got the damn things.”
Starting with a Stearman PT-13 and ending with a B-24 Liberator, student pilots learned how to fly. The Consolidated B-24 Liberator was designed with a new shoulder-mounted wing, which gave the plane a high cruise speed, long range and ability to carry a heavy bomb load. It also had stiff, heavy controls and was difficult to fly.
With poor low speed performance and a lower ceiling, the B-24 was less robust than its far better known counterpart, the B-17 Flying Fortress. The 290-mph Liberator had only the bomb bay and one exit near the tail, making it difficult for the crew to reach the rear from the flight deck when wearing parachutes. However, even though the men who flew the plane preferred the B-17 to the B-24 “Flying Coffin,” the General Staff preferred the latter—and procured 19,000, the most produced multi-engine aircraft in history.
The B-24 could carry a dozen 500-pound bombs, but Laliberté’s group carried only nine (three in each bay) to enable the installation of an extra fuel tank. Long flights of a thousand boring miles over endless ocean stretched the tactical range of the B-24s. Such flights were typical of 7th Air Force (AF) combat operations that Lt. Laliberté joined in January 1943 in the Central Pacific.
The first combat missions targeted Wake Island from the recently freed Makin Island, and then moved up the Marianas and the Gilberts as Americans pushed the relentless Japanese from island to island. Seventh AF combat was described by some of the pilots as “just one damn island after another.”
The Battle of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands, Nov. 20-23, 1943, began the Central Pacific Campaign. The battle, which centered on the atoll of Betio, killed a thousand Marines and wounded 2,000 in just three days. Prior to the battle and in response to the B-24 raids, the Japanese beheaded the New Zealand soldiers captured when they took the island as well as all the civilian coast watchers. Only 17 of the 4,500 Japanese survived the battle.
Staging from Baker Island Airfield, located about halfway between Hawaii and Australia, Laliberté and the B-24 Liberators bombed Kwajalein Island in the heart of the Marshall Islands 2,400 miles southwest of Honolulu. Between Jan. 31 and Feb. 3, 1944, 106 B-24s dropped 111 tons of explosives on the island’s Japanese airbase. The largest of those raids came on Dec. 4 when 34 B-24s pulverized the atoll in conjunction with carrier-based bombing raids of other parts of the Marshalls.
On the ground after the battle, the 7th Infantry Division lost 142 dead and two missing in action; estimates put Japanese losses at 4,938 dead, with 206 more taken prisoner, including 127 Korean laborers. On nearby Roi and Namur Islands, 190 marines died to 3,472 Japanese dead and 51 prisoners of war. The victory at Kwajalein marked the first time U.S. troops had recaptured land taken by the invading Japanese.
Flying out of Kwajalein after Tarawa, Laliberté’s group bombed Truk in the Carolinas. They had to land on the way at Eniwetok, unload the bombs so they could refuel, have dinner, reload the bombs, leave at 8 p.m. and fly the 800 miles to Truk in the dark. The Navy provided submarine pick-up of pilots who ditched in the vast expanse of ocean around Truk.
Of his required 30 combat mission tour in the Pacific, Laliberté completed 29 without mishap. On his 30th and last mission, the 20mm cannon fire of a Japanese Zero fighter aircraft, flying inverted for some reason and on a collision course with his B-24, shot out the pilot’s side of the windshield. Pieces of shrapnel and Plexiglas slammed into Laliberté’s head, shoulder, and right knee and peppered his flak vest. His nose gunner managed to replace his shattered helmet, so Laliberté could pilot the plane and its crew home safely.
Laliberté was sent to the hospital on Kwajalein then to Tripler Army Hospital in Honolulu. Laliberté’s B-24, called “The Chambermaid” with a sexy pinup in tight shorts painted on the side, later crashed on landing due to battle damage she suffered after Laliberté left the area.
Patched up and now a captain, Laliberté returned from the Central Pacific combat to Muroc Field, Calif., as a B-24 instructor pilot and air tactician.
Capt. Laliberté saw the end of the war at Gowen Field, Idaho. In November 1945 he reverted to the Army Air Corps Reserve until the Air Force was established as a separate service in September 1947. He then returned to active duty in December 1947 and was assigned to Nagoya, Japan, for two years for administrative duty and only flew the T-6 aircraft.
Laliberté returned from Japan and active service just prior to the Korean War. However, he was recalled to active service in April 1951. He served as a flight instructor for five years in the T-28 and T-33 training fighters.
The T-28 was a light attack aircraft trainer capable of 343 mph. In 1963, a Royal Lao Air Force T-28 pilot by a Thai national defected to North Vietnam where the pilot was promptly imprisoned and his aircraft impounded. Within six months the T-28 was refurbished and commissioned into the North Vietnamese Air Force as its first fighter aircraft.
T-28s were also supplied to the South Vietnamese Air Force to support ground operations, seeing extensive service in the Vietnam War as well as the Secret War in Laos. A T-28 Trojan was the first U.S. fixed wing attack aircraft (non-transport type) lost in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Capt. Robert L. Simpson, USAF, Detachment 2A, lst Air Commando Group, and Lt. Hoa, SVNAF, were shot down by ground fire on Aug. 28, 1962, while flying close air support. Neither crewman survived.
The USAF lost 23 T-28s to all causes during the war, with the last two losses occurring in 1968. The CIA also used the T-28s extensively in the former Belgian Congo in the 1960s.
Laliberté’s next posting was in 1955 to RAF Woodbridge located about eight miles from the east coast of England. The air base was built by the Allies in 1943 and designed with extra wide and long runways (750 feet by 9,000-plus feet) to assist landing the some 4,200 aircraft that returned damaged from the war over Europe.
“One thing about English weather,” Laliberté says, “was that I got plenty of instrument flying hours, which enabled me to qualify as a command pilot as a young captain.”
While in England, the F-84s flew to Nouesseur Air Force Base, Casablanca, Morocco, for gunnery training and the use of its nice long runway (14,000 feet) which the 84F needed in the North African heat. At that time, the mission of the 20th Wing was maintaining proficiency for tactical operations with conventional and nuclear weapons in support of NATO operations in Europe.
While with the 79th, Laliberté shared billets with Capt. Mike Duggan, who later became a four-star general and AF Chief of Staff (COS). Duggan flew A-5s in Vietnam. Laliberté says, “Once Duggan was forced to bail out after being hit. After rescue he couldn’t speak for a while.” He was later fired as COS and forced to retire due a crack he made that was deemed politically incorrect by the ever-present media about the AF’s ability to put a bomb in any Iranian’s window.
Also with Laliberté in England was Merrill Anthony “Tony” McPeak, another pilot who also became a general and AF COS—two four-star generals from the same squadron!
After graduating from the Command and Staff College in June 1959, Laliberté was assigned as an operational readiness inspector with the USAF Inspector General at Norton AFB in California, the later home of the famed C-141 Starlifter Aircraft, known as the Hanoi Taxi for its missions bringing home American prisoners of war from Hanoi. Now a major, Laliberté inspected operational readiness of tactical forces around the world.
After four years with the IG, he returned to the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing in England in 1963 and served as operations officer of the 79th Tactical Fighter Squadron and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He also accrued more than 3,000 hours flying the F-100.
In July 1966, Laliberté returned stateside and was assigned to the Operational Requirements Division where he was promoted to colonel and served developing tactical regulations until 1968. While in this work he was the AF representative on the NATO Sub-Group for the Vertical Take-off and Landing fighter aircraft development program.
After attending Naval War College at Newport, R.I., “The Home of Thought,” Laliberté was assigned to Vietnam as director of operations and subsequently as vice commander of the 3rd Tactical Fighter Wing at Bien Hoa Air Base.
The latter, located in south-central Vietnam about 16 miles from Saigon, was home to AF, Navy, and Marine units from 1961 through 1973. Although later expanded, the AF’s original mission at Bien Hoa was to fly missions for the South Vietnamese and to train its pilots and observers in the 0-1 “Bird Dog,” a slow, low-flying, Piper Cub-like aircraft used for spotting enemy ground activity.
During the war in the Central Pacific and as a young pilot, Laliberté says, he was “scared every minute of every combat flight, for myself, my crew, and my Liberator. By the time I was back in air combat over Vietnam, such combat activity had become routine.”
Most of the 265 missions he flew in Vietnam provided close air support to Army units fighting on the ground in the mountains near Laos in the Cau Mau Peninsula of South Vietnam—an area of monsoons and mangrove jungle lying between the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea with an average elevation of seven feet above sea level. On three occasions his sleek F-100 fighter-bomber was hit by 20mm ground fire, producing holes in the after burner, fuselage and tail assembly.
Returning to the United States in 1970, he was assigned as director of operations of a Flying Training Wing for a year before being assigned as vice commander of the AF Recruiting Service.
Retiring from active duty in June 1973 with 31 years of service to his country, Laliberté and Catherine moved to Billings. He had first visited Montana in 1947, getting his first taste of Billings friendship at a bar across from the Northern Hotel. He had stayed in the Army Air Corps Reserve after World War II and planned to return to Massachusetts to work as a civilian electrical engineer, but he made a friend in the bar.
Laliberté was in uniform as required at that time, and his new friend, Benny, offered to buy him a drink. Benny owned Yellowstone Electric and, hearing Laliberté was an electrical engineer, Benny also offered him a job. In the meantime, however, the Air Force had become a separate service, and Laliberté opted to again return to active duty, this time for fighter jet training.
Over the course of this interview, Laliberté asked—several times, “Why do you want to write about me?”
The answer is that he is a hero. Vehemently he denies this, saying, “The heroes are the ones who died in those faraway wars, in the air, on the ground, and in those vast oceans.”