TIO Pensacola: A Marine Returns
An important (to me) part of our epic cross-country trip during this Spring’s off-season in Telluride was a three-night stay in Pensacola, Florida, home of Pensacola Naval Air Station. My routing might cause some to question my navigation skills, but to me it made sense. Doing it in our Tesla Model S 85D even made it fun. So, go ahead and wonder why anyone but a madman would drive from Telluride to New York by way of Lake Tahoe, Los Angeles, and Pensacola. And maybe I am a bit mad, but the whole thing made sense to me.
Pensacola was home from January, 1961-March, 1952, as I progressed through flight training on my way to becoming a Marine Corps fighter pilot. Pensacola was also the birthplace of my mother (1911, coincidentally the year recognized as the beginning of Naval Aviation). I have only been back, briefly, twice since 1962.
This time the occasion was a reunion of people who had served in my squadron, VMF 251, from its beginning in World War II until the present. My time in the squadron was from right after getting my wings in July, 1962 until January, 1964. Both my flight school days and my 1 1/2 years in VMF 251 are ancient history now, but they remain pivotal points in my personal history.
There were no enlisted men or pilots at the reunion from before my time of service, and I was the only officer present from my era. There were three enlisted men who had served during the same time, so we had stories to share. As for the pilots, rank seemed to make no difference, and though most of the others had flown later, more advanced aircraft than the F8 Crusader that was my mount, we all shared the love of flight that had brought us into the Marine Corps to begin with. It also made no difference that I was a Cold Warrior, and most of them had seen combat in Vietnam or the Gulf Wars, or that several had been squadron commanders, advanced to the rank of Colonel, or in one case Major General. First of all we were fighter pilots. There is an old trope: How can you tell if a man is a fighter pilot? Don’t worry- he’ll tell you.
The first full day of the reunion, the signal event was a guided tour of the great National Naval Aviation Museum. It was easy to pick out the aviators in our group. We were the ones petting our favorite planes, craning our necks to see the ones suspended from the roof of the museum, standing around the ones we had flown and telling lies (I mean stories) about our exploits. It wasn’t Sus’ idea of a museum: no great art, but I was in heaven!
At one point in our museum day, a new friend suggested I stick my head all the way into the intake of a de-commissioned F4 Phantom. The grin took over his face when I came back out- “Skydrol!” I shouted, just what he had anticipated. Its characteristic odor still permeated the metal of that long-since deactivated aircraft. And that odor was imprinted in our consciousness, as it was in that of the next pilot that came by, when I advised him to stick his nose in the same intake.
The two main evenings were about more stories during cocktail hour and still more during dinner. I made several new friends, with promises to keep in touch. More than anything, it was the idea of being part of a history, a tradition going back 3/4 of a century, and I was home, among brothers in arms. In fact, the lines of The St. Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s “King Henry V” were in my mind at the end of our last night, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”
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