By Howard E. Halvorsen, 7th Air Force Historian
/ Published August 04, 2011
KUNSAN AIR BASE, South Korea (AFNS) -- This historian is hardly the first to declare Robin Olds as the greatest aerial warrior and leader in American history.
When learning about his life, it is as if our creator was making the perfect Airman. He was a triple ace who had ideas about tactical air power that were as big as his physique. He was a missionary constantly arguing - not always tactfully - for better fighters, better pilot training, new tactics and the like. This he did his entire career and afterwards as an after dinner speaker and in interviews on television. And, of course, I don't know of another fighter pilot who was ever married to a beautiful movie star. Robin Olds was bigger than life.
Brig. Gen. Robin Olds was born at Luke Field Hospital in Honolulu on Bastille Day, July 14, 1922 to Army Air Corps Capt. Robert Olds and Eloise Wichman Olds. His mother came from a line of Hawaiian landowners and his father's family from Virginia dating back to the American Revolution, with one family member being General Washington's aide-de-camp. The family was then stationed in Virginia and Olds' father became aide to Gen. Billy Mitchell before moving on to Langley, Va.
Initially, one would think the young Olds would become successful due to association. Frequent family guests included: Hap Arnold, Tooey Spaatz, Ira Eaker, Fiorello La Guardia, Harold George, Frank Andrews, Bob Williams, Ernst Udet, Roscoe Turner, Edward Mannock, Elliott White Springs, Jimmy Mattern, Beirne Lay, and once even Eddie Rickenbacker.
However, Olds' success was not achieved by great association, but rather by his dreams of air power. His ideas were shaped from these World War I heroes and early air pioneers. He heard them discuss making air power prevail in future battles, the horror of trench warfare and an endless stalemate. He knew air power could prevent thousands of casualties.
Airplanes could carry the war to the enemy, attack his industrial base and his lines of communication, destroy his transportation system and quickly erode his will to fight. Considering how far ahead they were looking into the future beyond the then current air abilities, it is almost no wonder these ideas were disregarded as impossible. Billy Mitchell was court-martialed for his outspoken belief in the future of air power with Olds' father at his side. Mitchell died in 1936, but World War II proved these ideas and theories to be right.
All of these ideas were things Olds carried with him into the future. But now it was up to a new generation of fighter pilots to win in the air. After Lieutenant Olds gained entrance into World War II, he was quickly promoted to captain in the 434th Fighter Squadron, flying a P-38J Lightning named "Scat 1." He became an ace in his first two combat missions, shooting down two FW-190s on Aug. 14, 1944, and three ME-109s nine days later. The 479th re-equipped with P-51 Mustangs in September and Olds scored his first kill in "Scat V" on Oct. 6 the same year.
Promoted to major in February 1945, he claimed his seventh victory southeast of Magdeburg, Germany, the same day. On Feb. 14, he recorded three confirmed victories in one day, two ME-109s and an FW-190. By the end of his tour, he had shot down 13 German planes, destroyed 11.5 others on the ground and was commander of the 434th.
Before leaving Europe at the end of the war, the still young Major Olds was given direct orders to report to United States Strategic Air Forces near Paris. On arrival he was to report to Gen. Carl A. "Tooey" Spaatz's office for further instructions. The good major arrived and the room slowly filled with names that were now known to the world: Eaker, Vandenberg, Stratemeyer, Quesada, Norstadt, Doolittle, Patridge, Strothers and others. When General Spaatz arrived he greeted everyone and then ignored them all by taking Olds to a private room for a chat. It was in meetings like this and through personal experience that Olds grew to learn what was important:
"Know the mission, what is expected of you and your people. Get to know those people, their attitudes and expectations. Visit all the shops and sections. Ask questions. Don't be shy. Learn what each does, how the parts fit into the whole. Find out what supplies and equipment are lacking, what the workers need. To whom does each shop chief report? Does that officer really know the people under him? Is he aware of their needs, their training?"
"Does that NCO supervise or just make out reports without checking facts? Remember, those reports eventually come to you. Don't try to bullshit the troops, but make sure they know the buck stops with you, that you'll shoulder the blame when things go wrong. Correct without revenge or anger. Recognize accomplishment. Reward accordingly. Foster spirit through self-pride, not slogans and never at the expense of another unit."
"It won't take long, but only your genuine interest and concern, plus follow-up on your promises, will earn you respect. Out of that you gain loyalty and obedience. Your outfit will be a standout. But for God's sake, don't ever try to be popular! That weakens your position, makes you vulnerable. Don't have favorites. That breeds resentment. Respect the talents of your people. Have the courage to delegate responsibility and give the authority to go with it. Again, make clear to your troops you are the one who will take the heat."
Robin Olds was a great pilot and leader admired by many. He turned around the situation at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base and the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing from one of poor leadership and no training to the greatest fighter wing in the world.
His most famous operation, the one that gave the 8th TFW its name - the Wolf Pack - was Operation Bolo, a masterpiece of planning and execution. His tactics, along with another great Airman, Vice Commander Col. Daniel "Chappie" James, were the wonder of the world and grounded the communist foe's air force for months. Olds shot down four MiGs rather quickly and then never shot down another.
He had been told if he became an ace he would lose his command since his capture would be a public relations coup. He was also told he could only fly 100 missions in the Vietnam conflict. It is now known his final mission was his 152, and as much as we know about the man we can safely say he did not only kill four MiGs. Olds was almost certainly an ace in Vietnam, but being an ace mattered far less than leading his men and getting them home safe.
When Olds came home it was to brief the President and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His words with then President Lyndon B. Johnson were few, "Get us out of this GD war!"
When LBJ asked how, Olds replied, "It's simple, sir - win it!"
Olds was promoted to brigadier general but never held a major command. The remainder of his career was spent in non-operational positions, as Commandant of Cadets at the United States Air Force Academy and as a bureaucrat in the Air Force Inspector General's Office. His inability to rise higher as a general officer is attributed to both his maverick views and his penchant for drinking.
His ideas, however, have survived him. Modern fighters like the F-15E and F-16, "have capabilities we never knew in speed, range and accuracy," he said. Accuracy, stealth and range are the most important differences, according to the venerable fighter pilot. A few tactical planes now have the ability to do the job in one mission with surgical precision -- just as Olds imagined might be done with P-51s in World War II.
"And that's what the old boys dreamed of in World War I," he said. "It was the basis of their doctrine. So I guess it's true: What goes around, comes around."
Olds, known for the flamboyantly waxed, regimental mustache he sported in Vietnam, talked openly about his individuality. An oil painting of him grinning through his illegal mustache is featured prominently in the lobby of the War-gaming Institute at Maxwell AFB, Ala.
"Generals visiting Vietnam would kind of laugh at the mustache," said Olds. "I was far away from home. It was a gesture of defiance. The kids on base loved it. Most everybody grew a mustache."
Returning home, however, he discovered not everyone was fond of his maverick behavior.
"I remember my first interview with [Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P.] McConnell," Olds said. "I walked briskly through the door, stopped and snapped a salute. He walked up to me, stuck a finger under my nose and said, 'Take it off!' And I said, 'Yes, sir!' And that was the end of that."
And you wonder where Mustache March comes from? Not everything Air Force comes from Robin Olds, but few will argue with you if you say it does. Are there other great Air Force men in the Air Force's short history? Of course. There are many. But it was Robin Olds who was so persistent during all of those inter-war years constantly asking for better planes and better training when it would have been better for his career if he had toed the line more often.
Vietnam proved him correct and the Air Force finally came to his way of thinking through Red Flag and more. What does this teach us? Do what is right and be ready to fight.