Valor Friday

| October 28, 2022

Robin Olds after his final combat mission in Vietnam

This week will be part one of a two-parter. Robin Olds’ story is just too big for a single article.

In US Air Force history there are several well-known names. For example, the World War I American ace of aces, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, who was one of the most decorated Americans during the war. In World War II, the top scoring aces Majors Richard Ira Bong and Thomas McGuire are equally well known. Into the jet age, most of the most famous men of the Air Force were test pilots like Chuck Yeager or astronauts like Buzz Aldrin.

These are the men that many, if not most, Americans would know. There’s one man though who is an absolute legend within the Air Force, but little known outside of that service. Despite his exploits in both World War II and Vietnam, he is perhaps best known for his regulation defying mustache in the latter conflict.

Robin Olds’ legend isn’t just a mustache, though it was pretty epic. He was also known as a man who thumbed his nose at the Air Force, repeatedly. His leadership style was one that endeared his men to him and even long after his death, serves as an inspiration to those in the air service.

Olds was born in 1922 in Hawaii. His father was Captain (later Major General) Robert Olds, of the US Army Air Service. Robert Olds was an early military aviator, enlisting in the Army just before World War I.

Robert Olds later served on the staff of General Billy Mitchell, chief of the air service, and spent much of his career in the 20s and 30s at Langley, Virginia. A major advocate, like his boss Mitchell, for air power, Robin grew up in a household where aviators and policy-makers like the aforementioned Rickenbacker, Fiorello LaGuardia (future New York City mayor), and Ernst Udet (Imperial Germany’s second-highest scoring WWI ace, and the highest scoring to survive the war) would be entertained. The Olds’ neighbor, Carl Spaatz (then a lieutenant colonel, later full general and Chief of Staff of the Air Force) would come by and play guitar while Robert played the piano.

Growing up in such an environment, Robin was dedicated to the air service. Similarly, he would come to disdain officers who didn’t have such fanaticism. At just three years old, Robin was even brought to see his father testify in the infamous court martial of Billy Mitchell.

Robin first flew at just age 8 in an open-air bi-plane piloted by his father. He soon set his sights on becoming a military aviator and intended to attend West Point. Robin was well-liked by his peers. Handsome, outgoing, and a talented football player, he was elected class president for three consecutive years at Hampton High School.

By the time Robin graduated high school his father had commanded the pioneering 2nd Bombardment Group, which in 1937 was the first to receive the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber. Instead of going to college, Robin enrolled in West Point’s preparatory program in 1939.

While in the prep school, Germany invaded Poland and started the Second World War. Robin attempted to run away to Canada to join the Royal Canadian Air Force, but his father refused to sign off on the enlistment. Robin then received an appointment to West Point, starting in 1940 with the Class of 1944.

As the US entered the war at the end of 1941, the normally four year program at the service academies was shortened. Year-round classes saw men complete their education in three years, so they could join the war effort sooner. For those pursuing service in the Army Air Forces, basic flight training was part of the curriculum.

Robin went through flight training in 1942. The training program was fast and uncompromising. In his group, 208 men completed the program while five died trying. On 30 May 1943 Robin received his Air Force wings from General Hap Arnold personally. He graduated from West Point in the Class of June 1943.

While at the US Military Academy, Robin had risen to the rank of cadet captain. He was busted down to cadet private after being caught drinking while on leave. He finished out his last months at West Point walking punishment tours daily.

During these years Robin developed a major dislike for the networking that West Point graduates undertake. Commonly called “ring-knocking” for the intentional tapping on the table of their class ring, West Pointers (and graduates of the other service academies) are known to make up a network of officers that look out for each other and mutually advance their careers. Robin was so averse to this tactic that he would, later in his career, go to great lengths to conceal his history as a West Point graduate.

Robert Olds, in 1942, married for the fourth time to Nina Gore Auchincloss. Nina was a well connected socialite on her third marriage. Her son, Gore Vidal, would become a well known writer and intellectual. Making Robin and Gore Vidal step brothers.

Before completing his studies, Robin’s father Robert suffered multiple heart attacks. By now major general, Robert had served at the highest levels of the Air Corps as the US military rapidly expanded for the war. Robin and his brother Stevan, both attending West Point, were flown by B-17 to Tucson to be with their father when he died in April 1943.

General Curtis LeMay, who would later become Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, would eulogize Robert Olds thusly;

During my 35 years of service, I’ve been fortunate in coming in contact with… practically all (of the leaders) of the Air Force during that period, and we’ve had a great number of very good ones. All of them of course, have made an impact, not only with me, but on everyone else that was in the Air Force at the time. If I had to single out any one, I would say that Robert Olds made the greatest impact.

After West Point, Robin Olds (now a second lieutenant), was trained in flying the P-38 Lightning fighter. Assigned to the newly activated 434th Fighter Squadron, they spent several months training for combat, and then shipped to England in early 1944.

Olds immediately ingratiated himself to the enlisted men he worked with. He took an interest in the maintenance of the aircraft, helped the ground crew conduct their duties, and insisted on waxing his plane to reduce wind resistance.

Olds’ first taste of combat was 26 May 1944. It wasn’t until 14 August, while flying over France, that Olds would score his first kills, taking down two German Fw 190s. Nine days later, he would become an ace, the first for his fighter group.

On 23 August, Olds and his flight would come upon 40-50 German Bf 109 fighters flying in a loose formation. Chasing them down, he was able to come in from behind and above the enemy undetected. Jettisoning his fuel tanks, he and his wingmen attacked.

As he lined up on his first target, both engines on Olds’ fighter died. He had forgotten to switch the fuel to his internal tanks. Even still, he pressed the attack, hitting one of the enemy fighters, forcing the man down. Turning away and diving, Olds restarted his engine and then engaged more of the enemy aircraft, destroying two more.

Olds was soon reassigned to the newer, faster, more nimble P-51 Mustang. He claimed eight kills while in the P-38, five of which are confirmed. Before ending his combat tour on 9 November, he scored one more confirmed kill with the P-51. He logged 270 hours of combat flight time.

He returned to the European Theater after two months of stateside leave. He was operations officer for his squadron and promoted to major by February 1945. On 14 February he scored three more kills, two Bf 109s and another Fw 190, though one of the Messerschimidts was tallied, officially, as “probable” and not confirmed.

On 7 April, Olds scored his final kill of the war. As with most pilots in World War II, he’d named his aircraft. He chose “Scat” as the name. With each new airframe, as he upgraded to newer models or lost them in accidents, he named them sequentially. He was in P-51 “Scat VI” on that April day.

Olds and his squadron were escorting a B-24 Liberator bomber mission to Lüneburg, Germany. This would be the only operational deployment of the German Sonderkommando Elbe, a Luftwaffe unit of Kamikaze-like pilots who were to ram their Bf 109 planes into Allied bombers. The pilots were supposed to bail out just before or after hitting their target, but the odds of survival were limited.

On their mission that day, the Sonderkommandos engaged 15 Allied bombers, downing eight of them. While a few pilots survived, at least eight died carrying out their mission or while in their parachute after bailing out.

As Olds was escorting his bomber formation, he noticed German Me 262 jet fighters parralleling the formation. As two of them came into the American formation to attack, Olds engaged them. Damaging one of the enemy fighters, he returned to his post escorting the Liberators. It was then he saw one of the Sonderkommando planes attack and shoot down one of the heavy bombers.

Olds engaged the enemy fighter, a Bf 109, chasing it through the Allied formation. His aim true, Olds shot the Luftwaffe aircraft down. For the next few weeks, Olds scored many hits on aircraft on the ground, as the P-51 was also an adept aircraft for strafing runs.

Scat VII, a P-51 Mustang once flown by triple-ace fighter pilot Robin Olds, flies over Spangdahlem Air Base, May 28, 2019. The plane is the last one Olds flew before the end of WWII and has been restored several times over the years. He scored a total of 12 air-to-air kills during WWII and an additional four during the Vietnam War. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Roidan Carlson)

By the end of the war, Olds had been given command of his squadron. He tallied 13 aerial kills (becoming an ace in each of his two tours) and 11.5 destroyed on the ground. Olds was the only pilot to become an ace in both the P-38 (five kills) and P-51 (eight kills). He was only 22 and just two years out of West Point. Olds had received two Silver Stars and two Distinguished Flying Crosses while in the European Theater.

The photo above is of Olds’ actual last P-51 “Scat VII”. It was saved from the scrap heap after the war and has been maintained in flying condition. Most such warbirds wear the markings of a famous wartime pilot, but were rarely actually flown by the man himself in-theater.

We’ll get to Olds’ post-war career next week.

Category: Air Force, Historical, Valor, We Remember, WWII

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Mick

Now Robin Olds was a FIGHTER PILOT.

Heard him speak a couple of times. He was the epitome of a highly-aggressive combat leader.

Thanks for posting this Mason.

KoB

Spot on, Mick. A Warrior’s Warrior. No need for him to pick up any trophies in the Ladies Room.

I like the way you slipped the reference to the WPPA (West Point Protective Association) into the article, Mason. Ring Knockers…doncha just love to hate ’em?

We look forward to “…the rest of the story.”

rgr769

Aah, the good ol’ WPPA. Seen it in action several times, as I served with quite a few West Pointers. My first two company commanders were members of the club. But I must say they knew how to lead soldiers.

STSC(SW/SS)

If we had more O-Bangers like Olds and less like Gen Smelly, the country would be in better shape.

P-38 Lightning in the Germans nicknamed the “Fork Tailed Devil”.

AW1 Rod

Robin Olds was a certifiable Bad Ass. After he took over the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing in Ubon, Thialand, MiG kills began to pile up.

Operation Bolo was his tactical masterpiece.

President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neande

CLANK! CLANK!
It’s a wonder any planes that he piloted could get his Big Brass Balls off the ground and into the air before running out of fuel.

David

I was awestruck by a fourth marriage by age 21 till I reread it and realized it was his father who was the slow learner.

USAF_Rigger

In my humble opinion BG Robin Olds epitomized the term bad ass. He was a true warrior.

USMC Steve

That was a pretty badass moustache.

Anna Puma

Robin Olds Jr to LBJ, “get us out of this GD war!”
LBJ then asked how.
Robin Olds answered, “It’s simple, sir – just win it!”

For further reading: “Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Fighter Ace Robin Olds” – Robin Olds with Christina Olds and Ed Rasimus*

*Ed Rasimus would complete two 100 mission tours over Viet Nam in the F-105 and F-4. He would also write a few books on his experiences.

Last edited 3 months ago by Anna Puma