The Black Max
By: Hot Dog
You’d really have to have had contact with Naval Aviators during the Vietnam era or in some other major wartime environment to fully appreciate what is documented below. The following exposé was written by a Navy F-8 Crusader pilot, who was ceremoniously presented with the coveted Black Max award on several occasions. The Crusader is a single engine fighter aircraft affectionately referred to as the “Flying Stove Pipe,” which contributed immensely to the Navy carriers’ war effort in Vietnam.
The author, a retired attorney, and former airline pilot writes in rather sarcastic terms responding to an original posting by a Navy Submariner bewailing the closure of some renowned bars patronized by Naval officers and enlisted personnel during the Vietnam era and afterward.
I suspect that the Air Force, Army (helicopter, etc.), Marine Corps (and Coast Guard?) pilots also have their stories to tell.
First, my squadron, VF-194 (The Legendary Red Lightnings), tried to set an example for the rest of the Fleet. Since the statutes of limitation have expired, let me just give you the highlights of the Red Lightning (call sign “Red Flash”) social structure:
* Individual call signs: Hot Dog (me), Gator, Maggot, Buzzard, Porky, Taco, Brillo, Spanky, Sheepdog, Master (last name Bates), Burger, Crusher, Rat, and Devil. They may or may not be descriptive of their owners.
* Squadron awards: The Black Max. Given for social conduct above and beyond the call of indecency. Plaque awarded, and the corresponding patch to be worn on flight jacket.
* Favorite shore-based hangouts: The East Inn Club (Olongapo, Philippines); Dragonboat Bar (Hong Kong Hilton); any bar in the Wanchai district of Hong Kong (HK); the Royal Hawaiian Hotel (Honolulu, HI); Ft. DeRussy (Waikiki); any disco in Kowloon, HK; Marine Corps Recruit Depot O’Club (San Diego, CA); Miramar O’Club (San Diego, CA); Chretin’s Cantina (Yuma, AZ); Bully’s (La Jolla, CA); and the infamous, original Naval Air Station (NAS) Cubi Pt. O’Club (Naval Station Subic Bay, Philippines). Personally, I always avoided such places and spent my time in the Christian Science Reading Rooms.
Now, in spite of the squadron’s rigid decorum when ashore, there were a few unfortunate incidents—which usually resulted in an award of the Black Max. Perhaps the Top Ten are:
1) Senior Lieutenant (Is there such a thing?) falls in love in Olongapo and insists on going home to meet the lovely’s parents. Robbed after passing out, he wakes up with a rooster crowing on his chest and wallet stripped of ID and cash. Gains entry to the Subic base by showing Marine guard his Playboy Club card.
2) Commanding Officer (CO) becomes infuriated when denied a Navy car to return to the ship (Where is Uber when you need them?) from Officer’s Club (O’ Club). Steals base police vehicle, and after a high-speed police chase, crashes vehicle through the wall of O’Club. Transported to ship in the paddy wagon. CO placed in hack (house arrest) by Commander Air Group (CAG).
3) Certain junior officers re-paint Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Yuma runway with huge red letters at night to read Fighter Squadron “VF-194” instead of “21 R”. Also painted red lightning bolt on the base water tower, then nearly destroyed Bachelor Officer’s Quarters (BOQ) with a fire extinguisher and fire hose fight. Squadron CO arrested and placed in hack. Squadron exiled from ever returning to Yuma by the Base CO.
4) The Buzzard became hopelessly drunk at Miramar O’Club’s bar, while retired officers and their wives were dancing in the adjoining ballroom. Drops trou, moons dance floor, and falls into the dance floor, laughing, with pants around ankles. Placed in hack and almost court-martialed; saved by a sympathetic Commander Naval Air Pacific (COMNAVAIRPAC) (“What the hell–he’s an F-8 Crusader pilot. He’ll probably get killed anyway, so let him go on cruise.”)
5) At Porky’s going-away party (leaving active duty), he punches out both the current and former COs. When ordered to report the next day for Captain’s Mast (nonjudicial punishment [NJP] under the Uniform Code of Military Justice [UCMJ], Article 15), he replies, “I’m a civilian.” He became an airline pilot.
6) During a weekend in Tokyo at the Sanno Rest and Relaxation (R&R) hotel, the Lieutenant (LT) in #1 above fell in love with a Swedish SAS Airline flight attendant. After she left the bar and went to her room, she refused to answer his knocks on the door. He opened the window to his own room, and did a “human fly” walk on the pigeon ledge, working his way around to her room. He slipped into her room, and she emerged from the shower to throw him to the floor and beat him mercilessly. She apparently was a karate black belt. He begged, “Please stop, lady, I just want to leave!” Since she spoke Swedish, and no English, the beating continued. He was grounded for a month with two broken ribs.
7) The air wing commander (CAG) had a few too many nightcaps at the old Cubi O’Club, and accosted a burly Marine First Lieutenant (1/LT) grunt (ground pounder – NOT a pilot) at the bar: “I’m Billy Phillips, I’m the world’s greatest fighter pilot, and I can have your ass!” The Marine knocked him to the floor, unconscious. CAG left the next morning for Hong Kong in the COD, sporting a huge black eye. My Skipper’s comment: “Charming.”
8) In the hot living spaces of the old Navy carrier, USS Ticonderoga, beer supplies don’t last long. (Yes, there was illegal alcohol aboard ship.) The Buzzard was tapped to fly into Cubi with a flak-damaged F-8, and then to return when repaired. His shopping list was several cases of Heineken’s in cans, to be transported in the bird’s spacious, but unpressurized ammo compartment. Unfortunately, he flew from Cubi to Yankee Station at too high an altitude, and the beer froze. Upon landing on the ship, the thawing beer exploded and he taxied to the bow with beer foam flowing down the side of the aircraft. When the Air Boss asked what that was, our Operations (Ops) officers told him it was hydraulic fluid.
9) After a successful Alpha Strike into Hanoi, the pilots of both fighter squadrons gathered in our Skipper’s stateroom for refreshments. One of the sister squadron’s pilots (United States Naval Academy [USNA] ’61), whose call-sign was “Jaws,” became overly imbibed and bit the Skipper on the shoulder in an act of brotherly love. Skipper was grounded for about two weeks and Flight Surgeon made him get rabies shots.
10) After a bad night in Olongapo, The Buzzard overslept in the Cubi BOQ and missed the ship’s departure. Lacking any flight gear, he raced to the flight line clad in barong, chinos, and loafers. He talked the chief into giving him an aircraft (“which the ship wants on board”). When the ship turned into the wind offshore to receive the Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) aircraft, The Buzzard zipped into the break and landed also, while the tower was confused. When he taxied past the tower, the Air Boss, now with one more F-8 than he had room for, noticed Buzzard had no flight gear on except an old helmet. Our Ops officer said it “was a custom Hong Kong flight suit.”
As RADM Tarrant (Frederic March) asked in “Bridges at Toko-Ri,” “Where do we get such men?”
In reply many years later, one Naval Aviator uttered “. . . in any bar!”