Retired fighter pilot remembers combat missions in Vietnam vividly

The first time Jim Cash took control of a jet as a teenager, he knew he was exactly where he was supposed to be.

Now 80, the retired Air Force Brigadier General and resident of Bigfork flew combat missions in Vietnam aboard an F-4 Phantom in the 1960s, was among the first pilots to fly the F-15 Eagle in the 1970s and then flew the F-16 Falcon as a wing commander at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida before retiring as vice-commander of the 7th Air Force in South Korea in 1991.

A survivor of several grueling missions in Vietnam, a training flight accident and more, Cash says it always seemed like someone was taking care of him.

“I’m one of the luckiest people you’ve ever met,” said Cash, sitting among the model airplanes and flying memorabilia that decorates his home office. “There has always been something or someone sitting on my shoulder because I definitely used all of my nine lives on these planes. I guarantee that.

BORN AND Raised in the small town of DeKalb in northeast Texas, Cash developed a fascination with flying at a young age. It was a fascination he attended Texas A&M University, where he graduated with an engineering degree in 1962, although Cash says he really majored in something else.

“I did not specialize in electrical engineering at A&M. I have never cracked a book. I majored in the Cadet Corps. I loved that stuff, ”Cash said with a smile. “I liked the uniform and the discipline. I liked everything about it. When I wasn’t doing that, I was at the airport – Easterwood Field. I would do whatever they wanted me to do to get an hour of flight time. I had my first solo flight at just 3.5 hours and got my license at 35 hours.

In September 1962, Cash was appointed second lieutenant in the Air Force as part of the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Texas A&M and was assigned to his first mission, at the Air Force radar station at the top of Blacktail Mountain. , where he’ll watch the F-106 Delta Dart fighters who occasionally granted him a friendly overflight.

It was during his time at Lakeside that Cash met his future wife, Martha (Marty), who was living in Somers at the time.

It was during his time at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls that Cash first faced one of the biggest obstacles of his career, a challenge that nearly ground him to the ground before he even broke. it does not fly away – the Air Force physical eye exam.

THE MONEY HAD failed to earn the 20/20 vision certification required to enter flight school four times before nervously taking the test at Malmstrom.

“I took my exam and this kid scored 20/20. I asked him to check it again and he smiled and told me I had really tested 20/20, ”Cash said. “I think it was because I had stepped away from reading books while on the radar site.”

Unfortunately for Cash, the result was not the same when he took the eye test again on entering the flight school at Laredo Air Force Base in Texas, where the flight surgeon told him. said he tested 20/25.

“I told him I had been dreading this test for almost a year,” Cash said. “He told me that after I finished flight training I could wear bifocals and the Air Force wouldn’t care. It was just a way of limiting all the people who wanted to take flight training. He said he wasn’t going to ruin my career by writing the wrong number, and he put it 20/20.

Finally where he wanted to be, Cash received his pilot wings in May 1965 and, after completing his training on F-102 and F-106, was posted to the 456th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Castle Air Force Base, Calif. for one year.

AFTER THE TRANSITION to F-4C as an aircraft commander, Cash was assigned to the 12th Tactical Fighter Wing at Cam Rahn Bay Air Base in the Republic of Vietnam, where he soon found himself performing combat missions on on a regular basis with the call sign of “Swine.” “

“I don’t know anyone who was scared there. It was just another regular flight trick. You were scared when you came back down and realized what you had just been through. When you fly, you are just too busy. You are so concerned and so focused. Each flight was just another flight. You relied on your training to be successful, ”recalls Cash. “We were trained to keep the emotion out of it. We were told that if we let enemy fire get in your skin, we wouldn’t last a year. All of our missions up north were “one pass, then haul ass”. It is the mantra by which we lived.

TT IN While in Vietnam, Cash embarked on the mission that earned him the first of two Distinguished Flying Crosses he would receive during the conflict.

A Marine F-4 was hit and the pilot and radar interception officer ejected, but only the pilot survived. Equipped with a radio, the pilot was on the run in a river valley full of open fields. Cash and his flight master both had six-bomb charges of 750 pounds, but they were firing 23mm on the ground while trying to clear the way for the pilot, but couldn’t tell where the fire was coming from. After making six passes while dropping their bombs along the river, Cash saw the enemy cannons, 15 or 20, under a row of trees far from the river.

“I can’t tell you how I felt. It was total elation. I would like to find that feeling again today. I just screamed on the radio, ‘I got them,’ ”recalls Cash.

The fighters made another pass and, using his M61 Vulcan rotating cannon, Cash took out all of the enemy cannons. The rescue team was then able to intervene and recover the Marine pilot without firing a single enemy fire.

Cash recalled that most of his missions involved little more than “turning several large trees into toothpicks”, but there were several that will never leave his memory, especially those during the Tet offensive in 1968.

“We just got passed in Khe Sanh. When I was there the weather was bad and they overflowed our base there. Our guys were literally calling for napalm strikes on themselves, ”Cash said. “I wasn’t going to do it and I remember one of them said to me ‘Why don’t you come home? You won’t do us any good if you let it down this far. It seemed to me that I was burning the eyebrows of our troops where I put it and they wanted it closer.

IT WAS It was also during his time in Vietnam that Cash learned some difficult lessons about how war was presented to the American people in his country.

“I remember sitting there watching TV one night and there’s Lyndon Johnson looking straight into the camera, with his Texan accent, saying ‘I want to assure the American people that we don’t and we won’t. no type of military attack inside the nation of Cambodia, ”Cash recalled. “Guess where in the previous two weeks, every other day, I had placed a load of six 750-pound bombs? We went to Cambodia every day. It was routine. “

In September 1968, Cash was posted to George Air Force Base in California as an F-4 instructor, then to the US Air Force Academy as an air officer commanding Cadet Squadron 18.

A few years later, Cash was worried that he would not get a promotion when his Guardian Angel returned.

“Whenever I thought my piloting career was over and I was facing a clerical position for the rest of my career, the phone would ring and someone would ask me ‘How would you like to fly. an F-15 “or later the F-16,” he said.

Cash had been fortunate enough to be one of the first pilots to fly the new F-15 Eagle when he transferred to Langley Air Force Base in 1976. There were 11 of the new fighters when he arrived there. .

Cash spent six years at Langley moving from major to colonel while working, on his own terms, just about any job available.

“Langley was probably my best assignment,” Cash said. “At lieutenant-colonel level, you have 24 planes there. If you go to war, you know exactly where you are going. This is the last rank in the Air Force that when you need to shoot people allows you to lead the pack. After that you are seated behind a desk.

Just when he thought he would be stuck behind a desk, Cash got the chance to pilot the F-16 as he was appointed deputy commander of operations for 56th Tactical Training Wing at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida in July 1983.

THE MONEY WAS promoted Brigadier General on July 1, 1988, and continued to fly until his retirement as the 7th Air Force vice-commander at Osan Air Base in South Korea in 1991.

In total, Cash has moved 25 times in his 29 years in the Air Force, but his latest move was to return to his wife’s home state of Montana, where he now enjoys building. and fly experimental planes with the same confidence and swagger he had as a fighter. pilot.

“Fighter pilots are conceited guys, you can count on them. If they’re not, they don’t have to be up there, ”Cash said. “If a guy doesn’t think he’s the best out there it’s my attitude that he doesn’t have to be there. If you ask me who is the best fighter pilot I know, guess what the answer will be so far? You can kind of tell by being around me that I really enjoyed what I did for a living. I would do it all again in a heartbeat and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Journalist Jeremy Weber can be reached at 406-758-4446 or [email protected]

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