by Mitch “Taco” Bell
Sometimes you never know who your neighbors are and I don’t mean that in the ax murderer scenario way, but in the sense that you have true heros hiding out in plain sight. Take Tommy King, for instance.
One weekend we had a giant wind storm and my wife called me out of the blue from work on Monday morning. An elderly gentleman she took care of named Tom King had dialed her and asked if she knew someone who could help him with his boat that was mangled on the dock from the wind.
She phoned me and I readily accepted the mission, heading over to his house in minutes. Tommy was a quiet type of guy with a white beard and stooped shoulders. We met in the driveway and he escorted me to his broken motor boat. It was an easy fix but his pride and joy was going to need some work.
Walking back up to the house, he invited me in for some ice tea which I gratefully accepted. The true surprise came when I noticed a small frame hanging on the wall. As I approached it, it didn’t take long to realize I was looking at the Silver Star citation and there next to it was the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Two of our nation’s highest awards, just hanging on the wall in the lower level of his house, unseen by anyone for decades. Tommy was a recluse with no children and some serious flying stories.
“Tommy, Holy Cow! That’s the Silver Star and DFC. How did you earn those?”
Tommy just sighed and glanced at the wall for a second and then back to me. “Well, I guess I stayed on station just a bit too long while over in Vietnam.”
This was like finding buried treasure. I had to know more about this man and fast! Tommy agreed to take a meeting with me at his house later that night where we could discuss his life. He seemed genuinely mystified that I would be the least bit interested in his past.
Man, did this guy surprise me. He joined the Army Air Corps in November of 1942, flying all the different trainers until selecting bombers. The B-17 was still the Queen of battle, slugging it out over in Europe, so he was proud to be the Aircraft Commander for one. Meeting his crew in Lincoln Nebraska, they formed a tight bond during their final combat training in Rapid City S.D. later on.
His dreams of entering the fight were ended when Europe fell in April of ’45 and halfway across the Atlantic, they were ordered to turn around and fly the B-17 back to Texas.
The Army decided to make him a B-29 pilot but that soon ended too with the fall of Japan. With all the returning Vets coming home, they made him a flight instructor for a few years before he jumped on a “Crappy” assignment flying B-17s in Guam and Iwo Jima for the Air Sea Rescue service. They would drop a 17 foot lifeboat to stranded crews out there which included water and food.
One incident that stuck out in his mind was a Naval transport vessel that had a medical emergency on board. They wired up Guam asking for a special medical package to help with the procedure. The hospital made up two packages in case they missed the first drop. He flew out 600 miles and found the ship steaming along just where she was supposed to be. He lined up and dropped the first package over the ship, crossing his fingers. The radio came alive with “Perfect drop, it landed on the deck!”
Tommy decided to drop the other package in case they needed a spare. He lined up on his second run and released his load. It was quiet for a minute and then the ship came over the airwaves. “Hey guys, thanks for the drop and we sure are glad you are on our side and not an enemy bomber because that package went straight down the smoke stack!”
It was a boring job but it help build up his multiengine flight time as he had nothing else to do. Like he said, there was a hot girl behind every palm tree on Iwo Jima.
The new Air Force decided that they could use him in the Cold War effort and he went on to fly the B-29 at Edwards, then the B-36 down in Puerto Rico followed by the B-52 in Fort Worth. Oh by the way, he was a 2ndLt for six years; talk about slow rank progression!
As a multi engine bomber guy I was curious how he ended up in Vietnam flying the O-1. “Oh that was easy, I made a screwed up General look bad during a SAC inspection and my payback was a set of orders to fly the F-105. But I showed him, I got them changed to the O-1 where I ended up with the “Ravens” doing missions over Laos.”
Tommy ended his career with 224 combat missions and 702 combat hours, the Silver Star, the DFC, and the Air Medal before he returned to the states to retire as a Lt Colonel.
I encourage you all to seek out your neighbors and find these hidden Gems of history because there are many Hero’s in your “Hood” who have a great story!
GodSpeed Tommy, while you are gone, you are not forgotten!
Mitch “Taco” Bell is a retired Marine KC-130 pilot flying for a major airline on the B-737. You can watch his Tall Tales with Taco Bell on Facebook and YouTube. His past stories can be found on The Sandgram.