It was May 1944 when a young American fighter pilot arrived at the Wattisham Royal Air Force base in the south of England. A couple of weeks after arriving, he was flying missions in his P-38 Lightning. Three months passed before he scored his first kills downing not one, but two German fighters over France. And this was just the appetizer for a spectacular combat career that would span two major conflicts.
That young pilot was Lieutenant Robin Olds of the U.S. Air Force’s 479th Fighter Group, just 21 years old when he arrived at Wattisham. Olds was born in Honolulu, though much of his childhood was spent in Hampton, Virginia. He was born into military aviation aristocracy since his father was the much-decorated Major General Robert Olds who served in both world wars as an airman.
Even as a young boy, Olds’ future career path seemed to be in little doubt. He took his first flight when he was just eight years old in a biplane piloted by his father. He’s said to have been only 12 when he decided that he would go to West Point Military Academy in New York state and then become a pilot and an officer.
Olds graduated from Hampton High School, VA, where he had excelled in football, in 1939. Spurning college football scholarship offers, he instead attended Millard Preparatory School in Washington, D.C – an institution dedicated to preparing students for military academy exams. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Olds tried to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force but his father would not sign the necessary papers.
Olds achieved his ambition of entry to West Point in June 1940. His time there included a posting to Spartan School of Aeronautics in Oklahoma for flying instruction. He displayed his incredible sporting talents on the football field, achieving All-American status, a title given to the best of the best, in 1942.
However, it wasn’t all smooth progress at West Point. In 1943, Olds was demoted to cadet private from cadet captain for drinking liquor while on leave in New York. As he wryly remembered in his 2010 book, Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds, he was “only the second cadet in the history of West Point to earn that dubious honor.”
Despite this early run-in with authority, Olds joined the accelerated program of air training introduced when the U.S.A. joined the Second World War in 1941, after the Pearl Harbor attack. Olds finished his training with an advanced course at Stewart Field, New York. The course had not been without incident – five of his fellow students were killed in flying accidents.
The young cadet passed out successfully and was awarded the coveted pilot’s wings in June 1943. At this point Olds’ future stunning achievements as a pilot were difficult to foresee. He only graduated 194th out of 514 students on his general merit score. This assessment would be dramatically overturned in the years to come.
Olds now spent further months in specialist fighter pilot training with the 329th Fighter group. This involved instruction in gunnery and in flying the formidable Lockheed P-38 Lightning with its instantly recognizable double-boom construction. It was said that the German fliers gave it the sobriquet of the “fork-tailed devil,” a true mark of respect if ever there was one.
As we saw earlier, on completion of his training, Olds was posted to England in May of 1944. The aim of the allied air forces at this point was to target Nazi infrastructure in Europe, in preparation for the D-Day invasion that was to come in June 1945. Olds’ squadron escorted bombers on their missions over France and Germany.
It was on August 14, 1944 that Olds’ first brought down German planes as he flew escort for a low flying attack on a bridge in the French town of Montmirail. Olds, who had been promoted to Captain the previous month, shot down two Focke-Wulf Fw 190s. This was a fighter plane favored by many of Germany’s top pilots.
Now that he’d got started on the enemy planes, Olds just didn’t seem to be able to stop. His next kills came on August 25 in northern Germany when he spotted a group of some 40 or more Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters. He dived on one from above, successfully putting it out of action.
An intense aerial dogfight developed and despite the partial destruction of his plane, Olds shot down two more of the Messerschmitts. Then, for good measure he destroyed a fourth on the way back to base. And that fourth kill was important. Olds had now shot down a total of six enemy aircraft and that made him a flying “ace” – a title bestowed on any pilot with five or more kills in combat.
In September 1944, Olds started flying the P-51 Mustang and the following month shot down another FW-190. He now took two months leave Stateside, returning to Wattisham in January 1945. In the coming months, Olds shot down a further five planes before the end of the war giving him a total of 12 kills and making him a double ace. He was also promoted to squadron commander. He was still only 22.
After the Second World War ended, Olds took on a variety of U.S.A.F. positions, including running an aerobatics unit and senior staff jobs at the Pentagon. He applied to fight in Korea but was turned down and almost resigned the service in frustration, but was talked out of it. He also found time to marry glamorous Hollywood actress Ella Raines in 1947.
But Olds’ combat days were not over yet, not by a long chalk. The Vietnam War was raging in 1966 and in that year Olds was given command of the Thailand-based 8th Tactical Fighter Wing. In a move typical of the man, at the age of 44 and with the rank of colonel, he took the position of rookie pilot. He told his junior officers that they had to teach him everything about the new F4 Phantom plane, as he was about to become their leader.
Olds brought in an old comrade from his Pentagon days as his deputy commander, Colonel Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. James was African-American, later the first to become a four-star general. And Robin Olds cemented his reputation as a charismatic leader by sporting a thoroughly splendid and fantastically bushy mustache.
The North Vietnamese were causing significant problems for the U.S. bombing missions in Vietnam. Their Russian-supplied MiG-21 fighters were targeting America’s F-105 Thunderchief bombers as they trundled through the skies laden with munitions. Two had been shot down and something had to be done about it. Olds decided to use one of the oldest warfare tactics on the books – deception.
The American Phantom F-4 fighters would be equipped with electronic apparatus that would make them appear to be F-105 bombers. The MiGs would normally avoid combat with fighters but could be lured out to attack the slower bombers. It was a roaring success. Led by Olds himself, the Americans shot down seven MiGs, with Olds claiming one of those. The entire North Vietnamese complement of MiGs at the time totalled 16.
And Olds kept on destroying MiGs. He took one down on May 4, 1967 and another two later that month. That made his tally for Vietnam four. Adding that to the 12 enemy planes he’d shot down in the Second World War, his total was 16. That made him a real rarity – a triple ace. Olds retired in 1973, his record as one of the U.S.A.F.’s top fighter pilots recognized by his fistful of decorations. He died in 2007 at the age of 84, a true American hero.