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by Donia Moore
When you are in Colonel Robert E. Thacker’s presence, you find yourself standing a little straighter. If you are fortunate enough to have a conversation with him, you find yourself hanging on to every word he says.
His still trim and fit physique marks him as a military career officer. He looks like a pilot - and he says that that’s how he became one, because the then fledgling Army Air Corps wanted pilots who looked the part.
This is living history, and you will find yourself so fascinated that it’s a little like reading a Tom Clancy novel aloud. Only, the Colonel’s experiences are the real thing, with a little political observation thrown in occasionally for good measure.
From Here to …
On Dec. 5, 1941, “the Colonel” as he is known by friends and admirers alike, was ordered to fly a new B17 E bomber from Seattle to his home base in Salt Lake City. A pilot in the Army Air Corps, the El Centro native had flown many aircraft, but never in the pilot seat of a B17. His commanding officer brushed that aside. In addition, the navigator assigned to his crew was so recently graduated that he still wore his cadet uniform. He was younger and less experienced than the Colonel. They took off on a cold, crisp, star-studded night flight over the southwest to test their skills before heading to Salt Lake and ended up in Tucson overnight due to snowy weather conditions.
They were awakened unexpectedly the next morning by the top General in the Army - General George Marshall. With no warning or explanation, he ordered them to attach themselves to a flying convoy of 13 other bombers headed to the Philippines via Hawaii. None of the planes were armed.
The Colonel called Betty Jo, then his wife of nine months, to tell her of his change of orders. The crew didn’t even have time to pick up their cars or their laundry before they had to leave. Betty Jo and a girl friend drove all night through the deep snow of Donner Pass, from their home in Salt Lake City to Hamilton Field, 20 miles north of San Francisco. When the military wouldn’t let her on the base, she cried until they gave in. After dinner with him at the Officer’s Club, she watched him taxi out to the runway, not knowing when she would see him again. He flashed his landing lights at her during takeoff to say goodbye.
The trip was uneventful, but it was a long, 14-hour flight, and the Colonel and his crew were looking forward to a break in Honolulu before continuing on to the Philippines. As they drew nearer to Hawaii, they were puzzled as to why there was no radio communication from Hawaii’s Hickham Airfield. The navigator had directed them all the way across the Pacific using only three “star sights” and was right on target. They could see Diamond Head, but still the radio engineer kept spinning his dials and couldn’t get a signal.
“It was 8am the morning of December 7th. We had heard about the whales in Hawaii, and we thought we were seeing whales spouting until we got close enough to see that the “spouts” were anti-aircraft artillery shells raining back down, while Japanese Zeros were blowing up the battleships still in Pearl Harbor.”
They watched as the helpless ships with their crews sank where they were moored, fireballs erupting from fuel storage facilities, smoke plumes signaling where the Arizona went down. The Colonel found himself zig-zagging through the hostile fire of Japanese Zeros, dodging friendly anti-aircraft fire during the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
He and his exhausted crew had been out of range of radio communication and had no idea that the island was under attack. The radio suddenly crackled to life and cleared them for landing, affirming the military action occurring. They were almost taken down when a Japanese Zero shot off their plane’s right wing, destroying the brakes. Only his superior flying skills got them landed safely at Hickham Airfield. On land, he ordered his crew to deplane and run for the swamp at the end of the runway, rather than to the hangars which were soon blown sky high with other crews inside them.
“One of the crews that arrived shortly before we did were on the flight line watching us land when they were strafed by the Zeros,” remembers the Colonel sadly.
While we may never know the details, the Colonel believes that the Pacific Command had some inkling that trouble might be brewing and that was one of the reasons for the unusual orders to fly the bombers into the region. He does recall writing letters home to Betty Jo telling her that the American Navy was lying on the bottom of the sea, letters that were so heavily censored that all mention of what happened in Hawaii were cut out.
Stories about his daring are legion. He flew missions in every military theater in World War II, Korea and Viet Nam, including D-Day missions in Normandy. In Port Moresby, New Guinea he outran three Japanese Zeros that cornered him over the Owens Valley Range in the Battle of the Coral Sea. In Korea and Viet Nam he flew high altitude secret missions. Highly decorated by a bevy of grateful nations.
His marriage to his beautiful Betty Jo after a whirlwind courtship lasted for 72 years. The Colonel proudly had her portrait and name painted on his bomber, which was recently on display in the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.
A graduate of the Air Force Test Pilot Academy at Edwards Air Force Base, along with Chuck Yeager, the Colonel was called on to flight test new plane prototypes, such as the P-80 in 1945, the first combat ready jet. He also tested the P-82. In 1972, he flew the first experimental solar-powered 32 foot aircraft built by Lockheed.
In more recent years, he has contracted out to private industry aeronautical engineers and the military to build highly accurate 1/6th scale models of military airplanes for use in testing facilities, many with real turbine engines that allow the models to travel upwards of 150 miles per hour.
He has been building airplane models since he was eight-years-old. His very first model was a “twin pusher” that actually flew. In addition, the Colonel has found time to compete in national model building and flying contests. As for flying in full sized planes, he occasionally goes up with pilot friends and he still loves it.
Colonel Robert E. Thacker retired from the Air Force in 1970. He holds the distinction of being one of only a few officers that flew two combat tours, one in Japan and one in Europe, during World War II.
Born in 1918, he is one of a handful of pilots to have flown in every theater in WW II, Korea and Viet Nam. He holds a number of aviation records that have still not been surpassed. One of the most amazing is the flight of a P-82 with the Colonel at the controls in 1947. He still holds the record for the fastest, longest non-stop fighter flight with maximum takeoff weight from Hawaii to New York, for a prop plane. Of course, he tells people that he had to wait in Hawaii three weeks for the 20 knot tail wind he thought he’d need!
At 95 years old, the Colonel hasn’t slowed down much. He still builds models and flies them sometimes as much as once or twice a week. His workshop is a veritable museum of models he has created, flown and experimented with over the years. If he is not working on one of them, he is probably on his way down to the beach for his daily walk or playing with his friends’ pair of Portuguese Water Spaniels.
His zest for living is evident. He threw himself a recent birthday party at Talega Golf Course. His friends wanted to help but he told them that when he celebrated his 100th birthday, then they could pay for it!
“There were 155 people there. Everybody I invited came. If I had known more people, I would have invited them!”
And undoubtedly they would have all come, too!