Friday, January 1, 2016

Voices of Service: Former War College instructor piloted dangerous refueling missions

Don Bruce was in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.

“When I was growing up, my brother would build model airplanes,” said Bruce, a Western Pennsylvania native. “I would always go out and try to fly them and crash them. He wasn’t too happy about that.”

Bruce, a Vietnam War veteran and former Air Force instructor at the U.S. Army War College, followed his passion for flight by getting into ROTC at Penn State University and later going into the Air Force to become a pilot. He graduated in 1961 and received pilot training at the Moody Air Force Base in Georgia from 1962 to 1963.

“I had to wait until April of ‘62 to go into active duty because they were selecting people to go on a quarterly basis and I got the fourth,” Bruce said. “There was a post office that I worked at until then.”

Bruce saw his dream through, becoming a co-pilot of a KC135, a refueling aircraft that aided fighters and bombers entering and exiting Vietnam. Bruce’s aircraft was mainly responsible for providing planes with fuel as they exited Vietnam.

“I was never actually in Vietnam,” Bruce said. “I flew over it many times, but I was never actually stationed in the country. We would refuel the fighters and bombers on the way out (of Vietnam).”

Bruce said the refueling assignments would usually be done in two- to three-month periods, during which he would be stationed at either Takhli or Don Mueang in Thailand. Otherwise, he would typically be stationed in Guam or Okinawa.

Bruce said the aerial refueling process required extensive training and, occasionally, a necessary disregard for the rules.

“There is a lot of training that goes into flying planes in formation at 20,000 feet,” Bruce said. “We had rules of engagement that said you could only fly so far north to pick up planes flying out of Vietnam. You could only go so low to avoid damage to your plane from ground fire. We regularly violated those rules because some planes coming out were practically out of fuel. We sometimes had to go low to pick them up, and sometimes we went more north than we were supposed to. It was always a question of whether or not the people on the ground were going to take a shot at us.

“Another problem was when we were coming back, we sometimes had to go to (higher altitudes) in order to pick our way through thunderstorms on the way home,” Bruce added. “So we would go in low and come out high.”

After Vietnam, Bruce stayed with the KC135 business, becoming an instructor pilot. He was primarily responsible for training pilots transitioning from fighter planes into four engine tanker aircrafts.

“Many of (the pilots) were unhappy because they were basically fighter pilots,” Bruce said. “I had one (pilot) who was very unhappy in a multiengine airplane; he wanted to be in a single. I got tired of it, so one day I got him in a flight simulator and put him in a situation with single engine and I told him to fly it. He was sweating. I came back about a half hour later and he was still trying to fly it. I never heard another word.”

The remaining years of Bruce’s career saw Bruce moving between several different bases and positions. He spent time as an ROTC instructor in Maryland.

In the late 1980s, Bruce became one of three team chiefs involved with the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACAP), or “doomsday plane,” an aircraft intended to serve as a survivable platform on which to conduct military operations in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States. The aircraft followed the president as a precautionary measure.

"I was the team chief of the battle staff on the 'doomsday plane,'" Bruce said. "I had about 20 people working for me - experts in their fields. We followed the president around and stayed in close proximity with him. If there was a nuclear attack, the president would come on board. We had to go everywhere he went; if he went to Europe, we went to Europe. We had different locations in the (United States) just to stay close to him. It was very interesting."

Bruce rounded out his involvement with the Air Force by returning to his home state and becoming an Air Force instructor at the U.S. Army War College in 1989. He retired in 1992.

“The war college was the last job I had," he said. "I lobbied to get that job because the only way to get back to PA was to get an army position because there is no Air Force base in PA. So I came back to retire here that way.

“I stay busy,” Bruce added. “It seems like I had more free time when I was working than I do now. I feel myself slowing down here and there, but I keep very busy.”

About the Series

The Sentinel salutes local Vietnam War veterans and participants with a year-long series of stories that will be published every Saturday in History.

Called “Voices of Service,” the weekly feature examines how the war shaped officers and enlisted personnel from every branch of the military in every phase of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

The Army Heritage Center Foundation will provide half the content for this series in keeping with its mission of “Telling the Army Story ... One Soldier at a Time.”

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