The tranquil setting of John De Groot’s family farm in Iowa’s far northwest corner is a lifetime away from the year he spent maintaining a F-100 fighter jet at Phu Cat Airbase during the Vietnam war.
Since leaving the Air Force after his deployment over 50 years ago, De Groot has been content to stay on his farm where he raises corn and soybeans near Sioux Center, Iowa.
“I don’t want to go to town,” De Groot said matter-of-factly about the prospect of leaving home and the realities of communal living that eventually come with aging.
The situation in early 1960s was much different for De Groot when he and his classmates had little choice about leaving home. The prospect of high school graduation didn’t come with hopeful aspirations, as military service for young men was not optional.
An uncertain future
The United States was in a protracted war and at the advice of some of his friends, De Groot decided service in the National Guard was his best option. The Air National Guard allowed De Groot to fulfill his military commitment while continuing to live in the area and help on the family farm.
The 185th Tactical Fighter Group in nearby Sioux City, Iowa was a good fit for young men from area farms and surrounding small towns. These new recruits brought aptitude and practical experience that made the move from tractor fixer to jet maintainer and easy transition.
After joining in 1964, De Groot said he and his contemporary’s reasons for enlisting were not entirely noble, admitting that Air Guard membership was preferable to being drafted as an infantryman.
“Joining the Air Guard seemed a lot better to me than caring a rifle,” said De Groot, who had been watching groups of young men depart for basic training each spring following high school graduation.
During drill weekends and annual training, De Groot was part of a group of aircraft crew chiefs whose job it was to keep a squadron of about two dozen F-100C Super Sabre fighter jets airworthy.
“My tail number was 986,” De Groot said, who had not forgotten his specific tail number, even though it has been over fifty summers since he last turned a wrench on the iconic fighter jet.
Photo archives of the aircraft show nose art on 986 with a goggled pilot in a winged wooden shoe and the words “Flying Dutchmen,” a likely nod to the pilots shared ethnicity with De Groot. The words, “Big John” were inscribed under the front landing gear door, borrowed from the popular 1961 Jimmy Dean song.
It is not unusual for Air Guard crew chiefs like De Groot to be assigned a specific aircraft tail number, often for years at a time. The arrangement comes with sense of ownership but also has a great deal of responsibility.
The “HUNS” as they became known, earned a reputation as a capable and rugged aircraft. The F-100s were designed in the early 1950s and known for their oval nose and iconic swept wings. The Super Sabre was also America’s first supersonic fighter jet.
By the end of the war, the F-100 had become the most prolific close air support aircraft used in Vietnam.
Upon enlistment, all National Guard members understand that mobilization is always a possibility. In January of 1968 the situation for De Groot and the rest of the Sioux City Airmen turned ominous.
North Korea had seized a U.S. Navy intelligence ship, the USS Pueblo on January 23, 1968, in international waters of the Sea of Japan.
The U.S. immediately sought to redouble its efforts in the region and war planners understood what additional air power would bring to the fight. Headlines as soon as January 25, 1968, reported the activation of 15,000 Air Force, Naval Air Reserve and Air National Guard members, along with 372 aircraft.
By January 27, De Groot and 860 other Airmen stood in formation in Sioux City listening to the activation order. The number of deployed U.S. troops in Vietnam soon reached its height in 1968 and 1969.
About 350 aircraft maintainers, fuels, weapons loaders, support personal and pilots, with the unit’s 174th Fighter Squadron were told they were being sent to an “Undisclosed Location.” The rest of the 185th Airmen were dispersed to Air Force bases in the U.S. and other overseas bases including Korea.
The news was the same for their counterparts in the Iowa Army National Guard’s 2nd of the 133rd Mechanized Infantry with units in nearby communities of Le Mars, Sheldon, Cherokee, Ida Grove, Mapleton, and headquartered in Sioux City. Farm country in Iowa’s Northwest corner was ripe for picking both Soldiers and Airmen in 1968.
Iowa Air Guard members began arriving in Vietnam in May of 1968. Their undisclosed deployment location was Phu Cat Airbase, where they immediately began flying combat sorites as part of the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing.
“We launched aircraft every day,” De Groot commented about the operations tempo during the deployment.
As aircraft returned from a previous launch, maintainers quickly refueled and rearmed the F-100s. According to De Groot, slow days saw only a couple of sorties, most days however saw a third or fourth launch.
“The regular Air Force had F-100s too, but they had a lot more problems than we did because ours were in pretty good shape,” said De Groot. “Theirs had a lot of ware and tare already; they had a lot of them that were always down.”
The group took their duty seriously, understanding that the “rifle carriers” on the ground needed the air support that they were providing.
Iowa’s 174th Fighter Squadron joined three other Air Guard F-100 Fighter Squadrons in Vietnam. Colorado’s 120th, New Mexico’s 188th and New York’s 136th were all activated, along with a fifth group of Guard volunteers from New Jersey and Washington D.C.
By the end of their time in Vietnam, the Air National Guard units ended their tours as the most productive in country. In every way measurable, including hours flown, sorties flown, munitions delivered and bombs on target, the Air Guard units completely dissolved the “weekend warrior” preconceptions.
“When they go home, they are definitely going to be missed. They have been leaders in just about every field since they arrived in Vietnam’” said Col. Leroy Manor, Phu Cat’s 37th Tactical Fighter Wing commander in a May 4, 1969, Des Moines Register article.
When the Sioux City guardsmen were due to come home, they had flown more than 6000 combat sorties. Unit members were awarded 12 Silver Stars, 35 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 30 Bronze Stars, 115 Commendation Medals and 300 Air Medals.
The deployment was not without tragedy however when 185th pilot Lt. Warren Brown was shot down over the AShau Valley on July 14, 1968. Brown was a kindred spirit, as he and De Groot were both married, and both had young families at home.
“I remember watching him take off that day,” De Groot said. “Then he just didn’t come back.”
De Groot said that everyone he deployed with was a “good group of guys.” He said he remembered that Warren Brown was always happy.
On the Homefront
The support the Iowa Airmen received during their time away was also a unique part of their story. People at home had been closely following the Air Guard unit with news of their activities being sent back regularly and published in local newspapers.
Much to their surprise, De Groot and colleague Gary Grace of Remsen, Iowa were featured on the cover of the Des Moines Sunday Register’s “Picture” insert on May 4, 1969.
The Register article highlighted the important contributions made by aircraft maintainers like De Groot and Grace. In the article, 185th pilot and squadron commander Lt. Col. Gordon Young had high praise for his ground support crew.
“They are every bit as vital to the mission as the pilots, perhaps just a little more so. Unless those jet fighters are in the best maintenance shape, with no bugs whatsoever, and unless those bombs are hung just right, insuring release when the pilot pushes the button, you cannot fly the mission. I am real proud of the record my group of Iowans has rung up during our stay in Vietnam,” Young was quoted.
When the 185th came home, public support for America’s first “forever war” had gone from bad to worse. In many places around the U.S., military members didn’t dare wear their uniforms in public.
The threat to service members was not due to operational security concerns from a foreign adversary, the hostility instead came from their fellow Americans.
Iowan’s support for the war may have been mixed, but in the coming days the community support for their returning military members would prove to be unmatched.
In early-May of 1969, as plane loads of 185th Airman began returning home, their return was celebrated by family members and crowds of well-wishers who were gathered at the Sioux City airport.
As the pilots made their way back a few days later, they were greeted with a huge sign that read “Welcome home 185th Tac. Ftr. Gp. Congratulations on a fine job.”
The celebration didn’t stop at the airport, however. Before the end of the month the residents of Sioux City held a main street parade for all their returning veterans.
After the homecoming
After returning to the U.S. some 185th unit members continued to serve with the Iowa Air Guard unit, working full time or as drill status unit members. Others like De Groot decided not to reenlist after the deployment, instead choosing a much quitter life on his farm.
In an Interesting tale of longevity, the F-100 De Groot once crewed has also been and living a quiet tranquil life in Florida.
As aircraft are removed from the inventory, older planes are sometimes mothballed and held in reserve as new aircraft come online. Eventually old fighters are often launched one last time and used for target practice. A few aircraft, like De Groot’s F-100 are saved for display as museum pieces.
De Groot’s aircraft, 54-1986 continued service in the Iowa Air Guard until the mid-1970s.
In May of 1974 a few photos were taken of the old Super Sabre just as it was about to depart for Eglin Air Force Base. The event warranted documenting as the aircraft became the unit’s last remaining F-100 “C” model to be retired.
After being permanently grounded, tail “986” found a good retirement home in the Florida panhandle where it has been in good hands at the Air Force Armament Museum outside Eglin AFB.
Like a true 1950’s comic book superhero De Groot’s F-100 is disguised, painted with a different tail number that hides its “true identity.”
The plaque in front of the aircraft explains that when 54-1986 was moved to the museum, Eglin curators elected to cover over the “HA” tail number of the 174th FS in favor of a double “S” tail number of the Misty Fast FACs.
The display paint scheme was created in honor of the historic Misty Squadron who were also originally part of the 37th Fighter Wing, based at Phu Cat. Misty pilots flew especially risky missions in Vietnam with two seat “F” model versions of the F-100.
In a fitting conclusion to De Groot’s story with his F-100, the display at Eglin is also embossed with the name of Misty Commander and fellow Northwest Iowa Native, George Day. The subtle blue rectangle below the aircraft canopy simply reads “Maj. Bud Day Misty 1”.
|Date Posted:||11.05.2023 11:45|
|Location:||SIOUX CITY, IA, US|
|Hometown:||SIOUX CENTER, IA, US|
This work, Veteran F-100 Crew Chief lives quiet life on Iowa farm after Vietnam, by SMSgt Vincent De Groot, identified by DVIDS, must comply with the restrictions shown on https://www.dvidshub.net/about/copyright.