NO SAFE HAVEN I was born in 1934 in the Philippines, where my father worked for the Kodak photography company. In 1939, as war began in Europe and Japanese aggression swept through China, my parents sought a safe haven: we relocated to Hawaii. One Sunday morning, as a seven-year-old, I was on the beach near Honolulu with my brother, shooting crabs with our BB guns, when we were called home: the Japanese were attacking Pearl Harbor. Smoke billowed up from the naval base and I watched in fascination as the US Army dug in a machine gun nest at the treeline rimming our beach. Dad filled bags with sand and fashioned a shelter for us kids under the laundry sink. On Christmas Day, 1941, we packed up and left Hawaii on the first convoy out of Pearl Harbor after the attack. We voyaged in a convoy, zigzagging a course in the hope of avoiding Japanese submarines. Our ship was overcrowded; bunk beds filled the swimming pool. I only had a light Aloha shirt and short pants, no coat. I was shivering with cold on New Year's Eve, as we sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. But we had made it unscathed.
After we reached mainland America I was twice hospitalised, and on both occasions I overheard nurses say I was dying - once with pneumonia and then with liver disease. But, again, I made it. Dad soon returned to Hawaii for work and we joined him in April 1944, by which time victory against the Japanese looked likely. A couple of years after the war, Dad was assigned to Kodak China, and we went to live in Hong Kong.
AN AMERICAN IN KOWLOON From 1947 to 49, I attended King George V School, in Kowloon. We lived at 48 Ho Man Tin Hill Road, high on a hill beside a cemetery. The house had been used as a Japanese headquarters during the war. As an American in a British school, I experienced the constant competition between the British, who saw us as upstart colonials, and the Americans, who thought the British backward. While walking on the beach one day, I found a Japanese hand grenade in the sand, with the pin still in it. I was afraid to touch it. There were some British soldiers lounging on the beach, so I told them about the grenade. One of them picked it up and hurled it into the ocean - we held our breath … and the grenade just sank to the bottom.
JET FEVER Britain's Royal Air Force sent a Vampire jet fighter to Hong Kong - it was the first jet plane that we had ever seen, and it flew all over the city at low altitude and high speed. It looked so beautiful - I knew then that I wanted to be a jet fighter pilot. Then the US Navy anchored an aircraft carrier in the harbour. American citizens were invited aboard and given tours of the ship. Aged 13, I got to sit in the cockpit of a real fighter plane on an active aircraft carrier.
Our family left Hong Kong in June 1949, as the Chinese civil war approached its end. Perhaps we were encouraged away by the Communist advance: nobody knew if their army would stop at the border with Hong Kong.
THE WILD BLUE YONDER I joined the US Air Force reserves while studying geopolitics at Tufts University [in Massachusetts]. In 1958, I married my college girlfriend, Midge Canty, and 58 years, three children and six grandchildren later we're still going strong. In a 20-year career in the USAF, beginning in 1956, I faced everything from North Korean MiGs to suspected UFOs - one was a balloon with a gondola dangling from it at over 40,000 feet. And I completed 132 combat missions during the Vietnam war. A mission in Vietnam could involve dropping napalm on enemy barges as military supplies were being unloaded or strafing in support of ground troops. We also hit targets over the border, in Cambodia.
A TIME OF MADNESS In 1969, when the USSR fought a border conflict with China, I was based in Osan, South Korea. I was scrambled in my F-106 fighter against a Russian warplane, but it turned back toward Vladivostok. Then I looked down and saw a fleet of seven warships lying off the coast of North Korea - they were Russian. I buzzed the ships to see what was going on. I watched what appeared to be a fishing boat pulling away from the Russian ships at high speed. Fishing boats don't travel at high speed, so, it seemed to me, it had to be a camouflaged North Korean military vessel. The crew of the largest Soviet warship lined the rail on the deck, as if having just honoured a departing guest from the North Korean boat. Then the warship turned its main battery of guns onto me: I left rapidly.
Unknown to me at the time, the Soviet Union was preparing a strike on Chinese nuclear facilities. In an incredible coincidence, President Nixon decided to scare Russia into backing off its supporting of North Vietnam in the Vietnam war. At that exact time, he called a nuclear alert - kept secret from the public but leaked to the Russians - to tell Moscow that he was so "mad" about their support for North Vietnam that he was prepared to use nuclear weapons. Much later, it became dubbed the "Madman Nuclear Alert". My buzzing of the Russian fleet at that critical moment may well have been seen by the Russians as a direct warning from the president of the United States not to strike China - while in reality I was acting on my curiosity, and got thoroughly chastised for it.
FLYING ON I'm still passionate about flying. Since retiring to Kentucky, I've published a book, called The Spirit of Attack, about the experiences of myself and fellow American fighter pilots. My curiosity concerning all things military began when I was a boy in Hawaii and Hong Kong, and it's still with me today.