390th Fighter Squadron Wild Boars F-4d Model
Fly with the Wild Boars of the 390th Fighter Squadron in this hand crafted F-4d model.
A special tribute model made in honer of Lieutenant Colonel William A. “Bill” Curnutte who received two DFCs over Vietnam. Below is his story provided by his son Troy.
The echoes of the honor guard’s rifles firing the twenty-one-gun salute shattered the peaceful serenity and shocked me back to reality. For a few precious and scarce moments as my mind wandered, things were back to normal and Dad and I were talking and laughing about something as we usually did. As the bugler started playing Taps, I realized where I really was and some how managed to rise from my seat to give my Dad, who was also my very best friend, a farewell salute.
What a courageous battle Dad fought these last months with this terrible disease called cancer. We knew he was struggling and in terrible pain, but as always, he kept the worse things to himself to protect his family whom he deeply loved. Watching him daily deal with his deteriorating condition, and knowing there was not anything I could do, was the most helpless feeling I have ever experienced in my life. It haunts me to this very day. All any of us could do was fight along side him, and somehow without him saying, he knew we all were right there with him. And we never left his side. Like most fighter pilots, he faced this mission like all others. With a quiet courage and determination to try and “fly the mission” no matter what the odds. Dad took his last breath and flew his final flight on the morning of May 7, 2002, and a large piece of my heart went with him.
Mom wanted me to have Dad’s medals from WW II and Vietnam, and the American flag that was given to her that laid on his casket, as well as, his flying helmet. She also gave me his old, worn blue military briefcase that we found in the very back of his closet. After several weeks, I opened up that old briefcase and started reading through his many military documents and records. I noted on his pilot’s log of so many hours he had flown in over twenty-five different aircraft. I could picture a young, green second lieutenant and then fast forward to that experienced and seasoned fighter pilot flying combat missions in Vietnam. As I was about to close the lid, I stuck my hand in the very back flap and was surprised to pull out a wrinkled and stained letter. That letter was post marked March 25, 1969 and was sent to my Dad from a Lt. James R. Fegan who was in the hospital at Wilford Hall in Lackland AFB, Texas. Dad was a Lieutenant Colonel and had volunteered for Vietnam and was stationed at Danang AB from June 1968 to June 1969. He was a Command Pilot assigned to the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing, “Gunfighters”, and flew F-4D combat missions with the 390th Tactical Fighter Squadron, “Boars” commanded by Lt. Col. Cecil G. Foster.
When I read that letter it changed my life and set me on a mission that I knew I had to fly for my Dad. The letter from that young Lieutenant read in part:
Lt. James R. Fegan
Wilford Hall Hospital Ward T-7 Room 7
San Antonio, Texas
Post marked March 25th 1969
My penmanship is a bit unsteady, still fortunately, I’m left handed and my left arm will soon be completely recovered.
Thank you for your letter, it is great to hear from my friends at Danang and particularly you. When Joe McMahon came over to Korat he told me of your hair-raising mission in support of my rescue. I saw and heard the guns. I was among them. When I heard that you were going after the big guns with in country ordnance, I was really overwhelmed. I got through 20 hours of exposure with heavy injuries, a rescue, another plane trip and surgery fairly calmly.
Hearing your story just overwhelmed me. I guess that the true definition of a fighter pilot is when one throws away the odds and lets it all hang out for one of his fellows. I was very humbled, impressed and amazed by the efforts of all involved in my rescue but your efforts made a particular impression and I thank you for a job well done and am glad that no harm came to you when you dared the guns with in country ordnance.
My left leg is in traction so I’ve been flat on my back since I landed in the weeds on 17 January. Another half month I’ll be upgrade to wheelchair status. The big worry now is my right arm, which has a lot of nerve damage. I imagine I’ll be around the hospital for quite awhile so if you happen by San Antonio please stop by and see me.
Again I thank you for your particularly daring efforts and hope that you will be rewarded accordingly. As for me, I am humbled by the lengths the people of the rescue effort went to. Thank you for your letter – as I said it’s great to hear from you. I hope the remainder of your tour goes well and that we will meet again someday.
In all the discussions Dad and I had over the years about his days in Vietnam, he had never mentioned this particularly dangerous mission he flew near Tchepone, Laos against overwhelming enemy odds, to help rescue a downed fellow fighter pilot. There were many heroes supporting that rescue mission and as I read the letter over again and again, I was so proud that my Dad was one of them. As I finished reading that treasured letter the tears just streamed down my cheeks with so much pride for my fallen Dad. How I so wished he were still here so I could just tell him how proud I was of him and how much I loved him. He always knew that, but now I knew in my heart that I had a final mission to fly for him and deeply committed myself to learn much more.
I started out searching the Internet and making contact with the Gunfighters Association. They were extremely helpful and gave me numerous contacts and resources to try. They also volunteered to make some inquiries in my behalf, and told me that the 366th Wing “Gunfighters” and the 390th “Boars” were now stationed at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. I wrote letters to their Wing Commander who led me to their Wing Historian and the 390th Squadron Commander, Lt. Col. Jeff Prichard. I soon made contact and found myself flying out to meet with them, review their Danang history and take a tour of the squadron area. I was able to glean more information and additional contacts to try to find out more about this particular rescue mission. I then wrote more letters to gain access to obtain Dads military records and contacted the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell AFB to find out more specifics about the year Dad was in Vietnam. I contacted the National Archives and Records Administration, wrote more letters and e-mails to anyone who might have a lead or a resource to follow up on. I was determined to try and find out more.
I posted messages on inter net and to everyone that I could find an e-mail address for who was stationed at Danang during Dad’s time there, as well as, many Vietnam fighter pilot and Veteran web sites. I got a real education learning what being a “Fac”, “Fast Fac”, “Fast Mover”, a “Sandy”, a “Jolly Green” and “PJ” were all about, and what they all did so heroically each and every day. So many, many of them jumped on board to help me fill in the blanks. I received e-mail responses back from hundreds of prior and retired military folks, even if it was only to give me moral support for the mission I was flying for my Dad. Each and every one of those e-mails touched my heart and kept me pressing ahead even when it seemed that I was not getting very far. After many, many hours, long nights and several months of continual research and contacts, the details started coming to life. Almost as if 35 years had not passed at all. Then one day, I opened the e-mail that told the entire story of the Stormy 02B rescue, sent to me by one of the Jolly Green PJs involved, Sgt. D.C “Doc” Johnson.
DEPARTMENT OF THE AIR FORCE.
LAOS: On 17 January 1969, Capt. Victor A. Smith (pilot) and 1st Lt. James R. Fegan (copilot) were reported missing in action while on an operational mission.
Stormy 02, a FastFAC F-4D aircraft, was shot down during clear weather over the Tchepone area of south central Laos. They had rolled in on an AAA battery near Ban VangThong. Both had ejected, but beeper and voice contact was only established with Stormy 02B. The survivor reported that he had a broken arm and leg, was lying on his back on top of his seat pack, in tall grass and could not move. No contact was made with Stormy 02A and no parachute was seen (Examination by the JTFFA in the 1990’s confirmed that the pilot went in with his aircraft). This rescue mission was to be conducted in a highly volatile and unstable situation. Directly in the middle of a North Vietnamese Army base camp which contained a minimum of 10,000 armed enemy troops, but also surrounded by an intense enemy barrage of flak from over 100 AAA batteries including radar guided “big gun’s.” As dangerous and intense rescue operations continued, one A 1 Skyraider pilot was shot down and killed, another A1 Skyraider pilot shot down and was evading capture, and a Jolly Green and her crew were brought down. After 20 hours on the ground, Lt. Jim Fegan, and all the rest had been safely rescued after many dangerous support missions over this heavily defended area.
I was overwhelmed when I finally read all the details about this dangerous rescue in Laos over that two day period of January 17-18, 1969 and how so many had risked their lives faced with overwhelming odds to save another. Before everything had really sunk in, I received a mailing address for that young Lieutenant who sent my Dad that letter back in March of 1969. I was so excited that I could possibly be close to making contact with Jim Fegan after all these years. I sat down and wrote a six-page letter to Jim trying to explain to him, from my heart, what it meant for me to find that letter he wrote to Dad 35 years ago. I also told him about what a special relationship and bond that my Dad and I had always had and what his loss had meant to my life. I ended my letter by hoping that he had enjoyed a good life with much success and that all his physical injuries had been long healed. I also told him that in some strange way, that I felt there was a “special bond” between the two of us. I told him Dad was always there for me, and in that hot and dangerous jungle of Laos, on that day against overwhelming enemy odds, Dad did his very best to look out for him. I sent that letter with much hope and anticipation that I would hear from Jim, and that he would understand my mission. It wasn’t long until the mail I had been longing for arrived.
7/4/02 12:44:33 PM Eastern Daylight Time
Troy, your letter arrived a couple of days ago having been forwarded from Maine. I got it out of the box and said, “Oh, I know a Curnutte” and the mental video plays F-4D’s low angle bombing runs, tracers, a hot cockpit, heavy breathing, sweat, the ride a bit bumpy, the dry cottonmouth taste of danger and the studied calm to deliver the mission. It couldn’t be but it was.
I moved to Louisville, Kentucky for a job less than a year ago. Though I walk with a limp and have a lot of interesting scars, I am pretty active, became a physician and now work as a medical officer in a corporation.
But it was me, the shavetail 1st Lieutenant, for whom your dad did the incredible Jan 17, 1969. I had occasion recently to go to a Sandy and Jolly Green reunion and convention that concentrated on my rescue, as well as, the rescue of a downed helicopter and A1 driver also shot down Jan 17 in one of the unsuccessful attempts to get me out. We each debriefed our part and in mine I mentioned that Gunfighter 3 out there near Tchepone dropping in-country ordinance on guns was the emotional focal point of the whole rescue for me for years. At the reunion were the Pararescuemen that did the ground work for me, the one injured when the chopper went down, the helicopter pilot that got that crew out, and numerous A1 drivers who flew in support of the mission.
Fortunately, the only casualties were among the rescue crews, 1 A1 driver KIA, one PJ wounded, and the front seater of my aircraft missing in action for years. The Full Accounting that you hear about from time to time through Vic’s brother has updated that. Our aircraft was hit and fell apart in a big fireball. I somehow got out badly injured, Vic Smith got out of the plane but either the seat malfunctioned or there wasn’t enough altitude for it to function. The evidence is scant after all these years but suggests a pilot in a line between my landing and the aircraft wreckage reports that he went into the ground in his seat.
Let me say that you and your Dad had such a close relationship. It really shows in your letter. For many of us there were stones in our pathway coming home. Your relationship with your father is truly a treasure. I’m sorry that cancer stalked him, I know too much as a physician, but isn’t it just like a fighter pilot to find the dignity and courage in a medical battle as well?
Immortality is in the stories we leave to be told again and again. There are countless people who know only part of the story of Jan 17-18, but do know of the incredibly brave work of Gunfighter 3 in the rescue of that humble 1st Lt.
Col. Curnutte is well remembered and I’m proud to have flown in his back seat from time to time and to have served with him.
At this point I knew that my ultimate mission had indeed taken on a new purpose. With everything I now knew concerning my Dad’s efforts with this rescue mission, it was obvious to me that he certainly deserved a medal for his heroic actions on that day.
I went back to research through the Department of the Air Force; Veteran’s web sites, posted more messages and contacted my Virginia Senator to find out what documentation was exactly required for a posthumous award of the rightful medal for Dad. I also wrote to the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Air Force, Joint Chiefs of Staff and others, asking for advice from many of the contacts and friends that I had made along the way. All were extremely supportive but cautioned me that it may be difficult after all these years to put all the documentation together required for a final review and approval by the Air Force. But I was driven by this personal honor to “fly this final mission” for my Dad, and I was just not going to give up no matter what the odds. Looking back on this now, I can see my strong determination had to be hereditary. Leave it to a fighter pilot’s son.
I soon received from the Air Force the list of requirements and documentation that would have to be obtained, along with congressional endorsement, in order for Dad’s medal package to be considered. It was a bit overwhelming at first and maybe a “long shot” to some, but it was a mission that just had to be successful.
The most important document the Air Force required was Dad’s Danang #90th Squadron Commander’s recommendation for an award. I had already been extremely fortunate enough to contact the rescued Lieutenant 35 years later, now how in the world was I going to be able to locate and contact his Squadron Commander? I ordered 16 MM microfilm tape for the 366th Wing and the 390th Fighter Squadron for the period of June 1968 to June 1969 from Maxwell AFB Historical Research Agency as a start. Through many more hours of research and letter writing, and a whole lot more help from Vietnam veterans and the Gunfighter’s Association, I finally was able to obtain Dad’s 390th Squadron Commander’s name and address. So, I sat down an again poured my heart out to Lt. Col. (Ret) Cecil G. Foster. I explained my mission and asked for his vital support. He soon wrote back the most touching letter concerning my Dad and my mission, and he remembered Dad’s flight in support of Lt. Fegan’s rescue. He sat down and wrote his official recommendation for Dad to posthumously receive his second Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). As I read it, the emotions again just over flowed.
15 January 2003
This statement is prepared in support of a request for the award of a Distinguished Flying Cross for Lt. Colonel William A. Curnutte, USAF, Retired (Deceased)
I commanded the 390th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 366th Tactical Fighter Wing, Da Nang Air Base, S. Viet Nam from July 1968 to July 1969. During this time many heroic actions were performed by pilots assigned/attached to the 390thTFS, including those on 17 January 1969.
On 17 January 1969, Capt. Vic Smith and Lt. James Fegan were flying a “Fast Fac” mission near Tchepone, Laos when their F-4D aircraft was hit by intense AAA gunfire and blew up in a ball of fire. Radio contact was made with Lt. Fegan who was severely injured and immobile. Lt. Colonel Curnutte was performing alert duty as the Aircraft Commander of Gunfighter 03.
The 366th TFW was ordered to scramble the Gunfighter alert aircraft to provide covering action for a rescue attempt for Lt. Fegan. Alert aircraft were normally armed with ordnance for “in country” action, which required them to go very low over the enemy to effectively and accurately dispense the munitions. This placed them in a very hazardous situation as every enemy gun could and did fire at them.
Lt. Col. Curnutte immediately took off and unhesitantly flew his aircraft “down in the weeds” and provided the desperately needed support for the rescue attempt. His reputation as a superior fighter pilot was fully demonstrated on this mission. By his professionalism, skill and devotion to duty, Colonel Curnutte brought great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.
Cecil G. Foster
Lt. Col. USAF (Ret.)
I then again contacted my state Senator’s local office and talked with the Military and Veterans Affairs Staff Assistant. When he heard the story and my mission, he lent all his support and advice. I spent a month putting together all the required documents and supporting information and forwarded the entire package. I could sense that this flight was in its final stages and had no doubt that this mission would be successful. If they needed more documentation or clarification, then I would get it someway, somehow or somewhere. In my mind, there was no way I could fail with so many retired pilots, veterans from all walks of life, and most important, my Dads spirit deep within my heart and soul. It wasn’t long coming. As I opened the large package from Senator Warner’s office my hands started shaking and the tears welled up in my eyes. Every emotion I could imagine just hit me all at one time. This had been a long seven-month journey of untold hours of research and making contacts. And it has also been the most important thing I have ever done in my life. I slowly read the cover letter.
Dear Mr. Curnutte:
Enclosed is your father’s Distinguished Flying Cross (First Oak Leaf Cluster) and supporting documentation. I know that he appreciates your efforts. I only wish that he were still alive so that we could present this to him in person.
Again, thank you for bringing this important matter to my attention. If my office can be of assistance in the future, please do not hesitate to contact me.
With kind regards, I am
U.S. Senator, Virginia
As I opened the medal case to see that Distinguished Flying Cross, I put my hand on my Dad’s flying helmet sitting on my den shelf. I could vividly picture him in that cockpit, with that certain expression and smile on his face, looking right at me. I read aloud the citation to him.
Lieutenant Colonel William A. Curnutte distinguished himself by heroism while participating in aerial flight as an F-4D Command Pilot, 390th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 366th Tactical Fighter Wing, Danang Air Base, Viet Nam, on 17 January 1969. On that date, while on an aerial flight in Tchepone, Laos, Colonel Curnutte unhesitatingly and courageously led his flight into very severe anti-aircraft artillery fire, dropping his “in country ordinance” on numerous hostile gun emplacements occupied by an encampment of 10,000 NVA troops. Placing himself in an extremely hazardous situation, Colonel Curnutte flew his aircraft “down in the weeds” and provided the desperately needed support to keep the enemy from capturing a downed pilot and enabling his safe rescue. Colonel Curnutte’s reputation as a superior fighter pilot was fully demonstrated on his mission. The outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty displayed by Colonel Curnutte reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.
I find myself reflecting back each and every day on all the treasured memories Dad and I have shared. Not just as Dad being my parent, but as a true “best friend” who was always right there “on my wing” no matter what. And for the very first time, I was given the opportunity, and this very special honor, to fly this “final mission” for him. There can be no greater respect or love between a Dad and son.
I am so proud of you Dad; as a courageous and daring fighter pilot, and as a compassionate and caring man involved with your church and your community determined to try and make it better for all of us. And most important, as a loving Husband, Dad, Granddad and Great Granddad to your entire family. You are, and always will be, loved and missed so very, very much.
As Jim Fegan so eloquently said in his e-mail to me, “Immortality is in the stories we leave to be told again and again. Col. Curnutte is well remembered and I am proud to have flown in his back seat from time to time and to have served with him.”
My mission is now complete. It may have taken 35 years, but you earned it Dad. This one was for you all the way.
On this Father’s Day, I will lay your medal upon your grave, look up, stand smartly and give you a final salute. And I will picture you once again back in that cockpit, with that special smile on your face, and proudly watch as you raise your hand and return my salute…..
Fly on and dance among the clouds Dad…. you will always be my hero.
Lt. Col. William A. Curnutte Dad & Troy
Danang AB Vietnam 1969
SEQUEL TO FINAL MISSION:
The entire time while I was working on my Final Mission, I knew I had to remain focused and disciplined on the only outcome I was aggressively pursuing…..seeing that Dad was officially recognized for his valor on his mission of 17 January 1969. While I knew that this mission was achievable, I also was aware that the road would have all kinds of hidden bumps along the way. I have to admit that at times I did truly wonder if I would succeed or would another unforeseen obstacle loom up in the path. I could hear Dad telling me as he always did, “whatever you decide to try and accomplish…..always give it your very best”.
With those thoughts driving me, as well as, my basic trust in people and optimism in the system, I did not entertain any negative thoughts for long and kept pressing on. As I inched my way along the process, I sensed getting ever so nearer to finding out more leading to the entire story of Dads efforts. As I became more certain of the eventual outcome I began to think beyond my current goal of obtaining the recognition for Dad. My thoughts now turned to my Mom and how will the honor be presented to Dad through my Mom? Will there be an official presentation ceremony and what will we do to ensure that Dads accomplishments are memorialized for future generations to learn about and appreciate to never forget?
I began to think about all the airplanes he had flown, especially the F-4 Phantoms he had taken into combat as a 390th Boar Command Pilot. With the tail numbers of the Phantoms assigned to the 390th at Danang given to me by Bob “Krog” Krogseng, Bob Rashka and Barry Price who served with Dad, I soon started a search trying to find a surviving Phantom that Dad had flown.
Rob Raine and Terry Vanden-Heuvel, who both work with the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, helped me so much with inventory resources. I did not have to search for long as the last of the Phantoms he had flown was in a museum in Cresson, Texas who could no longer maintain her and she was in a very bad state of disrepair.
I contacted the USAF Museum in Wright-Patterson who told me that she was soon to be moved to the Historic Aviation Memorial (HAMM) Museum in Tyler, Texas. I immediately contacted the curator to get all the details on F-4D, 66-8812. The museum relocated Dads Phantom in June 2005 and my wife and I flew out to see the fighter the following month. I eagerly volunteered to lead a fund raising effort to have Dads Phantom restored back to its original 390th “Boar” combat colors as she sat back at Danang in 1968-1969.
After a few months, with so many great people jumping on board to support the restoration efforts, we raised nearly $10,000. The Historic Aviation Memorial Museums dedicated team of volunteers put in almost 1,000 hours of remarkable efforts to bring this proud fighter back to life. And I was so proud to learn that all the efforts were to honor my Dad and his heroic rescue support mission by placing his name on the cockpit rail! There she was in all her beauty and splendor just as she appeared when Dad climbed her ladder so many, many years before.
Then on March 25, 2006, about a year after the proud fighter plane had found its new home at the museum, some 500 people gathered for the unveiling of F-4D “LF” 66-8812. Everything I had dreamed and worked so hard for came to fruition right then and there. One of the highlights of the ceremony occurred Dads citation was read aloud and then Lt. Col. Jeff Prichard, the 390th Boar Squadron Commander, officially presented Dads Distinguished Flying Cross to my Mom.
Dad had now finally received the recognition for his heroic actions over three decades ago. Mission Accomplished!
Smoke Trails Publishers Note:
If you served with, or remember Bill Curnutte, Troy would love to hear from you. His contact info is noted below.
Troy M. Curnutte
2425 Taylorwood Blvd.
Chesapeake, Va. 23321-2420
(757) 465-0306 Home
You can see F-4D Phantom 66-8812 sitting in proud display at the Historic Aviation Memorial Museum in Tyler, Texas. HAMM Board of Directors President, Carolyn Verver, as well as all their members, would love to talk with you and pay them a visit.
Historic Aviation Memorial Museum
Tyler Pounds Airport
150 Airport Drive
Tyler, TX 75704