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Retired fighter pilot vividly recalls combat missions in Vietnam

MacDill Air Force Base, Fla (Air Force/Released)

The first time Jim Cash took the controls of a jet as a teenager, he knew he was right where he was meant to be.

Now in his 80s, the retired Air Force Brigadier General and Bigfork resident flew combat missions in Vietnam in an F-4 Phantom in the 1960s, was among the first pilots to fly the F-15 Eagle in the 1970s and later flew the F-16 Falcon as a wing commander at Florida’s MacDill Air Force Base before retiring as the vice commander of the 7th Air Force in South Korea in 1991.

The survivor of several harrowing missions in Vietnam, a training flight accident and more, Cash says there has always seemed to be someone looking out for him.

“I am one of the luckiest people you have ever met,” Cash said sitting among the plane models and flight memorabilia that decorate his home office. “There has always been something or somebody sitting on my shoulder because I have definitely used up all of my nine lives in these airplanes. I will guarantee you that.”

BORN AND raised in the small town of DeKalb in Northeast Texas, Cash developed a fascination with flying at a young age. It was a fascination he took with as he attended college at Texas A&M, where he earned an engineering degree in 1962, though Cash says he really majored in something else.

“I didn’t major in electrical engineering at A&M. I never cracked a book. I majored in the Corps of Cadets. I loved that stuff,” Cash said with a grin. “I liked the uniform and discipline. I liked everything about it. When I wasn’t doing that, I was at the airport — Easterwood Field. I would do anything they wanted me to do to get an hour of flight time. I had my first solo flight at just 3.5 hours and I got my license at 35 hours.”

In September 1962, Cash was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force through the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Texas A&M and was sent on his first assignment, manning the Air Force’s radar station at the top of Blacktail Mountain, where he would watch the F-106 Delta Dart fighters that would occasionally grant him a friendly flyby.

It was during his time in Lakeside that Cash met his future wife, Martha (Marty), who lived in Somers at the time.

It was during his time at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls that Cash first faced one of the biggest obstacles of his career, a challenge that nearly grounded him before he ever took to the skies — the Air Force physical eye exam.

CASH HAD failed to achieve the 20/20 vision certification needed to get into flight school four times before nervously taking the test at Malmstrom.

“I took my exam and this kid writes down 20/20. I asked him to check it again and he smiled and said I had really tested 20/20,” Cash said. “I think it was because I had gotten away from reading books while I was out on the radar site.”

Unfortunately for Cash, the result was not the same when he took the eye test again upon entering flight school at Laredo Air Force Base in Texas, where the flight surgeon told him he had tested 20/25.

“I told him, I have been dreading this test for almost a year,” Cash said. “He told me that after I finished flight training, I could wear bifocals and the Air Force wouldn’t care. This was just a way to limit all of the people that wanted to go into flight training. He said he wasn’t going to ruin my career by writing down the wrong number, and he put down 20/20.”

Finally right where he wanted to be, Cash received his pilot wings in May 1965 and, after completing F-102 and F-106 training, was assigned to the 456th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Castle Air Force Base, California, for one year.

AFTER TRANSITIONING to the F-4C as an aircraft commander, Cash was assigned to the 12th Tactical Fighter Wing at Cam Rahn Bay Air Base in the Republic of Vietnam, where he soon found himself flying combat missions on a regular basis with the call sign of “Swine.”

“I don’t know anyone that felt scared over there. It was just another regular flying thing. You got scared when you got back down and realized what you had just flown through. When you are flying, you are just too damn busy. You are so preoccupied and so focused. Every flight was just another flight. You relied on your training to get you through,” Cash recalled. “We were trained to keep emotion out of it. We were told that if we let the enemy shooting you get under our skin, we wouldn’t last a year. All of our missions into the north were ‘one pass, then haul ass.’ That’s the mantra we lived by.”

EARLY IN his time in Vietnam, Cash engaged in the mission that would earn him the first of two Distinguished Flying Crosses he would receive during the conflict.

A Marine F-4 had taken a hit and both the pilot and radar intercept officer had ejected, but only the pilot had survived. Equipped with a radio, the pilot was on the run in a river valley full of open fields. Both Cash and his flight leader had loads of six 750-pound bombs, but they were taking 23mm ground fire while trying to clear the way for the pilot, but couldn’t tell where the fire was coming from. After making six passes dropping their bombs along the river, Cash caught sight of the enemy guns, 15 or 20 of them, under a row a trees away from the river.

“I can’t tell you the feeling I had. It was total elation. I would like to have that feeling again today. I just yelled over the radio, ‘I’ve got them,'” Cash remembered.

The fighters made one more pass, and using his M61 Vulcan rotary cannon, Cash took out all of the enemy guns. The rescue crew was then able to move in and retrieve the Marine pilot without taking a single shot of enemy fire.

Cash recalled that most of his missions involved little more than “turning several big trees into toothpicks,” but there were several that will never leave his memory, especially those during the Tet Offensive in 1968.

“We were just overrun at Khe Sanh. When I was there, the weather was bad and they were over-running our base there. Our guys were literally calling in napalm strikes right on top of themselves,” Cash said. “I wasn’t going to do it and I remember one of them telling me ‘Why don’t you just go home? You are not going to do us any good if you drop it that far away.’ It looked to me like I was burning the eyebrows off our troops where I was putting it and they wanted it closer.”

IT WAS also during his time in Vietnam that Cash learned some tough lessons about how the war was being portrayed to the American people back home.

“I remember sitting there watching TV one night and there is Lyndon Johnson looking right into the camera, with his Texas drawl, saying ‘I want to assure the American people that we have not and we will not make any type of military attack inside the nation of Cambodia,'” Cash recalled. “Guess where, for the previous two weeks, every other day, I had placed a load of six 750-pound bombs? We were going into Cambodia every day. It was routine.”

In September 1968, Cash was assigned to George Air Force Base in California as an F-4 instructor and was later assigned to the U.S. Air Force Academy as air officer commanding Cadet Squadron 18.

A few years later, Cash was afraid he was going to be passed up for promotion when his guardian angel came through once again.

“Whenever I thought my flight career was over and I was facing a staff job for the rest of my career, the telephone would ring and it would be somebody asking ‘How would you like to fly an F-15’ or later, the F-16,” he said.

Cash had been given the chance to be one of the first pilots to fly the new F-15 Eagle as he was transferred to Langley Air Force Base in 1976. There were 11 of the new fighters when he got there.

Cash spent six years at Langley, rising from the rank of major to colonel while, in his own words, working just about every job that was available.

“Langley was probably my best assignment,” Cash said. “At the lieutenant colonel level, you have 24 planes sitting out there. If you go to war, you know exactly where you are going. It’s the last rank in the Air Force that, when you have to go shoot at people, you get to lead the pack. After that, you are sitting behind a desk.”

Just when he thought he would be stuck behind a desk, Cash got the chance to fly the F-16 as he was assigned as deputy commander for operations for the 56th Tactical Training Wing at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida in July 1983.

CASH WAS promoted to brigadier general July 1, 1988, and continued flying until retiring as the vice commander of the 7th Air Force at Osan Air Base in South Korea in 1991.

In all, Cash moved 25 times in his 29 years in the Air Force, but his final move was back to his wife’s home state of Montana, where he now enjoys building and flying experimental aircraft with the same confidence and swagger he had as a fighter pilot.

“Fighter pilots are vain guys, you can count on it. If they are not, they don’t need to be up there,” Cash said. “If a guy doesn’t think he is the best out there, it’s my attitude that they don’t need to be out there. If you ask me who is the best fighter pilot that I know, guess what the answer is going to be to this day? You can kind of tell by being around me that I really enjoyed what I did for a living. I would do it all again in a heartbeat and I wouldn’t change a thing.”

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(c) 2022 the Daily Inter Lake

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