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Air Force pilots reunite after 50 years

Air Force Capt. Caset Shotwell, left, and 1st Lt Everett Dotson prepare to land a KC-135 Stratotanker during exercise Red Flag 16-3 over Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., July 27, 2016. Shotwell is a pilot and Dotson is a co-pilot. (Tech. Sgt. David Salanitri/Air Force)

Alan Price didn’t know what to expect when he invited three Air Force pilots and their wives to his home on Jekyll Island for a reunion 50 years after they flew missions during the Vietnam War.

Any trepidation they may have had about meeting evaporated moments after they arrived at Price’s home on Thursday.

What they learned was the bond they shared during the time they served during the war was powerful. That bond was also shared by three nurses, two of who served in the Air Force at the same base as the four pilots. The Air Force nurses later married two of the pilots. The third nurse, a civilian who later married Price, lived in the Philippines while her future husband served there.

“I decided after 50 years it was time to get together,” Price said.

Price and two other pilots, David Thibodeau of Springfield, Va., and John Sutherland of Gainesville, Fla., were Price’s roommates in a four-bedroom duplex at Clark Air Force Base they nicknamed “Happy Hollow.”

The three pilots flew C-130s from the Philippines to Vietnam or Thailand, where they would spend two to three weeks delivering troops or cargo to different locations. They also conducted missions from bases in Vietnam and Thailand, where they would monitor sensors that detected enemy troop movements at night and call in for bombers.

The fourth pilot, Bobby Nida of College Park, Texas, flew F4 Phantom fighter jets for the 405th Fighter Wing out of Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.

Nida became part of the group because he and Sutherland attended Texas A&M together.

Price, an Air Force commander at the time, said they all wanted to go to the war to do their part and serve their country.

The four spent much of their time between missions hanging out with Air Force nurses and teachers living on base nearby. Every time they returned safely to Clark Air Force Base after weeks of conducting different missions, they felt like celebrating.

Betty Thibodeau said it was an “adventure” serving as a nurse there. When they got together with the pilots, they never talked about their missions or the dangers they faced.

Rita Sutherland also met her husband, John, while serving as a nurse. She worked long shifts treating wounded troops, many with catastrophic injuries.

“We worked very hard and we played very hard,” she said. “We used to work 12 hours. You worked because you needed to work. It was tough.”

Rita Sutherland said she experienced some very dark moments during the year she served during the war.

“We would often get patients who didn’t make it,” she said.

During the reunion, the four pilots shared stories of their training and their missions in Vietnam.

Nida said he was an ROTC student at Texas A&M and planned to be an Army officer after graduation. But he took a test that determined he had potential as a pilot and decided to join the Air Force instead.

“I found out I liked flying,” he said. “It was better than carrying a rifle.”

Nida, who flew bombing missions during the war, was the only pilot in the group who had any close calls. A fire on his fighter jet forced him to ditch his aircraft over the ocean. Luckily, the crash about 25 miles off the coast was seen by the crew of a Taiwan fishing boat. They rescued Nida and returned him safely to land, earning a reward for saving him, he said.

All four pilots had to take survival training in case they were shot down and captured by enemy troops. It was a possibility they dreaded.

“The only thing I didn’t want was to get shot down and go to a POW camp,” Nida said.

During the reunion Friday, there was plenty of laughter among the men and women as they shared old stories and talked about their lives since they parted ways years ago.

Alan Price left active duty in 1973 and flew C-141s for the Air Force Reserve, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. He also flew for Delta Airlines for 28 years, retiring as chief pilot of the Atlanta pilot base.

David Thibodeau married his wife Betty after he left the Air Force in 1972. He flew for Federal Express while she worked as a registered nurse.

John Sutherland married his wife Rita after they returned to the states. He was a college professor at University of Florida and she worked as a nursing professor at the college.

Nida retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel and later flew for Delta Airlines and several corporate airlines.

Marlee Price said her husband wanted to organize a reunion while everyone was still healthy. Nida’s wife, Judy, died three years ago and Price said her husband decided now was the time for a reunion.

“There’s a bond,” Alan Price said. “Everybody’s had a solid career and everyone looks so well.”

Betty Thibodeau said she didn’t know what to expect when everyone got together for the first time in decades.

“I was a little nervous,” she said. “We had fond memories.”


(c) 2023 The Brunswick News

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