For Veterans: The Tale of Fearless Freddie vs. Bed Check Charlie

First order of business on this Veterans Day (which we celebrate today, even though it was actually yesterday — yay, “guvment”), turn to the veteran beside you and give him or her a big hug and a thank-you. For all active-duty personnel, we’re  keeping you in our thoughts.

If  you have a veteran in your life, then you should have some sense of what our military members have given to keep our country free. It’s hard work and takes its toll in sweat, blood and life. So spare some time today to say a prayer and a proper thanks.

Today, I thought I’d do something a little different and eschew politics to share with you one of my favorite stories from my favorite veteran, my Dad, retired Air Force Maj. Fred Cronn. I hope you find it entertaining.

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If you know pilots, you’re probably familiar with how much they just love to tell stories about their exploits in the air and on the ground. To get the full effect, you have to picture the scene around the campfire with a bunch of Boy Scouts listening in rapt attention as the storyteller illustrates with his hands and a good deal of Elvis-like hip action the exact flight path of the planes involved.

Now, legends tend to grow in the telling, so veracity of some details may be an open question, but that was never the point when Dad got on one of his yarn-spinning adventures. This is how I remember this particular tale.

During my Dad’s career, which extended from the Army Air Forces days of the end of WWII until several years into Vietnam, he came to be known as “Fearless Freddie.” As a flight instructor, he flew and taught others to fly bombers, fighters, cargo planes, passenger planes, you name it. By his own reckoning, he knew how to fly everything the Air Force had except for helicopters, which used different flight controls.

When Fearless Freddie was stationed in Korea, he found himself assigned to a fighter jet squadron. I think it was F-86 Sabres, but don’t quote me on that — when listening to his stories as a kid, I tended to imagine him flying an X-wing from Star Wars or something along those lines.

One of the enemy’s more unusual tactics at the time was to send a North Korean pilot in an old biplane over a military base in the middle of the night to drop a small bomb or two (actually just hand grenades, probably). Any targets the pilot might take out in the process were incidental to the commotion he would cause. Usually, the bomb drop would be followed by the base defenses firing up the anti-aircraft guns and filling the sky with shrapnel in a usually vain effort to shoot the pilot down. The entire base would be roused and not be able to return to sleep, probably for several hours.

This tactic (I expect there must have been at least a small squadron devoted to this effort) became known as “Bed Check Charlie,” the idea being that if our guys didn’t get a good night’s sleep, they wouldn’t be effective in combat the next day. (Bed Check Charlie was famous enough that he even became the subject of a M*A*S*H episode.) The reason Charlie was effective was that the biplanes used were made of wood and canvas, which did not show up well on the radar at the time.

So one night, Fearless Freddie was assigned to Bed Check Charlie patrol. Charlie had hit the base several times, and the base commander was anxious to knock him out of the sky and get some sleep. Fearless was in the air when Charlie hit, right on the dot at midnight.

As usual, the entire base was in an uproar, and the radio chatter between pilots, ground radar and anti-aircraft units was coming fast and furious. Charlie’s biplane, in addition to being effectively radar-proof, had no lights, so no one was having any luck finding him.

Fearless Freddie made a turn in preparation for another pass over the base perimeter when suddenly he found himself face-to-face with a beat-up old biplane flying right at him. The two planes passed each other “close enough that Charlie reached up and lit a match on my belly,” as Fearless put it.

All of a sudden, the ground radar operator announced on the radio that he had a lock on, and he relayed coordinates to the artillery. It only took one air burst off his wingtip for Fearless Freddie to realize that the radar had not locked on to Charlie’s canvas plane but on to his metal jet fighter.

For the next five to 10 minutes, Fearless Freddie dodged and weaved to avoid artillery blasts while yelling into his radio, “Hold your fire! Hold your fire!” He took his jet all the way down to the deck, anti-aircraft guns turning treetops into sawdust all around him.

Finally, someone on the ground realized what was happening and the anti-aircraft guns stopped. Fearless Freddie landed safely, with barely a scratch on his plane, and quickly found his way to the officers’ club, looking for something in a whiskey to soothe his shaking hands.

His commanding officer caught up to him a few minutes later, complimented him for “showing off” his flying skills and asked him if he was OK.

Fearless Freddie grunted by way of a “yes,” and the CO replied, “Good. One of the guys is in the hospital, so you’re up again tomorrow night.”

Happy Veterans Day, everybody.

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