Bill Lutgen of Venice, Fla. flew 378 combat missions in an A-37 fighter-bomber in Vietnam, received three Distinguish Flying Crosses and 19 Air Medals for his efforts and retired from the Air Force after 20 years in the service.
The A-37 was a tiny two-seat jet originally built by Cessna in the 1960s as a trainer with a T-37 designation. It was turned into a deadly tactical fighter-bomber by the Air Force during the War in Vietnam.
Lutgen flew out of Bien Hoa, 30 miles south of Saigon in 1967-68. He was a major with the 604th Air Commando Squadron. He flew as flight commander of a squadron with nine other A-37 pilots.
“Originally developed as a trainer aircraft, the A-37 was refitted with a much larger J-85 engine which gave it the ability to carry a big bomb load. We could carry eight, 500-pound bombs under our wings and we were also outfitted with a mini-gun that fired 6,000, 7.62 rounds a minute,” the 81-year-old former Air Force pilot explained.
Generally, the 604s’ pilots flew two planes on a mission at a time. Never did they fly more than four A-37s on a single mission. They were guided to the target in most instances by a forward air controller who was on the ground or in a 01-Bird Dog spotter plane.
Lutgen’s first DFC reads:
“THE DISTINGUISHED FLYING CROSS
“WILLIAM D. LUTGEN
“Maj. William D. Lutgen distinguished himself by extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight as an A-37 pilot in Southwest Asia on 24th Dec. 1967.
“On that date, Maj. Lutgen was scrambled from the Bien Hoa alert facility to assist a Forward Air Controller who had received intense hostile ground fire. Disregarding his own personal safety, Maj. Lutgen pressed his attack and made repeated, highly effective low altitude ordinance deliveries on the target. His precise bombing, coupled with an assured calmness in the face of intense ground fire and an acute aircraft emergency situation resulted not only in inflicting heavy damage on significant elements of the hostile forces and supplies, but in saving his own valuable fighter.
“His professional competence, aerial skill, and devotion to duty displayed by Maj. Lutgen reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”
He picks up the story from there: “It was Christmas Eve 1967 and the forward controller took us into the target–a troop containment area where the enemy had gathered its forces.
“We were a flight of two A-37s. I had dropped all my ordinance — 8, 500-pound bombs. That particular evening I could see the enemy tracer bullets coming up at me.
“Our air control said, ‘If you’d like to go ahead and strafe out that would be okay.’ We had a 7.62 mini-gun aboard our aircraft that could shoot 6,000 rounds a minute,” Lutgen recalled. “I made the first pass and my airplane’s windshield blew up. I was flying with my helmet visor raised so I could see better when I was shooting. I got my eyes full of Plexiglas.
“The windscreen in front of my vacant seat was blown out. I had a tremendous wind rush flying back to base.
“I came off the target and all I could see was the sky and the ground. I told my wing-man I’d been hit. He gave me a vector back to Bien Hoa. On the way back my wing-man did a battle damage check on my plane. He told me there were no other holes in my airplane. It had to be a lucky shot from a single enemy bullet.
“By the time I got back to base my eyes had cleared up and I could see.
“My crew chief jumped up on the wing and check my cockpit out. ‘Do you want to see the bullet that got you?’
“The enemy bullet had come through my wind screen, went above my head, behind my back and was resting between my feet on the floor of the plane,” Lutgen said.
“All three of my DFCs were as a result of breaking the enemy’s attacks. When the bad guys got into our guys and the battle was going to hell I would fly in and neutralize the enemy with bombs and my mini-gun,” he said.
Often times, Lutgen and his squadron flew out of the sun in support of troops on the ground. They would fly in at 5,000 to 6,000 feet and start their bombing run at 2,500 feet. By the time they dropped their bombs their A-37s might be 500 feet off the deck.
Despite the effectiveness of the tiny fighters the pilots of the 604th got no respect from the rest of the U.S. Air Force who flew much larger and faster planes.
“They’d harass us about being so small,” Lutgen recalled. “One of my friends had an F-100 fighter plane pull up alongside his A-37 and the pilot said, ‘My that’s a little airplane.’
“‘My friend told him over the radio, ‘I’ve just been put in for my second DFC and my third one will be coming along shortly. I don’t now what you people have done?’
When not in deadly combat, the pilots of the 604th enjoyed themselves back on base. They were first quartered at Bien Hoa in barracks built by the French decades earlier. Later they moved into air conditioned mobile homes on base.
Bien Hoa was a big Air Force base. It had a 12,000 foot-long runway that would allow almost anything in the air to land.
Five of the pilots in Lutgen’s squadron took a shine to a Rhesus monkey. He became their mascot.
“Heath is what we called him. We named him for our squadron commander Heath Bottomly, a tremendous guy,” he recalled with a smile. “Heath, the monkey, was a little guy with human features.
“We fed the monkey by hand and he became very friendly. We’d see him coming and going. He got to know us individually,” he said.
“When it got close to our time to ship back to the States we had a meeting to decide what we were going to do with the monkey. We decided to spring the monkey loose because there was jungle all around the base inhabited by other Rhesus monkeys.
“The last time I saw Heath he was on top of the roof of our quarters looking down on all of us,” Lutgen said.
After returning from Vietnam, he became an instrument landing instructor at Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio, Tex. It was about this point in his military career when Lutgen was sidetracked because of medical problems and retired from the Air Force.
By chance he was talking to a couple of Federal Aviation Administration guys who suggested he join the FAA. He took their advice and became an operations inspector to begin with working out of Rochester, N.Y.
Looking back on his life in aviation he said the other day, “I can’t imagine anyone doing anything more satisfying than I did in the military and the FAA. I got to help people and guide them. To do that is probably the most gratifying job a person can have.”
By the time he retired from the federal government in 1992 he had more than 30 years of combined service and FAA time in aviation. Lutgen and his wife, Patricia, moved to Venice in 2000.
More recently he was awarded a special national commendation from the FAA, along with nine other aviators, who were singled out for 50 years of accident-free flying. The ceremony was held in Winter Haven, Fla., the FAA’s regional headquarters.
Between the Lutgens they have seven children from first marriages. His children include Mary Beth, Jan, John, Will and Jeannie. Her two daughters are Tricia and Allison.
Name: William Lutgen
D.o.B.: 29 Nov. 1929
D.o.D.: 30 Dec. 2013
Hometown: St. Cloud, MN
Current: Venice, FL
Entered Service: 1948
Discharged: 30 April 1970
Unit: 604th Air Commando Squadron
Commendations: Three Distinguished Flying Crosses, 19 Air Medals all in Vietnam, and a Meritorious Service Medal
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, March 21, 2011 and is republished with permission.
Click here to view Lutgen’s record in the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.
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William “Bill” D. Lutgen
November 29, 1929 ~ December 30, 2013
On the morning of December 30, 2013, Bill passed away after a long illness, while at the Halifax Health Hospice in DeLand, FL. Bill was 84 years old.
Bill was known for his competitive spirit, as well as his great sense of humor. For him, many things were a contest. Whether it was a round of golf or buying a car, Bill approached challenges with enthusiasm. He was equally energetic in recounting stories, most of which involved flying, a humorous event, or both.
He was born on November 29th, 1929, in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Bill looked up to his father, who owned his own automotive store. Athletic and smart, Bill was the little guy who did well at playing hockey because he always played smarter and tried a little harder. Bill had no trouble keeping up with the big kids.
Bill joined the Navy in January, 1949. He initially served as his ship’s chief personnel specialist and paralegal, so he got to know just about everyone coming aboard or departing the ship. Having done a characteristically fine job, he received quite a send-off in 1953 when he left his ship for the last time. As he walked off the gang-plank onto the dock, Bill turned to see the entire crew standing on deck, clapping and cheering. In his typically self-effacing manner, Bill often joked that they were either really glad to see him go, or they were wishing him the best on his next journey – pilot training with the US Air Force.
Bill served for nearly two decades as a fighter pilot, flying many of the Air Force’s premier aircraft. In addition to piloting F-86 and F-100 Sabrejets, Bill also flew the A-37, better known as the Dragonfly. Bill led his unit, the 64th Air Commando, to Vietnam in 1967 to employ this experimental aircraft for the first time in combat. Not only did his unit perform brilliantly during its deployment from 1967-1968, Bill also distinguished himself as an exceptional pilot. Bill displayed remarkable courage while conducting close air support missions, including instances where his cockpit glass was shattered by enemy fire. Bill earned 18 Air Medals. Even more significant. Bill earned 3 Distinguished Flying Crosses, one of the nation’s highest awards for heroism. Bill also earned a bachelors degree from the University of Nebraska before he retired from the Air Force in 1970, after more than 21 years of military service.
Bill’s love of flying continued with his service as part of the Federal Aviation Administration. He enjoyed his service with the FAA, where he continued in roles similar to those he had performed in the Air Force. Bill’s time in the Air Force as a senior investigator for the Inspector General’s office greatly enhanced his skills as an FAA Flight Inspector. Yet, one of Bill’s favorite roles was as a Pilot Examiner. This role enabled him to combine his love of flying with his desire to help others learn and develop their own abilities.
Had Bill not devoted his professional life to public service, he would have excelled as a salesman. “The Art of the Deal” would not have been written by Donald Trump. Bill would have written it first. Whether it was a pair of shoes, an antique car, or a house, Bill loved to negotiate. He excelled at the art of getting to know his customer, and did so in a genuine manner. He was so sincere that enduring friendships would sometimes result from his business transactions.
After his retirement from the FAA, Bill continued to value his service, particularly with the military. He remained a supporter of several veterans’ organizations, including the American Legion, the F86 Pilots Association, the Order of Quiet Birdmen, and the Military Officers Association of America.
Bill is survived by his wife, Patricia; and sisters Charlotte Hines, Mary Schneider, and Jacqueline Kelly. He is also survived by his children: daughter Mary Heery and her husband Bill, daughter Jan Lutgen and her husband Carl Linz, son John Lutgen and his wife Clara, son Will Lutgen and his wife Patricia, daughter Jeannie Bakker and her husband Mark, step-daughter Tricia and her husband Sean, and step-daughter Allison and her husband Chris; as well as eleven grandchildren.
A funeral mass with military honors will be held at Saint Peters Catholic Church, on New York Avenue in Deland, FL, on the 20th of January at 11:00 AM.
Click here to see the Lutgen’s Legacy page.
Published in the St. Cloud Times on Jan. 19, 2014