Retired Maj. Gen. Richard Carr of Burnt Store Isles was among the U.S. Air Force Academy’s first graduates in 1959. He spent much of his 35-year military career preparing to fight a war with the Soviet Union that never happened.
In 1962, he was involved in the “Cuban Missile Crisis.”
“I flew an Air Force radar plane out of McCoy Air Force Base near Orlando in 1962. When we got sent down there, we thought this is the real thing because the Russians aren’t going to back down,” the retired two-star general said 45 years after the almost catastrophic international incident.
The Soviet Union sneaked offensive missiles into Cuba by ship. They were spotted by U.S. Air Force surveillance planes.
President John F. Kennedy confronted Premier Nikita Khruschev about the missiles. Then he threw a naval blockade around Cuba. The confrontation lasted for seven perilous days in October 1962 until the Soviet leader backed down and removed the offensive missiles.
Following the Cuban incident, Carr’s second assignment was Vietnam in 1963. He went there as an adviser and spent much of his time flying a Cessna 185 single-engine spotter plane as a forward air observer for the Air Force.
“They would give you an area to fly over and we knew it like the back of our hand. We were looking for change. If, for example, there was a certain trail that wasn’t used much by the enemy and you saw dust on the trees when you flew over, you could figure something had been rolling through the area,” Carr explained.
They were looking for Viet Cong guerrillas or North Vietnam Army troops who were filtering down into South Vietnam from the north. Most of the time, the enemy wouldn’t shoot at a spotter plane because they didn’t want to focus attention on themselves.
By the time he finished three tours in Vietnam, he was a captain. After Vietnam, Carr got a chance to teach at the Air Force Academy. However, before he could become a math teacher, he had to obtain a master’s degree in electrical engineering. After graduation, he spent the next two years in the classroom.
He put in for another tour of duty in Vietnam. Carr arrived back in Southeast Asia in 1972.
“Vietnam was falling apart and our government wasn’t helping things. We had to put up with a bunch of fighting restrictions that were put on us by Washington,” he said. “We couldn’t shoot at a MIG fighter until it took off and shot at us.”
He and his radar operator flew an F-4 Phantom, a supersonic long-range all-weather fighter-bomber. The aircraft’s armament consisted of air-to-air “Sidewinder Missiles,” but no machine gun.
“It was a wonderful airplane. They had twin engines that were very noisy. They would shake the ground when we took off, but they would take a lot of abuse,” Carr said. “I saw one guy land with an enemy SA-2 missile stuck in his tail. One of my guys had a 3-foot hole in his left wing and a 1-foot hole in his right and he got it down.”
By the start of his third tour in Vietnam in 1973, the Air Force had perfected the lazier guided bomb.
“We had tried for years to knock out the Paul Doumer Bridge in Hanoi, but couldn’t quite hit it,” he said. “The first time we dropped a lazier guided bomb on the bridge we knocked it out.”
Altogether, he flew 201 combat missions in Vietnam and had some 4,000 hours of flight time piloting the F-4 Phantom.
When Carr left Vietnam, he was posted in Okinawa. By then, he was a lieutenant colonel and the squadron commander of the 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron based on a Pacific island.
His unit supplied backup airplanes for the two tactical fighter wings stationed in South Korea. Much of the time in Korea, his fighter planes were flying observation missions against North Korea.
After three years on Okinawa, Carr was selected to go to the Industrial College of the Armed Forces in Washington, D.C. He went to school for a year and trained in logistics.
He wrote a paper explaining the U.S. military didn’t have the capability of adequately supplying its troops in Europe with enough ammunition and supplies if a war in Europe broke out.
“I had to present my report to the Senate Armed Services Committee because it wanted to know more. It was quite an experience,” Carr said. “The military wasn’t too happy about that, but I had no choice.”
By 1978, Carr had been reassigned to the Pentagon.
“I sure didn’t want to go. I spent the next two years working there in Air Force Studies and Analysis and became a full colonel before I was reassigned,” he said.
Carr was sent to the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing based at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina. When he arrived, they were still flying F-4 Phantoms, but he converted the wing to F-16 Falcons.
“The F-16 is a single-seat aircraft that was much faster and more agile than the F-4. Problem was, we lost a lot of people when we first converted to the F-16 because the pilots weren’t used to the nine g’s of pressure they experienced and some of them blacked out,” he said.
Two more years were spent at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina before he was shipped to California and was assigned to George Air Force Base in the high desert. He was back flying F-4s at George.
“It was while I was there I took part in ‘Bright Star,’ a war game operation where we flew our planes against the Egyptian Air Force’s Russian-made air defense system. We had to penetrate their air defense; it was great training. The Russian system was good. We would have lost some planes if it had been for real,” Carr said.
By this time, he made brigadier general and was on his way back to the Pentagon. He was assigned as the commander of Air Force Studies and Analysis.
“I covered the whole spectrum of logistics, fighters and bombers in this position,” Carr said. “By the time I left the Pentagon, I got my second star.”
He was reassigned as Chief of Staff of the Combined Forces Command in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988. “That was the year Korea had the Olympics and my wife, Jean, got to see all the games,” he said.
Two years later, he was back in the Pentagon. He went to work in 1990 for the Defense Intelligence Agency. Shortly after Carr arrived, they were investigating the threat to the U.S. from Iran when Iraq invaded Kuwait.
“Almost all 2,200 of my people were focused on Iran, not Iraq — that’s how good our intelligence was,” he said. “It was almost as bad as when we were in Vietnam using outdated French maps because the U.S. had no maps of its own.”
After serving two more years in the Pentagon, Carr was sent to Heidelberg, Germany, as vice commander of the 4th Tactical Air Force, as part of NATO’s forces in Europe.
“I spent my last year in the Air Force working as a peacekeeper in the Balkans. My headquarters was in Sarajevo, where we tried to keep the peace as part of the NATO forces,” Carr said.
He and his wife, Jean, retired to the Punta Gorda area in 1994. The couple purchased a lot in Burnt Store Isles, where their home was located decades earlier.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Sunday, Dec. 30, 2007 and is republished with permission.
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