Thursday, July 29, 2010

‘Following the Flag’: A chronicle of an Air Force career

I’m no student of military history so I have to admit that I had mixed feelings about reviewing Lieutenant General (ret) Lloyd R. Leavitt’s memoir, Following the Flag. Leavitt chronicles his military career beginning with his four years as a West Point cadet through 31 years in the Air Force.

Leavitt’s class of 1950 was the first to enter West Point after World War II. Of the 1,008 who enrolled in that prestigious university four years earlier, only 670 graduated. Leavitt, among the graduates, chose to attend U. S. Air Force flight training.

“It was 2 August 1950.” Leavitt writes, “I closed the car door and walked toward the operations (“ops”) building at Goodfellow AFB.” . . . “My exciting new life included not only switching from Army fatigues to Air Force flight suits and sporting the gold bars of a second lieutenant but marrying Anne Sullivan during graduation leave.” Unfortunately, many of Leavitt’s graduating class of 1950 were quickly deployed to Korea where 13 were lost before year’s end. After flight training at Goodfellow, in February, 1951, Leavitt was jubilant when he was sent to Williams AFB, Arizona for F-80 jet fighter training.

In March 1951, President Truman attempted to end the Korean War with a cease-fire proposal and, in his belief, avoid World War III. General Douglas MacArthur voiced his opposition with his outspoken eagerness to escalate the war. He was promptly fired. Just five months later, Leavitt graduated from jet fighter pilot training and became fully engaged in the Korean War and in the U.S. Air Force.

“The afternoon I graduated and received my silver wings changed my emotions,” Leavitt writes. “Exhilaration was still there, but trepidation was gone. It had been replaced by confidence. A better Air Force lay ahead, and I would be part of it. I realized the Air Force was truly my home.”

Thus commenced the colorful, amazing 31 year military career of Lloyd R. “Dick” Leavitt—a lifework that spanned the Cold War, 100 missions in F-84’s during the Korean War, flying in the Strategic Air Command, and four years in the top-secret U2 project. He simultaneously flew a mission over the Soviet Union when Gary Powers was shot down over Siberia. He performed 152 combat missions in Viet Nam, was an eye-witness to the Cuban missile crisis, and later worked as a systems analyst for the Pentagon.

While much of Leavitt’s material is technical, his approach is informal and conversational. I found myself totally intrigued with his writing style and his easy manner of presenting scholarly information. While he writes from a tactical viewpoint, he peppers his material with anecdotes, letters to his wife and children, and, from time-to-time, confessions of personal flaws. I was on the edge of my seat when Leavitt recounted his “longest day,” when in flight from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to a destination in Brazil his U-2 had a complete electrical failure at 68,000 feet over the jungle.

“A strange emotion came over me,” Leavitt writes, “one that I had never experienced before. I knew there was no way out of this emergency. I would soon die.”

Flying by his wits, Leavitt managed to spot the Uruguay River and from that landmark he caught sight of Buenos Aires and managed to land safely. He had flown the disabled aircraft more than eight hours. When he finally landed, the U-2 had almost exhausted its fuel.

Leavitt retired from the Air Force on August 31, 1981. He continued to work as a consultant in private business for several more years. Following the Flag is published by the Air University Press.

This review was published July 29 in the Boerne Star and on November 27, San Antonio Express News

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