The Flying Ace
Profilers: Charlie Geraci, Airon Alexander, Edward Wang, Justin Rashid
Aviation’s Finest: The Story of William P. Driscoll
Tell us a little bit about yourself:
I’m a former Top Gun instructor for those that may have seen either the Top Gun, one or the Top Gun Maverick, served there for four years. Also, an ace had a chance to shoot down five enemy airplanes in real Air to Air Combat. And I’ve got probably 5200 jet dog fights on my resume. And I’ve been a guest speaker up at Top Gun for the last 34 years. My topic is simply air combat, or when it matters most and life or death hangs in the balance in the dogfight, here are a few things you might want to consider.
How did the immediate recognition of your achievements by military leadership change the way you remembered combat? (0:32)
You know, I was 24 when this happened. And I’ve always seen myself as just an average everyday guy, nothing special. And we were lucky to be in the right place at the right time. And we were well trained. So when, when it happened, we knew what we had to do to get the job done. But I’ve always felt any number of my contemporaries would have done just as well, maybe even better if given the same opportunities. But I never saw myself as a hero, just a lucky guy who happened to be well trained.
How have you emotionally processed your experiences as a pilot in the decades after? What has changed? (1:01)
You know, at the time when you’re young. You know, I went into the service that the Vietnam War was very, very much a focal point for all of us getting out of college, we were either going to get drafted or volunteer to go into one of the branches of service. I felt it was my duty. My father fought in World War II. My grandfather ran an operator in World War I and I thought it was my turn now to step up and do what I could do to help out. So I volunteered for flight school, I took the flight test and passed it. First time I was on an airplane I was flying down to Pensacola to go to flight school. I was not someone who always wanted to aspire to be an aviator. It’s just something that I happened to, I don’t want to say fall into but ended up in because I, the more I learned about and everyone said it’s almost impossible to get accepted. Nobody gets through it. It’s almost impossible to get jets. Those were challenges that appealed to me. So I did all that with a little luck, worked real hard, had some great mentors to help me out along the way. Got my wings, got out to San Diego, got checked out the F4 Phantom. And went off to combat flew off the deck of the aircraft carrier, USS Constellation. Flew 170 combat missions, shot down five enemy airplanes and some wild dogfights. Started celebrating when we became aces and we got shot down by an air missile. Last flight, we ended up have to shoot down three enemy airplanes in some crazy dogfights. It’s crazy intense. We ended up on fire out of control upside down with enemy planes coming in and finish us off still 30 miles inside enemy territory. So we had our hands full. But we were able to come back to our basic training and get through it and get ourselves in a position we could eject from the airplane.
How did being an educator for other pilots at TOPGUN alter or supplement your memories of actual combat? (2:50)
You know, when you’re doing it for real, it’s almost like your psyche gets branded with the tension, anxiety, stress and fear of the moment. You got the shakes gone real bad, while when you’re doing it for real. You try not to throw up. You usually don’t. But you have that stomach ache like you’ve had too much to drink that you need to throw up. You try not to get the runs, you feel like you’re going to. The rule of my squad was if somebody had an accident, you’re throwing up and getting the runs, they cleaned the cockpit when they got back. And it didn’t happen regularly. But it did happen from time to time. It’s intense. And as I’ve often said, the tension, anxiety and fear of being left unchecked can easily turn to panic, once panic sets in chances for mission success are severely reduced. And when I first put this talk together for Top Gun, what I did, they requested this, it was not something I volunteered for. But when I put this presentation together, I know I know what we did to become aces. But I felt that it was a limited perspective. So I went out and interviewed 26 other aces to find out how they did it. Four from World War I, 18 I think 18/19 for World War II, a couple from Korea and a couple others from Vietnam. I wanted to find out what happened. What about today, if you were operational? What would you do? And tomorrow looking at the future challenges, how would you train? That’s what I was interested in.
How did meeting pilots from the north in 2019 alter or supplement your memory of the combat? What were some of the emotions you felt when meeting them? (4:13)
I realized when I went into Naval Aviation I was outraged at the way our prisoners of war were being treated by the North Vietnamese. They’re being tortured, it was just awful what they were doing to them. So I went into naval aviation, really intensely focused on making them pay for what they were doing to our people. And I won’t say that I had absolute total hate for the enemy but I had a really low disregard for them as a communist country and what they did and they held a gun to the head of South Vietnam and said you to do it our way or click, the gun is gonna go off and I said that’s, that’s not right. So at the time the thinking was with the communism. If we don’t stop them on the shores of Southeast Asia, someday they’ll be nipping at our shores. And that made sense to me at the time. So I was willing to step up and do what I could do to help him to contribute.
So I went in, then I saw them behind the curtains, look at how that war was being fought. And, you know, the many different political issues that were being addressed some appropriately, some not appropriately, there was a lot of things going on that someone like me is just an everyday guy was, was almost like the carrier was the pod. And then someone like me was less than a pod. But we were there to serve and do our job and do it as well as we could. In the heat of battle. You’re not thinking of the flags, not waving. There’s no patriotic music, you’re thinking about taking as good care of yourself and your teammates as you can. That’s what you’re fighting for. And you do the best you can do some really intense conditions. I did this, came back to the United States, toured around the country for 10 months after we became aces and gave speeches to a number of different outlets about what we did and our keys to success. And then went to TopGun for four years, that checked out the F 14 tomcat and got about 2100 hours flying that plane off of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. And then I said to myself, it’s time for me to leave and get into something else. So I left the military going into commercial real estate, where I met your dad, one of the finest brokers I’ve ever met, by the way, and your mom. And the fact remains, I still stayed in the Navy Reserves. And I still get asked to come up to Top Gun and do these presentations. So I stayed on the outer periphery involved with what was going on. And I didn’t think too much about the enemy. Other than that, nothing personal. But in those dogfights, there’s so much going on. And you’re so nervous, and so scared, that you’re trying to do the best you can at just the most basic of things. And the most basic things in that environment are really hard to do. So we did the best we could. And you know, shot as mentioned, shot down the five planes.
Through the years, I never really thought about the pilots, we shot down I just, you know, did my commercial real estate work. And I would do my military speaking when requested. And about all, golly, maybe four or so years ago, I got a call from someone that said, there’s 14 pilots from North Vietnam that are coming to the United States for a visit. And we’ve volunteered you to participate on a panel discussion with several going to be the pilots you fought against. So Would you be okay with that? I said, No, I don’t want to meet those guys and be on a panel discussion with them. They’re the enemy. I have nothing in common with them. I always had a strong, ultra strong disregard for them when I was younger, and it hasn’t really changed. So I tried to beg off the panel and a couple of the other navy friends called me and said, Well, you know, we put your name in, and we’re really counting on you with your experience. So we think it’d be a very valuable addition. Because the North Vietnamese are going to talk about what their tactics were that day. And we’re looking for you to talk about what the United States tactics were. So think about that. So I thought about it. And I initially said, No, count me out. I’m not interested. But I thought about it some more. I said, you know, this really is an interesting opportunity here to actually meet them.
So the fellow I flew in the backseat of my pilot was a gentleman by the name of Randy Cunningham. He was coming. So I remember we were, we were down to the holiday inn. And there were about 200 people to greet the North Vietnamese when they arrived. So we’re in the lobby when they got there. I was in the back periphery. The press was there. People taking pictures. I didn’t really want to meet them. But we just sat in the back and watched them all come in and they weren’t, they weren’t particularly tall as men, and they looked about the same age as us, you know, all the all the fellas. So I had no feeling one way or the other. I just watched them come in. And we sat in the back and they did a little press conference and through the translators talked about some of the things that happened to them along their lives. It was interesting to hear that side of things.
The next night, there was an open house on board the aircraft carrier USS Midway down here. And I went down to that, I got invited to that presentation. There were about 2000 people that were open to the public. I stood at the back of the Midway with two friends of mine, both pilots who had shot down enemy airplanes. And we’re standing in the back of this aircraft carrier that we use to launch all these missions against North Vietnam. I’m listening to the North Vietnamese pilots, they’re on our aircraft carrier in the front. And they were talking about what life was like for them. They had 60 Airplanes, the US had between the Navy Marine Corps and air force we have more than 1000 fighters. Most of these fellows these North Vietnamese learned how to fly before they learned how to drive. They rode bicycles to flight school. And they talked about how on Thursday afternoons, their wives came out to the bases where they were stationed, not for conjugal visits, but just to come out to see if they were still alive. And most of them had been shot down at least once, several have been shot down twice. Their average mission lasted 10 to 12 minutes. And when they got airborne, they expected they were going to be shot down. They thought our airplanes and weapons were superior all the way across the board to theirs, so I’m standing there with my two friends that had shot enemy planes down and we’re going, well, that’s a tough road, all these guys had to deal with there. And I had initially had no interest in wanting to hear anything about them. And I had no empathy for them at all. But as I stood there and listened to their presentation, I said to myself, Wow, they love their country just as much as we loved ours. This was their backyard, we’re, from their eyes, the invaders, not that I would necessarily agree with that. But that was a tough, tough deal. And they were, someone like me will be there eight to nine months, and then I got to come back home. They were there, three, four or five years until they were killed or something to this effect. So that was a fascinating experience.
So I just filed it away. And the next day, I was going to be going down to the San Diego Aerospace Museum, to be on this panel with two or three of the pilots from North Vietnam. And my job was to talk about what our tactics were. They talked about what their tactics were, again, they’re about 2000 people, it was down at the rotunda. So which is a big, open air, like patio seating area. But it’s a glassed in the actual F4 phantom jet that myself and Randy Cunningham flew to shoot down our first two makes mounted to the rotunda. And it’s got my name on it with five red stars. And it’s loaded up with the missiles, they’ve drained all the fluids out, but that’s the plane, the first enemy plane we shot down, we chased a MIG 21 up a valley going up about 600 miles an hour and about 100 feet till we caught them. And we cut them off and shot them down. And then we, you know, it was a pretty intense fight to catch them and get ourselves out of there because we’ve been under very heavy surface-to-air missiles attack up until that time. So the second plane we shot down, we also flew that same airplane. So it was interesting for me to be sitting on a stage looking across the rotunda at that airplane. The North Vietnamese pilots are sitting right in the front tables with their wives, and many of them had their children and grandchildren with them. And what the way it would work is as I would speak for, I would say, for example, I would say well, on this particular day, our main mission was flak suppression six, then I would wait, a translator would say what I you know, to give again, there should speak to speak to the North Vietnamese, because the Vietnamese couldn’t understand what I just said, and then proceed to the next step. So they went through what they did, what their tactics were, we went through what we did and what our tactics were. And it was a fascinating recounting of the day, we shot down three of them and our squad had shot down six of them on that day in this big air fight, big dog fight. There was six US Navy planes against approximate 30 enemy. It was a wild fight. You know, people screaming on the radios and the missiles going every which way people in parachutes. It was. It was crazy, but we got through it. But I would say it was a fascinating experience. Surreal, not what I expected. I’m sitting closer to them than I’m sitting here right now. They were sitting next to me. I wanted to not like them. I liked them. They liked flying and aviation, just like we did they love the countries just like we did. It was a fascinating experience. And this, realize this has happened almost 50 years after my last combat mission.
Anything else you would like to mention in this interview? (14:05)
After that, after that presentation, the moderator who is a radio disc jockey asked each of us what that experience was meeting each other face to face. So each one said what they thought when it came my turn. I said that I realized that I had more in common with these men than I did many of my own countrymen. They did the same things we did for the same idea, you know, the little different points of view on why we did what we did. But they were I won’t say used by the government. They were a mechanism to put forth with the government was trying to do and I also said that what happened then, the lessons learned are responsible for what happens now and will bridge the gap between now and what happens in the future.
I shook hands at the end as we walked off the stage, and a translator came up to me and said that there was someone who would like to meet you. So I follow this lady. She was a very attractive young lady, maybe in her mid 20s She had a long pink silk dress that went down to the floor. She was one of the translators. I followed her out to my plane. And standing on my plane was this thin Vietnamese gentleman with a goatee long goatee. And the five planes we shot down four of them were catastrophic explosions or planes really close to the ground so the pilots had no chance to get out. One of the planes we shot down after the missile hit the plane decelerated rapidly and the pilot ejected and when his plane decelerated and the pilot ejected we had to take a cut away to avoid hitting the pilot. He ejected right into our flight path. I can’t say I made eye contact. But I looked over it I saw that there really was a man in that airplane. And he had I know it was his flight. So we have what would be something like a white shirt or something on the top and damp pants that would probably just his G suit. And I didn’t think twice about it. I just wanted to avoid him and get ready to do what was happening.
Next, We looked at enemy airplanes as nothing more than targets to be eliminated. So as I walked over to this airplane, and I met this translator, she said to me, Bill, this gentleman got shot down. He heard your story. He got shot down close to the day that you shot down three enemy airplanes. He thinks it might have been you that shot him down. never I never got confirmation. But I looked at him, shook hands with him. We had people came out and took pictures. I talked to him for a little while about what he’s been doing since he got out of the Air Force. He’s got a farm. I like to grow tomatoes. So we talked about our mutual interest in growing things. And then as it turned out, I asked the translator if I could ask through the translator him a question. So she said certainly. So I said Ask him. How long have you two been dating, she translated. He killed himself laughing and said for a very long time.
We shook hands, we hugged again, we pose a few pictures. I’ve actually got the pictures I can show you. But the last thing he told me in front of my airplane, which is F4 Phantom is a MIG 17 also on a pedestal. He pointed out the plane had seven red stars along the domes. He said that’s my plane. I was the first ace from North Vietnam. So I looked at the plane, I shook his hands again, or we looked at both planes and walked around and, and just kind of looked at him through the translator and pointed them out. It was a I won’t say it was a life changing moment. But it was a surreal event. I’m one of these guys that has had many nightmares through the years about my combat experiences. And they always featured the North Vietnamese pilots coming into my bedroom at night with bayonets with Viet Cong to capture me and take me away and I’m struggling to avoid capture and wake up screaming or this kind of thing. I can’t say that I’m completely cured. But after that experience, I don’t think I’ve had a nightmare like that since part of my realization was these guys had a heavy slog, just like we did. And they tried to do the best they could in some very difficult conditions that they’re in.
I was going to say, you know, it wasn’t easy, it wasn’t an easy road. You know, I had an awful time with alcoholism for 10 years. And I finally joined Alcoholics Anonymous because the memories continue to bounce back. And I always tried to keep a lid on things and push things back down. And I probably went another 30 or so years just trying to, as we said, man up, shut up and complete the mission. And I finally realized that wasn’t working. So I had to get some professional help, which I did do and and was able to talk through some things and not that I’m any kind of an expert on any of this now, because I’m not but I very closely involved today helping the Navy SEAL foundation with some of the Seals that have had troubles. Not that I offer any advice because I don’t but I listen. And I explained to them some of the mistakes I made early on when I came back from overseas, and the importance of getting professional help if you think you need it. And there’s nothing wrong with saying to somebody that there’s something wrong, and then then try to do something to get yourself back on track.
While you’ve been out to the airshow, so I’m going out to the airshow with a couple of friends. We happen to show up at base ops. Nothing’s planned. I’m standing in line waiting to patrol my ID to get in this Friday. It’s like the one you’ve been through. It’s not as Saturday and Sunday there’s 250,000. Friday is 25 to 30,000. I’m standing in line waiting to go through this big white bus pulls up and it couldn’t have been we couldn’t have planned it this way out of the bus steps. These are these North Vietnamese fellows right they aren’t there. They’re actually 13 and 14. And they get out of the bus and they stand right next to me and I have not met them yet I haven’t talked to them. So one of the chaperones said, Oh, that’s Willie Driscoll. He’s an ace. And they recognize the name. So as we get in, he came over and said, Hey, these three guys are, let’s see, there’s 4. Guys, their ace is also they want to have their picture taken with you. So I said, Okay, this guy was actually the flight leader on the day we shot. He retired as a general. This may have been the guy, I could never pinpoint which one of these guys was there, a little evasive on that. But they were this guy, this guy, and this guy were out there on the same day, we were on the day, we shot down the three. And they were aces from North Vietnam. So this, we had a picture taken, they wanted to have a picture taken. So this is what it looks like, the Aerospace Museum. There’s our plane, that’s the MiG 17, this mounted front. And that’s the guy that was waiting underneath the plane. You know, and this is what he looked like when he was a young guy. You know, me, I looked the same as when I was a young guy, actually, I don’t, but that but what I look when I was younger isn’t important. But it was fascinating now, something that was that. And I walked away from meeting him. And I won’t say I liked the guy, but I didn’t hate him at all. I thought it was just interesting to have met the guy. So I belong to a group called the American fighter Aces Association. So I got all aces that are not many of us left now. But I got worried about 18 months ago that he had passed away. So what I did was I went out and I got a sympathy card. And I wrote, you know, something to the effect of. And I think was named something to that effect. And I said, I met you and your dad and your father in San Diego, California several years ago. And I’m glad we met when we did it in a very peaceful setting, because my hunch is it wouldn’t have been quite so peaceful how we met 50 years ago. And I just want to let you know that I’m remembering him and your family in my prayers. And I was really pleased to meet him. And he seemed like just a really good guy. So I wrote the thing out on a card that I have a tailor who’s a She’s a Vietnamese lady. And so her daughter actually graduated number one from Dartmouth. My family so I went to see Jane. And I asked her if she would take what I wrote up and write it in Vietnamese. So she did and then mailed it to the American fighter Aces and we sent it out to the guy whether it ever got to him. I don’t know. But it was I felt good about someone who was an enemy.