Commemorative Air Force Headquarters

LT COL Howard J. Pierson USAF (Ret)

Dinner Speaker for November 16, 2006

* Born in 1927, New Jersey
* Left high school early to join US Navy; served aboard USS Iowa
* After WWII & honorable discharge, completed high school & attended U. of Alabama on a football scholarship for the “Crimson Tide”
* Air Force ROTC Commission 1951; Pilot Wings Class 52C, Reese AFB, Lubbock, TX
* B-29 Superfortress Pilot in Korea; B-47 & B-52 (SAC) Pilot during Cold War
* Four (4) years of combat tours in Vietnam & Southeast Asia as Command Pilot with USAF units, Vietnamese Air Force & Royal Thai Air Force
* Last assignment in Southeast Asia was Commander of the “Nail” Forward Air Controllers (FACs), flying OV-10s. Last man to fly out of Cambodia, 15 August 1973 call sign “Nails 01”
* Graduate of 3 universities; Associate Professor at 4 universities
* Member of many prestigious organizations, including Order of Daedalians; Fellowship of Christian Athletes; All 3 Wars Association – Chaplain; Air Commando Hall of Fame
* Combat decorations & awards include 3 DFCs, 3 Bronze Stars, 39 Air Medals, Meritorious Service Medal, Airman Medal for Valor & Vietnamese Gallantry Cross
* Founder of Top Gun & Formation – Leadership Enhancement & Communications Teamwork
* Wife Gilberta Guth Pierson wrote the book The Fighter Pilot’s Wife – A Military Family’s Story, published in 2006; available at presentation 16 November 2006
* Flew military fighters, bombers & trainers with one, two, four, six & eight engines (and sometimes no engines!), accumulating over 10,000 flight hours

The Price

 “I’m looking into the faces of people who know what freedom’s about. The good news is that we’re the hope of our country.  Sitting among you, rubbing shoulders, are people who went forth, spurred their horses forward into the breach and met our enemies and we defeated them. Victory, and there’s no substitute, said MacArthur…”

- - Howard Pierson


“We need each other don’t we?” asserted Howard Pierson. He continued by setting an interactive stage for his Golden Gate Wing talk on November 16, 2006. “Let’s give ourselves a call sign so I can keep you folks alert. Let’s be Freedom Flight tonight. So when I say ‘Freedom Flight, check in’, let’s hear a clear, crisp ‘Two’.  You’ve got to be clear, crisp and awake.”


Howard Pierson was born in New Jersey in 1927, and not only did he inherit his large frame and a predisposition towards a long and healthy life, he was also taught what is important in life and the proper attitude he should have towards those things.

“My father lived to be 103 and ¾ years old. So I claim that in my genes. He said to me, ‘Any time you talk to anybody, talk about God, family and country.’

“People say country should be second. But if you don’t have a family, you don’t have country. Amen?”

“Freedom Flight, check in”

“Two!” was the audience’s fledgling response.

“A little slow. The reason that’s important when you check in is that the flight leader has to know who’s around and who’s available. If I don’t hear ‘two, three or four’ and I look around - - maybe they’re in a loose formation - - I need to know, maybe three got stuffed. Maybe the radio’s out.”

“So my dad said, ‘I’ll be there.’ And he’s always with me in spirit. Phil (Schasker, in his intro) mentioned I married the widow of one of my classmates, and Papa was going to be my best man. Wouldn’t that have been cool?  He checked out six weeks short.”


Young Pierson had left high school early to join the U.S. Navy during World War II, serving aboard the battleship USS Iowa.

“You may know this, that mom had to sign for you if you weren’t eighteen. My mother did, tearfully. Okinawa was the campaign.”

Pierson says he was a “17 year old deck ape”, serving as an apprentice seaman on the Iowa.  Yet, when working at his battle station as a gun striker on a 40mm antiaircraft gun battery, Pierson was also a first-hand witness to Japanese kamikaze attacks on the Navy fleet during the invasion of Okinawa.

Nearly six decades later, Pierson was one spearhead of a campaign to establish the USS Iowa, now mothballed in Suisun Bay, as a floating museum in San Francisco. He says that even though San Francisco’s supervisors passed on the opportunity, a plan is underway to attempt a similar home for the battleship at Vallejo’s Mare Island.

Postwar, an honorable discharge from the Navy in hand, Pierson turned to completing high school. He then had an experience that turned him down his next path in life.

“I was now 18, 19 and back in high school with youngsters. I was a real salty veteran, and you can imagine what an arrogant ass I was. My drill was, I’d go to high school, go to Kitty’s Tavern, drink beer, and then work the night shift at Hercules Powder Company from midnight to eight. When you’re 19 you can do that for a little while. So that was my pace.”

“At Kitty’s Tavern one night, a guy looked down the bar and said, ‘Hey Pierson, get out of here. Why don’t you get out of here.’ “

“I thought he was talking to me about that moment. He called me down and gave me some counseling about life, meaning, ‘Get out of here.’ “

Pierson’s new direction became attending the University of Alabama on a football scholarship. He played tight end on the “Crimson Tide”, scoring a single touchdown against archrival Auburn.


The Korean War offered Pierson an opportunity to again serve his country, and in 1951 he started a new career with an Air Force ROTC Commission, followed by Pilot Wings from Class 52C (“52-Charlie”) at Reese AFB, Lubbock, TX.

“52-Charlie was training today, in combat tomorrow - - much like many of you in World War II. If you were National Guard or Reserve they said, ”Hey, c’mon. This is not Christmas help, this is the real thing.”

Pierson flew the B-29 Superfortress on missions to bomb North Korean forces.

“When the Korean War began, the military air thinking was, ’Let’s just keep bombing like we did- - in formation, daytime, good aiming - - and destroy the Koreans. The bad news is, they didn’t count on the jet MiG. No contest. If you get bounced by MiGs and you’re flying reciprocal-engine aircraft, you’re in deep trouble.  So, we were losing a lot of planes.”

“The good news for me was I got there when they said, ‘Let’s just fly at night in a stream. And they did individual aiming and bombed respectively, and the loss rate went way down. The Russians in Korea didn’t have any night fighters that were threatening to us.”

After the Korean War, Pierson helped fight the Cold War, flying B-47 and B-52 bombers for the Strategic Air Command.

“In the 50s and 60s we were standing alert and flying missions all over the world carrying nukes. I had a B-52 crew with ten megatons, ten megatons  going to Moscow.

“Fast forward thirty years later. I go to Moscow to a bible college, and a young man named Igor tells a story. He was telling the group he was a little boy in Moscow when the air raid sirens would sound, and everyone ran and hid in the bomb shelters because the American nuclear bombers were coming.”

“So when I got to the mike, I said, ’Igor, I was one of those men who was going to come and destroy you.’ “

“A ten megaton bomb on Moscow would have killed two million people. So we hugged and embraced. It was a sweet moment.”


War came next in Vietnam, and for Howard Pierson, it became four years of combat tours in that country and elsewhere in Southeast Asia as a Command Pilot with USAF units, the Vietnamese Air Force and Royal Thai Air Force.

“Flying fighters for the Vietnamese was exciting. They had their own rules of engagement. Remember that they were driven out of North Vietnam, many of them walked to freedom as children.  So when they became adults they knew what life was about. They knew the threat of Ho Chi Min’s Communism.”

“The wing commander I flew with had 3000 combat sorties. Three thousand… and I was his advisor. What was I going to tell him? But when he died, his son said, ‘Dad never talked about it.’ So whether it be traumatic or just good patriotism, do record what happened to you.”

Pierson’s last assignment in Southeast Asia was as Commander of the “Nail” Forward Air Controllers (FACs), flying OV-10s, and carrying the radio call sign of “Nails 01”. As such, on August 15, 1973, he was the last man to fly out of Cambodia.

“You must know that FAC-ing is a pretty sporty course. You get close to your work. The FAC is down low and slow in a Bird Dog or O-2 or OV-10, finding the enemy below the clouds or wherever he is, and then identifying him with white phosphorus, ‘Willy-Pete’.

“We roll in, shoot one rocket and if it’s right in the area we tell the fighters, ‘Hit my smoke.’ If it’s not, we tell them, ‘One hundred meters to the north,’ or, ‘Somewhere in Laos’ or whatever our smart remark is.  But we lost a lot of people because we’re down among small arms and automatic weapons.”

We just dedicated a monument a monument at the Wright-Patterson Museum in Dayton, Ohio.   We had 263 FACs killed in action.  It’s a fast track with lots of risk and danger. So if you ever meet a FAC, buy them a drink. Amen?”

Turkey Flight, check-in.”

“Two!” shot back a startled pair of Wing members.

“That was a trick, troopers…” smiled Pierson. “Freedom Flight, check in”

“Two!” alertly responded the audience.


“The fighter had a challenge to bomb the enemy. They had the most threatening triple-A (anti-aircraft artillery) in the history of aviation.  Even though you guys were over Schweinfurt in World War Two, the Pacific, perhaps Midway, or pick a place - - it was heavier in Vietnam.

As Pierson displayed a POW-MIA bracelet he recalled, “Tens of thousands of Americans wore these in memory of those who were shot down, in prison or were killed. The war ended in February of 1973 for them. Were you at your TV crying and looking and laughing when they were released?”

“I was joyful because I had seen dozens of guys I had known and seven and a half years later, they returned.   They had it tough.  We sacrifice and we do our duty. But the POW, in the presence of thine enemies, that person is really under fire, amen?  I wear this for a friend who was lost. It’s a sad story, but I’ll always keep him in my heart and in my thoughts.”

“Daniel here, he’ll never forget coming to meetings with his Dad and the people who are about military service. This precious young man can’t be in the ROTC in San Francisco. Did you know that? You know the issues of the day, and if we don’t recruit, guide, teach and pray for the next generation, we’ll be in trouble. Just like you went forth in World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. Any Iraqi Freedom vets here…? You might want to try and recruit some of them.”

“Freedom Flight, check in”

“Two!” came the response.


Pierson held up a window banner for families with sons or daughters overseas - - a blue star for service, a gold star for a life given in that service. Pierson says the family of his wife, Gilberta, displayed six blue stars for her uncles who served during WWII.

“I was born in New Jersey, but I escaped. I went in the Navy and when I came back in ‘46 I bounded up the steps of a home in Montclair, New Jersey to see the family of one of my buddies.  I knew Tommy had been in the service, but I didn’t know where, what or when.”

“As a child - - 8, 9, 10 - - Tommy and I were pals there. His mom always made us tea sandwiches or we’d snitch them and raid the ice box,” Howard continued, saying he’d rung the doorbell and Tommy’s mother answered Howard by name.

“I picked her up and spun her around.  And in the living room, I turned and looked and one of these (a gold star banner) was in the window. Tommy was on the Indianapolis. Do you know her story?  She carried the guts of the atomic bomb to Tinian, the bomb that ended the war. And Tommy was on that ship, lost at sea.”

“It means that, as it says in John 15:13, ‘For greater love, has this no man lay down his life for a friend.’  That’s what you signed on for. That oath you took… somewhere in there, in small words, is that particular Bible verse. You have to be willing to do that.”

“But this (banner) is a symbol of the person who sacrifices. A token that reminds us that freedom is not free.”

“Freedom Flight, check in!”

“Two!” came the crisp response.


Howard Pierson’s flight log shows more than 10,000 hours. His combat decorations and awards include 3 DFCs, 3 Bronze Stars, 39 Air Medals, Meritorious Service Medal, Airman Medal for Valor and the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross. He was the founder of “Top Gun and Formation – Leadership Enhancement and Communications Teamwork” a training program for…

 His wife Gilberta Guth Pierson wrote the book The Fighter Pilot’s Wife – A Military Family’s Story, published in 2006.



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