May 29, 2011, Taylor Loyal, The Daily news Journal
Growing up in Rutherford County in the 1940s and 1950s, Jimmie Taylor always found himself looking up.
A banker from Eagleville named Russell Puckett had a J-3 airplane that he would fly right over Taylor’s grandmother’s house off of Shelbyville Highway. Taylor would watch that plane and think it was the most exciting thing he could imagine. After high school, Taylor went to the University of Tennessee, where he tried his hand at engineering, business and liberal arts.
But none of them suited him.
He headed back to Murfreesboro and decided to take an aviation class at MTSU. The first time he sat in a plane, he felt at home.
Even after 34 years in the U.S. Navy, the feeling never went away. Taylor spent 10 years in Vietnam, flew 170 combat missions, earned three distinguished service medals, became the boss of the Blue Angels and was the man the military assigned to sign off on the script for the movie Top Gun.
The retired rear admiral recently sat down with The DNJ to talk about his life in the military and what Memorial Day means to him.
Q: How did your time at MTSU translate into an interest in the Navy?
Taylor: I was flying. And I had already gotten my private license and my commercial rating and my instructor rating. I was instructing students while I was in school at MTSU. I had also done a couple summers crop dusting down in Mississippi and Louisiana and Tennessee and Illinois and Arkansas flying the old World War II Stearmans, which had been configured for crop dusting. Somewhere in there, this is when the draft was still on and I knew my number was about to come up. I knew I didn’t want to be a gravel cruncher and be down in the trenches with a rifle.
Q: Your father wasn’t in the military and your brothers weren’t. Did you have a fear at all about what you were getting yourself into?
Taylor: No. After crop dusting for two years and rolling a couple airplanes up into little bitty balls and flying under lines and through trees and around buildings and keeping my wheels in the top of the cotton, there wasn’t (any fear).
Q: But nobody’s shooting at you when you’re crop dusting, right?
Taylor: (Laughs.) I never thought about it. I guess there was an interesting study done when I was operations officer at one of the fighter squadrons that was out in North Vietnam of what makes a fighter pilot. And it said first-born sons, Alpha-type males, tend to be fighter pilots. The next all-pilots meeting we had at that squadron that was the next day, I think. I said, ‘How many in here are first-born sons?’ Everybody out of 15 pilots except one were first-born sons in that fighter squad. That was something I thought was very interesting. And I happened to fit that profile.
Q: What was your first deployment?
Taylor: We deployed in ’59 aboard the Oriskany, which is now a reef at Pensacola, Fla. They submerged her. That’s the first carrier that’s been done that’s been stripped and environmentally put together the way it’s supposed to be. It was sunk as a reef off Pensacola, Fla., two years ago. So my first ship is now a reef that I could go diving on in Pensacola, Fla.
Q: Does that make you feel good or bad?
Taylor: I’d much rather look at it that way than as razor blades being chopped up over in Japan or India somewhere. Or rusting away in some spot. Nowadays with the price of metal the way it is, things get recycled.
Q: Where was your first deployment?
Taylor: To the Pacific. You go through Hawaii, you go to Japan, you go to Hong Kong, you go to Singapore, you go to the Philippines. You usually get through Australia. You’re flying support missions. There wasn’t a war going on. The Formosa Strait situation had just been resolved when we got out there and we were still being very careful around Formosa and the straits of Formosa during that time frame. But for the most part, there wasn’t a war going on.
Q: When was your first combat mission?
Taylor: I flew in a combat zone starting in 1965 in South Vietnam in a support aircraft. It wasn’t in the real Yankee land up in the north. Then I made three cruises where I was flying over the north. I made two cruises south and three cruises north. … I started my combat cruises in 1965 and I had my last one in 1975. … So I saw a lot of stuff.
Q: Are you more likely to talk about that now?
Taylor: I had a lot of friends that were in the Hanoi Hilton. And you know, you always wonder about being tested. To me, flying in combat and getting shot at, that comes with the job. You accept that. But getting shot down and taken prisoner and spending five, six, seven years in a very … Today, when people talk about torture, they don’t really know what torture is.
Q: As you were flying your missions, were you aware of what could happen if you got shot down?
Taylor: Oh yeah. That’s one of the reasons why when a guy went down the effort to rescue him in really hostile country in the north, we lost a lot of people just trying to rescue a guy on the ground because there was so much on the ground that could be fired at you. … The mindset was, “We know what’s going to happen to him if he gets captured.”
Q: Did you ever have to go in and try to rescue someone?
Taylor: I was on several rescue missions. One of them went on about 10 hours and we got the people out of west of Hanoi. The guy was on the hillside and we kept recycling. I refueled I think twice and kept going back in to provide support. … It was amazing to me that we were able to get them out of there.
Q: As a person, how did you change in the 10 years between 1965 and 1975?Taylor: There’s something that proves to be reasonably true that if you can survive your first 10 combat missions, you get smart enough to (learn) how to fly or when to move or how to jinx. You don’t ever fly straight and level. You’re always moving in an aircraft. You’re going fast, watching out. The surface-to-air missiles, when they came at you, were about the size of those light poles out there. They leave a long trail and they’re coming at you at about mach 2. You can actually outfly those if you see them. But if they fire a series like fire one, fire two, fire three, you’re losing energy when you make these hard turns. In the heat of battle, you tend to go into a different thought process that’s almost automatic. So if you can get through 10 hops, you don’t ask, “What do I do now?” If you try think like that, it’s too late.
Q: How many missions did you fly total?
Taylor: I had about 170. Most of my missions were flown in ’67, ’68, ’69, ’70. And then my final mission was in ’75 when I was escorting the helos (helicopters) out of downtown Saigon with the ambassador making the last flight out of Saigon.
Q: What was that day like?
Taylor: It was like a Mexican standoff. The North Vietnamese had all their tanks and trucks surrounding downtown Saigon. The embassy was still American territory and they had it surrounded and nobody was shooting. The rules of engagement were you can’t shoot until somebody shoots at you. Well, there’s not many fighter pilots who are going to wait till somebody shoots at them. … But anyway, that was an unusual situation to have that many hostile people in one little bitty space and, as far as we know, not a single shot was fired in two days as we evacuated Saigon in an operation that was called Frequent Wind on April 28, 29, 30, somewhere in there of 1975.
Q: After 10 years of flying combat missions and being there and knowing that area, how did it feel to just leave that day?
Taylor: Kind of disheartening. Tan Son Nhut, which is the main airport in Saigon, I used to fly out of there all the time. And here I am, whipping around in my F-14 waiting for the helo to go in to pick up the people where the ambassador was at our embassy and there were aircraft burning all over Tan Son Nhut. I saw C-130s burning. I saw F-5s burning. So the North Vietnamese had already taken over and they were just blowing stuff up. And here you are whipping around and waiting and something has to go. … How can this many people that have been shooting at each other for 10 years be this close together and nobody’s shooting? … We moved out and that was it. We shut the door and turned out the lights.
Q: It must have been incredibly difficult to maintain your marriage during that whole time frame. How did you all communicate?
Taylor: I’ll give you a contrast. Of course, this is back in the ’50s and ’60s and mail was the way you did business. It would take maybe 10 days to two weeks to get mail one way and it takes that long to get it back the other way, so trying to work out any kind of issues, you were about three weeks between the word making the circle it needed to make. Well, yesterday I was at my daughter’s and she’s on Skype (an Internet video conferencing program) with her husband (who is flying support missions for the Army) in Djibouti, Djibouti.
Q: When did your experience with the Blue Angels begin?
Taylor: The very first time I saw the Blue Angels was on the seawall at Navy Air Station Corpus Christi when I was a cadet down in advanced training at NAS Kingsville and they were having an air show at Corpus Christi. That would have been in the summer of ’58. I went up and they were flying F-111s at the time and I just thought that was spectacular. I didn’t know anybody on the team then, but I knew who they were and all of them were fighter pilots at the time. Then after I made my first cruise and I got back in 1960-61, I wanted to be a Blue Angel. Well, I had just been gone in our marriage, out of three years, I had been gone two and a half and decided that probably wasn’t a good idea.
The Blues are gone more than people who are out on a cruise. Out of a year’s time, they’re only home 100 days. So when I was a wing commander for Training Air Wing 2, I was the commodore in charge of advanced jet flight training, I was asked to help select the Blue Angel lead over about a two-year period. That was in ’82, ’83, ’84 time frame. Then I went to D.C. and did my purgatory tour in the Pentagon, which you have to do. I didn’t want to go, but somebody said, “You can’t make flag (military rank of general or admiral) unless you go to the Pentagon and go back to Washington.'”
Then after I made flag at the Pentagon, I went down to the be the vice chief of Naval Education and Training in Pensacola. My boss was a three-star and I was a brand new one-star at that point. I started flying with the Blues on an irregular basis (from 1985-88). Then I finally got the best job in the Navy, which is chief of Naval Air Training and I became the boss of the Blues at that point and I flew with them on a regular basis.
During that time frame, as I was doing these air shows around the world in F-14s, I flew from Pensacola, Fla. to Spain, about a nine-hour flight with the Blue Angels to go to Europe. I’d do my air show and then the Blues would do their air show so I was mixing with the Blues a lot before I became the boss of the Blues and they worked for me and I flew with them quite a bit. … I used to fly an air show in F-8s and did the same things as the Blues in a lot of cases.
Q: You also flew in Top Gun. Just to make it there is considered a huge deal, right?
Taylor: That’s considered the elite of the elite. I flew a lot of support missions for Top Gun, I flew with Top Gun. I was an adversary aircraft. I would play MiG pilot. … I was the boss of the Top Gun from ’88 to ’91 directly. That’s when they worked for me.
Q: Was that the same time the movie Top Gun came out?
Taylor: I did the script for Top Gun. I was in a job in Washington in Navy Plans and Programs and when they didn’t know what to do with something, they gave it to me.
My boss said, “Hey, check and see if we want to support this movie they want to do called Top Gun.” I told my boss, “This is so hokey.” He said, “Make some suggestions.” So I made some suggestions on some of the things they could do. The airplane sequences weren’t good and I had just done a new air combat maneuvering range in Nellis (Air Force Base in Nevada) when I did the project up there and we installed one in the desert next to (Marine Corps Air Station) Yuma (Ariz.) and that’s where the movie was filmed when the airplanes are going through the mountains.
Q: With Monday being Memorial Day, do you think more nowadays about the people you served with?
Taylor: One of the things that always gets to me, and I can’t help it, it’s just the way I’m built, but patriotism runs deep in my family. Anytime I see the flag being paraded in front of me and hear “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I get emotional. And this field of flags that these guys do in Murfreesboro the last two or three years, I go by there and I get a real lump in my throat thinking about what that represents.
I’ve been asked to speak at Memorial Day events, but I have a hard time accepting those because I guess I emotionally just don’t feel qualified to say what should really be said and have the people I’m talking to understand it if it’s a civilian crowd. It’s hard to put into words what you need to say in tribute to what you’re there to represent.
I feel like it’s hard to do an adequate job and feel inside you that you did as much to represent our service people on Memorial Day that have given their all to what makes us a great nation. It’s hard to talk about sometimes.