CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Vietnam War / Cold War / Desert Storm Era Oral History Interview
US Marine Corps Aviation
Date: December 13, 2015
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: William Elwell
Colonel (Ret.) Robert Beavis was a Marine Corps aviator whose service duties ranged from flying combat missions in a Vought F-8 Crusader during the Vietnam War to flying F-18 Hornets. He flew F-4B and J’s with VMF-513 at Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) North Carolina. After active duty he flew F-8 Crusaders and Douglas A-4 Skyhawks in the Marine Corps Reserve. Beavis joined the Marine Corps in 1961 and retired in 1992. He was critically wounded while serving as a ground Air Liaison Officer and Assistant Operations Officer with the First Battalion, Ninth Marine Regiment in Vietnam. After his recovery, Beavis continued to fly with the Marines until his retirement. He flew one hundred and fifty combat missions and accumulated a total of over four thousand and seven hundred Flight hours in the cockpit on those missions. Colonel Beavis has a staggering twenty-five thousand total hours in the cockpit, combining combat, training, Reserve, private flying, and his career flying with United Airlines.
Beavis’ family enjoys a military tradition. His father was drafted into the Army “a few months before [Beavis] was born.” His brother, seventeen years his senior, “sort of fibbed about his age and went into the Army Air Corps.” His uncles also served in the armed forces. Beavis recalled that those precedents left “good impressions” which led to a desire to join the military and fly.
Robert Beavis was born in January of 1943. Even with his father and older brother overseas, he recalled that he apparently “had a good life” although he admits he could “not remember back that far.” Both his father and brother returned safe and sound in 1946. As a high school student, Beavis was sent to Vermont for three summers to work as a farmhand “making fifty-five dollars a month, plus room and board.” The conclusion he drew from that experience was that “it was time to get an education.” Beavis “always wanted to fly, maybe because [his] brother was in B-17s, and I decided that the military was the best way to learn to fly, and that the best way to get to fly in the military was to go to college.” The Marine Corps offered the quickest route into uniform and the cockpit, as well as to get responsibility. As a student at Villanova University, he signed up for the USMC Platoon Leader’s Course.
For two summers, Beavis attended a six-week Platoon Leader’s Class in Quantico, Virginia, which was his first military experience. Upon graduation from Villanova, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the USMC. Out of money and needing to meet the requirement for officers to purchase their own uniforms, Beavis recalled that he “wrote a letter to the Commandant of the Marine Corps asking him [for time] to earn some money “to pay for uniforms before reporting for active duty.” His request was granted; and, he “worked at the Monmouth Hotel in Spring Lake” for the summer of 1964, then “reported for flight school in Pensacola, Florida in September of ’64.”
Flight School began at Pensacola Florida and involved eighteen months of training. The regimen began with Pre-flight School, where Beavis learned “aerodynamics, engineering, physics, military subjects, meteorology and all the subjects that pertain to flight.” Following that course, he and other potential pilots were trained to fly the Beech T-34 Mentor, which included solo, aerobatics, and instrument instruction. Jet training occurred at Naval Aviation Station (NAS) Meridian, Mississippi, with basic jet skills, carrier takeoff and landing qualifications in the North American Aviation T-2 Buckeye aircraft. Carrier training included takeoffs, touch and go landings and arrested landings aboard the USS Lexington (then-CV-16). Beavis accomplished the required “four arrested landings and four catapults.” Following his qualification as a pilot, Beavis was ordered and sent to NAS Beeville, Texas, for air-to-air and air to ground support training as well as additional aircraft carrier qualifications aboard the “Lexington” while flying the Grumman F9F-8 Cougar. Training and flying advanced supersonic flight and supersonic air to air gunnery was learned in the Grumman F11 Tiger. 1st/Lt Beavis received his Naval Aviator wings on April 12, 1966.
As a designated Naval Aviator jet pilot, Beavis reported to Marine Corps Aviation Station (MCAS) Beauford, South Carolina, and Marine Air Group 32. He recalled that he “requested to fly F-8 Crusaders, and was assigned to VMF-333 from May of 1966 through November 1966.” During that time, Beavis became proficient in flying the F-8 Crusader in “air to air combat, air-to-ground, air intercept, and night combat. ” The unit was deployed to Naval Air Station (NAS) Boca Chica located at Key West, Florida, at what he called the “standing hot-pad for Cuba crisis.
After time at Boca Chica, Beavis received orders to ship out to Vietnam, where he arrived in November, 1966. He was assigned to VMF-235, flying out of Da Nang Viet Nam. Typical missions included combat air patrols, air-to-ground support, and escort missions, especially on bombing runs north of the Demilitarized Zone escorting US Navy and USAF strike aircraft. Flights would last “usually about an hour and a half,” and an aviator could expect “up to three a day.” Beavis recalled that each flight required “at least four hours preparation for every hour that you’re flying in navigation: planning, weapons, intelligence…it takes a lot of time, and then, when you get back, they debrief you for about an hour.” He also noted that each officer also had administrative and collateral responsibilities in the squadron, “taking up to six to eight hours a day.” Days, therefore, were long, with little-to-no sleep, in a very high-stress environment. The missions, however, were worthwhile; because, as Beavis noted, “we were supporting our Marines on the ground.”
The Marine Corps policy of “Every Marine a Rifleman” involved Beavis in base camp guard duty at Da Nang in February of 1967, where he “took a platoon of Marines to patrol” the base’s perimeter. He was engaged in a firefight on his first night, which was “the first experience of bullets whizzing by [his] head.” That experience would be repeated in the future.
Beavis’ most memorable missions included a ground-support action in which he and a wingman repelled a Vietcong attack just south of Da Nang. Later that night, a Marine Lieutenant Colonel from the unit that had been pinned down came to the officer’s club that Beavis was relaxing in, and “asked for the person or persons who were flying a mission south that day. “He came over, bought me a bottle of scotch and said that we saved their lives.” The Colonel recommended him for the Distinguished Flying Cross, which he then received. Beavis said, “We didn’t do it for medals; we did it because there were Marines involved.”
Another mission resulted in Beavis being unable to drop or jettison his ordnance. He was already dangerously low on fuel, and the added weight accelerated the fuel consumption of his plane. While crossing the mountains just north of Da Nang, enemy ground fire required him to add power, which burned up the remainder of his fuel. As Beavis flew away from the ground fire, his engine flamed out, turning his Crusader jet into an extremely heavy glider. As he glided towards the Da Nang airbase, the lights all over the city, including the runway lights, went dark. As it was nighttime, pitch-blackness ensued. The control tower’s emergency frequency ordered Beavis to “hold south of the field,” to which he replied, “I can’t.” Beavis landed in the dark and didn’t know where [he] was on the runway.” He found a ground crew and warned them of the plane on the runway. They were stupefied.
Beavis’ life was forever changed when he was assigned to be an Air Officer attached to the First Battalion, Ninth Marine Regiment. Three aviators were assigned to every Marine battalion to coordinate air support. Beavis’ friend, another aviator from VMF-235, was involved in a firefight in which two companies were almost obliterated. A Forward Air Controller Airborne (FACA) had been in contact with the Air Officer, who requested an air strike on his own location, as an alternative to being captured. Beavis arrived on-station and told the FAC that he would drop bombs “within five yards.” Expending his ordnance, he returned to Da Nang for a fast refuel and rearm to head out again, but was ordered to stand down, as the Air Officer had been killed. Beavis was then ordered to prepare to ship out as his replacement.
Beavis’ prior experiences in firefights at Da Nang prepared him for the experience of ground combat, but not ground conditions. He recalled the jungle as “hell,” and remembered that the best advice he received was “from an enlisted Gunnery Sergeant, who told me to take plenty of socks.” Within one month of his new assignment, on August 22, Beavis was involved in a massive firefight and was wounded in the abdomen. He “plugged it [the wound] with mud” while ignoring the pain, so he could continue to call in air support. A Sikorsky H-34 Choctaw helicopter made it through for casualty evacuation, and Beavis, who did not realize how badly he was wounded, was virtually ordered to evacuate. He was carried to the helicopter after attempting to stand and falling down from weakness. As the helicopter lifted off, it took ground fire which penetrated the fuselage, knocking his helmet off and grazing his head. Other bullets killed two wounded Marines on board.
Peritonitis soon set in for Beavis, which resulted in a series of hospital stays with a dozen surgeries over the next six months. The operations would later lead to infections, which necessitated further operations. Doctors thought that he “wouldn’t live, and even if [he] did, [he] wouldn’t fly again.” His final recovery took place at St. Alban’s Military Hospital, Queens, New York, where he “had [his] first drink of water in months.”
Upon his release from the hospital in February of 1968, Beavis was assigned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, as President of the Court Martial Board, a job he described as “challenging” as he tried to be fair to all Marines and sailors facing courts martial. His area of responsibility ranged from the Mississippi River to Western Europe. He was in that position for only a few weeks until he was informed that his superiors “wanted to give [him] a medical discharge.” With the help of a civilian attorney, Beavis was able to argue and win his case to return to active duty.
Beavis wanted to fly again, but was initially classified as a Class-3 Aviator. After a series of physicals at Bethesda Naval Hospital, and an evaluation, he was upgraded to Class-2 Aviator classification, eligible for co-piloting. Further medical evaluations resulted in his return to Class-1 Aviator status, eligible for piloting, and an assignment to VMF-513, flying F-4 Phantom IIs at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina.
Beavis married Barbara Bioren in August of 1968. His father died in November 1968, which led him to leave the Marine Corps in April of 1969. He was subsequently hired as a pilot for United Airlines, a position he held for thirty-four years. Beavis joined the Marine Corps Reserves in April, 1969; and, he was assigned to Marine Air Group 43, flying F-8s with VMF-511 from NAS Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. The squadrons transitioned to the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk upon the Crusader’s retirement, and Beavis transferred to VMA-131. He eventually became the squadron’s commanding officer, in 1983. Beavis was promoted to Colonel (O-6) and was placed in charge of tactical readiness for all Marine Corps Reserve Aviation Squadrons. In that position, he became the commanding officer of the Marine Air Combat Element Operation Solar Flare. Thirty-three squadrons were trained “without lights and without communication” to maneuver against Navy and Air Force units in simulated combat conditions at Bogue Field Marine Corps Aviation Facility and other Marine Corps Air and Ground Bases in North Carolina. All the squadrons went on to successfully serve in Operation Desert Storm. Colonel Beavis assumed the responsibilities as the Mobilization Officer and senior USMC Reserve Officer for Marine Air Group 49 at Naval Air Station Willow Grove, Pa.
Beavis retired as a Colonel in June, 1992. He has two sons and a daughter. Both sons graduated from the US Coast Guard Academy and have made careers in that service; they both are now pilots employed by United Airlines. Beavis is active in the Marine Corps League, coordinating an annual Marine Corps birthday party. He is also active in the Jersey Aero Club and still flies today. Beavis serves on the Board of Directors for the Delaware Valley Aviation Museum at the former NAS Willow Grove, his last Marine post.
Of his service, Beavis explained: “The Marine Corps gave me the training to be a pilot, and that training provided me a source of income and occupation for the rest of my life. So I not only owe the Marine Corps, but all the taxpayers of the United States…it was well worth the investment, so, Semper Fi.”
Learn more about COL Beavis at togetherweserved.com.