DANVILLE — The traditional images of Vietnam are the steaming jungles and humid rice paddies of southeast Asia. But it’s easy to forget that the conflict unofficially spanned the globe. As the United States supported the South Vietnamese, the Russians supported the North Vietnamese, but that wasn’t the only place where the two global superpowers stared each other down.
Ask Jay Larrick. After getting drafted into the Air Force in March 1966, the Zanesville native did his training at Amarillo Air Force Base in Texas, and began his service at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. He figured the heat would be good rehearsal for Vietnam, where he expected to be sent. Inspired by his dauntless father, who had survived nearly getting killed by a mortar shell during the D-Day Invasion of Normandy in World War II, Larrick decided to commit himself to his duty.
“A lot of G.I.’s were just there,” Larrick said, “But I figured I was going to try to do the job and get very skilled.” So he volunteered three times to go to Vietnam while quickly working his way into the position of crew chief working on F-102 Delta Dagger fighter/interceptors.
Instead, Larrick was shipped off in the other direction, to Iceland. In retrospect, it makes sense. The military base constructed in Iceland by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was a busy hub of Cold War brinksmanship. The Russians were almost constantly flying their military planes into neutral air space to provoke NATO and particularly the United States, who would scramble planes to “escort” them out. It was a busy place, not the kind of assignment where one could learn on the job. After Larrick’s skills as a mechanic on the complicated F-102 were noticed, he was tapped for Iceland. He knew his stuff.
Despite its name, Iceland is warmed by the Gulf Stream current, giving it a climate cooler than Ohio, but warmer than one might expect for an island of which the northern half falls within the Arctic circle. What was worse, Larrick said, was the storms that would come in off the sea, raging for three days solid with winds of 80 to 100 miles per hour. He said that he remembers storms where the rain was driven sideways into the base walls for so long, it would eventually seep through foot-thick concrete, forcing them to mop the walls. There being no trees on Iceland, snow storms would dump enormous amounts of snow, but then blow it away, except for buildings, which would trap 30-feet tall drifts.
Discipline was sometimes informal, Larrick said.
“Like we always used to say, ‘What are they going to do to discipline us? Send us to Iceland,” Larrick said.
But when things got serious, the Black Knights, as the 57th Fighter/Interceptor Squadron was known, were ready to meet Russian aggression step-for-step. In the spring of 1970, Larrick said, there was a period where he did not see bed for two weeks. During this incident, the Russians were sending an endless succession of “Bears,” large turboprop bombers, into the 300-mile radius of neutral air space around Iceland. Interceptors were being scrambled constantly from the NATO base, Larrick said, and at the height of the tension, the base actually went to DEFCON-3, loading nuclear weapons onto the planes. Later, the members of the squadron were awarded Presidential Citations for their actions in that tense two weeks.
As the pilots on flights would take pictures of the Russian planes they escorted, Larrick said they found that they could track the planes. When at one point it was feared the Russians had 200 bombers, the 57th was able to demonstrate from features observed in photographs that the Communists were actually faking it, repainting tail numbers to make it look as if they had a greater number of planes than they really did. Rust spots and wear told the real story.
And a piece of Larrick’s life tells a similar story today in the Air Force Museum in Dayton.
“The F-102 in the Air Force Museum is one of my planes,” Larrick said. He knew his planes intimately, working on every square inch of them, taxiing them on the ground to repair stations, and even flying them when pilots needed to get in extra air time but wanted to sit back and enjoy the view. Larrick recognized the distinctive pattern of two familiar gouges to the right wing tip of the F-102. He said it was the first time his four children began to be impressed with his service stories.
The NATO base in Iceland was in the town of Keflavik. As Larrick described it, Keflavik was only six miles away from the Iceland capital of Rekjavik, but that was across the bay, as the crow flies. By car it was a 45-minute trek, one that Larrick didn’t care to make too often once he discovered that the Icelanders of that era were split about 51 to 49 percent in favor of the Americans over the Russians. Larrick said that he and his squadron were warned not to get arrested, as the NATO commanders didn’t feel they had enough pull to get anyone released.
Larrick described Iceland in the late 1960s as 200,000 people and 3,000,000 sheep. When he flew home on leave, he saw more automobiles in the parking lot at John F. Kennedy International Airport than he saw in his entire tour of duty in Iceland.
Vivid, surreal memories of Iceland for Larrick include seeing the Aurora Borealis, close up, dancing across the sky in shifting colors. It was also enormously difficult, he said, to adjust to the daylight patterns of the sub-arctic nation, which doesn’t go fully to “midnight sun,” but gets very close to it in the summer, and becomes almost completely black in the winter. As Larrick explained, there is no spill light from houses, parking lots, malls, roads, or security lights in most places. Larrick said that he, quite literally, couldn’t see his hand if he held it up in front of his face. In summer, he’s have to put foil on the windows to keep the light out at “night.”
In sum, it was an important part of the Cold War, with the 57th Squadron experiencing 1,000 enemy contacts during the 11 years it was stationed in Iceland. Larrick left after a four-year tour of duty, during which he had precociously risen to the rank of Staff Sergeant. He caught a flight home in an unheated morgue plane. Looking down from a plane window, he saw a field of icebergs in the North Atlantic, lit up in sunlight so that they cast rainbows around them. When he got home, Larrick found that, like many Vietnam veterans, he was not welcomed. But he said everyone eventually got over it, that service teaches one it is possible to overcome tremendous adversity.
Larrick recommends military service as a source for learning the disciplines and skills that make one successful in life.
“It gives you perspective,” he said. “You’ll find that you live in the best place in the world if you go somewhere else and then come back. If you don’t have a direct goal out of high school, two, three, four years in the military will enhance your way of thinking.”
After marrying his wife, Della, and moving to Knox County to live near her parents, Larrick returned to his pre-war job with AEP. Today he manages an 11-state region for AEP and travels all over the country. He boasts that his office in Columbus looks out on the flight path to Port Columbus International Airport, where he can enjoy his love of airplanes.
“It’s in my blood,” Larrick said, “If I hear a plane, I have to look up.”