In June of 1968, a new marshal arrived in town. The town was Korat, Thailand; the new marshal 1st Lt. Marshall Tilley, an F-105 Thunderchief fighter jock. Nicknamed the ‘Thud’, ‘Lead Sled’, or ‘Hyper Hog’, an F-105 carried a bigger bomb load than the legendary B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers of WWII. The bad guys stalking the badlands were Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese Communist soldiers. Marshall Tilley fought the good fight for a year, completing 152 combat missions.
Tilley, a Newton County resident, retired to Social Circle last year after a long and distinguished career in aviation. This is his story.
“I lived in Northwestern Louisiana, which means I’m more of an East Texan than a Cajun,” said Tilley, a native of Louisiana and graduate of Louisiana Tech. “To defer the cost of college, I joined Louisiana Tech’s Air Force ROTC program.”
After graduation in 1966, the Air Force sent Tilley for undergraduate pilot training (UPT) in Laredo, Texas. “We trained on the T-41, the military version of a Cessna 172. Then came the jet trainers, like the T-37 Tweetie Bird and supersonic T-38 Talons. My last navigational training flight was to my new assignment, F-105 training at McConnell AFB in Wichita, Kan. The F-105 was huge, and the only thing I could think of was, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’”
As aircraft losses in Vietnam escalated, pilot training classes grew with the need for replacements. “Normally one or two trained at one time, but we had about 29 pilots in our class. The 105 was a great plane, sturdy and dependable. It was originally built to deliver a nuclear weapon at low level but became the workhorse in the bombing campaign against North Vietnam. Thuds are credited with 75 percent of the bombing missions.”
In May of 1968, Tilley removed his 2nd lieutenant. butter-bars to pin on the silver bars of a 1st lieutenant. Next stop, the air war in Vietnam. “I still recall the commercial flight out of Travis AFB in California,” he said. “We saw the Golden Gate Bridge fade with the setting sun, and I’m sure all of us wondered if we’d ever see it again.”
On attending jungle survival school in the Philippines, Tilley stated, “An instructor told us the quickest anybody applied what we were taught in survival school was 24 hours. A pilot actually left survival training in the Philippines only to be shot down over North Vietnam 24 hours later. At least his training helped him survive the ordeal.”
June, 1968 – 1st Lt. Marshall Tilley arrives in Korat, Thailand, one of two F-105 bases in ‘The Land of a Thousand Smiles.’ “Seven of us were assigned to the 469th Fighter Squadron,” said Tilley. “We lost three of them during our tour. We all received a short orientation flight the first day. On the second day we went to war.”
Tilley’s first target in the war was a North Vietnamese bridge and road network. His second mission was diverted. “We were refueling on a tanker when we got the call that three of our planes had gone down. They diverted us to one of the rescue missions. That was my first of several rescue missions but at least this one was successful. We got the pilot out safely.”
While discussing the rescue mission, Tilley fast-forwarded to Christmas Day, 1968: “I flew two rescue missions near the Mu Gia Pass in the Annamite Mountains. On one mission the rescue chopper spotted the pilot hanging in his parachute in a jungle canopy tree. They lowered a P.J. (para-rescue jumper) on the hoist to attempt rescue. We heard the P.J. yell, ‘The pilot is inert, get me outa here!’ Then gunfire erupted. The P.J. kept yelling, ‘Get me outa here, get me outa here!’ But we’d flown into an ambush. The enemy shot the P.J. off the hoist. We ran into the same ambush scenario the next day, but we were forced to leave the deceased pilot hanging. We didn’t fall for the trap.”
Two months into his tour, 1st Lt. Marshall Tilley was chosen to carry a heavier load than bombs. “The flight commander came in and said, ‘You’re going to lead flights.’ And I’m thinking, ‘wait a minute’, I’m going to be a flight leader? A 1st lt. with two months experience in combat, leading flights into war? Well, with rotations and losses, I didn’t have much of a choice. Funny thing is, I soon led fights with colonels on my wing. Rank didn’t matter; experience did, if you are new ‘in-country’ you have to learn. With flights of two ships or 20, it didn’t matter. There’s always something going on, decision-making, lots of decisions. You follow the flight leader, and if he slams into a mountain, so do you. That happened more than people know.”
When President Johnson called a bombing halt in October 1968, Tilley already had 68 missions logged over North Vietnam. He would log 84 more in the secretive war over Laos. On one mission, an enemy SAM (surface to air missile) came within a few feet of his tail assembly. He flew with a legend that day, legendary West Point football player Doc Blanchard, the first ever college junior to win the Heisman Trophy.
Having survived 152 harrowing combat missions, then-Capt. Marshall Tilley returned home, finished his six years in the Air Force, flew Eastern Airlines commercial jets until their bankruptcy, then flew 26 years with Air Tran. Tilley logged over 20,000 hours during his career as a pilot.
Final thoughts: “The ‘Lead Sled’ was a great plane, we flew challenging missions, and I’d love to strap one on one more time. I recall watching all the rebuilding going on in North Vietnam during the bombing halts. We flew cover for recon missions but couldn’t fire unless fired upon, so we ‘thought’ we received fire many times, if you get my drift. Watching all the reconstruction of a sworn enemy is tough, like we weren’t taking the war seriously, much like today. We weren’t serious then, we’re not serious now. But I’d do it all over again.”
Marshall Tilley received two Distinguished Flying Crosses and 13 Air Medals in Southeast Asia. One Distinguished Flying Cross and one Air Medal were for assisting in the rescue of downed pilots. Of 833 F-105 Thunderchiefs produced, 382 were lost in Southeast Asia.