Not every fighter pilot is a leader. Not every leader makes a good commander. Not every commander has the compassion to inspire the men in his command to excel in their endeavors. Not every combat commander can or has the guts to lead by example. But JOHN C. GIRAUDO, 'The Big Kahuna", could and did! In my mind, he was the epitome of a true fighter pilot leader.
I've had the good fortune to serve under several commanders whose input to my career helped me achieve some degree of success. I've fondly referred to those few as 'Boss'. One such was when I was assigned as an instructor pilot in the Fighter Weapons School in the mid-1950s. The school was commanded by Lt. Colonel Giraudo, and he became my 'Boss'. That super experience was the beginning of a long-lasting friendship and respect for one of the United States Air Force's better fighter pilots I have known.
At that period in time, this stellar individual had already completed a career that would rival anything that could be fantasized by the Hollywood script writers. He had come from rock hard stock in Santa Barbera, and had already answered the call to defend our country in two wars. He had become a POW in WW2, but not before flying more than his share of combat missions. After repatriation, he was one of two Air Force officers who served on the staff of General Dwight D. Eisenhower during the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a major diplomatic task that aided the recovery of our Free World allies.
He returned to Tyndall where on an earlier assignment, he had assisted in developing the first jet all-weather instrument flying program for the T33. But Korea had become a problem and he volunteered for his second combat tour. In Korea, he was shot down on his 99th mission (100 was the tour). His confinement by the North Koreans gave him first hand knowledge of the oriental mind as an adversary.
After release from confinement, he took command of the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis where he was instrumental in bringing it into prominence. In 1956, he went to the Hawaii ANG as the Senior Air Force Advisor. In 1957 that unit was selected as the most operationally ready Air Guard fighter unit in the United States. Follow-on assignements from Hawaii included Joint Staff, National War College, and wing command positions in Ubya and Europe.
Then came the Vietnam War. As many of us know, the air war North was a test of guts against some of the most deadly defenses even seen in modern aerial warfare. into this conflict goes a leader of men with the ability to get an impossible task accomplished, despite the odds. What would you have thought about going into the lion's den a third time, when the past had produced more misery than one man is entitled to? John Giraudo didn't flinch. He didn't like it, but he was there when it counted. I have to talked to many individuals who served in the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing when Colonel Giraudo was the commander, and to a man, not one of them would have wanted to be under the command of a more respected, responsible, and capable officer. I personally believe it was his finest hour, because he and a few others of his calibre proved what true leadership ability can accomplish during a less than ideal cause.
After 100 missions, he was on his way to bigger and better things. He had beaten the monkey of that 99th mission. Not many of us would want the chance to prove such a point. John did it in his magnificant stride, the stride of a reluctant hero. And yes, he was a hero by any standard you would want to use as a measure. He went on to get his star, which he so richly deserved.
Flag rank brought him back to Washington and five years in Legislative Liason in the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force. The last three years were as Director where he earned his second star. Those three years saw a higher level of cooperation between Congress and the USAF than ever before. It was then back to the field as Commander of 17th Air Force, which comprised all US tactical air units in Central Europe. He returned to Florida in 1975 to become the Director, Plans and Policy, J-5, at Headquarters, United States Readiness Command at MacDill.
I had the pleasure of making contact with him from time to time during the early 1970s, and it was always a boost for my morale. His positive attitude was like a tonic to all who believed in good people getting the job accomplished in the best possible way, despite interference from less dedicated individuals. P> In 1977, the year General Giraudo retired, I took command of 17th Air Force. He had been the commander only a few years before. It was first hand knowledge for me on just how much his influence had impacted on this front line organization. A good commander leaves an indelible mark, John Giraudc was there to see. It was a priviledge for me to ha my name on the same list of commanders as his.
1 had the occasion to be in contact with John Giraudo several months before his death. He gave me some help on some stories I was trying to publish and we exchanged letters a few times. He told me of his 'Opus', the Bio he started in 1985 and finished in 1993 for the Air Force's Historical Center. (It well worth reading if you ever get the chance.) He explained it to me saying, "I probably treat some people you know, and who niay be your friends unfriendly. But in more cases I praise highly the many I served with over thirty five and a half years. It's a great family, with just a few bastard children" To me that explains the man. He knew we had a few clinkers in our midst, but he could take the good the bad, and the indifferent, and make them into the best. He had the ability and the charisma to do it all.
I would like to share a portion of my last letter him. It portrays my feelings and I think the feelin of many - "Boss, I want to thank you for the major contribution you made to my life and career in the Air Force. I am just sorry the time was so short there at Nellis, when I had the opportunity observe a real 'Fighter Pilot Leader'. I will always be extremely proud to say I know John Giraudo, one of the best leaders I have ever known."
We, who have served in the United States Air Force have been blessed with some great leaders in I past and I'm sure the future will bring on more. I when the final role is called, none will stand taller than John C. Giraudo. We were fortunate to have him on our side.
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