Keesler retiree led life of adventure, dedication

  • Published
  • By Brian Lamar
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs

In 1942 the U.S. had been attacked on their own soil. The world seemed to be chaotic and violent. The U.S. was planning and waging all-out war on multiple fronts and a skinny young man named Francis from Massachusetts quit his job at the Fort Devins troop store and arrived at the recruiting station with draft card in hand.


Francis Herbert’s hands trembled slightly from a mixture of nerves and eagerness to serve his country at war as he stood in the midst of all the commotion at the recruiting station near Fort Devins, Mass. Luckily he had been mentored by a World War I veteran who had decided to reenlist the same day. His dad, who had enough fight left in him for another war, was that mentor.


“I was called into the draft and my father volunteered on the same day,” said the 95-year-old retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Francis Herbert. “I waited to be drafted rather than volunteer to sign up because I had a job on the base. I hadn’t anticipated being in the military before and hadn’t thought about a military career much; I wasn’t sure I wanted the military life.”


After in-processing, Herbert said goodbye to his family and headed off to basic training on a train to Atlantic City, New Jersey.


“It was interesting. All of the civilian hotels had been converted to barracks in the city,” he said. “I was told to stay in a room designed for one or two guests with 12 other men.”


Luckily for Herbert, after five days of basic training, he was given orders and told to ship off to the Academy for Aeronautics in Long Island, New York.


According to Herbert, the Army selected 50 men to attend the first class of Air Traffic Controller School designed for military members based off of their aptitude test scores.


“When I started this business, I didn’t know what a computer or a radar was. Now I was in for three months of training to learn how to be a controller,” said Hebert.


After the 12 weeks of training, Herbert was then again shipped off to his first duty assignment as an Army Air Corps air traffic controller at Wright-Patterson Airfield, Ohio, for on-the-job training, followed by an assignment in a control tower in Syracuse, New York.


When Herbert arrived to the newly opened airstrip in Syracuse, he found he would be the only military-trained air traffic controller.


“Syracuse had an airfield that had been activated for the war,” remembers Herbert. “We were the first controllers to go in there. I was the only controller that had training – it was such a new career field and they were still figuring out what it was all about. They pulled guys from the mess halls, supply rooms and other areas to come work in the tower.”


With less than a year’s experience, the war became more real as Herbert was ushered off to the battlefield in 1943 to the Aleutian Islands on the coast of Alaska to help combat the creeping danger of the Japanese war planes as they were using their Northern Islands as jumping off points to mount attacks against Alaska.


When Herbert arrived to the island of Amchitka, the U.S. began Operation Cottage to recapture the Islands of Kiska and Attu that had been captured by the Empire of Japan.


“The Japanese were occupying the Island of Kishka, which was a U.S. owned island. It was so close, I could see the island from our tower,” said Herbert.


Herbert controlled bombers and fighters who would continually harass the Japanese troops until they eventually withdrew from the area, but his first taste of real danger wasn’t from enemy planes.


 “We fought the weather a lot, it was very cold,” said Herbert. “We also had attacks against us from Japanese submarines. They also launched aircraft off of subs and because of the weather the Japanese could attack through the cloud cover too.”


There, his first taste of enemy propaganda came through the airwaves as the Japanese set up radio communications that constantly berated the American troops, saying their wives and girlfriends were out carousing, according to Herbert.


“We missed home terribly and this didn’t help. It really affected some of the guys,” said Herbert.


For his actions, Herbert was sent home two years later for thirty days of rest and relaxation leave with a personalized letter from Gen. Hap Arnold for his efforts supporting the allied campaign. On the way home, the pilot announced that the war with Japan had ended.


Once he got home, Herbert was given the option to discharge from his draft obligation and then reenlist again. From there, he was sent to New Hampshire. After a decade of assignments to places like Clinton County, Ohio, Greenland and England, he found himself in a new kind of conflict.


The United States was embroiled in a cold war when tensions peaked during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Herbert again found himself at the seat of history as a liaison officer in the Air Traffic Control facility in Casablanca, Morocco in 1961.


“My job was to take care of American aircraft coming through the area, which included the strategic bombers keeping an eye on things on that side,” said Herbert.

Eventually, the United States began fighting communism in a more direct way as fighting erupted between the Vietcong and the United States. Herbert once again said goodbye to his wife Helen as he stared at a set of orders transferring him to Pleiku Air Base in South Vietnam.


“We were still fighting a war,” said Herbert. “The big difference in Vietnam was the enemy troops we were opposing were there, with us. It wasn’t unusual for a night attack to take place. Mortar and rocket attacks were a constant threat.”


This time, Herbert was serving in the same place as his son Barry, who had signed up to be an air rescue pilot. During Barry’s tour, he received enemy fire while on an aeromedical evacuation, was wounded and received a Purple Heart.


“He didn’t have to go over, but he had just turned 19 and was gung-ho and ready to go,” Herbert said of his son. “We were stupid because we didn’t realize the pressure on Helen who eventually received a telegram from the war telling her that Barry was coming home wounded.”


While in Pleiku, Herbert found an innovative way to use the Air Control Radar to track the origin of incoming rocket fire and was credited as the first traffic controller to detect and track enemy missile activity using the current technology from his tower. According to Herbert, American forces were able to launch 50 counterattacks on enemy missile systems that would typically move too quickly to be traced.


Once his tour was complete, Herbert came to Keesler to be an air traffic control military instructor and finished up a 30-year career. Once retired, he was asked to stay as a civilian instructor and served for 20 more years.


At 95, Herbert now looks back on his career fondly.


“Well, I always have one feeling about things like this. All my career, I had good people working for me. Ninety-nine percent of the people who worked with me or for me are all the type of people you could rely on. They got the hard work done and I owe it all to them,” he said.


Herbert also tries to impart his main message to younger Air Traffic Controllers when he has the opportunity.


“Well, they’ve got to remember that freedom is not free,” he said. They are going to have to work hard for it. Air traffic controllers are an important part of the whole mission to maintain it all.”