Both John Shackford and Don Fraser flew jets for the United States military, while Sloan Upton was a Green Beret in the U.S. Army Special Forces.
All three served more than 60 years ago and remembered their service on Friday, Nov. 8 at St. Helena’s Rianda House as part of the senior activity center’s Veterans Day services. A dozen people attended, including two other veterans Bob Fiumara and Frank Ashley, who both served in the U.S. Navy.
Shackford enlisted in the United States Air Force in July 1951 and more than three years later was a second lieutenant flying T-6, T-28 and T-33 jets. He remembered one memorable flight: “I was flying at 35,000 feet and I got a feeling that I was going to pass out, because I had no oxygen,” Shackford said. He passed out and only because “he heard a voice yelling in my ear to pull up” did he level off at 5,000 feet.
The USAF sent Shackford to Korea, but just before he arrived, a peace accord was signed, he said. He continued to fly jets, including an F-84 and updated F-86, which was a new plane with a larger engine. “Its mission was to deliver a nuclear bomb to Russia,” he said. Shackford and others practiced the maneuver … coming in at Mach 1 (about 767 mph), dropping a simulated bomb and then rolling over and climbing — in other words, getting out of there as quickly as possible. Shackford was promoted to Captain, then after leaving the military spent his civilian life teaching others to fly.
Fraser has been the moderator of the Veterans Day panel for many years, which began about 2010, according to Julie Spencer, Rianda House executive director.
Past panelists included John Shafer, Bill Savidge, Peter Dahl, Tony Holzhauer, Dick Maher, Ron Cia and Dominic Heil. St. Helena American Legion Post 199 and its Commander Jeff Conwell also helped with the ceremonies and brought both men and women to the service, including those who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Over the years they have included Del Britton, who was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam; Chuck Harton, who served in both WWII and Korea and received a Purple Heart; Staff Sgt. Maria Haug, who was in U.S. military intelligence; and U.S. Army Capt. Mark “G.W.” Lussier, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2015, high school junior Camille Jacobson, who trained service dogs for veterans was one of the speakers; as was Muriel Zimmer, who served in the U.S. Air Force, and was in charge of a women’s veterans organization at the California Veterans Home in Yountville.
Fraser spent 10 years in the U.S. Marines, both active and reserve, completing his basic training at Quantico, Virginia in 1956. In many ways, he was fortunate, since he spent his active duty between Korea and Vietnam. Fraser brought the models of the jets he flew, including the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, a single-seat subsonic carrier-capable attack aircraft developed for the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps in the early 1950s. Fraser spoke of flying in Arizona, 450 knots, some 517 mph, at 50 feet above the ground in a training flight. “You’d always have a buddy, 1,000 feet above you to watch for anything unusual,” he said, adding the subsonic jet made vehicles go back and forth on the highway.
“The only way to go faster than Mach 1 was headed down at full throttle,” he added.
He also flew the Grumman F-9 Cougar, a turbojet that was a carrier-based fighter aircraft capable of 647 mph. Training in that turbojet was “always at high altitude and high speed,” he said. He called it “first-class” and the turbojet brought the armed forces from propeller planes to swept-wing jets. He was asked if it was a good aircraft, and Fraser answered, “Yes and no,” because he lost two really good friends, who flew the Cougar.
After being well-trained, Fraser qualified to land the F-9 Cougar on a carrier, which meant landing on a surface that was moving and rocking back and forth. Fraser said you’d approach the carrier at 135 knots (155 mph) and go down the center of the carrier. “Catching your first trap is something you never forget,” he said, adding that the trap is one of four wires stretched across the carrier, designed to stop the jet aircraft.
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Fraser said a pilot had to make sure he had his seat harness locked, otherwise the impact of the landing would knock out a pilot’s front teeth. “A carrier landing is really a crash landing,” he added.
When asked if he’d like to fly a jet aircraft again, Fraser’s eyes lit up, “You bet,” he said. “Flying has lots of rewards, and training allows you to do it.”
Shackford also answered the question: “You never forget the thrill of flying a jet.”
On his wrist, Fraser wears a POW bracelet with the name Harley Chapman on it. The two served on the USS Oriskany as part of a U.S. Marine fighter squadron.
Lt. Col. Harlan Chapman was the first U.S. airman to get shot down over Hanoi on Nov. 5, 1965. He spent seven and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton, including two years in solitary confinement.
Fraser said Chapman stayed physically fit through a daily regimen of running in place and vertical push-ups, his cell being too small for him to do horizontal ones. Chapman maintained his mental stamina by “going back to college” in his mind, trying to remember each class he’d taken, day by day, Fraser said.
Fraser left the military in 1960. “But I could have decided to stay in, and it could have been me who was shot down,” he said. Instead, Fraser was there for his old friend when Chapman was released in February 1973 and faced the difficult task of readjusting to civilian life. He retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in July 1976.
Having been presumed dead during his years of captivity, Chapman came home to a wife who had remarried and a son he had never met, his wife having been pregnant with their child when he was shot down. Chapman eventually remarried and built a new life, and Fraser said the two still share a special bond.
Editor's Note: This item has been modified to remove anecdotes told by a member of the audience at the presentation. Key details of his story could not be verified and therefore don't meet the editorial standards of Napa Valley Publishing.