News | June 22, 2023

From the Prairie to the Pacific: A Blue Angel’s Journey

By Capt. Gil Rud, U.S. Navy (Ret.)

Review by Cmdr. Peter Mersky, USNR (Ret.)

Most books written as autobiographies or memoirs by those who have served in the U.S. military are often touted as putting the reader in the cockpit in the midst of the action described, or presenting themselves or the individual whose deeds and careers described as giving the reader the chance to experience what they have in the decades that include that story. Some succeed, many do not. Capt. Rud has definitely achieved that goal. Indeed, any of us who have gone through Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS), flown many different types of aircraft in or out of combat, known so many other people of the same frame of mind and intent, will find themselves nodding or shaking their heads, smiling as they recall their own time in these arenas that could try our single and collective spirits and dedication to ourselves as well to others.

North Dakota provided Rud a unique venue in which to grow up and form his own interpretation of his life. His interpretation later allowed him to go through pre-commissioning training as well as the flight training that enabled him to finally join his fleet squadrons to perform all he had hopefully prepared himself for nearly three decades of flying. Rud flew 5,600 hours and 786 traps, and topped it off by leading this country’s most unique flight demonstration squadron for three years, while flying a veteran aircraft like the A-4 and then leading his squadron through the complicated transition to the F/A-18 Hornet, many of which were serving in the fleet.

There are humorous descriptions of his AOCS experiences as a member of Class 20-67, such as “M-1 Thumb,” an occasionally painful but minor affliction when handling the WWII-era rifle, and cheap steaks at the ACRAC, a club for AOCS candidates that was only open on Friday and Saturday nights. He flew with Attack Squadron (VA) 125 from March-August 1969, flying the A-4, before joining VA-216 for a Med cruise in the USS Forrestal (CVA-59). Then, while once again training with VA-125 at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, to fly the A-7 Corsair September 1970-February 1971, Rud’s neighbors had been Bart Creed and his wife. Rud flew A-7Bs with VA-215 from the USS Oriskany (CVA 34) in the final months of the Vietnam War on occasional missions in and around heavily defended Tchepone, a small town east of Khe Sanh in the southern panhandle of Laos that became well known for its well-positioned thickets of deadly enemy flak sites.

Earlier, in March 1971, Creed, now assigned to VA-113, flying A-7Es from the USS Ranger (CVA 61), was shot down during a strafing run along the notorious Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main supply route from North Vietnam into South Vietnam. Creed ejected but was evidently badly hurt and was not seen again. His remains were never returned, unlike those of many of the American crewmen, whose remains were eventually returned. A contemporary ballad titled “Tchepone” whose tune is based on the popular cowboy song “Strawberry Roan,” written several years before Creed’s loss, colorfully describes a USAF’s F-4 aviator’s terrifying experience over the town.

Rud devotes much of his memoir to family memories as he tells the story of his wife and children as they follow him through his career. Indeed, his eldest child, Valerie, followed her dad into Naval Aviation, becoming an E-2 pilot and squadron commander, and even commanding the AEW wing, now designated Commander, Airborne Command and Control Squadron in control of all E-2s and C-2s (presumably now CMV-22Bs, which recently replaced the C-2 Greyhound on both coasts). Valerie retired as Chief of Staff for the Vice Adm. Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy.

As I read the book, I found that I knew several of the people he met beginning in AOCS and later in other assignments, which shows you how often the Navy can be a small world. All through the book, his flying adventures and the people he meets are its main theme, adding substance and enjoyable coincidence for a reader. He writes with a cavalier yet meaningful style in describing all his experiences in and out of the cockpit.

The chapters dealing with Rud’s tour (November 1985-November 1988) as the Blue Angels’ boss give details of that experience, both in and out of the cockpit, that are seldom shown in other books and histories of demonstration flight squadrons. These anecdotes and descriptions should be of great interest to those readers who follow these special units and will present a much better idea of what these officers and men and women go through to keep their aircraft up, besides flying their popular shows as well as maintaining their dedication throughout their tours. Rud’s post-Blue Angel tour when he is selected for captain and a deep-draft command, in this case the USS Wabash (AOR 5), a replenishment oiler, with a surprisingly important mission, gives him yet another area to vividly describe.

“From the Prairie to the Pacific” is the best book about the Blue Angels and what a tour in the squadron meant to a former commander of the unit, indeed, about any demonstration squadron I have seen.