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Reese Air Force Base
UPT Class 70-02

Lt. Colonel Howard Joseph Pierson

1927 - 2013

Aliases - Howie, Mr. Clean


Howard Pierson died peacefully at home in Novato, Calif., on Sunday, March 10, 2013, after a long illness, under the care of hospice and his wife, Gilberta.
A veteran of three wars, he joined the U.S. Navy at age 17 during World War II. He attended the University of Alabama and earned his U.S. Air Force pilot's wings in 1952 at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock. He was an aircraft commander on the B-29 bomber. When the Korean War ended, he returned to the States for bombardier-navigator training to fly the Strategic Air Command's nuclear B-47 and B-52 bombers during the Cold War and flew B-52s to test the NORAD missile defense system over the North Pole and was a pilot during the Cuban missile crisis. He volunteered for two additional combat tours in Vietnam.
He instructed student pilots in T-38s at Craig Air Force Base in Selma, Ala., and was a squadron commander at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock.
In Vietnam he was operations adviser to the Vietnamese Air Force and the Royal Air Force of Thailand. Spanning his career he logged over 10,000 flying hours. He founded and was a motivational speaker for the "Top Gun and Formation, Leadership" seminar and a consultant to American Airlines for seven years. In retirement from the Air Force, Lt. Col. Pierson devoted his time to attending military reunions, veterans groups, civic organizations, football games and golf.
He served as chaplain of the Marin County Military Officers Association of America, the Forward Air Controllers Association and the All Three Wars Association. Other memberships included the Order of Daedalians, Kappa Sigma, University of Alabama Crimson Tide "A" Club and the Blue Star Moms of Marin. His service awards include the Airman Medal for Valor, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Bronze Stars, 39 Air Medals, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross and many additional awards. He was presented with pilot wings from the South Vietnam, Cambodian and Royal Thai air forces.
On Sept. 3, 2011, Howard Pierson was named recipient of the Paul W. Bryant Alumni-Athlete Award at the University of Alabama. Survivors: Howard was married to the writer Gilberta Guth-Pierson. He is also survived by his son, Howard Joseph Pierson of Denton; daughter and son-in-law, Hilda and Ben Howard Adams of Lubbock; son and daughter-in-law, Steve and Paige Pierson of Denton; daughter and son-in-law, Heidi R. and Larry Simmons of Lubbock; stepsons, Joseph H. Guth of Albany, Calif., John E. Guth of Irvine, Calif., and Dan R. Guth of Petaluma, Calif.; stepdaughter, Lesley A. Guth of San Francisco, Calif.; 13 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
Published in Star-Telegram on April 2, 2013


A first and third person story as published in Howie's hometown paper in Marin County follows:


* Born in 1927, New Jersey

* Left high school early to join U.S. Navy; served aboard USS Iowa

* After World War II and honorable discharge, completed high school and attended the University of Alabama on a football scholarship for the Crimson Tide (ROLL TIDE)

* Air Force ROTC Commission 1951; Pilot Wings Class 52C, Reese AFB, Lubbock, Texas

* B-29 Superfortress pilot in Korea; B-47 & B-52 (SAC) Pilot during Cold War

* Four years of combat tours in Vietnam & Southeast Asia as Command Pilot with USAF units, Vietnamese Air Force & Royal Thai Air Force

* Last assignment in Southeast Asia was Commander of the Nail Forward Air Controllers (FACs), flying OV-10s. LTC Pierson was the last man to fly out of Cambodia, Aug. 15, 1973.  His call sign was Nails 01.

* Graduate of three universities

* Associate professor at four universities

* Member of many prestigious organizations, including Military Officers Association of America; Order of Daedalians; Fellowship of Christian Athletes; All 3 Wars Association Chaplain; Air Commando Hall of Fame

* Combat decorations & awards include 3 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 3 Bronze Stars, 39 Air Medals, Meritorious Service Medal, Airman Medal for Valor & Vietnamese Gallantry Cross

* Founder of Top Gun & Formation Leadership Enhancement & Communications Teamwork

* Wife, Gilberta Guth Pierson, wrote the book The Fighter Pilot's Wife, A Military Family’s Story, published in 2006.

* Flew military fighters, bombers & trainers with one, two, four, six and eight engines (and sometimes no engines!), accumulating more than 10,000 flight hours

Not only did Howard Pierson inherit his large frame and a predisposition toward a long and healthy life, he was also taught what is important in life and the proper attitude he should have toward those things.


I’m looking into the faces of people who know what freedom's about.

The good news is that we were the hope of our country. Sitting among you, rubbing shoulders, are people who went forth, spurred their horses forward into the breach and met our enemies and we defeated them.

“Victory, and there is no substitute,” said MacArthur.

We need each other don’t we, asserted Howard Pierson.

He continued by setting an interactive stage for his Golden Gate Wing talk on Nov. 16, 2006.

Let's give ourselves a call sign so I can keep you folks alert. Let's be Freedom Flight tonight. So when I say 'Freedom Flight,' check in. Let's hear a clear, crisp 'Two.' You’ve got to be clear, crisp and awake.

My father lived to be 103 and three-quarters years old. So I claim that in my genes. He said to me, "Any time you talk to anybody, talk about God, family and country."

People say country should be second. But if you don’t have a family, you don’t have country. Amen.

Freedom Flight, check in

(Two! was the audiences fledgling response.)

A little slow. The reason that’s important when you check in is that the flight leader has to know who’s around and who is available. If I don’t hear 'two,' three or four and I look around — maybe they’re in a loose formation — I need to know, maybe three got stuffed. Maybe the radio’s out.

So my dad said, Ill be there. And he’s always with me in spirit.

I married the widow of one of my classmates, and Papa was going to be my best man. Wouldn’t that have been cool? He checked out six weeks short.

I left high school early to join the U.S. Navy during World War II, serving aboard the battleship USS Iowa.  You may know this, that mom had to sign for you if you weren’t 18. My mother did so, tearfully. Okinawa was the campaign.

Pierson says he was a 17-year-old deck ape, serving as an apprentice seaman on the Iowa. Yet, when working at his battle station as a gun striker on a 40mm antiaircraft gun battery, Pierson was also a first-hand witness to Japanese kamikaze attacks on the Navy fleet during the invasion of Okinawa.

Postwar, an honorable discharge from the Navy in hand, Pierson turned to completing high school. I had an experience that turned him down his next path in life.

I was now 18, 19 and back in high school with youngsters. I was a real salty veteran, and you can imagine what an arrogant ass I was. My drill was, I'd go to high school, go to Kitty’s Tavern, drink beer and then work the night shift at Hercules Powder Company from midnight to 8 a.m. When you’re 19 you can do that for a little while. So that was my pace.

At Kitty’s Tavern one night, a guy looked down the bar and said, "Hey Pierson, get out of here. Why don’t you get out of here?"

I thought he was talking to me about that moment. He called me down and gave me some counseling about life, meaning get out of here.

Pierson’s new direction became attending the University of Alabama on a football scholarship. He played tight end for the Crimson Tide, scoring a single touchdown against archrival Auburn.

The Korean War offered Pierson an opportunity to again serve his country, and in 1951 he started a new career with an Air Force ROTC Commission, followed by Pilot Wings from Class 52C (52-Charlie) at Reese AFB, Lubbock, Texas.

52-Charlie was training today, in combat tomorrow — much like many of you in World War II. If you were National Guard or Reserve they said, "Hey, c’mon. This is not Christmas help, this is the real thing."

I flew the B-29 Superfortress on missions to bomb North Korean forces.

When the Korean War began, the military air thinking was, Let's just keep bombing like we did — in formation, daytime, good aiming — and destroy the Koreans. The bad news is, they didn’t count on the jet MiG. No contest. If you get bounced by MiGs and you’re flying reciprocal-engine aircraft, you’re in deep trouble. So, we were losing a lot of planes.

The good news for me was I got there when they said, "Let's just fly at night in a stream." And they did individual aiming and bombed respectively, and the loss rate went way down. The Russians in Korea didn’t have any night fighters that were threatening to us.

After the Korean War, I helped fight the Cold War, flying B-47 and B-52 bombers for the Strategic Air Command. In the '50s and '60s we were standing alert and flying missions all over the world carrying nukes. I had a B-52 crew with 10 megatons — 10 megatons going to Moscow.

Fast forward 30 years later. I go to Moscow to a bible college and a young man named Igor tells a story. He was telling the group he was a little boy in Moscow when the air raid sirens would sound, and everyone ran and hid in the bomb shelters because the American nuclear bombers were coming.

So when I got to the mike, I said, "Igor, I was one of those men who was going to come and destroy you."

A 10 megaton bomb on Moscow would have killed two million people. So we hugged and embraced. It was a sweet moment.

War came next in Vietnam, and for Howard Pierson, it became four years of combat tours in that country and elsewhere in Southeast Asia as a Command Pilot with USAF units, the Vietnamese Air Force and Royal Thai Air Force.

Flying fighters for the Vietnamese was exciting. They had their own rules of engagement. Remember that they were driven out of North Vietnam, many of them walked to freedom as children.  So when they became adults they knew what life was about. They knew the threat of Ho Chi Minh's Communism.

The wing commander I flew with had 3,000 combat sorties. Three thousand,  and I was his advisor. What was I going to tell him? But when he died, his son said, "Dad never talked about it." So whether it be traumatic or just good patriotism, do record what happened to you.

Pierson’s last assignment in Southeast Asia was as Commander of the Nail Forward Air Controllers (FACs), flying OV-10s, and carrying the radio call sign of Nails 01.

As such, on Aug. 15, 1973, I was the last man to fly out of Cambodia. You must know that FAC-ing is a pretty sporty course. You get close to your work. The FAC is down low and slow in a Bird Dog or O-2 or OV-10, finding the enemy below the clouds or wherever he is, and then identifying him with white phosphorus, Willy-Pete.

We roll in, shoot one rocket and if it's right in the area we tell the fighters, "Hit my smoke." If it's not, we tell them, "One hundred meters to the north" or "Somewhere in Laos" or whatever our smart remark is. But we lost a lot of people because were down among small arms and automatic weapons.

We just dedicated a monument a monument at the Wright-Patterson Museum in Dayton, Ohio. We had 263 FACs killed in action. It's a fast track with lots of risk and danger. So if you ever meet a FAC, buy them a drink. Amen.

Turkey Flight, check-in.

(Two! shot back a startled pair of Wing members.)

That was a trick, troopers.  Freedom Flight, check in

(Two! alertly responded the audience.)

The fighter had a challenge to bomb the enemy. They had the most threatening triple-A (anti-aircraft artillery) in the history of aviation.  Even though you guys were over Schweinfurt in World War II, the Pacific, perhaps Midway, or pick a place — it was heavier in Vietnam.

As Pierson displayed a POW-MIA bracelet he recalled that tens of thousands of Americans wore these in memory of those who were shot down, in prison or were killed.

The war ended in February of 1973 for them. Were you at your TV crying and looking and laughing when they were released?

I was joyful because I had seen dozens of guys I had known and seven and a half years later, they returned. They had it tough. We sacrifice and we do our duty. But the POW, in the presence of thine enemies, that person is really under fire, amen.  I wear this for a friend who was lost. It's a sad story, but I'll always keep him in my heart and in my thoughts.

Daniel here ... he’ll never forget coming to meetings with his dad and the people who are about military service. This precious young man can't be in the ROTC in San Francisco. Did you know that you know the issues of the day, and if we don’t recruit, guide, teach and pray for the next generation, we'll be in trouble. Just like you went forth in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. Any Iraqi Freedom vets here? You might want to try and recruit some of them.

Freedom Flight, check in

(Two! came the response.)

Pierson held up a window banner for families with sons or daughters overseas — a blue star for service, a gold star for a life given in that service. Pierson says the family of his wife, Gilberta, displayed six blue stars for her uncles who served during World War II.

I was born in New Jersey, but I escaped. I went in the Navy and when I came back in '46 I bounded up the steps of a home in Montclair, New Jersey, to see the family of one of my buddies.  I knew Tommy had been in the service, but I didn’t know where, what or when.

As a child — 8, 9, 10 — Tommy and I were pals there. His mom always made us tea sandwiches or we'd snitch them and raid the ice box. Howard continued, saying he had rung the doorbell and Tommy’s mother answered Howard by name.

I picked her up and spun her around. And in the living room, I turned and looked and one of these (a gold star banner) was in the window.

Tommy was on the Indianapolis. Do you know her story? She carried the guts of the atomic bomb to Tinian, the bomb that ended the war. And Tommy was on that ship, lost at sea.

It means that, as it says in John 15:13, For greater love, has this no man lay down his life for a friend. That’s what you signed on for.

That oath you took somewhere in there, in small words, is that particular Bible verse. You have to be willing to do that.

But this (banner) is a symbol of the person who sacrifices. A token that reminds us that freedom is not free.

Freedom Flight, check in!

(Two! came the crisp response.)