This is the second of a two-part series on Jim Lawrence.
He’s jockeying an A-4 Skyhawk in combat at the age of 21. His mission is close air support for Marines engaged on the ground.
Jim “Nomad” Lawrence recalls, “It was all new to me, just a good old Mississippi boy in love with flying suddenly thrown into a war with people trying to kill me. Which I guess is fair since we were trying to kill them.”
Around Chu Lai and Da Nang in Vietnam, bombing impenetrable jungle and fetid rice paddies, Nomad dropped his ordnance at a low level, normally 200 feet from the ground.
“We used snake-eye bombs with fins to retard the rate of fall because we needed 2,500 feet between the explosions and our aircraft, lest we blow ourselves out of the sky. Napalm was no problem because the canisters fell slowly.”
Nomad had his baptism of fire on his third mission. He said, “I was rolling in on the target and noticed these golf ball-size orange and red things zipping by my plane.
“Suddenly it struck me: ‘Holy cow! Those guys are actually shooting at me!’ You don’t get used to it, but you do accept it as a part of war.”
Nomad heard from a buddy flying FAC (forward air controller) missions out of Quang Tri that their casualty rate was so high that FACs were in short supply. Nomad, of course, volunteered as a FAC.
He said, “My skipper asked me, ‘Are you crazy? They’re getting killed up there!’ No matter, I stuck to my guns and in three hours was on a C-130 heading to Da Nang.
“By early morning, I was in Quang Tri, strapped into an O-1 Cessna Birddog at 0600 for my test flight. That afternoon I flew my first combat mission as a FAC.”
Nomad flew as a FAC for sixth months, the longest a pilot could do so due to the loss rate. He marked targets with smoke rockets for jet fighters and called in targets to Navy ships, including the battleship New Jersey.
Targets included truck parks, ammo dumps, troop concentrations and cover fire for ground forces.
Nomad said, “I worked close with Marines on the ground and also the medevac choppers. It was very rewarding working with the troops. I felt that I saved American lives.”
Jim “Nomad” Lawrence got, in his own words, “shot up a couple times,” meaning his Birddog was hit by ground fire. One round penetrated the cockpit floor and struck his helmet.
He confessed, “That was a bit too close. My ears still ring to this very day.”
In the thick of combat for 13 months, Nomad risked his life daily to save fellow Marines. He left Vietnam with 432 combat missions to his credit. Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan awaited his experience.
Returning home, Nomad served 11 months at Yuma, Ariz., teaching other pilots the tricks he’d learned in Vietnam. After Yuma, he went off active duty, returned to college for a degree, first served in the Navy Reserves, and retired as a lieutenant colonel from the Air Force Reserves. He’s also had 38 years in commercial aviation.
He flew F-8 Crusaders for the Marines, A-7 Corsairs for the Navy off the carriers Forrestal and Eisenhower, and was called up to serve in Bosnia and Iraq, flying the lovable ugly duckling of the Air Force, the deadly A-10 Warthog.
1995 – Bosnia
Flying A-10s out of Aviano, Italy, Nomad led one of the first strikes against a Serb tread-assembly building.
He recalled, “I rolled in on the target and locked on my Maverick Missile, when my wingman suddenly warned me, ‘Nomad, Nomad, SAM (surface to air missile) is heading right at you.’ I broke left and defeated that missile, but again my wingman warned, ‘Two more coming at you,’ so I broke right to get those off my back. I fought off six SAMs that day, an unofficial Air Force record.”
British artillery knocked out three anti-aircraft positions but could not strike the fourth due to possible “collateral damage.’’
Nomad continued, “Now I had 37mm anti-aircraft coming at me. I felt like Wyatt Earp at the OK Corral.”
Nomad opened up with his Gatlin Gun, pouring in over 900 rounds at his adversary. (The Gatlin fires 70 rounds per second) “I saw sparkles, then secondary explosions, so I guess the Clantons lost again.”
The Gulf War
Activated for combat, Nomad arrived after the “official” shooting was over, but still dodged anti-aircraft fire from the defeated Iraqis.
“We flew out of Kuwait and were shot at several times, but we couldn’t return fire. That was maddening.”
Sept. 11, 2001
Flying a corporate jet to Phoenix, Nomad received a message to land immediately.
“I put her down in San Antonio,” he said. “We had no idea what was going on. We went into the operations area in time to see the second plane hit the towers. I knew we were under attack. My blood ran cold.”
Officially retired from the military in 1999, Nomad still had his hands glued to the control stick of a wide variety of commercial aircraft until his formal retirement in 2005.
But retirement for Nomad is just another opportunity to fly more airplanes, for fun or money or both. In 2010 and 2011 he flew Kingair 350s out of Kandahar, Afghanistan, on several classified missions. He presently works for Boeing as a worldwide flight instructor on the Boeing 787. His recent trips as an instructor took him to Shanghai, Qatar and Singapore.
So far Jim “Nomad” Lawrence has logged more than 36,000 hours in cockpits of dozens of aircraft. Among them: A Cessna 150, 172, 182, 310, and 210; the Beechcraft Musketeer, Debonair, Bonanza, Baron and twin Beech; and the Kingair 200 and 350. Commercial aircraft he flew include the MD 88, 90 and 11, plus the Boeing 737, 727, 757, 767, 200, 300 ER, 400 ER, 777 and 787. Military aircraft include: the Cessna O-1 Birddog, F8 Crusaders, A4 Skyhawks, A7 Corsairs, A-10 Warthog, and World War II airplanes such as the T-6 Texan and the venerable B-17 Flying Fortress.
“I’m a pilot and always will be,” he said. “I don’t know or want to do anything else.”
When asked his favorite aircraft, Nomad replied with a huge grin, “Whatever I’m flying at the time.”
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.