Howard Joseph Pierson
US Navy: World War II (1944-1946)
US Air Force: Korea, Vietnam, and Cold War (1951-1979)
Howard Joseph Pierson was born in Bloomfield, New Jersey in August 1927. His father was a motion picture operator and his mother was an office worker. In high school he kept busy working at a factory during the night and had odd jobs around town. Most members of his family worked at the local factory, Westinghouse, a path Mr. Pierson surely would have followed as well, had WWII not entered the picture. He recalls that at the time there was intense peer pressure to join the military and fight in WWII. Every young man was going, so why not him? Mr. Pierson was only 17 years old when he approached his family about joining the Navy. His mother tearfully signed the paperwork necessary to give him permission to enter the Navy. His family was full of concern and sadness, as he was the first member of his family to join. He dropped out of high school and joined the Navy in 1944. He chose the Navy over other branches of service because he didn’t want to be drafted into the Army and “live in the mud.”
Mr. Pierson attended boot camp for six weeks in Sampson, NY. According to Pierson, his “training was minimal, but effective.” He was trained to be a gunner’s mate on the 40 millimeter gun and a striker. At boot camp he did whatever they wanted him to do. The six weeks passed quickly and he returned home for a 4 day leave to say goodbye to his family. All of his peers had already been shipped off; he was just joining the group. His rank at the time was a basic Seaman and he was headed for the Pacific.
His first assignment, in March 1945, was on board the battleship USS Iowa (6th deck division) based in Hunters Point, San Francisco. He was a self-described “deck ape”. He spent his days loading ammunition and food. He scrubbed the decks, painted, and polished anything that needed polishing. He also had the responsibility of manning a 40-millimeter gun at battle stations. A battleship meets and faces the enemy. It also shells enemy fortifications, in this case the ones on the Japanese islands. They were often 4-5 miles away from the action, shelling from the ship to the shore. Upon arrival on the ship, he recalls feeling frightened, confused, and lost. Not certain of what was next was a difficult thing for a young 17 year old kid.
The living conditions were very different then he was used to. The sailors lived on the main deck in hammocks. Mr. Pierson describes them as “adequate but not comfortable”. Every few weeks he was assigned mess kit duty, and then he would return to the group. Unlike food served to other ships in the war or the ground troops, the food on the USS Iowa was pretty good. Mr. Pierson attributes that to the number of flag officers who were on board. They ate well, and the crew benefited. They would often give their bulk food, such as flour, beans, and basic survival goods to the other troops. Mr. Pierson recalls the officers on board fondly. He saw the Captain a few times, but jokingly said, “He didn’t come back to the fantail and check with him often.” His time on the USS Iowa was a learning experience. He recalls, “As any teenager would find it, it was an emotional and memorable experience. It was something I could really hang on to. It was the people who made the difference. They made life youthful and joyful, and okay.” He kept in contact with many of them after the war, some for nearly 50 years, but sadly most are gone now. Mr. Pierson concluded that on board the USS Iowa he learned humility, responsibility, and respect. On September 2, 1945 the Japanese officially surrendered to General Mac Arthur on board the USS Missouri. Mr. Pierson was on board the USS Iowa and remembers the mood as being “subdued.” The USS Iowa returned to the states and Mr. Pierson was officially discharged from the Navy in New York.
When Mr. Pierson joined the Navy in 1944 he had to drop out of high school. At that time, many high schools allowed your war service to count towards graduation, and did not require young men who had served to return to school. However, that was not the case for the high school Mr. Pierson attended. There were six of them who returned to school to complete their senior year. He recalls that it was interesting to sit in class with kids who didn’t enlist. He didn’t feel any discrimination to them or from them, but was aware that they had the same choice he did earlier, and they didn’t take it. According to Mr. Pierson, “It didn’t make me a better man, but I sure had a lot more experience in life with responsibility, trust, and humility.” The war had had changed Mr. Pierson. At 19 he found himself attending school, drinking beer at Kitty’s tavern, and working a night shift at Hercules Power Company. He worked the midnight to 8am shifts. It was at Kitty’s tavern one night that Mr. Pierson met a man who counseled him in what to do in life. He told him to get out of town, and try something new. He did just that, and left to attend school at the University of Alabama on a football scholarship.
At the University of Alabama, Mr. Pierson joined the Air Force ROTC program. He was already attending the school on a full scholarship for football, but he knew he could make a few extra dollars with his veteran’s status by joining ROTC, and he would have to serve two years after graduation. Mr. Pierson received his Air Force commission in 1951. The Korean War had started in 1950, so once again Mr. Pierson found an opportunity to serve his country. He attended Reese AFB in Lubbock, Texas to earn his pilot wings. He graduated from class 52-Charlie. Soon afterwards he found himself back in Japan, flying the B-29 Super fortress on missions to bomb the North Korean forces. Most of his duties in the Korean War were on board the B-29, flying missions out of Yokota Japan. He recalls that flying in the Korean War was much different than the US had faced in WWII. They were now facing the Russian MiG jet, which was difficult to fly against in a reciprocal-engine aircraft. According to Mr. Pierson, they lost a lot of planes. The US switched to flying their missions at night, something the Russians were not able to do, and the loss rate went down.
Mr. Pierson was not done serving his country after the Korean War. He trained and began flying the B-47 and B-52 bombers for the Strategic Air Command. During the 1950′s and 1960′s the US was in the middle of the Cold War. Something Mr. Pierson said he would never forget when he was a spot Major in charge of carrying a crew aboard a B-52 with 10 megatons of nuclear arms. His job was to stand alert with the nukes, he recalled. If Mr. Pierson had to have dropped the bomb on Moscow, nearly 2 million people would have died. Years later he met a young Russian man named Igor while attending a bible college in Moscow. Igor remembered running when he heard air sirens to seek shelter from the bombs the Americans were carrying, and how scared he was. Mr. Pierson and Igor embraced each other, thankful that day had never come. After the Korean War Mr. Pierson was given the option to become a member of the US Air Force with a regular commission, allowing him to stay in and serve his country. He decided to take the opportunity to make the Air Force his career.
In 1965, Mr. Pierson volunteered to go to Vietnam. He was involved with several different operations and flew the A-37, A-1, and C-123. In between combat tours in Vietnam, Mr. Pierson returned to the United States and worked as a flight instructor training students on the T-38 aircraft. He also served as an operations advisor the Vietnamese Air Force as well as the Royal Thailand Air Force. As a command pilot with the US Air Force, Mr. Pierson spent four years flying combat tours throughout Southeast Asia. His last assignment in Southeast Asia was as the Commander of the “Nail” Forward Air Controller (FAC), flying OV-10′s. FACs fly low and slow, finding the enemy and then dropping a phosphorus called “Willy-Pete” to mark a location. It was their job to mark the target, give additional coordinates or information to the strike aircraft that followed behind. It was very dangerous because of the low slow flying mission and many FAC pilots were killed in action. On August 15, 1973 Mr. Pierson was the last man to fly out of Cambodia. He had the radio call sign of Nails- 01. Mr. Pierson remembers having a sense that the American public did not welcome the Vietnam veteran’s home in the same way they had done following WWII. He didn’t feel any personal insults or animosity because he knew that, in general, people were ignorant of the issues that brought America into the Vietnam War. He was keenly aware of the issues of the time, polices, and the foreign interests. However, society was innocent, ignorant, and indifferent.
Mr. Pierson retired from Shaw Air Force base in South Carolina in 1979, ending a 30 year career serving our country in WWII, Korea, The Cold War, and Vietnam. He had risen to the rank of Lt. Colonel and had numerous combat decorations. They included the Airman Medal for Valor, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Bronze Stars, 39 Air Medals, Meritorious Service Medal, the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross and many others. In addition he is in the Air Commando Hall of Fame, the Arkansas Boys State hall of Fame, and recently was the named the recipient of the Paul W. Bryant Alumni-Athlete award from the University of Alabama. After life in the service to our country, Mr. Pierson still found ways to reach out to touch lives. He became a college instructor and worked for American Airlines in Dallas Texas as a consultant. He is the graduate of three universities and an associate professor at four more. In addition, he is became a chaplain (non-ordained) for several veteran groups.
When asked about his most memorable experience in the war, Mr. Pierson was quick to point out the friendship and camaraderie that you can only gain from being in the service and serving alongside fellow military members. As he puts it, “There is a bonding among those who fly, or serve, commissioned or enlisted, that is unmatched. It’s a different vow then that of marriage, or to God, but it’s a vow.” He continued with a biblical verse that is important to him, “Greater love has no one than this; to lay down one’s life for one’s FRIENDS (John 15:13).” When reflecting back on his life he remembers the classmates, friends, and events that happened to him. He feels strongly that it was an honor to serve his country. He also appreciates what his other comrades did for the missions they were involved in. He has attended dozens of funerals, wrote eulogy’s for dozens of men, and he will never forget them and the affect they had on his life.
The toughest part of his service was accepting that some men had to die. It was an investment in the future, and it was the price they had to pay. He reminds us that we see them in every cemetery and we should appreciate our life because of what they did. In addition, Mr. Pierson believes strongly that we have an obligation to pass on the knowledge that we have. Every person has a responsibility to teach, guide, love and encourage everyone else. He states, “When you hear “Taps” at a funeral, those are the moments that you understand that the military is separate from the rest of the world. It’s a different world and it takes a hell of a lot to do that!” He cautions, that Americans should learn that “there is a price to pay for freedom; it did not just come tumbling out of the sky.” He is proud of the young men and women at Novato High Schools JROTC program and that many want to serve their country. He wishes more young people would be awakened and appreciates the “validity of life.”
Mr. Pierson is currently married to Gilberta Guth and they live in Novato, California. Gilberta was married to Joe Guth, one of his closest friends throughout his career. He and Joe attended training and flew in Korea together. Years later he would be asked to speak at Mr. Guth’s funeral. Mr. Pierson describes his wife Gilberta as “a giant, an amazing woman”. She is the author of “The Fighter Pilot’s Wife, A Military Family’s Story, published in 2006. Six of Gilberta’s uncles served in WWII, and they all came home safely. They are proud of their eight children, 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren between the two of them and their blended family. When explaining their situation he simply stated, “God is good”.
Interview by Nick Langevin on August 6, 2012.