Howard Pierson went from the Navy in World War II to the pilot’s seat over Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia.
Occupation: Career military; instructor, consultant
Branch of military: U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force
Highest rank: Lieutenant colonel
Years of service: 1944-46, 1951-79
Boot camp location: Sampson (N.Y.) Naval Training Center
Active duty operations: World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War
Locations deployed: South Pacific, Korea, Japan, Europe, North Africa, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia
Combat: World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War
Combat injuries: None
New Jersey native Howard Pierson dropped out of high school in 1944 to join the Navy, and he had to get his mother to sign the papers because he was only 17 at the time. By March 1945 he was a deck aide climbing on the battleship USS Iowa (“The Big Stick”) at Hunters Point in San Francisco, heading to Okinawa. He handled various duties — everything from moving ammunition to cleaning to painting — and manned a 40-millimeter gun at battle stations. “I learned humility, responsibility and respect — and I learned how to get chewed out,” he said. He was aboard the Iowa on VJ day and remembers the mood as “subdued.”
We went back to New Jersey, finished high school in 1947 and then went to the University of Alabama, even playing tight end on the football team. (A month ago at Crimson Tide game, he was a distinguished guest when the university honored its veterans.) He had an ROTC commission and went on active duty when the Korean War started in 1950, and he earned his wings in 1952. He flew B-29s, B-47s and B-52s out of Japan. “We stood alert with nukes,” he said. “One of the most impressive things of my services — something I never forgot — was being a spot major in charge of carrying a crew with 10 megatons (of nuclear arms). I thank God we won the Cold War without dropping a nuke.”
He signed up as an air commando in Southeast Asia in 1964 and was there through 1966. He came back to be an instructor in the States and then spent time as an adviser with the South Vietnamese Air Force and Royal Thai Air Force. He was a forward air controller out of Cambodia in the cockpit of a turboprop OV-10 observation plane. “We lost 300 guys as FACs,” he said. “They were the real heroes.”
Pierson came back and retired from Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina in 1979, then became a college instructor, a professional consultant to the airline industry and a chaplain (non-ordained) for several veterans groups. He lives in the Atherton area of Novato with his wife Gilberta Guth Pierson, author of “The Fighter Pilot’s Wife” (2006, Call Sign Press, www.fighterpilotswife.com).
What’s your favorite memory of your service?
The fellowship of the aviators and the enlisted troops — both the officers and enlisted men. I never felt fearful. Others with more responsibility did things far more heroic than I was doing. The guys who didn’t come back were the real heroes. Later on in my career, making decisions of life and death, I understood that.
What was the scariest time for you?
(In Vietnam) my aircraft was hit many times and I thought of stepping out. On two occasions I crash-landed … both times I didn’t leave my aircraft and I had no injures. When you get down on the ground after that, you thank god it was done. When you’re involved in a search-and-rescue mission and you’re trying to bring them out, you’re going to find yourself in plenty of danger. But what a joyful moment to rescue a man. I saw that moment several times. The rescue of a man … that’s pretty rewarding.
I had many friends killed in POW camps. They were captured, they suffered and they died, and they must never be forgotten.
Is patriotism what it used to be?
It’s been called the Greatest Generation by (Tom) Brokaw. Men and women came up in the ’20s and ’30s in the Dust Bowl and World War II, and they really were tested in their survival and their commitment to life in America. Once they bonded in the war, and we won, then we were all thankful we made it. …
There’s no glamour, no rah-rah, no yippee, no great joy during wartime. War is a bummer and it sucks, man. Man is at his finest and man is at his worst. I thank God we’re still here and free. On the Fourth of July, I always find it interesting to ride in the parade and look at the faces of the older men and older women, and some of them are crying as they see (the veterans) pass. I look at the infants and little kids, and I think that they’ll always remember being on Daddy’s shoulders watching the people in uniform at the parade. It’s a very real thing. …
Then you have the baby boomers come up, but if they ever forget why and how they got what they have, we’re in trouble. There’s been a dissolving of the American spirit and dream. If they don’t have Uncle Bill who was in the service, they’ll lose what America meant. Young guys like (Novato High Junior Air Force ROTC standout) Dante Tabarraci understand that and want to serve their country. I wish more of them could be awakened like that to an appreciation of the depth of life’s validity. Maybe they’d be humbled and get over themselves. This baby boomer generation … they have innocence and ignorance, I’ll give them that. But if it gets to arrogance, we’re in trouble.
Comments about the interview of Howard Pierson:
Thank You Lieutenant Colonel Pierson for your service, for you truly are a hero for defending the American way of life on so many countless occasions. I can honestly say that I spend very little time just appreciating the freedom that you and all men and women of our armed forces have put yourselves in harms way to defend. I can also honestly say that every time I pass a military cemetery the reality of what you men and women have done for this country sinks in hard and deep, and I shed a tear out of true appreciation for those lives sacrificed. I have a step son in the Navy and find myself measuring up the youth I see in our town to him and his attitudes. I immediately start feeling disgusted by some of the actions of the civilian youth in our community and the overwhelming sense of entitlement that they display. They know not about sacrifice, and have no sense of unity and connection to their elders and seem to view them (us) as nothing but a nuisance. It hurts and pains me to think that these attitudes are rampant in the generation of Americans that will become our future. Your words have given me a glimmer of hope that America will be o.k., thank you for that!!!
– Mike – 12/19/2010
I have known Howard for several years and am always in awe at his humility and sense of duty and patriotism. You nailed it and to use an old Naval Air saying “Bravo Zulu”.
– John Sammons – 12/24/2010
I am fifty years old. I was rummaging through some boxes in my barn attic and came across a box I had when I was about 8 or 9 years old. Contained therein was an “Aladdin” notebook to which was stapled a business card of Lieutenant Colonel Howard J. Pierson. I received this from Lt. Col. Pierson while at a performance of the Thunderbirds at Perrin AFB in the late 1960s. Lt. Col. Pierson allowed me and my brother to sit in the front and rear cockpits of the T-38 he was flying. He was bigger than life to me then… and now that I’ve found him and his biography online, he still is!
– Chuck Cox – 1/20/2011
My dad served in the navy in WWII in the South Pacific on the USS Fremont as a medical assistant, but he never wanted to talk about it. We thank you for your service, your courage, and your spirit. God bless.
– Susanna Boeck – 1/11/2011
It is an honor to know Howard. Thank you for taking the time to write about a true American Hero.
– Nina McIsaac – 3/19/2011
I lived next door to the then Spot Major Howard Pierson, aircraft commander of a 5th Bomb Wing SAC B-52 pilot. I was a new dentist stationed at Travis Air Force Base. We would meet in the evening and he would talk about leaving Travis flying out over the Pacifi Ocean to be refueled by a wing from Washington state, then flying over Colarado and running practice bomb runs in Dakota and then home to Travis to mow his lawn. It made my 8 block trip to the dental clinic look rather mundane. He was always colorful and his influence kept me from taking flying lessons. He said, “Unless you can spare the time and money to fly regularly, do yourself a favor and wait til you can.” I didn’t have either the time or money to devote to flying and am now 74 years old and still have never found the time or money. He gave me good advice.
– Don Erickson – 3/29/2011
Lt Col Howie Pierson, CINC Nail, was one of the finest commanders I knew in 21 years of active duty in the USAF. He was the squadron commander of the Nail Forward Air Controllers (FACs) at NKP, Thailand when I met him. I was an OV-10 FAC myself and our paths crossed many times. He inspired all of the young lieutenants and captains who served under him and instilled in them a devotion to country and duty that still is with them to this day. One of the highlights of our bi-annual FAC reunions is to see CINC Nail and hear his latest words of wisdom. Col Pierson, thank you for your service and welcome home.
– J. D. Caven, Lt Col, USAF (Ret) – 5/26/2011
Interview by: Brent Ainsworth, Novato Patch, December 18, 2010