Meeting Santa Clarita Valley’s wonderful Veterans at Valencia’s Corner Bakery is become quite habit forming and their cinnamon rolls are definitely tasty. But naturally they’re forbidden by the “powers that be”. Anyway, I recently met Bernie Ellrodt, an F-105 Thud fighter pilot, there for several hours and what a pleasure it was hearing his remarkable stories.
Bernie admitted his chattiness as he cheerfully told me his Thud fellow pilots called him Captain Radio
Discipline Changed Bernie
Bernard F. Ellrodt, Jr. was born in 1942 and grew up in Elmsford, New York, 25 miles north of midtown, Manhattan, New York City.
Bernie attended 16 years of Catholic schools and he graduated from Archbishop Stepinac High School in 1959. Notable alumni are actors Jon Voight and Alan Alda, Jr.
“The discipline I received in high school turned my life around as I was headed for big trouble with characters I hung around with,” Bernie said.
Bernie earned a NY State scholarship to Manhattan College in The Bronx, New York, where he joined AFROTC with aspirations to become a fighter pilot. Mayor Rudy Giuliani also graduated from Bernie’s college.
Throughout his youth, Bernie loved WWII fighter airplanes and he built balsa wood model planes – one after the next.
“I’ll never forget loading several with fire crackers just to watch them blow up in midair,” Bernie said with a gleam in his eye.
Nuclear Research Officer
After earning his Bachelor’s Degree in Engineering, Bernie joined the U.S. Air Force July 8, 1963. He was the only one of his relatives to earn a college degree at that time.
Bernie failed an Air Force eye examination at a time when few pilots were needed so he entered as a Nuclear Research Officer, and was first assigned to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Armed with his degree major in Mechanical Engineering with minors in Nuclear Physics and Math, this was a perfect assignment for Bernie and the best part was meeting his future wife.
But still, he strongly desired being a fighter pilot and a Captain in his unit convinced him to have another eye exam so he went to a civilian optometrist, hired by the USAF, who obliged Bernie’s wishes.
Tops of Telephone Poles
In April 1965, Bernie was off to Moody Air Force Base, Valdosta, Georgia, for “all jet pilot training” where he was first to solo, which was remarkable considering some of his classmates were former civilian pilots.
He graduated as a Distinguished Graduate which positioned Bernie to pursue the fighter pilot training that he most wanted.
For the next five months Bernie flew Republic F-105 Thunderchiefs at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, where he learned dive bombing and strafing, which was primary, but also some air-to-air combat and aerial refueling.
“I did some really low level flying where I was looking up at tops of telephone poles,” Bernie said.
F-105’s were nicknamed “Thud” likely because of the sound it made when hitting the earth. Pilots loved its speed and resilience hence Thud became a term of endearment.
Thuds often came home with large pieces missing, however, from enemy missiles and flak. Thud pilots prided themselves on doing the work of five-man bomber crews and at times flying beyond the speed of sound, 100 feet above the jungle, with enemy flak, missiles and NVA MiG’s everywhere.
“Flying low and super fast was a most exhilarating experience,” he said.
Bombing Over Laos
After Nellis, Bernie went to survival and simulated POW training at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, Washington.
In early 1967, Bernie was assigned to Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa until the summer of 1969. Kadena, known as “Keystone of the Pacific,” is the largest U.S. Air Force Base in the Pacific Region.
After Kadena, Bernie volunteered for war duty and was assigned to the 354th Tactical Fighter Squadron, Takhli Air Base, Thailand.
The primary targets of his 147 missions were bombing enemy positions in northern Laos held by a sizable North Vietnamese Army and Communist Pathet Lao troops. NVA troops were in the Kingdom of Laos primarily to keep the Ho Chi Minh trail operational and to support their fellow communists in conquering Laos.
Bernie also had five bombing missions over North Vietnam.
Once Bernie’s tour of duty ended in mid-1970, he went to McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, where he continued flying F-105’s until they transferred to the National Guard and Reserves.
Harrowing Bombing Missions
The F-105 was a primary attack aircraft during the Vietnam War with over 20,000 sorties flown; 382 aircraft were lost including 62 non-combat losses out of 833 produced.
Though less agile than smaller MiG fighters, F-105s were credited with 27 kills.
Bernie, a gutsy fighter pilot, determined his best bombing tactic, when anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) was present, was to roll in to a 45 degree dive angle and drop his bombs at 5,500 feet rather than the standard 8,000 feet. This insured better target acquisition and hits and some secondary explosions.
On a few occasions, Bernie saw enemy 37MM and 57MM triple AAA shells rocket past his canopy narrowly missing him as he dove down.
He later determined that enemy gunners knew F-105 pilots would start pulling out at 8,000 feet, so Bernie’s strategy avoided being hit, while hitting targets.
“I knew if I missed my target another pilot would have to come back to hit it. I did not want a fellow fighter pilot to lose his life because I missed the target,” Bernie said. “I will never forget my fellow pilots who died making the ultimate sacrifice.”
F117 Nighthawk Program
Bernie was sent to Ethiopia in 1976 as an F-5Ee Operations Advisor to the Ethiopian Air Force and he took his family. However, when the communists began taking over Ethiopia they kicked Americans out and that assignment abruptly ended.
It was a dangerous time as Bernie was shot at by communist revolutionaries. So it was back to the U.S. for a number of assignments across America.
After 22 years of service, the last being on the secret F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Program, Lt. Colonel Bernard F. Ellrodt, Jr. was honorably retired July 31, 1985.
He was recruited to join Lockheed Martin’s Skunkworks to work on the ATF (F-22) program in Burbank, California, and also Marietta, Georgia.
Bernie retired as a Senior Manager in the Ops Analysis organization in December 2011.
Bernie’s military awards include the Distinguished Flying Cross with 1 Oak Leaf Cluster, Meritorious Serve Medal with 3 Oak Leaf Clusters, Air Medal with 2 Silver and 2 Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal with 1 Oak Leaf Cluster, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with Valor Device and 3 Oak Leaf Clusters, Air Force Organizational Excellence Award, Combat Readiness Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with 3 Bronze Service Stars, Air Force Longevity Service Award with 4 Oak Leaf Clusters, Small Arms Marksmanship Ribbon, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Device, and Republic of Vietnam Service Medal.
USS Pueblo Incident
Since retirement, Bernie has enjoyed plenty of golf, tennis, and fishing, dating women, and attending USAF reunions and Order of Daedalians meetings. The latter pilots association began with WWI Pilots at the end of The Great War.
Bernie, AKA Captain Radio, loves to swap war stories and man does he have a lot of them.
During LBJ’s Presidency while Bernie served at Kadena Air Force Base, on January 23, 1968, the North Koreans attacked and captured the USS Pueblo with its 83 crew members. Sailor Duane Hodges was killed.
The North Koreans took the ship to Wonsan Harbor, but during the melee, the North Koreans beat and tortured the sailors.
Perhaps not coincidentally, three weeks later, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched their surprise Tet Offensive across South Vietnam.
Meanwhile, Bernie and his fellow Squadron pilots were ordered to fly their Thuds to Osan Air Base, Japan, where they were stationed for six months.
The plan was to launch a massive bomb attack on North Korea. Their Thuds were armed with 750 pound bombs but launch orders never were issued. On Dec. 23, 1968, North Korea released our 82 sailors, however, they still possess the USS Pueblo to this very day.
A Blessed Life
Digressing to Bernie’s love life, he said, “When I heard a sexy woman’s voice while in service at Albuquerque, I instantly knew that I must meet her.”
Mary Sandoval was an office secretary in the USAF Weapons Lab and fortunately for Bernie she would be the one to assist him with security for a meeting and it didn’t take long for them to begin seeing each regularly. Within a year they were married.
Tragically, many years later, Mary began having numerous medical issues and sadly she passed away at age 64 in June 2010.
Several years later, a tennis buddy convinced Bernie to meet a lady friend, Edna Coe, a strikingly beautiful woman, for a double date lunch at a local restaurant.
That lunch date could not have gone more wrong, but his good buddy persuaded him to see Edna again and things went perfectly. They continued dating and were married one year later on June 27, 2015, at Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Catholic Church in Valencia.
Bernie is a great American and believes he has had a blessed life.