Don Schreiber, 74, had a long, exciting career as a pilot for the U.S. Air Force. Among his many assignments were flying the famed U-2 ‘spy plane’ and the SR-71, both high-altitude strategic reconnaissance aircraft.
Today, the Woodway resident is retired from Baylor University. He serves as president of the Baylor Bear Foundation (which has raised $16.2 million for student athletic scholarships) and has 13 grandchildren. He’s not sure why he has had good fortune in his life. He’s quick to mention the many other U.S. service personnel who never made it home from the places he served.
Born in Seattle, his family moved to nearby Whidbey Island when Schreiber was 5. He stayed there until he enrolled at Washington State University, where it was mandatory to attend the Reserve Officers Training Corps. The day he graduated with a BS in business administration, he earned his commission as a 2nd lieutenant.
Schreiber took jet training in 1965 in Enid, Oklahoma, at Vance Air Force Base, flying first on T-37s and then T-38s. “I was raised on a farm,” he said. “Prior to the Air Force, I had never set foot in an airplane.”
Still, he passed the physical with ease; even the tester said he had fantastic eyesight. And, it turned out, he had a natural aptitude for flying, a kind of “situational awareness” as Schreiber described it.
“I never got sick in an airplane and wasn’t disoriented by the plane’s antics,” Schreiber said. “I kind of looked at it like I can’t believe I’m getting this airplane and free gas to fly.”
After a year of training, Schreiber was assigned to the RF-4C Phantom II fighter/reconnaissance aircraft in February 1966 and deployed to England to the Royal Air Force Alconbury, where he flew operational “peace-time” missions around the East/West German buffer zones during the Cold War.
He spent just over a year there and decided to volunteer to serve in Vietnam because he was a bachelor and many of his friends in the squadron were family men. Schreiber arrived at the Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base in northern Thailand in September 1967. At 25, he was the youngest Phantom aircraft commander in Southeast Asia at the time.
Flying high, fast, unarmed
Schreiber flew the unarmed RF-4C tandem two-seater, an all-weather, long-range, subsonic jet interceptor equipped with three camera stations in the nose section. Subsonic craft are the exception as they cover just about every aircraft that travels below the speed of sound. The Phantom was the last U.S. fighter flown to attain ace status in the 20th century, according to published reports.
Schreiber’s plan was to fly at least 100 missions. That was the target for all pilots. After reaching that goal they were eligible to go home early.
Trouble arrives in a hurry
At first, Schreiber didn’t run into much trouble, but that wouldn’t last for long. The unit’s mission was to prove or disprove a claim that the Russian embassy was bombed by the Americans in Hanoi. On his 11th mission, he was wing man to Col. Vernon P. Ligon Jr., commander of the 11th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron and former prisoner of war in World War II and Korea.
Schreiber was a 1st lieutenant and his navigator was a 2nd lieutenant. They were such a young crew they were nicknamed Peanut Butter & Crackers. They took off from Udorn with Ligon leading the mission, flying to the Red River, which flows out of China, through Hanoi and on to the Gulf of Tonkin. When they arrived at the river, the enemy filled the air with anti-aircraft artillery shells.
“It looked like a movie,” Schreiber said.
But, there was nothing the U.S. airmen were able to do — they had no guns. The group turned toward Hanoi hoping no one would get hit and attempted to complete its mission of photographing the Russian embassy and “Hanoi Hilton,” the notorious prison used during the war by the North Vietnamese to hold prisoners, mostly American pilots and air crews. The North Vietnamese routinely interrogated prisoners, some of whom were executed.
Suddenly, the first of 12 surface-to-air missiles (SA-2s, or SAMs) was fired at the RF-4Cs. “I saw it come off the ground,” Schreiber said.
Next week: Schreiber goes on to amass a total of 4,200 flight hours, including 1,400 in the U-2. He flew 208 combat missions and has more than 800 hours in combat. After the first of many tours in Vietnam, Schreiber returned home, got married and started a family. He would go on to serve 28 years with the Air Force.