In April 1972, during his second tour in Vietnam, Ray Bishop was waiting to board a United Airways plane. The Vietnam War appeared to be coming to an end, and the Air Force was sending him back stateside early. As he prepared to board the plane, his squadron commander tapped him on the shoulder. The North Vietnamese had just launched an unexpected and aggressive campaign, later dubbed the Easter Offensive. As a B-52 bomber pilot, he was needed immediately. He would not be going home.
Thousands of miles away, in Phoenix, Arizona, his wife Debbie, who he had married just a few months earlier, waited at the airport for him. And then she waited some more.
“It was a full month before I could a hold of my wife and tell her I couldn’t come home,” said Bishop. “Of course, she is hearing on the news there is a big offensive in Vietnam. She cried a lot, let’s put it that way!”
When Bishop finally reached his wife by phone, it was in a most unusual manner, and it likely did little to alleviate her worries.
“We all had that HF radio … and Barry Goldwater, who was the senator from Arizona, in his own house, had what they called a MARS station, just HF radio,” explained Bishop. “At his own expense, if you could get to an HF radio, which we had in the airplane, he paid for a connection to the regular phone line and you could call your loved ones. Finally after about three, almost four weeks, I get ahold of my wife. Of course, I’m flying the airplane and there are bombs going off and machine guns firing in the background, and I say, ‘Hey, I can’t come home,’ and the phone went dead and I didn’t get a hold of her for almost another month.”
Love for flying
Bishop, a fourth generation Wyomingite, had fallen in love with aviation as a young boy when he flew in his uncle’s plane. Later, as a 23-year-old student at the University of Wyoming in the ROTC program, Bishop chose to go into the military after his graduation in January 1970.
“I was at the time when we got rid of the draft and went to the lottery,” said Bishop. “I had a lottery number that was like 340. I would have never gone in the military. But I kind of thought I wanted to fly and I would like the military, so I raised my hand.”
Bishop eventually ended up at Williams Air Force Base in Phoenix, Arizona, where he trained before heading to Vietnam in 1971 for a yearlong tour of duty.
During this first tour, Bishop flew 101 missions as the pilot of a De Havilland C-7A. His duties included carrying supplies and carrying troops, as well as dropping Special Forces troops in Laos, Cambodia and throughout Vietnam and also doing forward tactical control over hot zones to clear targets for troops on the ground.
“We would hover around a combat area where there was a lot of stuff going on and we would clear targets for the fighters and bombers to drop bombs. That was a lot of fun,” said Bishop. “That was a slow airplane, down low to the ground where you got to see a lot of stuff. You only flew about 120 mph. And I got hosed a couple times — bullets all over me, all over the airplane.”
Bishop had other close calls as well.
“I came into land one day and I had a rocket land between my main gear and my nose gear,” he continued. “And it was a dud. It is what it is. You just appreciate every day that God gives you and it is a blessing and you move on.”
Return to USA
After just eight months into his scheduled yearlong tour, Bishop was released to go home early. He returned to Phoenix where he had become engaged to Debbie months earlier, but declined to marry before he left for war.
“I didn’t want to get married because you never know, for pilots particularly, whether you are going to come back or not,” he said. “But her father had really bad arthritis and had to have both knees and both hips replaced so he was afraid he would not be able to walk his daughter down the aisle. So at the eight-month point, when I was there, it looked like the war was over and they actually gave us an assignment to come back to the states. So I came home and got married.”
The newlyweds then headed to California where he began training for a new assignment, piloting the iconic B-52 bomber. After four months of training, Debbie returned to Phoenix and Bishop headed back for a second tour in Vietnam.
Operation Arc Light
Over the next few months, Bishop flew 12 missions in the B-52 as part of the ongoing Operation Arc Light bombing campaign which had started in 1962. The planes flew in groups, or cells, of three, and each plane carried 102 500-pound bombs.
“It is like flying a commercial airliner,” said Bishop, about the B-52. “It is not much different. Actually, it is a fun airplane to fly. There is nothing like seeing the guy who is a mile ahead of you, drop a hundred bombs out. It is pretty spectacular.
“In the B-52 we’d fly about every third or fourth day,” he continued. “It just depended. I actually was in the cell that dropped the very last bombs in Vietnam and actually they were up in Laos. So I can say I was at the very end of that conflict.”
Bishop left Vietnam in 1972 and at just age 25, he was a seasoned combat pilot and budding military leader.
After the war, Bishop returned home but remained in the Air Force for 25 years, eventually attaining the rank of colonel and retiring in 1996. During his career, he commanded the 325th B-52 Bomb Squadron, the largest in the USAF, the 43rd Operation group in Guam and the 93rd Bomb Wing at Castle Air Force Base in California, the largest bomb wing in the USAF with 23 B-52s, 33 KC-135Rs and more than 4,000 personnel.
He and Debbie had three children, Clark, Abbey and Brian, and after his retirement from the military, they relocated to California where he headed the Kern County Airport near Bakersfield. In 2006, they relocated again when he took the job of executive director of the Jackson Hole Airport, a role he served in until he retired in November 2014.
Throughout all his assignments and locations, Bishop said his Vietnam experience stayed with him.
“That is one of the beauties of the military is that you get a lot of responsibility at a young age,” he said. “I was blessed to be able to command. And all those experiences that you had as a young lieutenant you carry with you when you are in a command position. You treat people like you wanted to be treated, or were treated.
“But I think the takeaway that I have, the overall impression many years later, is that my fellow Americans that were there with me were absolutely fantastic human beings and they would give their life in a heartbeat for their colleagues,” he added. “I’ve seen multiple times where people quickly gave their lives to save their friends. It makes you a real patriot when you come back. … The individuals I met were incredible — talented, well-trained and bursting with American spirit and pride.”
Editor’s note: Raymond Bishop passed away December 12, 2015, in Jackson.