While many young men dream of becoming fighter pilots, Warren Taylor simply didn’t want to spend the Vietnam War on the ground.
Immediately after Taylor, now 74, graduated from the University of Wyoming, he was selected for the military draft. It was 1965, and the war effort was ramping up.
“We graduated on a Friday,” he recalled, “and Monday morning I had my draft papers.
“I didn’t really want to be on the ground,” he added. “Since I had a degree, I wanted to get into an officer program. At that time, they were so popular, the only thing open was naval flight training.”
His recruiter told him that once he had an officer’s commission, he could choose his duty.
“For a lot of people, their goal was to become a pilot,” he explained. “But it wasn’t mine.”
Swim first, fly later
Taylor was about to join his family’s long military history. His father served in the Navy during World War II, and his grandfather served in the Army as a horseshoer in France during World War I. During Operation Desert Storm, his son continued the family’s military tradition by enlisting in the Navy Reserve.
Before Taylor could fly in the Navy, however, he would have to swim.
“I was a non-swimmer,” he said, “which doesn’t make much sense for me to be in the Navy.”
Those that could pass the swimming test were allowed weekend passes, but Taylor and the other non-swimmers stayed behind for swimming training. With his wife and family on their way to see him graduate, it was getting down to the wire. If he didn’t pass the swim test, he wouldn’t receive his officer’s commission.
“It was getting to be pretty short hairs,” he remembered. “It was going to be embarrassing when they all showed up if I hadn’t passed.”
In the nick of time, he parted the waves and passed his swimming exam. Taylor walked across the graduation podium with his fellow pilots as his family watched with pride.
Before the war
Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, Taylor grew up in Mountain View, Wyoming, with his two brothers and three sisters.
He met his wife, Nancy, about 35 miles up the road in Little America, Wyoming.
“She was working the graveyard shift at Little America,” he remembered. “I was kind of hung over and looking for a cup of coffee. She was cute, so I started flirting a little. Then, she threw me out. But I kept going back.”
His persistence paid off one day when she had been burned by some coffee and let him drive her home. She was attending UW, and he soon followed. After dating for a few years, he asked for her hand in marriage.
“We got married January 29,” he said, “and I left for Navy training March 4. So we celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary this year!”
Two years later, after learning to swim, receiving his commission and shipping overseas, Taylor was navigating sorties from the right seat of a Grumman A-6 Intruder over North Vietnam. His Wyoming origins had earned him the nickname “Shep” within Navy Attack Squadron VA-35, known as the “Black Panthers.”
Most of his missions were flown at night.
“They could hear us, but they couldn’t see us,” he said. “If you got hit, it was more by accident than anything.”
Flying 50 feet over their targets at speeds upwards of 550 knots per hour (about 633 miles per hour) left little room for error as Taylor plotted the trajectory of his payload.
“You had to have confidence in your pilot,” the navigator explained. “And, he had to have confidence in you. We understood that if I lost the picture on my radar, I pulled up hard.
“He didn’t ask why, because he wanted to come back just as bad as I did.”
Risk and Return
Once they left the USS Enterprise to fly a mission, they armed their Intruder’s 23 500-pound bombs with the intention of leaving them all in North Vietnam, but at times complications arose.
“If you couldn’t get your bombs off,” he recalled, “depending on whether it was day or night, you might try to drop them a second time.
“Or you might try to pickle them off into the ocean, because you couldn’t bring armed bombs back to the (aircraft) carrier.”
Most of Taylor’s missions would be flown with the same pilot to build trust, but he was occasionally paired with another officer on duty. During one such pairing, he drew the squadron’s executive officer, who was “gung-ho to make admiral,” he said.
They received orders to attack Hanoi, and his enthusiastic pilot said, “We’re going to get our Silver Star tonight, Shep.”
“Hell, I don’t want a Silver Star. I just want to go home to my wife,” Taylor replied.
He explained that Hanoi was well defended.
“You didn’t have a real good chance of coming back from (Hanoi),” he added.
But before they could take off, mechanical failure grounded their plane for the duration of the mission. Even though his pilot was upset, he said he was secretly happy they were pulled from it.
“I didn’t know what my chances of coming home were,” he admitted.
The risk was real. Between February and March, his squadron lost 10 of 20 crew members, including their commanding officer.
But after 83 missions, Taylor was finally able to come home to his wife and kids.
He took his wife’s hands into his own, and tears trickled down his cheek as he struggled to put words to the feeling of being back home with his family. She dabbed her cheeks with a tissue and the two settled on relieved laughter as the best response.
Taylor remembered arriving home as a soldier. “We didn’t get a big thank you, but we didn’t have people throwing rocks at our house,” he said with relief.
After finishing his military service, he worked 13 years for Schneider National. Eventually, he moved back to Mountain View to run the family business, Taylor Service Center, with his dad.
Many, including a couple in his own family, had opposed to the war and his involvement in it. But his wife supported him.
“I was very proud of him,” she said.
“In a way, it was kind of exciting – scary exciting,” he added. “It was an adventure really. I’m glad I served. I don’t have any regrets.”