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Another Hometown Hero Fades Away

By Jack Gurner

We lost another veteran last week. Robert S. “Bob” Riley, passed away Thursday, Aug. 13, at the Mississippi State Veterans Home in Oxford. He was 81. His obituary in on page A7 and provides the basic details. But, the one line summation of his 22 years of service in the Air Force doesn’t do justice to his military accomplishments.

I first met Bob several years ago when he walked into Turnage Drug Store. Someone commented, “Here comes Bob. He’ll talk your ears off about his Air Force time.”

Actually, I found him to be rather quiet. So, I told him I had been in the Air Force and asked about his service. He flashed a big grin and began telling me about some of the places he had been stationed and mentioned the “Jolly Greens,” referring to the Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopter. When I asked where, he called off the names of several bases in Vietnam and Thailand, including Nakon Phanom, Thailand.

I was familiar with Nakon Phanom or NKP as it was called for short. I spent some time there in 1969 at what many considered the most remote, primitive and closest to North Vietnam base operated during the 1962-1976 period of the war. The place was a mish-mash of antique prop-driven aircraft, crazy civilians from Air America, and some of the bravest aircrews ever to fly.

NKP was home to the 56th Special Operations Wing and a number of tenant units including several Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadrons, whose motto, “That Others May Live” tells the story. Bob was a flight engineer on the Jolly Greens.

When he found out I had been an Air Force photographer, he said to wait while he went to his truck to get an album. One of the guys at the table joked that I better settle in, I was going to be there a while. I would have sat all day and listened because Bob and I had served in the same place and that is a special bond.

His album is filled with photos and certificates. Several of the photos showed him and his crewmembers – soaking wet with sweat – posing with recovered pilots who had tangled with the North Vietnamese air defenses around Hanoi.

It was hot in Southeast Asia, but that sweat was more from flying that monster of a slow-moving helicopter deep into North Vietnam while folks on the ground fired at you with everything from sophisticated Russian missiles to flintlock rifles.

It wasn’t a job for a coward. And, Bob Riley was no coward and he had the proof in that album. But, he didn’t brag about that part of his job. What he did brag about was a hook that he invented that the Air Force adopted to use in drone recovery from the ocean. Yes, the Air Force was using drones as early as the 1950s for target practice “and other undefined purposes.”

There were several Air Force newspaper articles about his invention, which mentioned the nearly $9 million he saved the government in lost drones. For his efforts he was paid a suggestion bonus of $1000.

Pasted all around that article were other clippings about his Air Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross awards. But, he didn’t dwell on those. I asked about them and he said he was proud of them and moved on to another photo.

I saw Bob around town over time and always promised I would come for a visit. Like a lot of things, I never got around to it. A few months ago, on a Sunday afternoon, I was talking with wife, Jessie, about Bob and we drove on Vaiden Street by the back of his house. He and his wife, Jane, were sitting outside. We pulled into their driveway and visited.

I told him that I wanted to scan his photographs and other memorabilia in his albums for their historical value. A few days later I went by and we talked. But, he was getting weaker and I gathered his albums and brought them home to scan. It was the next day, I believe, that he was admitted to the Veterans Home.

I finished the scanning project in early June and I am making the material available to organizations that want it for their collections. His story is part of our nation’s history and I am proud to be able to do this for Bob and his family.

I don’t know enough to comment on his medical problems. But, from our discussions, I believe he is another victim of the chemical defoliants (Agent Orange being the most well known) used during the Vietnam War.

Whatever the cause, United States Air Force Technical Sergeant Robert S. Riley is gone and I wanted you to know a little more about him.

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