Following graduation from the Naval Academy in 1951, Robert F. Dunn rose through the ranks over 38 years, retiring as a vice admiral with a culminating assignment as Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, Air Warfare. Along the way, he would serve in attack and fighter squadrons and command Carrier Air Wing Seven, the USS Mount Whitney (LCC-20), and the USS Saratoga (CV-60), as well as Carrier Group Eight and Naval Air Force, Atlantic Fleet.
His oral history, published by the Naval Institute in 2008, captures the life of a naval aviator. He did not hesitate when asked if the experience of flying lived up to his expectations: “Absolutely. That first solo is tremendous.”
On board the Saratoga in the Mediterranean flying A4D Skyhawks with Attack Squadron (VA) 36 in 1962–63 during the Cold War, his strategic deterrence mission was paramount.
The A4D was capable of delivering a nuclear weapon, and all the pilots were trained to do so. The carriers were part of the nation’s Single Integrated Operations Plan for nuclear war, the SIOP, and we all had assigned SIOP targets.
We were told what target, what target time, the estimated launch point, and the desired weapons burst. It was up to us to line it out, prepare strip charts, and plot intelligence data such as flak and missile sites and potential escape havens. It seemed our targets were always at extreme range with the possibility of return to the ship very dicey indeed. Thus was coined the phrase, “One plane, one engine, one bomb, one man, one way.”
In October 1962, the Saratoga had returned to Jacksonville, Florida, and was in maintenance when the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted. On short notice, Dunn’s squadron was sent to sea on board the training carrier USS Lexington (CV-16). There was intense planning to hit the Cuban missile sites with strikes using bombs loaded on multiple ejector racks.
Overland distances to the targets were short, so we intended to go in as low as we could with a division of four aircraft. We were concerned that the big missiles were surrounded by surface-to-air missiles and by antiaircraft artillery, and the plan to avoid them was to go in low.
Low and fast—500 knots. Thank the Lord, we never had to do it, because we would have all been shot down and lost. We didn’t know that; we didn’t learn that until we began flying in Vietnam a couple of years later.
During 1966–67, Dunn was executive officer and then commanding officer of VA-146 on board the USS Ranger (CVA-61) in the Vietnam War, flying 255 Southeast Asian missions: 30 over South Vietnam, 10 over Laos, and 215 over North Vietnam.
On my first flight over Vietnam, I was impressed with the fact that the countryside, the southern part of North Vietnam, looked like the craters of the moon. This was 1966, so we hadn’t been bombing there all that long, but there were bomb holes everywhere. I don’t know how people continued to live there, but we knew they did; there was an awful lot of shooting back.
He reflected on being the squadron’s commanding officer in combat:
When you can plan and lead a large strike, managing it in the air, even if it doesn’t go completely according to plan, there’s exceptional personal satisfaction. Planning is crucial. Beyond that, you have to be cool under fire. When things don’t go according to plan, when flak and missiles are going off and the radio is full of chatter, you’ve got to be able to retain your cool and devise new plans.
In building confidence in the junior pilots, it starts with example. When you go against a target with a large group of aircraft rolling in at close intervals, it’s up to the leader to put everyone in the right roll-in position. The section leaders and wingmen are catching only glimpses of the target. When you roll in and they roll in, they’ve got to be able to look down and see right where the target is. If you do that, they’ll do all right.