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Cold Cash -Thomas Calabrese

By   /  October 16, 2022  /  14 Comments

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The Zero Seven Hundred Crew

Thomas Calabrese -The former military pilots would meet at Denny’s restaurant on El Camino Real in Oceanside at 0700 hours every Wednesday morning. When I say 0700 hours, I mean anytime between when the first guy arrived around 0630 hours and whenever the last one got there. Not everybody was consistent with their attendance, but it didn’t really matter to the American warriors because these get-togethers were supposed to be casual with no pressure. The only hard and fast rule was ‘come if you want, come when you can, but when you are here, we’re happy to see you.’ How could anyone not like being part of a group with rules like this? They liked to refer to themselves as the ‘Zero Seven Hundred Crew.’

The back area of the eatery had models of military airplanes from various eras hanging from the ceiling and aerial photography decorated the walls. The waitresses on the morning shift, Beth, Mae and Renna knew every regular by name and greeted them with smiles and jovial comments like when Beth called out to Buzz Rickson as he limped through the front door, “Glad you made it this morning, it would have broken my heart if you didn’t show up.”

Buzz responded with an impish smile, “You make my day,” and tapped his chest, “My pacemaker just had a power surge.” Ben ‘Buzz’ Rickson was a Korean War veteran who had both knees and hips replaced so he always moved kind of slow.

Most of the pilots were passed retirement age, having flown in the Vietnam War or earlier. There were two other men besides Buzz who flew in the Korean War and one individual who just turned 101 years of age who was in World War II.

Some of the pilots had been coming in for so long that the waitresses automatically brought them their regular breakfast after they sat down. Occasionally one of the pilots would change his order with this explanation, “It’s been a few years, maybe it’s time for something different.”

The mere fact that anybody would break routine was usually cause for discussion by the other attendees. Most of the conversations usually focused on the subject of aviation, but it could be about family, politics, sports or current events. The only thing that the seasoned veterans steered clear of was discussing their personal feelings. These are warriors, not victims and this was not a therapy group. They had common interests and similar values and the strongest of which was their love of country.

General Joe Cashby was a retired Air Force pilot who served in the Vietnam War. His father Glenn flew with actor James Stewart in World War II. They were assigned to the 445th Bombardment Group. He was one of the first pilots in the European theater to participate in the daylight strategic bombing campaign against German industrial, military and civilian targets. Glenn had completed 27 missions before the war ended and his plane the Blonde Bombshell was the second heavy bomber to return to the states after the legendary Memphis Belle.

After returning to the states Glenn went to Hollywood where with the help of James Stewart, Clark Gable, Tyrone Power and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. became a movie producer, screenwriter and technical advisor. The country was tired of war, but desperate for war movies.

Glenn had extensive expertise when it came to the military and worked on many successful movies including; The Best Years of Our Lives, From Here to Eternity, Twelve O’clock High. The War Lover, The Dam Busters, Command Decision, Flying Leathernecks, The Longest Day and Strategic Air Command, to name a few.  He saw a unique opportunity and put together a group of investors from the movie industry and businessmen who were fellow veterans and told them. “The government has billions of dollars of equipment left over from the war and they’re scraping most of it. We can get it for pennies on the dollars or even free if we haul it away. This serves two purposes; we can use it for movie-making and protect history for future generations. We can buy all the land we want outside Palm Springs and build warehouses for the equipment. The dry weather will protect the airplanes from corrosion. What do you think?”

Everyone agreed that it was a good idea and the construction on the facility began in 1953 after the consortium purchased 2,500 acres. By 1955, a private airfield with two runways, three large hangars and a dozen buildings were constructed. While the humidity was extremely low in the Sonoran Desert the intense heat and scorching sun could do significant damage to paint and rubber tires if left in the baking sun too long. Contractors built dozens of canopies so vehicles, tanks and aircraft could be parked under them. The government was also trying to discard major amounts of ordnance and ammunition so Glenn had underground bunkers built on the far end of the property to store millions of rounds of ammunition.

An old western desert town was constructed on site and many studios took advantage of the opportunity to shoot their movie if it had desert locales in the script in an area that was so close to Los Angeles. The facility was affectionately called, The Fortress after the legendary B-17 Flying Fortress.

Joe worked part-time at The Fortress during his high school years and also while he attended U.C. Riverside where he majored in aeronautical engineering. He joined the Air Force in 1966 and became a fighter pilot. He was shot down on May 14th, 1968 while flying missions over the Demilitarized Zone in Vietnam. Joe eluded capture for 5 days until he was rescued by a platoon of Marines. He served three tours in Southeast Asia and became an ace. The Vietnam War produced a total of six American aces, but only three of whom were pilots: Randall “Duke” Cunningham of the Navy and Richard “Steve” Ritchie and Joe ‘Cold Cash’ Cashby of the Air Force. The other three American aces were Weapons Systems Officers.

After returning from the war, Joe stayed in the Air Force Reserves and went back to work at The Fortress. His father had the foresight and initiative to build the facility, but the place had become stagnant. There wasn’t enough business from the studios to keep it profitable and it was going deeper into debt. Joe was not only a patriot and a good businessman, he was also a visionary.  “Well dad, I think we might have to tweak things a little. This is your baby, you started it and you built it and I don’t want to overstep my boundaries.”

Glenn laughed, “Son, there is something I told you when you were a boy. Do you remember what it was?”

            “That’s a tough one, you told me a lot when I was growing up, give me a hint.”

 “A good sky jockey instinctively knows that the mission takes precedence over personal feelings.”  Glenn said, “I might be too close to the problem to see clearly, I need a fresh pair of eyes.”

Joe felt that the key to success was a delicate balance of diversification and consolidation. When his father relinquished leadership of the facility to him he vowed to do his best, but it would require taking some major risks. Joe wasn’t called ‘Cold Cash’ for nothing. He was a war ace who had faced death on numerous occasions and lived to talk about it, but this would be a different kind of battle. Some of his fellow aviators said he had ice water running through his veins. Time would tell if his military experience and core beliefs would be enough to save the Fortress.

Joe’s father’s first error was buying as much military equipment as he could get his hands on. It was too expensive so Joe decided to only focus on aviation. He wanted to make the Fortress the primary location for vintage military aircraft. He leveraged everything he had to borrow millions and started construction on two large buildings. One would be devoted to the air war in Europe and the other to aviation in the South Pacific during World War II. Next was a smaller structure for the Korean War and then came one for the Vietnam War. 

Thousands of feet of combat footage was restored and several small theaters were built to show them. Joe wanted the Fortress to be combination of a museum, a tourist attraction and a place where aviation enthusiasts and collectors could congregate. He started selling memberships of various prices beginning with the affordable Fortress, mid-priced Flying Fortress and the ultra-expensive Liberator. Joe submitted paperwork to make the facility a non-profit organization and scholarships were offered to veterans who wanted to study aeronautical engineering, airplane mechanics or avionics. He also instituted the Ernie Pyle Journalism Award in honor of the famous World War II correspondent who told the story of the fighting man as the American fighting men wanted it told. Pyle was killed by enemy fire during the battle of Okinawa on April 18, 1945.

Three eating facilities were added, Doolittle’s after Jimmy Doolittle, Medal of Honor winner and aviation pioneer. It served family style food. Yeager’s was named after Chuck Yeager, war ace, test pilot and the first man to break the sound barrier. Chuck had a sweet tooth so the eatery on the Fortress property was an ice cream and dessert shop. The last restaurant was the upscale Wild Blue Yonder.

Joe wanted to give people as many choices as possible so nine different tours were created. One focused on the War in Europe, another about the War in the Pacific and then there was the ‘Ace in the Hole’ tour that focused on aces of the war. Visitors could elect to view the Korean and Vietnam War memorabilia. The platinum tour was a five-day package that allowed individuals to see as much as they wanted. There was a gift shop on site that had calendars, clothing, model airplanes, books, postcards, toys and various items from all three wars. There was even a line of Fortress clothing that included t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats and flight jackets.

The Fortress brought millions of dollars into the Palm Springs local economy and became a very profitable endeavor. Because of the intense heat in the desert, the Fortress facility closed right after Memorial Day and did not re-open until October 1st. All major maintenance was done during this four month time frame.

The largest airplane swap meet in the country took place during the first two weeks of May and owners of vintage aircraft came from all the world to buy, trade or sell airplanes. Thousands of curious individual also bought tickets to view the proceedings.

One of the most unique programs that Joe created was the Fortress Trust. Owners could donate their airplanes and keep them on the Fortress airfield. The airplanes were maintained and protected and the pilots could fly them whenever they wanted. Many of the owners kept several of their vintage aircraft on site. They donated a million dollars or more every year for this privilege and got a charitable deduction on their taxes in the process. There were two hundred plane owners signed up and a waiting list of 18 months. Joe added two more runways to accommodate them. Tom Cruise kept his P-51 Mustang there. It wasn’t unusual for five or six pilots to fly in on a private jet and spend a few days playing in the desert skies with their expensive toys. When the planes were not in use, they became part of the ever expanding exhibit. There also were air races and skydiving exhibitions scheduled throughout the year.

Until his death in 2009, Glenn would often fly with his son in the B-17 Blonde Bombshell. They would alternate being pilot and co-pilot. Joe treasured those special times far above the ground with his father, role model and hero.

During the summer months, Joe would sometimes leave Palm Springs heat for a cooler climate. He had a small home in Aviara, a resort neighborhood in the southern part of Carlsbad and from his front door to the runway of Carlsbad Airport was only 2.9 miles. Even though Joe had his choice of aircraft, his personal preference was the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a single seat, twin piston-engine fighter with a distinctive twin-boom design.  On this particular Wednesday morning, Chuck Julian, former helicopter pilot from the Vietnam War picked Joe up at 0700 hours outside the private terminal.

Joe commented with a smile, “Thanks for picking me up.”

            “Anytime,” Chuck joked, “We’ll be a few minutes late, but I think they’ll let us in.”

As they drove to the Old Bold Pilots breakfast meeting at Denny’s, Joe said, “You’ve haven’t been down to the Fortress lately.”

            “I haven’t been doing much traveling. I took a bullet to my stomach when I was in the ‘Nam and every so often it acts up. I’m starting to feel better now.” Chuck said, “It’s no big deal. I figure any day that I’m vertical is a good day.”

            “I’m glad to hear that,” Joe said.

When the duo arrived at Denny’s, there was more commotion than usual and Joe sensed the tension in the air. Joe approached Gary Crawford, “What’s going on?”

Gary replied, “You better ask Bo…he can explain it better than me.”

Ed ‘Bo’ Bolland was a former Navy pilot from the Vietnam era.  A group of pilots were standing around him.

“What’s going on?” Joe asked.

            “My granddaughter Christy disappeared while doing some volunteer work with her church group.”

            “Where?”  Joe inquired.

Bo responded, “Near Rosarito Beach.”

            “How long ago?” Chuck inquired.

            “Three days ago,” Bo responded.

Joe asked, “When did you find out about this?”

            “Just a few minutes before you got here,” Bo answered. 

            “Why so long to notify you?” Chuck asked.

Bo said, “My son said they just called him. Here’s what I know so far…the church group is from Vista and they had brought some construction materials and clothing to an orphanage that they routinely supported. They were returning to their hotel when a group of armed men stopped them along the road. Eventually, the men and older women were released in an isolated area near Primo Tapia, Mexico, but my granddaughter and two college age girls were kept hostage.”

Joe feared the worst for his friend’s granddaughter, but kept his concerns to himself. Later, Bo found out from his son that Homeland Security and the State Department were working on the case, but were not getting a lot of cooperation from the Mexican authorities. He sent an e-mail to his fellow pilots to update them on the new developments.

Joe routinely allowed law enforcement and civilian contractors to use the Fortress property for training so when he started making calls, they were receptive to his inquiries. He was eventually referred to Jose Manuel Valverde, known as ‘El Medico’ and Marine Corps Recon veteran Rick ‘Sledge’ Hamilton. Both men worked together to stop human trafficking on both sides of the border. Joe flew to Tucson to meet with them and explained the situation and added, “Any help would be greatly appreciated.”

Jose Valverde responded, “It sounds like the Inca Templar Cartel.”

            “That would be my guess too,” Sledge agreed.

Joe said, “I want those girls back.”

            “Their compound is heavily fortified and has a large arsenal of weapons. The Mexican Army is afraid to engage them,” Sledge said.

            “They are as merciless as they are dangerous,” Jose added.

Joe’s voice was cold and without a hint of self-doubt, “I live by the philosophy, no mercy for the merciless. Don’t worry about the costs, I’ll fund rescue. Are you interested or should I look for someone else?”

            “Give me two days to gather some Intel, I’ll be in touch,” Sledge said.

Three days later, the old pilots met at the Fortress property with Sledge and El Medico. The insertion team included Sledge, three former Navy Seals and three former Delta Force operators. This was an elite team of seasoned combat veterans. Sledge told the pilots, “We’d like to donate our services because we don’t take money from our fellow veterans. Just cover the cost of the mission.”

Joe led the group over to the Blonde Bombshell and said, “This is our transportation.”

The B-17 was fueled and the ground crew had already mounted twelve .50 caliber machine guns at the appropriate gun locations in the aircraft, including nose, top, rear and belly turrets.

Joe said, “Since we’re not carrying a bombload, we’ll take extra ammunition. We’ll do a test flight to familiarize ourselves with the aircraft and test fire the weapons. The insertion team will do a practice jump out of the bomb bay doors. Any questions?”

It took a few hours before everybody felt comfortable with their assignments. Later that afternoon everybody met in the conference room. There was a map and a dozen aerial photographs tacked on the walls. Joe started the briefing, “It is 127 miles to our destination in Mexico. The B-17 has a range of 2,000 miles and depending on our flight speed we should be able to stay in the air for seven hours when we get there.” Joe gestured to Sledge, “After the jump, you’ll have 4 hours to rescue the girls and meet us at the designated extraction point for the return home. Can you do it?”

            “We’ll do it or die trying,” Sledge promised.

Joe continued, “This will be an early morning jump, twenty minutes before sunrise. El Medico’s men will mark the drop zone with a laser. From what I’ve been told, getting in is going to be a lot easier than getting out. This is an unauthorized and illegal operation, do not forget that. Three things can happen and two are bad. First one is we fail and get killed in the process so if anybody wants to back out, now is the time to do it.” Nobody made a move. “Second, we get caught by the Mexican or American authorities and we spend a lot of time in prison and probably die there. Third one is the rarest of the three. We’re successful and nobody finds out what we did and we go back to our lives as if nothing happened.”

            “I’ll take door number three,” Ed Braddock shouted out.

Bo stood up and choked back his emotions, “I’d liked to personally thank all of you for doing this. You don’t even know my granddaughter and you’re willing to risk your lives to save her.”

Pike Bishop joked, “You don’t have to thank me. I’m always looking for an excuse not to do yard work.”

            “I should be thanking you, I haven’t felt this excited since I met Raquel Welch at the Bob Hope Christmas show and she told me I reminded her of her ex- boyfriend,.” Neil McCallum reminisced.

Joe was in the pilot seat and Bo situated himself in the co-pilot’s position. Once the Blonde Bombshell was airborne, a flood of emotions overtook the old pilots. Even though none of them ever flew a B-17 in combat, that fact was just a minor detail. The important thing was that they were flying into harm’s way on a mission that they believed in. Their bodies were suddenly 50 years younger. Sledge and his team already had a great amount of respect for their elders, it increased dramatically when they saw the look on their faces, determined and heroic.

In the distance, Joe saw the signal on the ground and yelled back, “Opening bomb bay doors!”

Sledge and his team put on their night vision goggles and positioned themselves. Joe yelled out, “Go!”

The seven men quickly exited the B-17. One by one they opened their black canopy chutes and gently floated to their landing area while using the green light as their guide. Once they were on the ground, they checked their equipment and weapons and moved toward the fortified compound. In the air above, Joe put the B-17 in a circle pattern and waited for Sledge’s radio transmission. The old pilots found a place to sit and let their thoughts drift away to another time and place.

Sledge and his team eliminated ten cartel soldiers with accurate shots from their assault weapons that were equipped with noise suppressors. After searching several rooms, they eventually found 15 girls in a secure area of the main building. Sledge called out, “Christy Bolland?”

No one answered at first, Sledge added, “Your grandfather sent us.”

Christy immediately stood up and asked, “Is he alright?”

            “He’s waiting for you,” Sledge smiled.

On the way out, a member of the team planted explosive charges at various locations. They made their way down to the courtyard where a dozen vehicles were parked. They engaged in a firefight with some more cartel members and killed them. Sledge turned to one on his men. “We need five vehicles…find the keys!”

            “Roger that,” Nick Cosentino ran off and looked inside the vehicles. He saw that they all had their keys in them so he yelled back, “I guess they don’t get many car thieves around here. Let’s go!”

The team and the girls got into three cars and two SUV’s and made their escape. Moments later, a dozen other vehicles filled with armed cartel soldiers pursued them. Sledge radioed, “We’re heading to the extraction point. A little air support would be greatly appreciated.”

Joe replied, “On our way!”

The Blonde Bombshell descended in altitude. Joe radioed to his crew, “Get those fifties ready.”

Sledge popped a green smoke flare and held it out the window to identify their vehicles and radioed, “Everything behind us is yours.”

            “Roger that,” Joe replied.

The drug cartel vehicles never had a chance. The machine gun fire from the B-17 spit death and laid a blanket of doom on the ground below. Everything was obliterated on the road and when the Blonde Bombshell was finished unleashing its firepower, the only things left were smoking hulks of metal and small piles of melted plastic. The B-17 Fortress landed in an open field and Bo was the first to exit and limp over to greet his granddaughter. Christy burst into tears and embraced the family patriarch, “I had a dream you’d come for me.”

El Medico and his men arrived in their vehicles and he said to Joe, “We’ll get the other girls to their families. You better get going before the Federales arrive.”

            “Thanks for your help,” Joe said.

El Medico extended his hand, “Vaya Con Dios, Amigo.”

Joe called out, “Let’s fly…the skies are calling and the clouds are waiting!”

The old pilots, the insertion team and Christy and her two friends quickly got aboard the Blonde Bombshell and in a few minutes the legendary aircraft was airborne. Sledge leaned into the cockpit and told Joe, “Detour over the compound, I’ve got one more thing to do.”

When they were 500 feet above the property Sledge used a remote detonator to trigger the explosives. Fire and smoke belched from the area and the building crumbled. Sledge commented, “Scratch one cartel hideout!”

A week later, the old pilots were back at Denny’s and into their regular routine. You could add one more successful mission to the already impressive list of accomplishments of these patriotic American aviators.

It would be reasonable to assume that when you combine Cold Cash with the Zero Seven Hundred Crew and put them in the Blonde Bombshell, good things are likely to happen.

The End

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

The Veterans Writing Group of San Diego County invites all writers to join us at our monthly meetings. Veterans and Non-Veterans are equally welcome For more information go to our website: www.veteranswritinggroup.org

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14 Comments

  1. Clyde says:

    A very interesting story of men, planes, honor and patriotism. You really succeeded with this one.

  2. Tom says:

    I always enjoy your stories and this is no exception. I am part of a group of “Old Pharts” who flew USN Phantoms and Tomcats. We gather on Tuesday for lunch at a favorite seafood restaurant. While we don’t have the financial backing your group has, we would react the same way. Also, I am a volunteer at the Military Aviation Museum in southern Virginia Beach (Pungo). Our founder set up a similar airport although our landing strip is grass and only 5,000 feet long. We do some airshows each year but Covid put us behind the eight ball and we are just now starting to recover.

  3. Robert says:

    Nice story.

  4. John michels says:

    Nice Story especially for us old geezers!

  5. wolf says:

    Great story worthy of a movie
    Love the Denny grand slam breakfasts

  6. Jeremy says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed the story, great plot and characters.

  7. Mona says:

    This was an excellent, feel good story! The old guys saved the day…

  8. Steve says:

    A fun story with a a lot of local color.

  9. Jeremy says:

    Old pilots getting together to do a mission to save kidnapped victims. Sounds plausible to me.

  10. Janet says:

    My father was a pilot and I’m sure he would react the same way if someone was in trouble. Inspiring and Uplifting

  11. Guy says:

    Thanks for another good story. I really liked how it developed

  12. Tony says:

    Aviators are a breed and Mr. Thomas Calabrese has capture their bravado with this Sunday’s story in the Vista press. Exciting ,heroic , bold are mild terms and descriptions of these great men and their flying machines. Pilots are time test and combat proven and dare to go where no others have gone before. I personally am grateful and beholding to a number of pilots that flew close air support and rescue mission for me in Vietnam. I do not want to leave out or forget the Helicopter Pilots and crews that made so many daring rescues and extractions in and around landing zones to extract a person wounded and fly him to a field hospital. The pilots would fly directly into a blanket and hail of small arms fire to retrieve men that were surrounded and make it look a routine event or mission. My deepest gratitude to these bold men and in this present day women too. I wish I could have assisted in some way with this mission if no more than load ammunition and supplies. As it is often said don’t let that old guy fool you that siting quietly in the corner, he has been to more rodeos than you will ever see. God Bless these Bold and Heroic men that put their own life on the line for others without consideration of their own. Love this story.

  13. Mike says:

    Honor is the fountain of youth and these old pilots proved it.

  14. Josh says:

    Another story that would make a great movie. I know I’d pay to see it.

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