by LCDR William Shivell, USN
One night in the ready room, we were talking tabout those "good old days," and no such conversation can go far without mention of "Bug" Roach. When Bug's name did come up, the nuggets said they had heard the name, but never actually knew the man. Had it really been that long ago?
It hardly seems like five years since CDR John J. Roach III died. My first vision of Bug was in Hangar I at Fightertown, eight years ago, when I was fresh out of the RAG. Down the hall from VF-2 lived VF-126, the Bandits, whose spaces we cut through routinely on the way to the parking lot. One day, as some of us rounded a corner, I ran headon into the saltiest commander I'd ever seen, wearing a well-worn Bandit name tag that read a single word: "BUG." Before I could pardon myself for the intrusion, Bug merely smiled and greeted me with a "Hey! Howzitgoin' today . . .?" as if I was an old friend. Out the door, I asked who that guy "Bug" was. "Oh, Bug Roach? ..." and they filled me in on the legend. "Yeah, I hear he was the oldest 0-4 on active duty--passed over eight times I hear, then went Aviation Duty Officer, and they finally promoted him."
"Yeah, he's done eight tours as CAG Paddles . . . been waving since wooden decks." Seemed as if Bug did everything eight times, although we never knew what was truth and what was fiction. It didn't matter though. It sounded good.
|Doin' what he did best, then-LCDR John "Bug" Roach stands at the LSO platform to "wave" yet another pass. Bug was beloved by his pilots, an served eight tours as an air wing landing signal officer. He died on 2 October 1991 in an aircraft accident off the coast of Southern California.|
If you were a fighter pilot at Miramar back then, you couldn't help but see Bug in action, either at the merge or at the club. In either place, you found that Bug's talents in the air were equal only to his humility on the ground. He greeted everybody, old salt or nugget, with amity. He always had a word of encouragement in a debrief for the nugget who got his tail waxed in the air. And he always had time to share a story with that nugget over a beer, even though he always held court with those old guys we called skipper, CAG or admiral.
CAPT Jay "Rabbit" Campbell took over as Air Wing Two after my first cruise, and among the first things he did was ask Bug to come back as CAG Paddles. Seems they had a lot of history between them. Way back when, Bug and Rabbit had come up together in F-8s. Bug wasn't in the fleet long before he found himself on a platform waving Rabbit aboard. When Rabbit was skipper at VF-2 in the mid-'80s, Bug was there as CAG paddles too, keeping the nuggets off the round-down. If Bug wasn't flying his A-4, he was just as happy standing on a platform with a pickle in one hand and a handset in the other.
With Bug, coming aboard at night was a unique experience. I was used to the notion that if the LSO had to say something, you didn't do it right. After my first pass with Bug on the pickle, I wasn't sure if I was being waved or being coaxed aboard. I asked my RIO, "Hey Goober, was I that screwed up?"
"Naw," he said, "that was Bug." I figured I had a lousy grade coming, but the debrief was more like "little this, little that, OK-3. Let's get a slider!" Bug just liked to talk to his pilots. It didn't take us long to get used to his style of waving, and that familiar "roger, ball!" soon became a comfort on those dark, blue-water nights. During one all-officers' meeting, we were glued to the bunga-vision as we watched a PLAT tape of a night NorPac pitching-deck recovery. I remember having sweaty palms just watching it. In conditions that seemed horrific to us, Bug was able to get everyone aboard in one piece. We were learning that the legend of Bug wasn't a legend at all, but a hard-earned, welldeserved reputation.
Bug was at the 1989 Tomcat Ball in his dinner whites with a huge '70s bow tie that on anyone else would have been 15 years out of style. Around his neck was a gaudy gold medallion on a heavy gold chain similar to those peace symbols that hippies wore in the '60s. "Huh?" we asked, but as we looked closer, the medallion didn't say "peace," but in that same psychedelic motif it spelled out "WAR!"
I had to ask.
"Four of us in F-8s were over Vietnam one day," Bug began, "and a couple of us got shot up pretty good, so we diverted into Thailand. We were stuck there for a week while they patched up our jets. Well, the four of us were in town, and passed this shop that had one of these WAR medallions, which were a take-off on those damned hippie medallions everyone was wearing back home. We asked the shop owner if he could get three more just like it. Sure enough, the next day he had four of them ready for us. That day, the four of us vowed that we would wear these things any time we were in mess dress."
Bug told me the names of the other three guys. I think two of them later died, and the third left the Navy, leaving Bug as the sole keeper of the pact. He kept that pact to the end.
Urgency was in the air at the Tomcat Ball in 1990. Kuwait had been invaded, and USS Independence (CV-62) had sailed into the Gulf in harm's way. The clouds of Desert Storm were gathering, and a new generation faced the prospect of war. Bug, no stranger to war, rose to give the banquet's invocation. I expected some kind of humorous, half-hearted speech with an amen. What we heard I will never forget. With an eloquence rarely heard, Bug gave a prayer for us, the warriors of this generation. More than a prayer, his words were a call to arms, a call to faith, and a call for us to remember who we were and for what we stood.
Months later, Air Wing Two and Ranger (CV-61) steamed west into Desert Storm, and with a new generation, Bug went to war again. The day Herman Ruth and I first crossed the beach into Iraq on a photo recon mission, Bug and Bruce "Crash" Defibaugh happened to be our escort. As we crossed the beach, I wondered how many times before this Bug had gone "feet dry." Was he as nervous as the rest of us, or was this "just another day"? Aside from cursing some Midway (CV-41) Hornets who had locked us up going feet wet, Bug debriefed the hop as if it were a cross-country. There was a little more to it when Herman and I got to CVIC for the film debrief. Our film revealed that the remnants of the Iraqi Navy were hiding up river from their base, including some Osa patrol boats everyone thought were sunk in the first days. The film also showed what the EA-6 guys were debriefing: SAM launches as we approached one of our turn points. We had no idea! "How 'bout that?" Bug responded when I told him later. Just another day for Bug, I guessed, but having him there made me feel a lot better.
Desert Storm ended, and the rest of our cruise was filled with those things cruises are always made of, but with that special touch of Bug seasoning--watching him walk around in his trademark paddles uniform, complete with the steel-tipped cowboy boots and RI. belt buckle that said "BUG," or watching him putt around on the flight deck with his motorized skate board between recoveries. Living just a couple staterooms away from "Bullet Alley," Bug would always be knocking on doors looking for the latest videos, to trade cigars or just to hang out with the JOs. More than a few late-night poker games could be found in that stateroom at the end of the hall, and having one or two squadron skippers or captains sitting in wasn't uncommon.
Cruise with Bug was just better. On one of the last liberty boats from Hong Kong, Bug sat on the top deck as he remembered the days of "27-Charlie boats" and when the "hard" liberty was here in Hong Kong in the days before Subic Bay and Pattaya had found their wilder sides. As always, every aviator in earshot was transfixed by the tales.
When we arrived home, Bug rolled to shore duty, this time across the street to the fighter wing staff It wasn't so much a job as it was a place to leave messages when he wasn't over at Hangar I flying his A-4 with the Bandits. As I had received orders to the Bandits, seeing Bug was again an everyday occurrence. Whether to fly or not, he was happy to be there. One day at the club a couple of weeks before he died, I overheard Bug talking to our skipper, "P-chis" Chisholm. Bug remarked that of all the squadrons he'd been in, he only felt at home with the Bandits.
Winter came early in 1991, and that particular October day was only a marginal improvement over several days of bad weather. "Space" Casey and I were briefing an instructor-under-training flight when we noticed everyone walking toward the ready room. We stopped the brief and walked into the ready room to find most of the squadron standing hushed around the duty desk. A Bandit airborne had relayed that the engine in Bandit 31, an A-4E, had gone sour and the pilot was punching out. It was Bug. After several relight attempts, Bug knew he had to eject. As I recall, Bug's last words were "What a lousy day. Well, I gotta get out of here. I'll see you guys...." His wingman, "Dude" Holden, never saw a good chute.
A helo from Constellation (CV-64) picked Bug out of the water. They kept CPR on him until they had him aboard ship, and even then didn't give up for another half hour. We later found out that it was all over by the time he hit the water. We knew things didn't sound good, but when I went to the comm center to pick up the immediate message, there it was in black and white: Bug was gone.
That it happened on a Wednesday was a coincidence. Bug had arranged long ago with Bonnie, the O' Club bar manager, that the drinks were on him the day he bought the farm. Word passed, and Miramar quietly gathered at the O' Club to have that last round on Bug. We came early and stayed late. But it wasn't a typical Wednesday night at Fightertown.
Working in Admin, I fielded a few routine items that dealt with Bug's memorial service. I remember receiving one call late on the day before the memorial service from a lady in Decedent Affairs at Balboa Naval Hospital. She was disturbed about the uniform items provided for dressing Bug's body. Regulations were pretty clear, she said. All uniform items were to be brand new and, well, regulation.
"We can't bury him with a belt buckle that says 'BUG' on it!" she stated stubbornly.
"Ma'am, do you see a big medallion in there that says 'WAR'?"
"Well, yes, as a matter of fact."
"Now, you know that isn't regulation, right? Take a good look at that mustache and tell me if you think he was a regulation kind of guy. He wore that belt buckle every day he wasn't in a flight suit, and he wore that medallion every time he was in dinner dress. It's okay, I promise!"
To ease her mind, I gave her my name and told her I could direct her to my CO at home if my word wasn't good enough. I guess it was--I never heard another word about it. The next day, we said farewell to Bug. He was in his blues, and had his medallion around his neck. Bug kept his promise.
There wasn't much sun on the day of Bug's memorial service, but it was clear enough for the fly-by. I don't recall who flew the missing man formation, but everyone remembered what followed--the burner flyover of Thunderbird Aviation's F-8 Crusader flown by CAPT Larry "Hoss" Pearson, USN(Ret). Rabbit Campbell gave a spirited eulogy, fitting words for Bug. His pallbearers represented other legends past and present, and included one of today's four-star admirals. I think one measure of a man is those who stand with him at the end of his days. For us younger guys, we could only imagine what kind of commander it is that has admirals for pallbearers.
Things changed after Bug died. Within two weeks, the Tailhook scandal broke wide open as carrier aviation reeled from an onslaught that has only recently died down, but is far from forgotten. Many careers ended and others were sidetracked. And some good people just gave up.
Another generation in Naval Aviation has taken its place. Some call it "Generation X," a generation that will never call the Cubi Point O' Club their own, that will watch the Navy abandon Fightertown USA that spawned the likes of Topgun (the school, not the movie), Duke and Willie, Tomcats and, of course, Bug Roach.
People who remember Bug Roach doubtlessly remember a man who seemed larger than life. He was a guy who loved Naval Aviation above all else and was unconcerned about career paths as long as his led to a cockpit. While no one I know followed Bug's footsteps, we all respected his choice. Most admired it, and I think some even envied it.
Would Bug be an anachronism today? Yeah, but aren't we all? Outsiders probably thought Bug was out of place the day after the Vietnam War ended. I've wondered how Bug would have handled today's challenges, but I believe I know the answer: As most of us, he would have scratched his head in dismay at some of the changes we've seen in five years, but he would have made the adjustment and pressed on, just as he did in 1975.
Had he lived, Bug would still be holding court at the club telling Generation X how it was, when he wasn't in the air showing thern why. Bug would have gone back to sea to wave for another air wing, and he would somehow have found a way to Fallon to fly adversaries again. After retiring, he'd have found a way to keep his hand in. And Bug would still be there at future gatherings of fighter pilots to pray for us and to remind us as he did so many times before what we stand for and who we are.
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