Triumph and Sacrifice: The Legacy of a Three-War Veteran and Fighter Pilot

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Katelynn Jackson
  • 56th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

The booming sound of North Vietnamese Army soldiers’ steps echoed in the tropical summer air in South Vietnam, 1968.  

They had marched for over a month through the dense Ho Chi Mihn trail. The only thing between them and the defenseless South Vietnamese village they planned to invade was one last mile of open air. 

Or so they thought.  

High above them, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Richard Michaud soared in an F-4 Phantom II jet, with a full load of ammunition, and a clear view of his targets. 

“During the summer months the North Vietnamese traveled South and invaded villages,” said Michaud, now retired, at his home in Mesa, Arizona. “They robbed them of everything they owned, took the women and children as slaves- they devastated them in every meaning of the word.”  

Luckily, a South Vietnamese U.S. ally, or ‘friendly’, lived in that village and called in for help as he saw the North Vietnamese approaching. Lt. Col. Michaud intercepted the call and turned in pursuit for the invaders. 

“I could see the North Vietnamese soldiers coming down over an open spot to take the village,” said Richard. “I was lucky enough to have a fully loaded gun pod, and I completely emptied it on them.”  

The ammunition made contact on target, taking enemy Vietnamese down and sending the rest fleeing back into the dense jungle. 

“As I turned to leave, I looked down to see the villagers waving to me,” said Richard, his glistening eyes far away. “That was-,” he paused, his voice cracking. “That was one of the moments that got to me.”  

Over his 22 years of service in the Air Force, 16 months deployed to Vietnam and participation in three U.S. wars, flying missions like the one with the South Vietnamese village would earn Michaud 14 Air Medals, 5 distinguished flying crosses and a bronze star.  

In addition to a highly decorated career, Michaud’s service in the Air Force would be filled with many sacrifices, none more demanding than the time spent away from his wife and four children.  

The legacy of courage and exemplary service that veterans like Michaud, and many others displayed, is a testament to the true strength of our Air and Space Force that Airmen and Guardians continue to build upon today. 

Michaud’s military career began in May, 1945 when he enlisted into the U.S. Navy, serving in the Philippines Islands and the Admiralty Islands of the South Pacific. Returning to civilian life, he used the GI Bill to enroll at Utah State Agricultural College (USU) where he met and married his wife, Patricia Merrill, his junior year in 1948.  

He joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps where he rose to the highest-ranking cadet second in command of the 1,500 brigade and graduated as a distinguished military graduate with a degree in Journalism.  

From there, Michaud returned to active-duty service. This time as a commissioned officer in the Air Force.  

“I went into the Air Force as a non-pilot, just because I wanted to get into the Air Force,” said Michaud. “After I had been in a year or so, I decided if you are going to be in the Air Force, you might as well be a pilot.”   

Michaud had earned his pilot license during his time at the agricultural program at USU. After being selected as a pilot, he eventually had opportunity to attend the Air Force’s select Top Gun school at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. 

After he completed training, Michaud was sent to Landstuhl, Germany, for three years where he flew air defense on the Russian border and served as the base’s public information officer.  

“I had gone over there to fly 86D Sabre’s, but the base picked up that I had a Journalism degree,” said Michaud. “They asked if I had any interest working as the base public relations officer and I said ‘sure’.”   

Once he was sent back to the states, Michaud experienced a variety of assignments. He was assigned as an AFROTC instructor at the University of Utah, an airborne radar station pilot covering the west coast, an operations officer at an Alaska radar station and an AFROTC instructor again at Arizona State University where he began his doctoral degree in the administration of higher education. 

When the Vietnam conflict began, Michaud separated from his family once again to serve as the squadron commander of the 602nd Search and Rescue Squadron in South Vietnam, September 1968 through January 1970. This squadron was assigned to the 56th Special Operations Wing, which the 56th Fighter Wing traces its lineage to.

This time would not be without danger for Michaud, and on multiple occasions he put his life on the line in defense of his comrades and nation.  

“One time I had 9 guns working on me at night,” said Michaud, a soft smile spreading on his face. “But a bullet never touched me.” 

Throughout his flying career, Michaud flew over 180 combat missions and contributed to the rescue of over 70 downed pilots.  

Once he returned home after 16 months oversees, Michaud got the news that he would be assigned to Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, in a non-flying assignment. Feeling that uprooting his family to a new location again wasn’t the right move, and that he had fulfilled a career he was proud of, Michaud retired in 1972.  

Michaud continued to excel in the civilian world after he separated from active-duty. His retirement afforded him the recourses to complete his doctorate and in 1976, he was elected the President of Arizona Student University Financial Aid Administrators. After seven years at ASU, he was recruited by Utah State to be their Director of Financial Aids. 

After a turn as the President at Utah State, he co-founded the World Championship Dutch Oven Cook-off, as part of the Festival of The American West. The WCDOC gained widespread publicity for USU, such as a nine-page coverage in the Los Angeles Times, four pages in Sunset magazine and TV coverage on “The Today Show”. 

Three years after its creation it expanded to become the International Dutch Oven Society, an organization that is still active today world-wide.  

While the service offered Michaud numerous opportunities and experiences, he states that he acknowledges that it was not something that came without sacrifices.  

“It was hard on my family, I would be gone on flying assignments for months or years at a time,” said Michaud. “That’s not a small sacrifice that men and women in uniform make, and that is something I have to appreciate.” 

Today, at age 96, Michaud now does what brings him true happiness; making up for lost time at home with his 4 children, 19 grandchildren and 63 great-grandchildren.  

The true strength of our Air and Space Force is inspired by the legacy of courage and exemplary service that veterans like Michaud have built. Airmen today seek to continue to build upon their sacrifice and achievements so that the Airmen of tomorrow will have the will to do the same.