Faster, Higher and Better

The Image of the S.A. Air Force as viewed by a Veteran


Col. N.C. Parkins (Rtd)

As you can see from the programme, General Dennis Earp was scheduled to address you today. Due to international commitments he had to withdraw. As a member of the Ops Savannah organising committee for today, I was elected for the job and it was decided that I should speak to you in my own right - representing the veterans of the Air Force as such.

I believe that I can speak for the Air Force veterans. I left the Air Force in 1994 having served for 34 years in a wide range of capacities. Remembering that the Air Force was but 72 years old at the time, I had been associated with it for nearly half of its existence when I retired. As a C-130 pilot for most of my career I had also been associated with nearly every event during this time. I had flown right through Savannah and on many operations thereafter. I have been on every base where there is an airfield. I have dropped paratroopers, frightened the Navy, airlifted casevacs, flown the State Presidents and at some time or another have probably flown everyone in this room. Sometimes as far south as Marion Island or north to Ambriz or even London. I came into the Air Force as a youth and I left as a "gruiskop". I have been proud to be a member of my squadron firstly, my Air Force secondly, and my Defence Force thirdly.

It is easy to stand here and say that I have been proud to be a member of my Air Force, and to brag about how good it is, but due to another event during my career I have special reasons to say why I am proud of my Defence Force and my Air Force.

In 1988 I was privileged to be sent to Washington DC as the Air Attaché. I can tell you unashamedly that before I left, I had great trepidation as to whether I could continue to be proud to be a South African or proud to be part of the SAAF in the outside world. After all, we were the polecats of the world, the racists and the rejected. I now had to compare my Air Force with the rest of the world. On the very day that I left, in June 1988, Calueque was bombed. On the very next day a bill was put before the U.S. Congress asking that the one remaining sentence in the Duncan Amendment allowing a South African military presence in the USA, be scrapped. We did not even unpack our suitcases when we arrived in Washington because the chances that we would be on the next plane home were good. If the bill had succeeded we would have had to leave without really arriving. On the first day in Washington I learned that we were not really welcome at the Pentagon. I also ran into a political demonstration at the Capitol where we were being extolled as monsters. Can one be proud of being part of a pariah state, a monstrous government and a decrepit Air Force?

The good news is that I never had to be ashamed of who I was and what I represented. I was able to walk tall. I believe our history, both of our country, and in my case of my Air Force, was a basis for my pride. Old soldiers have not forgotten World War I, II, Korea or Angola. One of the first things I did in Washington was to arrange a meeting with General Gabriel, a retired Chief of Staff of the American Air Force, and General Earp, who was on a private visit to the States. I must have been very dumb or very lucky, but I was able to get these two old comrades from Korea together for lunch. I think that they felt that they had to invite me to join them. I began to walk tall when General Gabriel said to me over lunch -

Son, you can be proud of your Air Force, in Korea you flew them (Mustangs) faster, higher and better than we did.
This was only the beginning. For the remainder of my 3½ years in Washington the American Korean Veterans and the Koreans themselves constantly fêted and praised me on the basis of what the SAAF had done.

To this day the first two bars of "Die Stem" make up the opening of the 18th Fighter-Bomber Wing's song. This is in honour of the SAAF. Many veterans came up to me and wanted to know if I knew Johnny Blaauw, Chris Lombard, Tinky Jones and others. I was proud to say that I did.

It was not only the Veterans who caused me to walk tall. Businessmen from Sperry Instruments, Lockheed, Douglas, and other firms who have had dealings with us were never shy to say how professional we were - sometimes in the presence of members of other air forces and sometimes in the presence of the American Generals and the public.

It was a proud moment when I was asked to address the American Helicopter Association on the Oceanos rescue three years after I had been in the country. I was made an honourary member of the AHS for what my Air Force had done - I am wearing my AHS tie today in honour of that proud night. The Oceanos rescue was the biggest ever sea rescue without any loss of life.

In Washington I moved amongst 147 Air Attachés and assistants from 78 countries. These people, friend and enemy alike, knew more than I expected about the SAAF. Again I was made to walk tall. Irrespective of the political condemnation of us, they had nothing but praise for our professionalism, our skills, our technical expertise, our systems, our training and our people. More than once I was told that what we had achieved, isolated at the tip of Africa, was something to be very proud of. Our war record was very well known. More countries than I expected also openly praised us for standing up to the communist threat in Africa and for punching the Russian Bear and its lackeys on the nose. I walked taller and taller as the days went on. The Rooivalk, the G5 and G6, the Cheetah development, all added to my pride.

At the 50th Anniversary of the Harvard Aircraft on Kenosha in 1988 I was the key note speaker and got a standing ovation for the SAAF. The North American Trainer Association made no bones about declaring that the SAAF pilots were the best in the world. We had done things with the Harvard which they never thought possible. In his book on the 8 great aerobatic teams of the world, Bill Yenne included the Silver Falcons - I have a signed copy of this book at home.

Lockheed officially said that no Air Force had flown, maintained or operated the C130 better in operations than we had. Our 30 year perfect safety record is a legend in the factory where our Hercs were made.

At one stage, during an attaché tour, the Air Attachés were debating among themselves as to which was the best overall air force in the world for its size. The SAAF was almost unanimously voted the best, the biggest argument was about second best. There was no doubt about who was thought to be the best. It was a toss up between the RAF and Israel for second. The American Air Force was not considered because it had not fought a modern battle up to then. The Gulf War changed all that and thereafter the Americans were crowing like cocks on the farmyard roof.

I could go on all day about the respect and praise which the South African Air Force has earned overseas. Suffice it to say that this was a world opinion of which we can be justly proud.

Unfortunately they say pride goes before a fall. I left the USA bursting with pride over my Air Force - only to arrive home to hear what rubbish we were. In South Africa I heard that we had failed in Angola. In South Africa today I am still hearing that we could not give air support to our troops in Modular and Hooper. In America the think tank experts and aviation writers had had sympathy for the political impossibility of establishing forward airfields in a foreign country. They praised us for what we did achieve under impossible circumstances and constraints. In South Africa I heard, and I am still hearing, that we were defeated in the swamps before Cuito Cuanavale. In America I heard of how Castro, after being given the hiding of his life - in retreat - with our lines extended further than we had ever hoped for, (akin to Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley), had changed the war from an internal struggle between liberation armies to a regional confrontation between South Africa and Cuba by moving his forces to our border - and then suing for peace - because he was finished. To save face he claimed our defeat at Cuito with pictures of one tank - and our people here fell for this propaganda. Our once proud Air Force appears to have been reduced to a weak, inefficient, spent force by propaganda. We are being accused of destabilising southern Africa. In the outside world communism is seen as the destabiliser of southern, western, northern and central Africa, as well as most of the East, the Middle East and South America. South Africa is seen as having done more for Africa - despite sanctions and apartheid - than anyone else. Here at home we were being questioned on our motives and our aims in Angola and Namibia. In the think tanks and institutes in Washington we were being praised for stopping the Soviet threat in Africa. We were lauded for stopping the Cuban threat. In fact there is a school of thought which believes that our victories in Angola were decisive in the fall of the Soviet Union. We are world heroes, but local bandits. Opinion makers in the US were claiming that Angola, not Afghanistan, was the USSR's Vietnam.

Brig. Bill Sass once remarked to me that we had planned our war, but had forgotten to plan our victory parade. We never realised that we had won.

I believe that we have lost the propaganda war. I also believe that people in this country have certain set ideas about the SADF which they believe to be true, but which are not. When we do not address these non-existent perceptions, they accuse us of dishonesty. When we deny them, we are accused of avoiding the subject or being just downright liars. In order to be truthful in their eyes one must agree to perceptions which are the products of propaganda. I am still proud of my Air Force. I believe that we fought a just battle, using just means. I believe that the primary enemy was a just one and that this is supported by western ideals. Secondary groups, for their own reasons, chose to become bedfellows of the communist invaders and were caught up in a bigger war. This is their problem and should not detract from the bigger picture.

Briefly I have tried to illustrate to you today that our pride and recognition for our glorious past is not just amongst ourselves. The world recognises our proficiency and they recognise the excellent role that we have played in forming modern history.

It will be a travesty of justice and a falsification of history if the first, and possibly the most glorious, seventy years of the Air Force's existence is trashed and goes unrecognised. To set the record straight and to ensure that we maintain our rightful place in history is a priority. We are now possibly facing the most important battle which we will ever fight.

The battle for the truth must begin.

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