n 1979, I was part of a 5 man trouble shooting team that followed our squadron's aggressor team around the country. We had left MCAS Cherry Point and gone down to MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina for 2 weeks of DACM (Dissimilar Aircraft Combat Maneuver) training. Basically, VMA-231's Harriers was teamed up with an Air Force team of F-15 Eagles, flying against the entire base of F-4 Phantoms then stationed at MCAS Beaufort.
The days were long and mostly boring, but we kept hearing that the Hollywood types were there filming a movie from a novel by Pat Conroy. Well the only thing I could think of was "The Great Santini", an excellent book that talked about a now defunct (maybe never was) Marine Air Station call Ravenel, and the Marines stationed there, and it also had some great short tales of Parris Island in the 1960s. I had only finished reading this book about a month before going to Beaufort to support the training, so it was fresh on my mind.
One day blended into the next, and we kept hearing that the Harriers with their "damned ability to stop dead in mid-air, and turn 90 degrees" was causing the Phantom pilots some serious grief. And that the *&^%ing F-15s were flying so high the F-4 couldn't even see them. From what we could gather, the Air Force and our Marine pilots had decided to split up, the Air Force taking top cover, and the Harriers coming in low, zooming up to take a shot, then disappearing into the ground clutter. If the Harrier's had to mix it up with a Phantom, they would do what was call "VIFFing" or vectoring in forward flight. This is a technique that allows a Harrier to make what must look like a 90 degree leap to one side. The plane is put on knife edge, then the engine exhaust nozzles are rotated (rapidly) to the 90 degree position, then rotated back to normal flight position. It actually looks like the Harrier is jumping out of the way, the Phantom flies right by, and the Harrier can get an easy sidewinder lock-on, or a quick cannon shot to take down their adversary. The Phantom pilots were getting pretty tired of have to buy drinks for the Harriers pilots and the Eagle pilots, but such is life.
One particular afternoon, we got a call from the base public affairs coordinator asking us if we had a Harrier that would be available at around 1430 that day for a photo opportunity. Not knowing what was going on, we checked the flight schedule, and found that we would indeed have 2 planes available, as two of the pilots would have flown their missions for the day, and would be debriefing with the Phantom crews. So, we arranged to tow a AV8-A up to the flight line of VMFA-251, and park it next to one of their F-4s.
It was hot in Beaufort that spring day, and we had stripped down to fatigues and (white) T-shirts, and had our ever present mickey mouse ears (hearing protection) on our head as the day wore on. At 1425 we towed our Harrier up to VMFA-251 flight line, I was riding the brakes, and my LCpl. Colt was driving the tug. We parked, disconnected the tug, and went looking for shade. The only shade to be found was under the wing of the aircraft on the flight line, so we decided to just sit back on the tug and wait. We didn't have to wait long.
At 1435, a Marine Staff Sergeant came around the corner of the VMFA-251 hanger, and shortly thereafter, a tall, lanky Marine Captain. The Captain introduced himself as being from the Public Affairs and Technical Advisory office in Hollywood, California. Duly impressed, he asked us why we didn't salute him as he approached. We informed his that due to the danger of F.O.D.ing (foreign object damage) and engine, most Marines didn't wear their covers on the flight line, and since we were not under arms, we could not salute him. He accepted this with no problem. He then asked who was the senior LCpl present. I was and informed him so. He asked if I would mind having my picture taken. I had no objections, but wanted to know what it was all about. His response,"You'll find out in about 15 minutes."
Well, I'm sure you have guess by now, that the reason was that the star of the movie, "The Great Santini", Robert Duvall was coming down for publicity stills. Mr. Duvall drove onto the flight line in a beautiful dark blue with gold pin-stripe Mercedes 450 SLC with the top off. He pulled to a stop and jumped out. He was dressed in a OD flight suit with a tag on the pocket that said "Bull Mecham", and had the wings of gold. He walked over and shook hands all around, and introduced himself to us. Mr. Duvall had always been one of my favorite actors, so it was really a thrill to meet him.
The Captain from the Public Affairs office told us what he wanted, so we set up the airplane to his specs. Then we helped Mr. Duvall into the airplane. This is where things got a little dicey. The camera was whirring the entire time Mr. Duvall was on the flight line, including when he climbed into the cockpit of the Harrier. I was kneeling on the intake above and slightly behind the cockpit, directing Mr. Duvall as to where to put his feet to get into the plane safely. I then stepped down onto the boarding ladder and was about to climb down when I noticed that Mr. Duvall had sat down on the ejection handle. The seat on the Harrier had two methods of ejection. The first being a face curtain. Once the face curtain was pulled the seat would eject. The second was a "D-ring" handle that was between the legs of the pilot on the front of the seat. The pilot simply would pull the D-ring, and off he would go. There was also an arming handle that had to be pulled up and pinned into place to safe the seat, or dropped into the side of the seat to arm the seat. Experience had told us, that even with the arming handle up and locked, it is best NOT to pull the D-ring, or the face curtain, and inadvertent firing may occur. After all, it is man made, and therefore it is not completely fool proof.
So, I jumped up to the top step of the ladder and reached into the cockpit, and grabbed the base of the D-ring. My body, right shoulder and arm squarely in front of this big movie star. The Captain yelled out, "MARINE, GET OUT FROM IN FRONT OF THE STAR, YOU ARE BLOCKING HIM!!" I looked up at Mr. Duvall and explained to him that this D-ring, if pulled could launch him about 75 feet up into the air, and that it would be best if he would lift himself up and let me pull the handle out of the way. Mr. Duvall was very cool. He looked out of the cockpit at the Captain and said "Captain, this young man may have just kept me from making a very embarrassing mistake. Let him do his job, and all will be fine. I will sit here as long as it takes to get your pictures."
What could the Captain do but say "Yes Sir." So, after making sure Mr. Duvall was safely in the airplane, and I had showed him what he could and could not touch, I climbed down. Mr. Duvall then made small talk with me and Colt, asking me if I were making the Corps my career, what I thought of certain movies at the time, and where he could get a good steak in town. The whole time the camera was firing off shots. We had a great time, talking with this big Hollywood star about everything in the world.
All good things must come to an end, and finally they were out of film, and Mr. Duvall had to leave. I asked the Captain for a copy of any of the pictures that had me and Mr. Duval together in them, and was assured that I would get copies, but I never did.
We went to the Beaufort cemetary, where they filmed the funeral of Bull Mecham, and VMFA-251 did the missing man formation. Even though we knew it was just a movie, we were chocked up over it. When the movie hit the theaters we were there telling every one we could that we had met the star, shook his hand, and spent the afternoon with him.
Just one of the great memories I have of my time in the Corps.
Have a sea story you want to see published on our site? Send it here!