This is not only the story of J.C. Smith’s journey to his own command; it is the story of how his naval career advancements brought about the changing of the old rules. Because of extreme circumstances and unusual events, J.C. Smith had one of the most unique career experiences of any naval aviation officer during the Vietnam era. Initially earning the pilot wings of a Naval Aviator, Captain Smith later earned the wings of a Naval Flight Officer. He pioneered the specialty of the Naval Flight Officer, those weapons and systems officers flying F-4 Phantoms, A-6 Intruders, EA-Prowlers, F-14 Tomcats, F-18 Super Hornets and other aircraft. His highly successful and memorable career was instrumental in the Navy’s decision to allow Naval Flight Officers to hold virtually any command position previously reserved for pilots alone. Captain Smith’s precedent-setting commands of the Navy Fighter Weapons School and Fighter Squadron VF-114 have allowed other Naval Flight Officers to command squadrons, aircraft carriers, air wings, and fleets.
Captain Smith’s journey was not an easy one. When circumstances took J.C. away from the front seat career he had dreamed of all his life, he managed to overcome that disappointment to embark on a career that blazed the path for thousands who followed. Although he continued to wear the gold wings of a pilot, he never again received official orders to pilot an airplane. He did, however, fly thousands of hours as a Naval Flight Officer in F-4 Phantoms, during four war- time cruises, as a founding officer of TOP GUN, and the architect of what is now the typical Naval Flight Officer career path.
This biography not only tells the story of Captain Smith’s career, it also serves to shed light on much of the missing history of the Vietnam air war, as well as clarifying some of the post-war occurrences. Captain Smith made a significant mark on the history of the Vietnam air war and on the careers of the officers he served with, in addition to those who followed in his footsteps.
Left out of this book are the “infamous tales” of J.C.’s antics and jokes – although many of them are true. They made for good filler in some of the books that have already been printed but are immaterial to this story. While these anecdotes do show the camaraderie that he shared with his fellow officers and men, they would lose something in the telling if they were told in “first person.”
Journey to Command tells the story of how J.C. Smith, US Navy Pilot, overcame the disappointments of losing his first flying assignment by taking on a larger, more difficult role. He became the predecessor to successful career opportunities for Navy Flight Officers. He set the standard for professional performance, earning the respect of his peers and his superiors. In serving as a Commanding Officer himself, he paved the way for the lifting of restrictions against the Naval Flight Officer designation, opening up the entire world of naval commands. He achieved his personal goals being aware of the precedent that he was setting for the Naval Flight Officers that followed.
This is the true story of one man’s life, the good and the bad. It will tell how he dealt with unfortunate circumstances to produce some shining moments in history. This man fought to overcome obstacles–some of his own making, some not–to bring about the positive changes that were made in the execution of the air war in Vietnam. By writing this book in first person, I feel it will be a more interesting, easily-read story. Except for technical descriptions, official records, and letters, the words are mine. His children and I lived this story with him.
There were many great moments in the late 1960s goingthrough the Naval Aviation Officer Candidate School(NAOCS) at Naval Air Station NAS Pensacola, Florida. Some of the most memorable were the incredible stories about Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego, California. With theVietnam air war raging, NAS Miramar was the nerve-center of America’s jet fighter aviation. We received remarkable accounts of F-4 Phantoms and F-8 Crusaders dodging multiple supersonic SAMS (Surface-to-Air Missiles), jinking through intense AAA (anti-aircraft) flack traps, and shooting down enemy MIGS. Those combat veterans, and particularly the “MIG Killers,” were like gods to us. We also heard about a new squadron called TOP GUN where the best of the best combat veterans taught other fighter crews how to win in combat no matter what. One of the names synonymous with the founding of TOP GUN, and a name we heard many times as young flight students, was that of J. C. Smith.
About a year later, after all the training and earning those“Wings of Gold,” I was assigned to NAS Miramar. I was to report to the F-4 Replacement Air Group (RAG) squadron, VF-121. As I was making the check-in rounds at VF-121, I passed the ready room where real fighter pilots, combat veterans, and TOP GUN instructors hung out between flights. There he was: J.C. Smith, bigger than life, playing dice. He was wearing his aviator sunglasses and garrison cap. I couldn’t help but gawk. He looked up, saw me gawking, smiled, and said, “Hey tiger, welcome aboard.” I was a 23-year-old Ensign, and I just became ten feet tall. Despite his fame and reputation as a member of the Navy’s first crew of MIG killers and one of the founders of TOP GUN, I had just been welcomed into a very special group of aviators by the man himself, J. C. Smith.
Carol Smith’s account of J.C.’s career in naval aviation,Journey To Command is a must-read book for anyone interested in a fascinating, behind-the-scenes account of how the Navy’s air-to-air tactics changed to meet the initially deadly MIG threat. Equally fascinating are the many challenges that had to be overcome before TOP GUN became operational. One of the major forces responsible for those remarkable changes was J. C. Smith.
By Willy Driscoll
FROM THE BACK COVER:
J.C. Smith was already a naval aviation legend when I was assigned to fly airplanes with VF-114 right out of flight school. Smith and Commander Lou Page had shot down the first MIG of the Vietnam War. Smith was a founding member of the Naval Fighter Weapons School (TOP GUN) – actually the first Commanding Officer. Smith was purported to know the F-4 Phantom better than any human alive. Smith did all this as a Radar Intercept Officer – and when I arrived at his office to report for duty as a lowly Ensign, Smith had been designated as the first RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) in the history of the U.S. Navy to command a fighter squadron at sea. I walked into his Executive Officer’s office expecting to meet George Patton and be to be slapped down for having the mere insolence to report. Who I met was a professional and witty man, who for the next two years showed me how to approach a dangerous business in a professional manner – and who showed me how to enjoy every minute of it. – Daniel Jenkins
I served as a Naval Aviator in a carrier-based squadron with J.C. Smith and was there when history was being made. It was the time when Naval Flight Officers were first being tested in combat and would determine their career paths from then on. J.C. was the Radar Intercept Officer in the Phantom which shot down the first MiG of the Viet Nam air war and would go on to establish the now-famous “Top Gun” air combat school at NAS Miramar. No graduate of this intensive course in aerodynamics and air-to-air tactics was ever downed by an enemy aircraft. The “Kill Ratio” improved ten-fold as graduates imparted their knowledge to their squadron mates and weapons’ performance and reliability improved. It lead to new thinking on the importance of a close-in weapon which is standard equipment on modern day fighters. – Roger W. Harris
I think of this book in two parts. On one side it is a detailed chronicle of one man’s adventurous career in the military and on the other is a touching insight into the life and times of a lovingly devoted husband and father. I found it simply inspirational!
I am also a military man and found the detailed look into the aviation community very interesting. J.C. Smith had the first MIG kill in the Vietnam War, one of the original builders of the “Top Gun” school and its first Commanding Officer, set the standards for all Radar Intercept Officers, earned many high level medals, but the one thing that stands above all other achievements, he was an inspirational leader! Captain Smith is the perfect example of what it takes to be a successful leader. He served his country in the most unselfish way, always looking out for his wingman, grooming young officers that would not have been successful without his mentorship, always stood up for what was right regardless the degree of pressure applied by his seniors, and when his career was on the line, he never buckled on doing the right thing, always took the heat and shielded those beneath him. A true leader by example! – LCDR Mac Diehl
I was a nugget pilot in VF-21 and proudly served with Lt. Smith. The book confirms his dedication, drive, intelligence, respect he gives and gets, and underscores his multiple abilities to instruct, guide by example, exude leadership with compassion, humor and understanding, and profess his love of country, family, and fellowman. He was a mentor and good friend while I was in VF 21 and my feelings have not changes after all these years. He was the RIO with CDR Lou Page and guided the attack for the first MIG kill in Vietnam. He ram-rodded respect for the two man crew concept by demanding equal treatment for RIOs and Pilots. This demand set the standard for advancement for RIOs towards command of a fighter squadron. I recommend this book as a must read for officers and leaders in any branch of our armed forces, as a guide for maintaining a marriage, and a balancing act for God, Country, Family and Courage. Never forget to include a sense of humor. JC epitomizes these qualities. – Mike Hanley
What a great read about life in the Military as it really is. Written by the wife of a distinguished Naval aviator, this is a story about her husbands roller coast career ride. In frank terms, this book reveals how fate and dedication to duty can work through Chain of Command bureaucracies in order to accomplish great things for the service and our country. This is a story about life, love, duty and it is a story about the young warriors of our country that have kept our nation safe and secure through the years. Having just read the book, I feel proud. – Carl H. Ellis
“Journey To Command” is a must-have book for any Naval historian. Carol Smith and her husband J.C. have brought to life what it was “really like” to be a part of an exciting yet perilous era in Naval Aviation, the creation of the Navy Fighter Weapons School, Top Gun. The book includes all the before, during, and afterwards of that process in the early 1970s, and Capt. Smith’s impact on making it happen.
Following Capt. Smith from early in his career through his retirement, the reader is captivated by the camaraderie, challenge, and perseverance experienced by Naval Aviators and Flight Officers in peacetime and in war. As one who was there, this book brought back so many memories of people with whom I worked and flew everyday. It was very difficult to put down, and the first-hand account of that age kept me glued to each page. – Bart (Black Bart) Bartholomay
Carol Smith has done a marvelous job of relating the personal story of Captain John C. “J.C.” Smith, an outstanding leader, aviator and American who contributed much to improve our effectiveness in aerial combat during the Vietnam War. Lovers of aviation history, and real life adventure stories, will be more than satisfied with this book. The book Journey to Command, is much more than this. It is a story about a man devoted to serving his country, and a wife and partner who together, made it all possible. This true story about Captain Smith is more than anything the triumph of one individual who prevailed against nay sayers and doubters and made a huge difference. On the stage of life there are only brief moments of opportunity to make a difference. The ones who do have seized the moment. Captain Smith was that man in Naval Aviation during the Vietnam war. Humble and gifted, his story is a delight to read. No person who loves true stories with happy endings will miss reading this wonderful book. – Paul D. Kehrer