Veterans Day 2011, a tribute to Henry B. Briscoe (d. 2005)

By Ben T. Briscoe
(Edited by Kathleene Runnels)
For Veterans Day, I’d like to honor all those men and women who have served this nation in our armed forces. In my family, my grandfather on my dad’s side was a combat engineer in WWI; my dad served in the Air Force as a pilot in Korea and Vietnam; our oldest son was in the 75th Ranger Regiment and was deployed six times overseas in our Global War on Terror. I am very grateful and thankful for the willingness of those who serve and have served.
My father, Henry Briscoe, passed away 17 years ago this month. As a tribute to all Veterans, here is a bit of his story.
Dad served 23 years in the U.S. Air Force. He retired as a Colonel with his last duty assignment as a Base Commander at Mather AFB in California, retiring in 1976.
Most of our growing up years, we saw Dad in his flight suit more than in any other clothes. Those were drab, greenish/gray, one-piece jump suits with lots of zippered pockets, made of smooth material that was very tightly woven and almost shiny. His name tag was over his right breast pocket, a U.S. Air Force patch and wings over his left breast pocket, and his rank on his collar. There were unit patches on one shoulder and an American flag on the other. His footwear was typically black combat boots, and he wore a bidder on his head with his rank on the crest.
Dad flew a lot. I can’t recall his total hours of flying time, but the number 15,000 comes to mind. He flew transport planes and was good at it. Early in his career, he became a check pilot. His responsibility was to check out other pilots to insure they were following protocol and were good pilots. This included grounding some pilots that he felt were unsafe to fly; at times, that meant grounding some who held a higher rank than his. Dad flew a lot of missions where he’d be gone for weeks at a time. When he came home, it was always a big deal for my three sisters and me. “Daddy’s home” had real meaning.
Dad was a patriot; he loved what he did, who he worked with, and what it represented. Not only did he love his job, but he loved that it was serving his country. He had intended to make his living farming and wanted nothing more than to come back to Medina County and do just that when he left for college in 1948. But, before he graduated in 1952, the Korean War changed that.
After joining the Air Force, he thought he’d do his four years and then come back to Medina County, work the land, and raise his family. But, four years turned into eight, which grew to 12. Captain changed to Major, which changed to Colonel, and he was still doing what he loved.
Dad’s career spanned the vintage era from prop-driven cargo planes that carried an 8,000 pound load, powered by twin 1200 HP engines, to his last plane, which had four jet engines capable of 43,000 pounds of thrust each and could carry 380,000 pounds of cargo. He told me that there was nothing like taxiing out on a runway, getting the green light to pour the coal to four jet engines, and be able to harness and control that much power. No doubt he didn’t just hear that roar but felt that power and energy of those planes with every fiber of his being.
The power and freedom that flying gave Dad was symbolic of his country; he loved both. He flew all over the world. He was involved his whole career in hauling men and their gear and material around the world in support of war and peace, as well as of humanitarian relief.
Dad served a year in Vietnam in the early 1970s, but he flew in and out of the country all during the war. He never fired a shot in war, but he was shot at a number of times. He told stories of flying into air bases that were under attack and how big a target cargo plane was, landing in the middle of a firefight. He mentioned how time dragged by when they were waiting to be loaded when the bullets were flying. He stated how fast he could take off when they were cleared for departure by flight control.
I recall Dad telling me a number of times that during the war he had the privilege of flying our most precious cargo: flying out our war wounded, bringing them back to the states. Dad would often go back and visit with the injured during the long trip across the Pacific. He reported times when they would lose soldiers on the trip home. He had mentioned that experience to me numerous times, and I was too young to see it then, but I see now that it touched him deeply when a young soldier died before Dad was able to get him back home.
On November 13, 2005, Mom, Dad, and my family were going to eat supper with my little sister and her family in San Antonio. My wife, kids, and I picked up Mom and Dad in Devine and drove to San Antonio. Dad and I rode in the front and talked the whole way up. Dad was reminiscing and told me story after story of flying, of missions and formations, of plane wrecks and near wrecks.
He told me of one time he was landing on an air strip in a foreign country and as soon as the plane touched the runway, all the tires on the right side of the plane blew out on impact. Dad sat right there in the front seat, in my wife’s suburban, and recited the memorized protocol for what you do when all the tires on one side of a cargo plane blow at the same time. It was something like — trim this to so many degrees (he gave the specific number), cut air speed to X, flaps in this position, move a few switches to some critical point and step on something else really hard, all in a whole lot less time than it takes to state all of this. Then he recalled nursing a violently wobbling 350 ton aircraft, going 200 mph, to a stop, allowing him and all crew members to get off the plane safely. I remember looking at him and thinking, “My gosh, he’s sharp.” He told it like he had a just landed that beast yesterday.
That was his last day on earth, as the very next day, November 14, 2005, Dad flew home.
What’s it like to be the child of a military man? For me, I don’t think words go deep enough. Love. Honor. Integrity. Dignity. Duty. Patriotism. Strength. Wisdom. Knowledge. Faith. Compassion. Discipline. Ethics. These are the traits I saw in my father. My sisters and I were blessed by this and, in truth by both a loving mother and a strong father. If we could ask Dad today about his life and how he lived it, what it meant to him to serve, I’m sure he’d smile and say that it’s all wrapped up in being an American.
God bless all you men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces.