Bobby Gene Vinson

NO. 17575  •  

Missing in action in Vietnam on 24 Apr 1968, declared dead on 12 Sep 1977. Body never recovered.


SHOULD WEST POINT begin retiring football jerseys, a good one to start with would be number 44. Bobby wore this number for 4 years, having made the 'A' squad in plebe year on a national championship team. A native son of Nederland, he grew up in the rough and ­ready world of Cajuns, oil field workers, and longshoremen in East Texas. He learned how to play and fight, when necessary, with the toughest and was the Outstanding High School Football Player in Texas in his senior year. Bobby turned down a full scholarship to Rice in order to compete in the last year of the Davis-Blanchard era. Probably his most notable football feats were a 98-yard intercepted pass return in 1948 and a 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the 1949 Army-Navy game. He was number one in the plebe class in physical aptitude and could take on the best heavyweights in boxing and wrestling. Anyone would rue the day that he stood next to Bobby on "bloody Tuesday" in Bill Cavanaugh's boxing class.

Bobby also was an outstanding student, with particular talents in mathematics and science. It was amazing to see him return from a rough football practice and focus on academics with consistently outstanding results in the classroom the next day.

Bobby entered Air Force flight training just as the Korean War began and he quickly grasped the essentials of this new challenge. It came as no surprise when he was selected to be a jet fighter pilot. Combat skills were honed at the Fighter Gunnery School at Nellis AFB, NV, and he was soon on his way to Korea. Aircraft losses were heavy during the winter of 1951-­52, particularly for fighter-bomber pilots, but Bobby flew 100 combat missions in F­84s the same way he played football - with 100% commitment, 100% fearless. On one memorable mission, he spotted a North Korean tank. When his rockets failed to fire, Bobby recycled armament switches while continuing the attack. The tank was destroyed, but the F­84 kissed the ground during his pullout. A bushel basket of dirt, grass, and brush was retrieved from the F-84 after returning to home base.

In between flying 100 combat missions, Bobby learned skeet shooting. (In those days, the Air Force thought skeet shooting improved aerial gunnery skills.) Two years later he represented Tactical Air Command in the National Championships.

After the Korean War, Bobby was assigned to George AFB, CA, as a fighter pilot and met Joan McKinney while vacationing in Mexico. Bobby and Joan were married in September 1953 and raised 4 handsome and extremely bright children: ­Chuck, Robert, Victoria, and Laura.

The following years brought a series of tactical assignments interspersed with annual returns to West Point as assistant football coach. Later, while stationed at Wheelus AFB, Libya, Bobby learned scuba diving and water skiing - sports he pursued for the rest of his life. The Vinsons returned to Langley AFB, VA, where Bobby joined TAC Headquarters. Next came Armed Forces Staff College and the Pentagon.

Charlie Gabriel, classmate and retired Air Force Chief of Staff, remembers Bobby as a staff officer of unparalleled integrity who would challenge the system to provide absolutely objective staff studies. Charlie also notes that Bobby was the best fighter pilot he knew.

The years spent in Washington are remembered by their many friends for fun-­filled gatherings at their home in Northern Virginia, especially the "Vinson Backyard Olympics" where one and all tested aging skills in a variety of games and contests. In 1965, the Vietnam War intruded. Bobby became increasingly involved in staffing fighter operations for combat. In 1967, he returned to the cockpit.

After a brief training period in F- 4s, he joined the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing at DaNang. "Skipper" Scott, classmate, fellow football player, and later Superintendent at the Air Force Academy, recalls that in their earlier assignment to the same fighter wing, Bobby was the top fighter pilot, able to beat everyone, including a top Korean War ace, in "dog fights" -- simulated aerial combat. LTC Vinson was quickly checked out to lead combat missions; the most challenging being night attack missions under flares in North Vietnam.

The April afternoon before Bobby's last flight, he enjoyed his favorite sport - scuba diving for lobsters in the Gulf of Tonkin. He told Skip Scott that they would cook lobsters upon his return from a night attack mission against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in North Vietnam. His aircraft apparently was hit while making a second firing pass under flares. His wingman reported the aircraft explosion, and Bobby was never heard from again.

Defense policy was to list pilots lost in combat as MIA until their true status could be determined.  Joan Vinson became a national leader in the movement to account for MIA-POWs. She was and is a wonderful wife and mother who kept the family together after the loss of Bobby.

COL Bobby Gene Vinson was declared KIA on 12 Sep 1977. From the "fields of friendly strife" at West Point to the skies over North Vietnam, he served his country with  pride and distinction. Check Six, 44! 

- His roommates Rufus Smith and Dick Leavitt