BLACK LION ONE
The historical biography of John Monroe “Hawk” Smith, Navy fighter pilot, is a gripping account of valor, sacrifice, and adventure during one of the most tumultuous periods in carrier aviation. Roger Ball!, the first work, takes the reader on Hawk Smith’s wild ride. Black Lion ONE, the sequel, continues the odyssey of “Hawk” Smith with the same white-knuckle intensity and on-scene story-telling narrative as its predecessor.
Through the brutal war in Vietnam, U.S. tactical aviation forces suffered horrible losses— stagnation of air warfare doctrine, strategy, tactics, training to real world air threats, and the very restrictive Rules of Engagement—these were instrumental in the debacle that was the Vietnam Air War. When they needed it most, Navy leadership saw a handful of innovative and courageous fighter pilots with the steel resolve to fix the problem. Commander John Monroe “Hawk” Smith was one of those.
Hawk was a charismatic visionary and a natural leader—an idea factory connected to a dynamo. He had consistently demonstrated an impressive drive to revitalize fighter tactics and doctrine to engage emerging world threats. It was a surprise to no one when Hawk, having completed a stunning tour as the commanding officer (CO) of TOPGUN, received orders as Executive Officer and Commanding Officer to a front-line F-14 Tomcat Squadron—VF-213, the Black Lions.
Hawk joined the Black Lions at the beginning of their turn-around cycle in preparation for their deployment in March 1979 aboard the USS America (CV-66). Several critical factors portended to a most arduous work-up period and deployment—they had only eight months to complete the training ordinarily crammed into twelve months, America was an east coast ship headed for the Mediterranean, and VF-213 was based at NAS Miramar, California.
Officially, from 13 March 1979 until America returned from the Med deployment in September 1979, America performed all assigned tasks. But the conditions of the ship—supply department, ship’s habitability, crew moral, and overall discipline and leadership— were things nightmares were made of. In short, the 1979 deployment proved to be a slow speed train wreck. Hawk saw nothing to indicate that the next turn-around cycle and the deployment would improve. But Hawk was a man who did not shy away from a challenge. With renewed vigor and reinforced resolve, Hawk committed himself to resurrecting the Black Lions in the image of the consummate fighter squadron—TOPGUN. He brought the full energy of his experience, the full strength of his convictions, and the full belief in the worthiness of his people into grand design.
The turn-around clock ticked away. The Lions by now had a schedule, a plan of action, a motivated team, and competent leadership. Signs of improvement were slow initially, but the Black Lion team continued to show their colors during a series of training events in preparation for the deployment, chief among them was the first-ever Fighter Derby at NAS Miramar. This was the “World Cup” for Naval fighter squadrons and would establish the pecking order and stature of each.
There were two crucial events masterminded by Hawk which would greatly enhance the Lions fighter skills and improve their performance during the Fighter Derby. Constant Peg a highly classified, black program which exposed U.S. tactical aircrews to the capabilities of Soviet fighters in simulated combat and the, by-invitation-only, tactics exercise against the 65th Aggressor Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nevada. Although the lessons were rather sobering, the results of the training added greatly to their fighter warcraft.
The Black Lion crews sharpened their claws during the Fighter Derby. They flew skillfully and tenaciously. When all the smoke had cleared and the scores were tallied, the Black Lions had taken first place by a wide margin.
The Fighter Derby cleared the decks for all that that followed. It hailed a victorious conclusion to a long, sometimes torturous climb from chaos and impossibility to recognized supremacy. Every Lion, from the greenest airman, to the most salt-encrusted chief, to the most combat-hardened officer shared the load. Hawk’s boys had risen to the occasion—they had built the consummate fighter squadron—
the Black Lions!
Dedicated to Torpedo Squadron EIGHT, Battle of Midway
Early in the morning of June 4th, 1942, the aircrews of Torpedo Squadron EIGHT (VT-8) assembled in their ready room. Waiting for them was a memo from Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, Commanding Officer of (VT-8). It read, “My greatest hope is that we encounter a favorable tactical situation, but if we don’t, and the worst comes to the worst, I want each of us to do his utmost to destroy our enemies. If there is only one plane left to make a final run-in, I want that man to go in and get a hit. May God be with us all. Good luck, happy landings and give ’em hell.”
It was a sobering message. All aircrew knew their responsibilities. They had accepted them. And all, to a man, were prepared for the consequences.
They received their briefs, donned their flight gear, then, “Pilots, man your planes,” blarred over the 1-MC. Pilots and crew assigned to that first strike, rushed to the flight deck, strapped in, and cranked up.
They flew with the throttle full forward, straight and level at almost 180 knots, without fighter cover into the roaring guns of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Fifteen obsolete Douglas TBD Devastators were destroyed, all aircrew, save one, were slain, a squadron was obliterated, and for their gallantry and sacrifices, a battle was won.
Black Lion ONE is dedicated to these brave Americans.
“We Will Strike, Regardless of the Consequences”
Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron
Commanding Officer of (VT-8)
4 June 1942
The primordial elegance and immense splendor brought Hawk solitude, clarity of purpose, and thankfulness. Cocooned snuggly in his Tomcat, thousands of feet above the worries and stresses of mortal man, he felt alive, free, and energized with a realization that he was doing what he was supposed to be doing. He was in perfect harmony with his destiny. Embraced by the sheer beauty surrounding him he had found complete tranquility. When he returned to earth, when the landing gear hit the steel deck of the Enterprise, he would be just a man again, but for a little while, a moment frozen in time, he felt immortal.
– Donald Auten from “Roger Ball!”
Foreword - Vice Admiral Michael "Smiles" Bucchi, USN (Retired)
In Black Lion One, author Donald Auten, masterfully incorporates the challenges of the era following the Vietnam War with the fighter community’s re-evaluation and discovery of the lessons coming out of Vietnam. From this chaos of war, a new apogee in the fighter war arts was born through deities of the air warfare tribe—warriors like Mugs McKeown, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, Dave “Frosty” Frost, Bad Fred Lewis, and many more.
Black Lion One captures the true spirit of a Navy Fighter pilot’s career, especially the two defining command tours as Commanding Officer of TOPGUN and the Black Lions. Hawk’s story is one of persistence in the face of adversity; success and achievement when confronted with stagnation; and extraordinary leadership when embroiled in havoc. As Auten weaves the history of world events and incorporates the many real-world challenges within the fighter squadrons and community, the key and most potent ingredient of true leadership highlighted is that of taking care of your people. In fact, this book should be required reading by every potential commanding officer, regardless of community. The other vital element captured by Auten is the importance of support from senior leadership as demonstrated by RADM Gilchrest. Captain John Monroe “Hawk” Smith was in this congregation of savant fighter pilots and tacticians in the midst of the tempest who pushed forth Naval TACAIR forces to its rightful place of superiority. Hawk’s vision, tenacity, and unsinkable enthusiasm was known and admired throughout the fighter community. Successful tours at VX-4 as the F-14 Tomcat Project Officer and Commander Air Group FOURTEEN Senior Landing Signal Officer for the first ever F-14 deployment equipped him for assignment as the Executive Officer, then Commanding Officer of the famous Naval Fighter Weapons School—TOPGUN. Hawk’s tour there, a grueling but highly successful assignment, caught the attention of decision makers in the highest tiers of Navy leadership. He was rewarded with a second command tour as skipper of VF-213—the Black Lions.
Hawk was a warrior in the realm of great fighter pilots and a visionary leader totally dedicated to resurrecting Naval TACAIR as the finest, most lethal force in the world.
Black Lion One is the conclusion of the odyssey of a great Navy Fight Pilot—Captain John Monroe “Hawk” Smith.
– Michael “Smiles” Bucchi, Vice Admiral, USN (Retired)