Feature   Observances

Retired General Recalls Vietnam Deployment Was His First Trip Out of U.S.

March 29, 2021 | BY SKIP VAUGHN

On April 4, 1968, Air Force 2nd Lt. Lloyd "Fig" Newton was enjoying the afternoon in San Francisco with friends before deploying from Travis Force Base for Vietnam. Hours before his scheduled departure, he got the news: Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis. 

As a young, Black officer, Newton felt he had to decide whether to go ahead and fight a war during a time of racial turmoil in the United States.

"My whole day, my whole life changed at that point," Newton said. His Air Force friends stayed with him for a short time until he went off by himself to think about his decision.

A man in a military uniform poses for a photo in the cockpit of an airplane.
Air Force Capt. Lloyd “Fig” Newton
In 1976, then-Air Force Capt. Lloyd “Fig” Newton, a member of the Thunderbirds, sits in the cockpit of his plane in Las Vegas. He became the first Black pilot selected to join the Air Force Aerial Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds, in November 1974.
Photo By: Courtesy
VIRIN: 760101-O-ZZ999-0001

"What was really going through my mind, of course, was why should I be going to Vietnam to fight an enemy when I have an enemy right here in the United States," he said.

He distinctly remembered the oath he had taken to defend the U.S. against all enemies, foreign and domestic. He thought about the fact that he had orders to go to Vietnam and that he would be disobeying an order if he stayed home. After deep thought, Newton decided to go, as scheduled.

"It was best that I go. That was a critical decision, and I made the right decision," he said.

Vietnam Revisited

Newton piloted an F-4D Phantom on 269 combat missions, including 79 missions over North Vietnam from April 1968 to April 1969. He earned a Distinguished Flying Cross with an oak leaf cluster and the Air Medal with 16 oak leaf clusters. He became the first Black pilot selected to join the Air Force Aerial Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds, in November 1974.

The South Carolina native retired from the Air Force in 2000 as a four-star general.

A young man wearing a military uniform rests his hand on a ladder.
1st Lt. Lloyd “Fig” Newton
Air Force 1st Lt. Lloyd “Fig” Newton stands beside his F-4D Phantom in Danang in 1968.
Photo By: Courtesy
VIRIN: 680101-O-ZZ999-0001

When he arrived at Danang Air Base in South Vietnam in April 1968, he joined the 480th Squadron of the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing. During his first week there, the unit lost five airplanes to enemy groundfire and only recovered one, two-man crew. So, of the 10 people who went down, only two pilots returned.

"You begin to calculate real quick: If we lost five airplanes in a week, there's a very good chance I could get shot down out here," Newton said. The criterion for going home was either flying 100 missions over North Vietnam or being in Vietnam for one year, whichever came first.

On his first bombing mission, Newton flew over North Vietnam with a pilot who was on his 95th mission. He saw the puffs of smoke from the 37 mm guns on the ground. "It was unbelievable," Newton said.

They would drop various bombs – 500 pounders, 750 pounders and, sometimes, 1,000 pounders – and also napalm and cluster bombs. Groundfire would come from 37 mm guns and 57 mm guns. Occasionally, the enemy would fire Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles, or SAMs.

Most of their missions over South Vietnam were to provide close air support for U.S. Army troops on the ground. They would fly at a lower altitude than they did over North Vietnam, sometimes 500 feet and below, and they were at risk of intense groundfire.

It became clear to me democracy was the best thing. I made up my mind I would come back to the U.S. to help right the wrongs that were here.''
Retired Air Force Gen. Lloyd ''Fig'' Newton

"Those missions were very rewarding because you knew you were helping your fellow Americans not to be overrun by the enemy, which would be North Vietnamese or Viet Cong," Newton said. During his yearlong tour, he flew five recovery missions to retrieve downed pilots.

The fighters typically flew one to two missions per day, sometimes at night, in various weather conditions. Usually, at least two aircraft flew together; sometimes, there were as many as four. Each fighter had a two-pilot crew. Newton was the weapons system operator in the back seat of his aircraft. "Let there be no doubt about it, there were times that I was really scared. And there was good reason to be scared," he said.

Asked what he most remembers from that year, he said, "Well, a couple of things. First of all, this was my first time outside the United States. I had never been outside the United States before. And so, particularly now, you're engaged in war. I came to realize very quickly even though we had a number of issues in the United States – racial tensions and folks marching against the war – it became very clear to me that the United States is the best country in the world. Because you could see how the people lived there and how difficult it was to be in a war zone. It became clear to me democracy was the best thing. I made up my mind I would come back to the U.S. to help right the wrongs that were here."

An Air Force general in uniform poses for a photo in front of the U.S. flag.
Retired Air Force Gen. Lloyd “Fig” Newton
Retired Air Force Gen. Lloyd “Fig” Newton was a fighter pilot in Vietnam from 1968-69.
Photo By: Courtesy
VIRIN: 210322-O-ZZ999-0000

Newton grew up on a little farm in Ridgeland, South Carolina, and he entered Air Force ROTC at Tennessee State University where he was introduced to flying. He saw the Thunderbirds at an air show in 1964 and decided he wanted to join them someday. He received his commission as a distinguished graduate through ROTC in 1966.

Newton and his wife of 31 years, Elouise, have a blended family of three sons and two daughters, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. They reside in Bluffton, South Carolina, about eight miles northwest of Hilton Head. 

At 78, Newton enjoys playing golf and is a member of the Air Force Association and the Tuskegee Airmen Inc.

He shared his thoughts on this nation's commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War.

"Warfare certainly has changed very drastically from then until now. We would expect that. But our experiences in Vietnam certainly helped us be a much better military by the way of tactics, techniques and procedures than we were back then," he said. "And in that 50 years, if we need to engage in combat we've learned how to do that and at the same time significantly reduce the number of lives lost in combat. We as a nation have made significant progress in our relationships with each other. However there is still much work to be done."

Skip Vaughn is an editor at the Redstone Rocket at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama.