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Just One of the Guys, but With a Mean Set of Toenails

Posted by rowdy on September 26, 2013

Got this in an e-mail from a fighter pilot wife.  Since she included  the address of the writer, we sent him an e-mail asking permission to put this on our site.  Had an OK back from Rosie and his magazine editor within an hour of the request.  Kickass guys!!

This article was written by Ross "Rosie" Detwiler and first appeared in Business & Commercial Aviation

On my first Vietnam tour, I had heard about “Ramrod,” a huge python, which was the mascot of, I think, the 90th Tac Fighter Squadron at Bien Hoa. I thought nothing could top a fat python as a mascot for a group of young fighter jocks.
That was until the first night of my second tour in May 1972. I was assigned to fly F4 Phantoms in the 13th Tac Fighter Squadron at Udorn Air Base, Thailand. On that night one of my new squadron mates, a weapons systems operator named Tony Marshall, came strolling into the O club. Picture this: Here was a young black man, in a black party suit, holding a black leather strap attached to a black leather collar attached to a black panther…Eldridge by name.
Actually a Black Malaysian Leopard (yes, you could see the black spots under the black fur), Eldridge, I quickly discovered was just another one of the guys. He'd regularly come with Tony to the club and pass time, just sitting next to any group of 13th guys who happened to be there. It was always fun to hear the first few bars of “Yerrow Riber” after a new local band had seen the cat for the first time.
Eldridge did have a fatal flaw though. He was playful. He had a habit of grabbing you with a paw and easing those long toenails into the flesh, just a little. If you knew him well, you just said “Knock it off, cat.” Eldridge would look at you and then go put his head on Tony’s leg for solace. If you didn’t know the cat or Tony didn’t see the touch happen and a person instinctively jerked back, blood could be shed. Fortunately, most people screamed so loud the cat backed off.
Then came the day. “Laredo 41, are you all right? I have two chutes.” I heard that as I cycled off a tanker over the Gulf of Tonkin. I was Laredo 31 and had been working as a fast FAC along with 41 putting fighters in on a huge ammunition depot in North Vietnam.
Tony was the backseater in 41 and now he was gone. We’d heard him on the radio, but not his pilot. We could only hope.
What about the cat? Our CO at the time was Lt. Col. Griff Bailey, a good leader who walked with the swagger of a man who had met a Mig and dropped it. “We need a volunteer to take care of Eldridge," he said. "Allen, you’re it.” Everyone else said with heartfelt relief, “Yeah, Ed. Good choice. You can do it, Ed.”           
So about a week after Tony had floated into North Vietnam, Lt. Ed Allen took over as cat keeper. You should know that Ed had gun camera film of a MiG in his sights. As such he was held in high enough esteem to be able to decline this new extracurricular role, if he wanted. But I think it was out of respect for Tony that he accepted.
We all gathered outside Eldridge's huge, makeshift cage next to the squadron building as Ed went in for the first time. The daily sacrificial chicken was perched on the roof of Eldridge’s house, but the big black cat was nowhere in sight. He was deep in the shadows somewhere hiding.
“Here, kitty kitty,” Ed called, without conviction.
I think Eldridge was so happy to finally have some attention after a week in solitude that he kind of leaped at Ed. As a result, Ed came out of the cage like a mortar round. To his credit, and the squadron's collective relief, he had enough presence of mind to lock the door as he flew through it. Self-preservation is a wonderful thing.
Despite that unwelcome welcome, Ed stuck with the job and soon Eldridge was back in the swing, riding in the truck to meet returning crews and even coming to the club again from time to time.
Eldridge met his demise, socially, at a celebration of one of the guy's final missions. There was a crowd around and a couple of nurses from the hospital had come over to help with the bubbly. One of them drew Eldridge's attention and he pulled Ed over to play with her. This time the claws eased into an unsuspecting female leg The leg jerked back quickly, a reaction that was followed immediately by screams, blood, and body goo that should not be exposed to the light of day.
Eldridge was doomed, but the cat just sat there with a sort of “What?” look on his face.
Furious, the CO tried, convicted and sentenced him in one breath: “He’s out of here, or I’ll shoot him myself. Take care of him. You’ve got two weeks and he stays in the cage all that time.”
The slightly mauled nurse recovered completely from the encounter. Ed returned home. The pilot of Laredo 41 didn't make it, but Tony did. He'd been captured and made a POW, but was released the following spring. And as for Eldridge, he survived the war and the harsh judgment against him. In fact, I heard he spent the rest of his days lolling about at the Tucson Zoo.
All that was a welcome distraction in the lives of good people committed to the fight and trying to get through it as best they could.
Here’s to them all. And particularly to one black cat named Eldridge.


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Posted by Bags on
Met L/C Tony Marshall in the 80's. Flew with him in the 37th Tac Fighter Wing at George.
Posted by skladd on
I didn't know about Eldridge, but Tony Marshall had a way with animals. He was my sponsor when I moved from Homestead to the 92 TFS at Bentwaters in 1977 or so. Dogs going into UK then had to suffer 6 months' quarantine, so we sent our Golden Retriever over a couple months early to get his sentence started. Tony visited that dog in the kennels religiously until we arrived. Great guy all around.
Posted by flashkb on
I recall seeing Eldridge at the Phoenix Zoo in 1974 when I was a kid. He wasnt at the Tucson zoo. Every trip I took there to the Phoenix zoo I would take friends over to see him.
Posted by rvc on
Eldridge was caged just outside Wing HQ at Udorn. The locals didn't like him and they use to throw burning matches at him and taunt him. So when locals walked by the cage, Eldridge was not a happy camper. But if you had a flight suit on you could stick your finger through the chain link and Eldridge would lick your finger. One day I came around the corner of his cage with a local walking beside me. The local chose to put me between him and the cage. I soon found out why. Eldridge came off his pirch and hit the chain link with all fours trying to get to the kid. Scared the daylights out of me. If I am not mistaken Stu Sandro ended up handling Eldridge toward the end. Stu told me Eldrige recognized him when he went to Phx to visit. Amazing and beautiful cat. And yes he was spotted. I believe he has been gone for many years now. There should be lot's of old gray fighter pilots still around with memories of Eldridge.
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