At midday Saturday, March 3, 2018, a pair of South Carolina Air National Guard F-16 Fighting Falcon warplanes swept over the rural Pee Dee landscape and crossed the local Red Hill Cemetery in a thunderous flyover.
After the low pass the jets, with afterburners blazing, climbed vertically into the blue sky until the sound faded and the outlines of the aircraft disappeared.
It was the kind of precision flying that would have thrilled Norman P. Huggins, the retired Air Force colonel whose remains were being laid to rest.
Norman Huggins was born in 1929 and grew up on a farm as the son of a game warden and a school dietitian.
He answered the call of his country as a young man and trained as a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot prior to the war in Vietnam. On Oct. 31, 1965, his wedding anniversary, he flew an RF-101C VooDoo fighter jet on a low level tactical reconnaissance mission over Hai Phong in North Vietnam.
VooDoo recon pilots like Norman had a proud motto: “Alone, Unarmed and Unafraid.” On that mission his plane was hit by antiaircraft fire and he bailed out over the Gulf of Tonkin.
There he entered American military history books by holding off North Vietnamese gunboats with his service revolver. Like most men and women distinguished in combat, Norman didn’t talk much about what happened to him. But he was quick to thank the substantial backup he had that day.
It was him with his service revolver plus four U.S. Navy Douglas A-1 Skyraiders armed with 20mm cannons versus the gunboats. Norman and his Navy buddies won the duel and he was rescued by an Albatross seaplane.
Afterwards he was on the national television news. According to the news accounts, Norman was one of the first 10 U.S. pilots shot down over North Vietnam in 1965 and the only one not to be captured. He was awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart for his actions that day. Altogether he flew 140 combat missions in Southeast Asia.
When he returned to his home base in Thailand, Norman’s commander told him to requisition a new service revolver to replace the one he lost in the water.
“I didn’t lose my pistol, sir,” he told his commander.
“Huggins, requisition a new pistol,” his commander ordered. “Is that clear? You lost yours in the water.”
“I finally understood,” Huggins said, “and got myself a new pistol.”
The ‘lost revolver’ remains on display at his farm home outside Mullins, where he lived with his wife of 65 years, Mary June Norwood Huggins.
After Vietnam Norman Huggins was a pilot and eventually a commander of Air Force units on assignments all over the world. One of his tours of duty was at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, S.C. His brother, Jim Huggins, a retired U.S. Air National Guard Chief Warrant Officer 4, recalled Norman’s return to the Palmetto State.
“I was on my tractor in a field when all of a sudden I heard the scream of a jet engine. Norman buzzed me so low it blew my hat off and ruined the perfectly straight row I had ploughed.”
In retirement Norman Huggins continued flying as a commercial pilot. He spent much of the year at his second home in Valdosta, Ga., near Moody AFB.
“I always had to get in the air in something,” was the way he described his need to fly.
I met Norman, then 84, when working on a book about the Little Pee Dee River which flows past his farm in Marion County, S.C.
“Let’s go flying,” he told me a few minutes after we met. “I’ve got to get in the air.”
Not long afterwards we went up together. My logbook entry reads, “9-5-14 N3245G, 1.5, Norman Huggins flew right seat. Farm and Little Pee Dee River. My great honor.”
“So this is what it looks like at 100 knots,” the fighter pilot in him observed. “I was used to 500 but I like this a lot too.”
During a church service prior to the graveside cemetery, Mullins Mayor Bo McMillan read a joint resolution of the South Carolina legislature honoring Huggins’ achievements in the military and in land conservation.
Huggins’ boyhood hero was Francis Marion, the South Carolina American Revolutionary War Commander named the Swamp Fox for his exploits in fighting the British Redcoats. Fittingly, the Air National Guard message confirming the flyover noted, “Thanks again for the chance to honor a true hero! We’ll be sending a 2-ship of F-16 “Vipers” out of the 157th Fighter Squadron at McEntire Joint National Guard Base. Our squadron is known as the Swamp Fox Squadron, taking our namesake from General Francis Marion who played such a crucial leadership role in the South Carolina militia during the Revolutionary War. During recent years, our F-16s have seen combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan and remains our nation’s premier Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) Fighter Wing following in the tradition of the original Wild Weasels during the Vietnam War.”
The flyover pilots were U.S. Air Force Captains “Mosey” Rosecrans and “Gnarly” Price.
Price said afterwards, “Col. Huggins…represents a long lineage of great American fighter pilots whose legacy we seek to uphold. It is a privilege to honor his life, service and family with a flyover today.”