Throughout Military Appreciation Month we will be honoring U.S. military members, active and retired, for their service and sacrifice. Our next hero is Ernest Franklin Phillips Jr, known as Phil to his friends. A typical California kid during the 50s, he enlisted in the Air Force so he could learn to fly and work on aircraft. He served as part of the 54th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron whose “Operation Popeye” (also known as “Operation Motorpool”) played an important part in the U.S. efforts during the Vietnam War. Phil passed away ten years after he retired from the Air Force but his son Timothy A. Phillips was happy to share memories of his dad and the stories of his time in the Air Force.
The 54th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron was established in Britain during WWII to help gather accurate weather information over Nazi-occupied Europe. But their most notable mission was the classified “Operation Popeye/Motorpool” during the Vietnam War. While Phil couldn’t share the details of their mission with his family during the war, Tim later learned the objective was to modify the weather and extend the rainy season so that washed out roads, landslides and softened terrain would make it harder for the enemy to move troops and supplies. This was accomplished via the controversial practice of seeding clouds with silver iodide to increase rain production.
“My father told me about a specific cloud-seeding mission that was designed to collapse a bridge between China and North Vietnam. These missions were flown at night and were supported by Navy and Air Force Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star Aircraft orbiting of the coast of N. Vietnam. On that mission my father’s aircraft stayed on station until dawn when they were warned by the EC-121 that the N Vietnamese aircraft were sent to intercept them. My father mentioned that was the closest he ever came to being shot down.”
When we asked Tim if he remembered any stories about a successful operation he shared that one of the 54th’s cloud-seeding missions shut down the Ho Chi Men trail due to washed out roads and bridges making it hard for the North Vietnamese to fight in the South when they couldn’t get beans, bullets, and fuel.
He went on say, “My father wanted to reduce the number of MEDVAC flights of wounded service members landing at Anderson Air Force Base were we lived for six years during the war. The squadron did not drop bombs but they could make rain to flood the enemy.” It was because of this idea of hindering the enemy without violence that the phrase “make mud, not war” became associated with the 54th Weather Recon Squadron and Operation Popeye.
When asked about favorite memories of his dad Tim said, “One of the best memories I have of my father is driving through the aircraft boneyard at Davis Monahan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, and him pointing out retired aircraft he had flown and some of the damaged areas on the planes and sharing the war stories behind them.”
It is these stories of Phil and his fellow 54th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron members during Operation Popeye/Motorpool in Vietnam that inspired our one-of-a-kind “Make Mud, Not War” MA-1 Flight Jacket. We honor their service and heroism with a bomber jacket features themes of peace and unity, the infamous saying of their operation and patches of the 54th Squadron. Get a closer look below.