Famed Navy squadron reunites in Pensacola
Source: Pensacola News Journal
A famed Vietnam-era Navy fighter squadron will reunite in Pensacola on Saturday to share a unique story about their tribute to a fallen colleague and the woman who helped boost their morale during their long combat deployments.
The pilots of VA-164 flew A-4 Skyhawks off the USS Oriskany in 1966 and 1967, during an intense period of combat that included the deaths of 44 sailors in a hangar bay fire.
The men from the squadron, known as the Ghost Riders, will share their story Saturday at the National Naval Aviation Museum.
“It is a unique story in the history of naval aviation,” said Hill Goodspeed, historian for the museum.
Squadron pilot Dick Perry worked at a Reno, Nevada, casino with Jessie Beck before he joined the Navy. Beck owned a keno concession at a casino. Beck and Perry became close friends and continued their friendship after Perry joined the Navy.
Beck was a mother figure for Perry and eventually adopted his entire squadron, Goodspeed said.
Beck sent the men care packages and hosted the men and their families when the men were home on leave.
“She was an unbelievable supporter and she gave us her support at a time when it wasn’t fashionable. She sent us cookies, candy, little games and things from the gambling concession. She would never pass a service man on the street without giving him $100,” said Ret. Navy Capt. William Span, who was the squadron commander in 1967 and 1968.
And Beck’s support was especially important during a very difficult time for the squadron, he said.
The squadron lost eight pilots and 16 of its 18 jets in intense combat when Span was the commanding officer.
Perry was killed when a surface-to-air missile struck his jet.
Despite her grief over the death of her longtime friend, Beck continued to support the squadron.
The squadron honored Perry and Beck by painting “Lady Jessie” on the side of its commander’s jet.
“We didn’t name planes in the Navy and that was something unusual,” said Span, who has pushed for more than a decade to have the squadron and Beck honored by the museum.
Span and 17 other pilots from the squadron will gather at the museum Saturday to share their story and to see an A-4 jet that has been painted with “Lady Jessie” in honor of the squadron.
Beck remained close with the squadron members and their families for many years and Span delivered the eulogy at her funeral in 1987.
Beck and Perry’s family members will be on hand Saturday for the recognition.