Bob Steyer’s military career began in the enlisted ranks but he would retire as a Lt. Colonel 39 years later.
Robert "Bob" Steyer hails from San Antonio, Texas where he was born into a family with a deep history of military service. His grandfather, father, sister and two brothers-in-law all served in the Army. His father, Sgt. Major Bob Steyer was a US Army medic serving in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. His mother hailed from England coming to the States as a war bride during WWII. Bob’s sister, Lynda Geschke, was a US Army nurse who also served during the Vietnam years taking carry of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed hospital and later as an instructor at West Point . She achieved the rank of Colonel before retiring. Two of his brothers-in-law served in the Army, one as a medic, the other as a combat engineer.
"This was a family affair for me.”
Bob’s first stop enroute to Vietnam in 1969 was the 4453rd Combat Crew Training Wing, Davis-Monthan AFB Arizona. He trained as a F-4 crew chief, attended F-4 Field Training Detachment school to learn F-4 systems and qualified with the M-16 on the night fire range.
It was night when Bob first touched down in Vietnam at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in April of 1970. As the plane, loaded with young Marines and Army personnel, approached the base, he watched flashes of artillery on the ground though the cabin window.
“It was kind of surreal. I realized it wasn’t a movie…this was war!”
Bob was assigned to the 377th Combat Support Group where he remained until October when Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy turned the base over to the Republic of Vietnam Air Force. Next stop was Udorn Royal Thai Air base located in Thailand where Bob joined the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing. The Wing was tasked with supporting combat, recon and Air America missions into Laos and North Vietnam. Udorn was not a safe place even in Thailand. Just prior to Bob’s arrival the base had been attacked by a group of 25 well-armed assailants. In addition, the base was emotionally recovering from the horrific crash of an RF-4C aircraft that hit the AFTN station killing nine broadcasters!
Bob was tasked as an F-4D crew chief with the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron. He recalls his very first night where he was assigned to an F-4 that had returned from a mission with the rear cockpit destroyed from a “back-seater” ejection. He learned from another pilot what had tragically occurred…
“We lost Lt. Ron Kelsey on a low-level mission in North East Laos in December 1970. Ron was my roommate at Udorn RTAFB. During the mission the pilot got into a Pilot-Induced Oscillation, (an increasing violent up and down movement of the aircraft.) Apparently, Lt. Kelsey, (riding rear seat), thought the plane had taken a hit and ejected. The pilot recovered control of the F4 returning safely to Udorn RTAFB with an empty rear seat.”
Search and Rescue initially contacted the downed pilot but before they could rescue him, enemy combatants with the Pathet Lao captured Lt. Kelsey and he was killed. His body was eventually recovered. He left a widow and three children.
During this same time Bob’s squadron was assigned to provide close air support for Special Forces troops attempting a raid on the Son Tay Prison, located just west of Hanoi in North Vietnam, to rescue 61 American POW’s. It turned out the prisoners had been moved just prior to the raid however much was learned about tactics for possible future raids on POW installations.
Bob was the crew chief assigned to the first newly LORAN (Long Range Air Navigation System) modified F-4D. (This enhanced navigation system allowed for bombing accuracy within tens of feet.) After modifications made by Bob’s crew were complete this aircraft was assigned to and flown by the Wing Commander Col. Leavitt.. It’s first mission the modified USAF F-4D was assigned to lead carrier-based Navy F4B Phantoms “Vigilantes”, during a bombing raid over Vietnam.
Returning from funeral leave to the States, SSgt Steyer found his responsibilities had been increased, (without an additional stripe) now being assigned as acting Flight Chief, a slot usually held by a Master Sergeant. Bob moved to another shift and worked double duty, of his own choosing, as a Flight Chief and a Crew Chief repairing badly damaged F4 aircraft.
Even though Bob was not involved in front line combat the losses of his "teams" impacted him deeply. The ground crew and flight crew developed close bonds with each other. One vivid memory was when another one of “his” aircraft failed to return from its mission. The wreckage was eventually located in Laos with both crew members, Major Ivan and Captain Cornwell, initially declared Missing in Action. (Their remains were eventually recovered with Evans laid to rest in Arlington and Cromwell in Arizona.)
Bob recalls clearly remember the day they were lost.
“It was a hot and busy day on the flight line. One of my younger crew chiefs hailed me to come over to his aircraft, piloted by Ivan and Cromwell, for a final check before the launch. We, the pilots and I, had a casual conversation about the hot weather. I told the crew chief I would finish the launch. I waited for their return that night when the plane was reported overdue. I knew there was a problem when my maintenance officer came down the flight line and stopped to ask for the aircraft forms. I asked him, “They aren’t coming back, are they?” He replied in a choked voice, “No” and then walked away.” Many years later I found both of their names engraved on the Vietnam Memorial Wall.”
Steyer was very dedicated to his work and the USAF recognized him for his efforts by naming him both the Outstanding Tactical Squadron Maintenance Mechanic and Wing Outstanding Maintenance Mechanic while in Thailand.
“I was very proud of my squadron, pilots, ground crew, all involved. During Vietnam my unit scored 11 MiG kills, 21 aerial victories, and flew more than 30,000 combat sorties. The 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron earned 15 campaign streamers, three Presidential Unit Citations, six Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards with Valor, and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm.”
After his tour in Thailand ended, Bob returned to the States next assigned to the 347thTactical Fighter Wing based in Mountain Home, Idaho where he was a crew chief on F-111F’s. Bob’s last transfer, before leaving active duty, took him back to his home state of Texas where he served as a crew chief on T-37 trainer jet aircraft at Randolph AFB. He received an honorable discharge from active duty Air force transitioning directly into the Texas Air National Guard.
For the next 15 years, Bob served first as an NCO crew chief on F-100 and F4 aircraft. After completing the Officer Training Course and receiving an Air Force officer’s commission, he became a maintenance officer overseeing F4 and F-16 aircraft. Bob would transfer again, this time to the USAF Reserves, where he served as an aircraft maintenance officer, the logistics readiness officer and finally as the Detachment Commander over F-15 jet-fighter aircraft.
For 39 years Bob Steyer served his country, finally retiring in January of 2006 in a ceremony at Edwards AFB in California. His assignemtns in the service took him to the following conflicts: Vietnam 1970-1971, Desert Shield/Desert Storm 1990-1991, Northern Watch (Iraq) 1997-1998, Operation Allied Force 1999, and Global War on Terror 2001-2006.
For his exemplary service over his lengthy career, Bob was awarded the following: Meritorious Service Medal, Commendation Medal with oak leaf, Air Force Achievement Medal, Outstanding Unit Award with V (Valor) device and 2 oak leaves, Vietnam Service Medal with 2 service stars, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, Republic Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm, and Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.
Bob has seen the world during his life having lived in France, Germany and the UK as an “army brat.” Duties while in the service took him to Honduras, Peru, Uruguay, Brazil, Columbia, Belgium, Saudi Arabia and more.
During his “free-time” while serving, Bob was also able to earn both a bachelors degree and a Master of Science degree in Education from Texas State University.
Bob is the proud father of two grown daughters, Jennifer and Leslie.
These days Bob spends a lot of time at airshows reminiscing and taking pictures, sharing air history with others and is involved with the Sierra Hotel A-26 Support Group restoring an A-26 Invader back to flying status.
(Bob Steyer is also dealing with the hidden wounds of Agent Orange exposure during his Thailand duties where it was used extensively around the base and runways. He is currently fighting several types of cancer.)
Thank you, Lt. Col. Steyer, for your amazing career serving our country.