Burl William McLaughlin was born February 26, 1920, in Maude, Oklahoma, the son of William Alden and Nellie (Jackson) McLaughlin. He had two brothers, Roland and Lloyd. He graduated from Agra High School in 1937, Kiowa County Junior College, and Connors State Agricultural College in 1940, all in Oklahoma.
He enlisted in the Army Air Corps in October of 1940 as an aviation cadet. He graduated from advanced training at Kelly Field, Texas, in May 1941, when he received a commission as second lieutenant and got his pilot wings. He served as an instructor pilot, flight commander and group commander at various Air Training Command bases until the end of the war in April 1946.
He left active duty as a major and became a commercial pilot for TWA in New York and United Airlines in Denver, Colorado, where he met airline stewardess Helen Elizabeth (Betty) Bailey. They married on July 9, 1947, in Denver.
Burl returned to active military duty in August 1947 and served as a colonel and B-29 aircraft commander at Spokane Army Airfield, Washington. He continued to serve in various commands until he went to Japan in September 1953 to be deputy director of operations for Strategic Air Command’s “X-RAY” headquarters.
He returned to the United States to become commander of the 19th Bombardment Squadron at March Air Force Base in California. In April 1956, heassumed duties as chief, Operations Division, Directorate of Operations, Fifteenth Air Force. Burl graduated from the Air War College, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, in June 1958.
More commands followed and he graduated from the National War College in 1962. He next commanded the 64th Troop Carrier Wing, part of the Tactical Air Command, Dyess Air Force Base, Texas. The 64th was also part of the U.S. STRIKE Command, a combination Army-Air Force command designed to fight all types of warfare anywhere in the world on short notice. Six months later he commanded the 516th Troop Carrier Wing at the same base. The mission of the wing was to support the Army by transporting supplies, heavy combat equipment, infantry troops or dropping paratroopers. In his capacity as commander of the 516th, he played a key role in Exercise Swift Strike III in 1963, acting as coordinating agent for all heavy equipment and supply airdrops and air landings for C-130 Hercules aircraft in the area.
Operation Swift Strike III was a mock warfare exercise, the nation’s largest peacetime military maneuver up to that point. It was a joint Army-Air Force training exercise being staged under combat conditions. 100,000 soldiers and airmen participated in the four-week exercise over 6,000,000 acres and 27 counties in South and North Carolina, and Georgia. 50,000 landowners had to provide maneuver rights.
Colonel McLaughlin was promoted to brigadier general in February 1966. He was nominated for the one-star rank by President Johnson. He was highly regarded by personnel in the airlift field as a specialist in the area of aerial resupply of ground forces.
In March 1966 he went to Chateauroux Air Station, France, as commander of the 322nd Air Division (Military Airlift Command), single manager of airlift in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia as far east as Calcutta, India. His European command included two C-130 airlift wings at Evreux Air Base, France, and a C-124 wing at Rhein Main Air Base, Frankfurt, Germany. He was responsible for a major share of airlift duties in Europe, including the supplying of U.S. embassies behind the Iron Curtain [Countries allied with Soviet Russia].
During August 1966 the 322nd Air Division moved to High Wycombe Air Station, England, under Operation FRELOC, relocation of U.S. Forces in France. In February of 1966, French President Charles de Gaulle announced that France would loosen its ties to NATO and that French forces would no longer be available to the Allies. He ordered all foreign army and air force units and NATO Headquarters be removed from France by April 1, 1967. Operation FRELOC, a large-scale relocation plan, was developed to remove all USAF aircraft and equipment, as well as 33,000 USAFE personnel and their families from France.
In November of 1967, Burl was assigned as commander of the 834th Air Division at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Republic of Vietnam. It was there that he directed the largest sustained airlift in history which included the Khe Sanh aerial resupply, air drops and air landings to support the 1st Air Cavalry Division in the A Shau Valley, and the air evacuation of the Special Forces Camp at Kham Duc.
The Battle of Khe Sanh began January 21, 1968, when People’s Army of North Vietnam (PAVN) forces carried out a massive artillery bombardment on the U.S. Marine garrison at Khe Sanh, located in South Vietnam near the Laos border. U.S. Marines and the South Vietnamese fought off an intense siege of the garrison for 77 days, one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. The loss of the Marine bases’ main store of ammunition on the battle’s first day created an immediate requirement to replenish lost ammunition, as 90 percent of its artillery and mortar rounds had been destroyed. The USAF’s 834th Air Division rose to that task.
Despite increasingly heavy anti-aircraft fire, Lockheed C-130 Hercules and Fairchild C-123 Providers landed at Khe Sanh, replenishing the artillery stocks and bringing out the wounded. During the first eight days, the airlifters brought in an average of 250 tons of cargo per day. The air supply of Khe Sanh was successful even though there were difficulties and loss of life. The base’s basic food, fuel, and ammunition stocks were never near depletion. By the end of the siege, the transports had completed 1,128 missions and delivered 12,430 tons of supplies.
To read more about The Battle of Khe Sanh, visit Airpower at Khe Sanh – Air Force Magazine.
General McLaughlin said of the weather during the siege, “Weather circumstances were terrible because it was the monsoon season and we usually had only one and a half or two hours of good weather each day to land at Khe Sanh. The enemy zeroed in so well on the runway that it became impossible to land our C-139 transports and we had to resort to airdropping. Of course, we still made landings every day to evacuate wounded and leave supplies that could not be airdropped.”
In May of 1968, two North Vietnamese Army regiments attacked the US Army Special Forces camp at Kham Duc. Instead of reinforcing the camp, General Westmoreland decided to evacuate it – about 1,000 people. On May 12, the Air Force’s 834th Air Division was told to begin an all-out effort to evacuate Kham Duc. In one of the airplanes orbiting Kham Duc was Maj. Gen. Burl W. McLaughlin.
To learn more about this rescue visit https://www.airforcemag.com/article/1005khamduc/.
The Sheppard Senator newspaper in Wichita Falls, Texas, published an article about the importance of the airlift operations in Vietnam, saying that the operations are, “unparalleled in the annals of military history.”
“Never before have they played such a vital role as in the flight of free world forces battling against Communist aggression in South Vietnam.”
It included a network of air lifelines that intersected Vietnam and terminated at more than 170 airfields where transports pick up and deliver cargo and troops, and evacuate wounded personnel. “Never before in the history of warfare has the aeromedical evacuation process been as rapid as it is in Vietnam,” General McLaughlin said, “We are just beginning to understand the potential of tactical airlift. It is a constant experiment, and the playmakers have to be both Army and Air Force personnel.”
Burl William McLaughlin was promoted to Major General effective August 1, 1968. At the time of the promotion announcement in February 1968, General McLaughlin was commanding all in-country airlift activities in Vietnam. General McLaughlin assumed duties as vice commander, Fifteenth Air Force at March Air Force Base, California, in September 1969.
His military decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award Ribbon, and Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with palm. He was a command pilot.
After his retirement from the Air Force in 1971, he was a vice president of sales and service for the Eastern region of Eastern Airlines for nine years, and served as president of the Wings Club; a prestigious club for distinguished aviators. He retired again in 1985 as president and CEO of Mississippi Valley Airlines after five years. He did public relations work for the Quad-City Airport Authority, served as a bailiff for the Rock Island County Courts, and was a member of the board of the Quad Cities Air Show. He was an avid golfer and belonged to Pinnacle Country Club. He had a lifelong interest in aviation.
General McLaughlin and Betty had four children, Becky, Kathleen, Patricia, and William. The family moved 23 times during active service. Betty also had a lifelong interest in aviation and inflight service. She became a noted aviation author, writing two books chronicling the history of inflight service and her remarkable experiences: Walking on Air (1986) and Footsteps in the Sky: An Informal Review of U.S. Airlines’ Inflight Service (1994). She is buried with her husband at Rock Island National Cemetery.