Larry and Noline Davenport have been soul mates for 57 years, but the United States Air Force sure didn’t make it easy on this couple for the first 20 of those years.
In between raising three children and maintaining a household at home, Noline managed to keep Larry’s life on track so he could serve his country and earn more than a dozen meritorious awards, including the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery in combat in Vietnam, and two Air Medals.
Larry, now 79, finally decided to tell part of his story and I feel honored.
But with this one I needed lots of help and John Hacker is the help I need.
I can do the heart “stuff” but I don't know the airplanes — well just a few. In my world, they either fly or they don't.
Larry and Noline are both products of Neosho. Noline's mother was Fern Boatwright. Fern married former Carthage police chief and Jasper County Sheriff Leland Boatwright in January 1954.
Larry married his childhood sweetheart, Noline, Dec. 25, 1954 at Northside Baptist Church in Neosho.
They have three children, Cassy, born in 1956, (now married to Bill Nuse), and Steve, born in 1958, were both born in Puerto Rico while Larry was stationed there as an engineer on the giant B-36 bombers. Their beautiful Cristy was born in Great Falls, Mont. in 1964 as Larry was transitioning into helicopters.
Cristy died in 2004, only 40 years old and left a beautiful little daughter Madison Peddy.
They have four other grandchildren, Deedee Davenport and Darren Davenport, belonging to Steve; and Abby Reeve and Kiefer Nuse, belonging to Cassy and Bill.
Larry delivered milk; he threw papers and any job he could do at 12 years of age, to help provide for his family.
Larry’s healthy work ethic was being developed.
He joined the Air Force at the age of 19. He was about to be drafted and decided he'd rather fly than walk. Most of his 20-year career was in the Strategic Air Command. Larry was a flight engineer.
He served in a number of different aircraft, starting out his career as an engineer with a unit in the Strategic Air Command, America’s big fist at the time, flying huge bombers capable of carrying an unstoppable nuclear strike to the heart of any enemy.
Larry was a flight engineer on an RB-36 bomber-turned reconnaissance aircraft based in Puerto Rico.
The B-36 was and still is the largest piston-engine bomber ever flown.
“It was exciting; it was brand new when I started. I started in the Strategic Air Command, SAC. The plane I flew in was a monster, it was a B-36, that thing was huge,” Davenport said. “They called it the Peacemaker; that was the name that (General and SAC commander) Curtis LeMay gave it. We called it the mechanic’s nightmare. It was an exciting job. Before I was an engineer, I was trained as a mechanic and worked on the engines. I graduated from that and went to flight engineer’s school at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois and became a flight engineer. I flew as flight engineer on the B-36 and in the camera compartment, where I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Page 2 of 4 - It was powered by six huge, 3,800-horsepower piston engines, arranged in an unusual pusher configuration, where the propellers are on the back edge of the wing pushing the aircraft instead of on the front and pulling it.
It also had four jet engines in pods close to the wingtips that could be turned on and off at takeoff to reduce takeoff run and over the target where more speed might be needed.
“In a B-36, I sat at a panel behind the pilot and co-pilot,” Davenport said. “In the B-36, keeping the fuel flowing from all the tanks is a nightmare. You don’t have time to hardly drink coffee, you were busy all the time.
“I was trying to listen to the pilot and co-pilot and see what they were doing, and the B-36 was a big advance over previous planes. On the engineer’s panel, all I had to do was push a couple of buttons and everything happened. Sometimes I didn’t know what it was, but it worked.”
Davenport flew on a reconnaissance variant of the bomber called the RB-36. Instead of bombs, the plane had a huge camera array mounted in the bomb bay and a pressurized room in the bomb bay for the crew operating the cameras.
“I helped, but I didn’t know what I was doing,” Davenport said with a laugh. “I had other people guiding me, there were three of us back there. They created a room in the bomb bay. This camera would take a picture of a gnat at 60,000 feet.”
After three years, Larry was transferred from the RB-36 squadron to Missouri where he worked on piston-engine C-97 and KC-97 aircraft before training to maintain the new jet engines that would power the future of the Air Force.
From there he moved on and trained in helicopters and started another phase of his Air Force adventure, one that would take him into the teeth of enemy fire.
This is the real reason I wanted to interview Larry Davenport.
My main interest was how he won his Distinguished Flying Cross. (One of his many medals.)
My interest rose this summer when Carthage veteran Robert Russow told me the men of the rescue helicopter squads were the real heroes of Vietnam and declared he wouldn't be alive except for them.
And here I know two of them right here in Carthage, Larry Davenport and Ivan Hager. Of course they both say the real heroes are the pilots.
Someone else is always the hero.
Larry worked on C-97 transports and KC-97 tankers at Whiteman Air Force Base in Knob Noster, then he learned to maintain the J-47 jet engines that powered many aircraft in the Air Force inventory in the 1950s and 1960s.
Page 3 of 4 - After that he was transferred to Molmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Mont. where he started working on helicopters in missile support squadron, helping maintain and supply the intercontinental ballistic missile bases scattered across the plains of Montana.
Larry and Noline’s third child, Cristy, was born while he was based in Montana.
Then he started making trips to an isolated corner of Southeast Asia that no one had ever heard of — Vietnam
“He did a good many years,” Noline said. “I remember when they first started talking about Vietnam and the problems they were having. Everyone was whispering under their breath, have you heard that so-and-so is going WHERE?”
Noline remembers those years well.
We were in Tucson for five years, that’s when things got going for him in the helicopter area,” she said. “It seems like when we were in Tucson, he did so much training in the helicopters. He was gone all the time. He went to Vietnam four times for TDY (temporary duty assignments), just a couple of weeks or a couple of months at a time. Then he went to Point Mugu in California. He was always out training.”
Larry said one of his jobs in Vietnam was in a map-making squadrons,
“I spent some time in Vietnam, in SAC, in mid-air retrievals, retrieving film canisters from reconnaissance planes,” Larry said. “They’d send aircraft over to different places and take pictures.
A C-130 was the command ship right above us. We were in the chopper waiting on this plane to come back, the C-130 was guiding it, and they would tell us it was about here. We sat at 10,000 feet and as it flew over, the pilot would command contrail on so we could see it. Sometimes we’d pop up to 12,000. The canister had a big chute, a drogue chute on it. It’s a 75-foot chute and when it came out, it pulled the 300-foot chute out. It’s sitting there and the minute the barometric switch on it goes off, it dumps the remaining fuel that was in it. We would come across with grappling hooks hanging out of the back of the chopper and grab the 75-foot chute.
“It would swing underneath the helicopter and once we got that 75-foot line hooked in, we’d reel it in. We’d reel hooks, line chute and all, but once we grabbed it and had so much tension on the 300-foot chute, it would snap loose.”
Larry won his Distinguished Flying Cross on July 11, 1970 while flying as an engineer in an HH-53C combat search and rescue helicopter, known by its crews and the guys rescued by them as the “Jolly Green Giant.”
Page 4 of 4 - According to the citation Larry Davenport received, “On that date, as Sgt. Davenport’s helicopter was attempting the rescue of two United States Marine pilots, Sgt. Davenport directed his pilot into a hover over one and quickly hoisted him aboard. As they moved over the second pilot, a burst of heavy ground fire forced them to pull off, but Sgt. Davenport exposed himself in the open door of the helicopter to direct suppressive fire and insure the safe withdrawal of the helicopter with the first survivor on board. The professional competence, aerial skill and devotion to duty displayed by Sgt. Davenport reflects great credit on himself and the United States Air Force.”
Larry described the event like this: “We picked up one marine pilot and then we were forced away by excessive ground fire. We had another chopper that came in and got the other guy and we brought them both home.”
Larry said he had to unpin his gun and swing it out of the way so he could stand in the open helicopter door, swinging the steel cable back and forth so the rescuers could climb down with their basket to pick up the wounded warrior while being shot at by the Viet Cong.
Over his shoulder was a paramedic peppering the enemy with an M16 while they were picking up the wounded.
Larry won other awards, including an Air Medal for distinguished service as “Non-commissioned Officer In Charge” of a helicopter unit with the 100th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at David Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona from 1967-1970.
“During this period, Sergeant Davenport’s outstanding professionalism, technical skill, knowledge and leadership abilities were important contributing factors in the mission effectiveness of his organization,” the citation read. “The distinctive accomplishments of Sergeant Davenport reflect credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”
After 20 years he retired from the Air Force though they wanted him to re-enlist for another 20 years. He was more interested in keeping a happy home.
He worked for 23 more years for George Boyd at Tri-State Motor Transit and enjoyed his time there.
Now he volunteers at First Christian Church, setting up and removing hospital equipment for anyone who needs it. My mother was a recipient of this good work.