First Lieutenant Thomas “Tom” Lubbers was the Aircraft Commander on Shadow 78 that crashed at Tan Son Nhut on April 28, 1970; he was 24 when he died. Others who we lost in that crash were Maj Meredith Anderson, 1st Lt. Charles Knowles, MSgt. Joseph Jeszeck, SSgt. Robert Fage, and Sgt. Michael Vangelisti.
Tom was born on September 20th, 1945 in St Louis, Missouri. After graduating from St Louis Preparatory Seminary in 1963, he graduated from Kenrick Seminary in 1967 before volunteering for the Air Force. Tom joined because he wanted to be a pilot, even though flying to Officer Training School at Lackland was the first time he had ever flown.
In many of Tom’s letters to his family, he talked about the hazards faced by the Shadow Company in flying all-night flights and the depression of dealing with the war and the losses he and others faced. Tom’s sister Pam (Seiford) Lubbers shared a letter where he says that he was often sought out by fellow airmen, some of them much older and experienced, as a sounding board for their sadness and for their complaints against the hierarchy at the base. Tom surmised that his audacity in appearing before the Wing Commander to champion these causes would result in his receiving an unsatisfactory OER. Instead, he was shocked to learn he had been named “Junior Officer of the Year by the Commander.” In other letters he describes his compassion for the Vietnamese people, particularly the children, that they had never in all their lifetimes experienced peace. He felt that, regardless of how the war was viewed at home, this was reason enough for being there.
Larry “Fletch” Fletcher shared his memories with Tom’s sisters, “When I arrived at Tan Son Nhut in early May 1970, C Flight was still reeling in shock from the crash of Shadow 78. My friend, Major Robert Bokern was a survivor of the crash along with Allen Chandler. Bob’s story of the crash “The Last Flight of Shadow 78” is in the history book. Everyone in C Flight knew and respected Tom Lubbers and had nothing but praise for him. Even those of us Fighting C Flight Shadows of Saigon, who were not at TSN at the time of the crash, still feel the sadness and emptiness of that tragic loss of life.” Tom and Fletch both upgraded at Tan Son Nhut from copilot to aircraft commander, both as their first AF assignment after UPT.
Tom’s sister JoAnn (Lorek) Lubbers remembers visiting him when he was in pilot training in Selma and hung out with him and some of his fellow pilots, “Tom’s and their energy and absolute love of flying was infectious; he, and they were clearly born to be AF pilots. Tom truly represented the best in all of us. Thanks again to Larry Fletcher for his kind words; it’s been so long since I’ve allowed myself the luxury of grieving Tom’s loss, and it feels good to do so and to remind myself of the incredible valor and service of you men who were willing to sacrifice everything for us.”
Major Earl Farney was Executive Officer for C Flight at TSN. Later, as Lieutenant Colonel Farney, he wrote a book called “The Shadow in Southeast Asia” about the Shadows for the Air University’s Southeast Asia Monograph Series and dedicated it to Tom. In Lt. Col. Earl’s words, “Tom Lubbers ran a good crew. He was young but mature, competent, and dedicated. Always thinking of others – a fine sense of humor…even during his seminary years, he was characterized by most as the campus clown, wearing rolled up pajamas and sneakers under his cassock. He was one of those “natural” leaders – all 6’ 4” of him.” After Tom’s death, his parents, Lambert and Elvira Lubbers wrote a letter to the men of the 17th SOS with a poignancy Maj Farney has never forgotten. “Perhaps we can take our turn now to offer you the kind of consolation that is helping us live through these times. Tom loathed bitterness and sadness, and his exuberance and joy of living often helped us and others get over bad times. He had a supply of jokes and antics to get us all through. We are sure he, being the example of selflessness he was, must have offered you the same kind of assistance………he made us proud. Many acquaintances have remarked about the necessity of your Shadow operations in particular, and asked us to pass the thanks to Tom. We still receive those comments and now we pass them to you. Although our memories are tender, they are all wonderful and remarkably lacking in regret for so much as one wasted minute of his life. Thank you for taking the time to remember those of us who wait for you all to return safely. You are all in our thoughts and prayers.”
Not everyone hated those of us fighting in Vietnam. Tom Lubbers exemplified the best in us. Fly high, brother.