History of the Jolly Green Cannon
By Jay M Strayer, Colonel, USAF (Ret)
(In Collaboration w/Charles Hagerhjelm, Colonel, USAF (Ret)
March 21, 2011
When first assigned to the 40th ARRSq Udorn Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand, 1970-71, I noted that Jolly Green pilot members had already assembled and tested party cannons. They were crude versions made of small fruit juice or beer cans with the ends removed (one end was left intact as the ignition chamber) and taped together end to end. As long as three, perhaps four feet, one could pour lighter fluid down the barrel, shake it a few times to form vapors, and by passing a lighted match by a small hole in the bottom can, could shoot bread rolls, slaw, and other sundry items a fair distance. Accompanied by a loud bang, it was a popular party event and especially effective on strangers. Indeed with a bit of alcohol intake, a JG cannoneer could make or break the party.
Jerry Thompson and Jay Strayer, Circa 1971
I am not sure when Jerry Thompson showed up (a former SAC B-58 pilot) but he was an innovative and artistic personality. For example, using a block of balsa wood, he would carve a perfect relief HH-53 hoisting a survivor out of the jungle. It was Jerry who thought up the idea of going to the next level of JG cannon technology. About this time, Chuck, aka "Whoosh" Hagerhjelm returned from a successful rescue of a Ubon RTAB–based USAF F-4 crew shot down in Laos. His HH-53 was peppered with small arms bullet holes one of which drove through the tail rotor driveshaft just aft of the main transmission. (Author's NOTE: No one could easily pronounce Chuck's last name so it evolved first into "Hammerjet" and finally into "Whoosh"). Rather than discard the driveshaft, Whoosh asked for it as a souvenir. Cutting off the end with the bullet hole, he took it to downtown Udorn, and had it chromed.
Chuck was one of the JG beer can cannoneers and he thought the remainder of the drive shaft might make a great cannon, but he left Udorn before any real progress could be made. Jerry took the idea more seriously and invited me to enter into a secret partnership for program development. I readily agreed and after a short design phase, we began an accelerated operational test program. Looking at the picture, the reader can see the triangular protrusion of the coupling, which had a flat surface and made solid to attach to a similar coupling that lengthened the HH-53 tail rotor driveshaft. Called a Thomas Coupling, we drilled 3-4 tiny holes in it thinking it would make a perfect firing chamber.
Using the successful operational procedures for previous model cannons (re: fruit/beer cans), we started with a modest five squirts of lighter fluid down the open tube and one into the firing chamber. Step two required the vigorous shaking of this much larger tube to produce the needed vapors for successful ignition. Disappointingly, our anticipation of success was a total bust. We tried all sorts of combinations of fuel-to-ignition chamber ratios and even drilled a couple more holes in the coupling end (ignition chamber). In spite of our best efforts and zillions of secret test firings, not one was successful…..our brilliant idea of blasting huge numbers of dinner rolls, slaw, even women’s underwear from the JG hut onto neighborhood fighter pilot hootches was a total failure. The tail rotor driveshaft with its Thomas Coupling, along with the idea, was reluctantly placed aside. We retired the shaft to a dark corner of our hut and soon forgot about the project.
Fast forward now to an event that occurred several weeks later. One of our sister fighter squadron’s F-4 crews was shot down and soon rescued by one of our JG crews. Jerry and I were sitting on our ops building steps when the returning JG flew by firing its flares in celebration of their successful rescue. Of course everyone was ecstatic and a huge celebration party followed. Jerry and I were enthusiastic bystanders to all the activity when one of us commented this would be the perfect opportunity to use our cannon had the project been successful.
About then our flight surgeon joined our discourse and we shared with him our disappointing efforts to produce the improved version of a JG cannon. He had an inquiring mind and pressed us to show him the failed project and to discuss what we thought the problem was. Jerry and I had long thought it stemmed from our inability to transform the lighter fluid from its liquid state to one of gas or vapor. Smart guy that he was, our flight surgeon inquired if we had tried using a vaporizer, i.e., a small hand-held bottle with a rubber squeeze ball and spray nozzle…..like an old perfume applicator (Jerry is holding one in the picture). He mentioned he had access to several from his hoard of hospital supplies and offered to bring us a couple……which he did right away.
By now we were well into the dark of night. Excitedly, we started with 25 vaporizer blasts into the main tube, added three to the ignition chamber and WALLA…… a blast of fire shot out of it about four feet and the explosion nearly injured our ear drums! We worked our way up to 50 pumps into the cannon and five into the ignition chamber. While the rescue celebration continued into the night, we made some spectacular shots. The ultimate was the launch of a two-pound coffee can (empty of course) hung over the muzzle, itself containing a squirt or two of lighter fluid. It was hurled over four hootches, blazing its way with a comet-like trail of fire. Our dreams of a super JG cannon were at long last realized.
For the next phase, Jerry used 2 X 6s to build a look-a-like century old carriage with wheels. Then he had his wife send him some fancy looking carpet tacks, which he substituted for brass design enhancement. Between us we rigged a mechanical system with a crank that would allow us to elevate or depress the barrel; this significantly improved our ability to more accurately hit the target. Jerry also salvaged some packing material from the avionics folks, shaping it to the size of the cannon's bore and attaching it onto a broomstick. This made a nice looking and functional ram that would purge the dirty air left after firing and ensure there was clean air with sufficient oxygen for the next shot.
Flushed with success, we assembled it, painted the carriage black, painted “Big Jolly” on the barrel, attached a tow line and fashioned a mount for the ram, all in my BOQ room (now air conditioned this late in the war). Anxious to make a final test of the assembled cannon, we loaded it, rolled her out into the hallway and set her off. My, my did the hallway reverberate with the explosion. We immediately rolled her back into the room, closed the door and with our ears hard pressed against it, listened for the expectant panic of occupants scurrying to evacuate the building. Suddenly the door burst open and two guys stuck their heads in asking what was going on to which we asked, how do you know it was us?? In reply, they merely pointed to the tracks in and out of our room from the freshly painted wheels…..our cover was blown.
For the final phase, we had to demonstrate our technological marvel in a manner that would reward Jerry and me for our hard work. We dubbed ourselves FUSILIERS after early century soldiers and determined our uniform would be the usual JG party suit with pith helmets for protection. Not from the cannon but the inevitable items that would be thrown at us should we fail…..or even if we did not fail. We chose a JG dinner get-together that coincided with our fighter pilot brethren who had a similar affair scheduled in an adjacent room of the officers club. With due ceremony, our JG brothers marched in solemn formation into their room, followed by Jerry and me in our most serious and deliberate manner. We had established a formal operating checklist to ensure nothing would be missed during our cannon’s operational acceptance mission. We turned the cannon toward the assembled fighter pilots, cranked in the appropriate elevation, pumped in our 50 spray iterations along with 5 into the firing chamber whereupon Jerry made a big show of igniting “Big Jolly.” Holding our breath, we expected thunder and lightning but instead got what can only be described as a “phtttt,” no louder than a 2-week old baby passing gas. There was hushed silence. Faced with certain embarrassment, we jumped to using the ram to clear the barrel, refueled and tried again. This time the explosion was deafening with flame out of the barrel an astonishing 6 feet! Gratefully we noted there were no embarrassing injuries to America’s finest. Happily, Jerry and I were exonerated and no longer feared we might be court martialed, or worse, demoted from our self-appointed Fusilier responsibilities. .
After that, the cannon was used in all the JG parties, fired as part of the final flight of end-of-tour crewmembers and other events as we saw fit. After Jerry and I were reassigned, I understand a sister squadron swiped the cannon and later a non-rescue outfit appropriated it. Disappointingly, no one knows the whereabouts of our cannon. Surely, it has earned the right to be returned to JG hands but to date that has not happened. I have to think it again resides in some dark corner of the world, perhaps waiting to be rescued and revived to its former mission. In the meantime, Big Jolly is sorely missed.
Finally, I have lost track of Jerry Thompson, famous in the JG world for his fine contribution to the Jolly Green mission and its aura of camaraderie. Jerry, I trust you are still your artistic and innovative self. Thanks from all us Jolly Greens. A hearty “Him” for Jerry.
Footnote from Whoosh:
Jay: The last time I saw the cannon was at NKP in April – June of 1972 after the 40th moved from Udorn. Several of us from other squadrons came back to SEA due to crew losses earlier in the year. The JG cannon crew had further refined your illustrious efforts and could shoot a softball for several blocks. They had developed a particularly spectacular action known as “Naping” someone’s shorts -- particularly new guys and visiting senior officers. The person’s shorts were removed from the person’s body and soaked in lighter fluid and then shot from the cannon in a blaze of glory. You can get more info on this from some of the guys who moved to NKP (Dale Stovall among others). I think the cannon disappeared about the time of the move from NKP to Korat. I have tried several times to find anyone who knows what happened to it.
I have used my piece of the driveshaft many times as an illustration of how God was with us on that day. An interesting sidelight to the SAR mission is that my copilot – George MacDonald – had flown with the F-4 back seater when they were in SAC.