A guest essay by John Norvell ’66, P’99, P’02 appeared in a recent issue of the Finger Lakes Times. In the article, Norvell recalls “Eldridge,” a black Asian leopard who served as the mascot to the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron of which Norvell was a part during the Vietnam War.
“Today, we often hear of vets who bonded with dogs overseas and brought them home. A mascot in combat was more than an animal; he was a friend, a family member and a comforter when one needed it badly,” wrote Norvell.
Explaining what it was like to live with and take care of the “very big” cat, Norvell notes Eldridge was eventually moved to a zoo in Phoenix, Ariz., where “he died in 1994, having fathered six offspring and having been visited by generations of fighter pilots, their families and the general public.”
The full article as it appeared in the Finger Lakes Times follows.
Finger Lakes Times
Guest Appearance: Biggest member of ‘the family’
John E. Norvell • May 25, 2014
Serving in the Vietnam War was in many ways like being in an ongoing episode of “M*A*S*H.”
Every aircrew member of the squadron had a nickname, some were flattering and some were not. I would tell you mine, but then I would have to kill you – ha ha. It is a name that was special to that time only and one that I will take to the grave … or perhaps share at another time.
Squadrons also had mascots. Today, we often hear of vets who bonded with dogs overseas and brought them home. A mascot in combat was more than an animal; he was a friend, a family member and a comforter when one needed it badly.
Our mascot was a black Asian leopard. Since our unit was the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron and our emblem was a Black Panther, we were the “Panther Pack.” We named our mascot Eldridge as a nod to the Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver in the 1960s. According to squadron lore, Eldridge was picked up by a member of Air America – CIA – in Laos and given to the 13th. By the time I arrived in SEA he was full grown and treated as if he were a big – read: VERY BIG – house cat.
At first he slept in the rooms of various members of the Pack, but when he reached his full growth that was no longer possible; so a chain link fenced enclosure was built to hold him. As a full grown male leopard, Eldridge was quite strong and it was becoming a challenge to handle him. One member of the unit was the official “Cat Keeper,” who walked and fed him each day and played with him.
Taking Eldridge for a walk was an ordeal. He went where he wanted to go – not necessarily where you wanted to take him. I have home movies of him walking on the hood of the base commander’s official Air Force blue vehicle. He could also be quite frisky. If you have ever played with a male house cat on his back, you know he will reach out and try to grab you. Now multiply that by a factor of 20 and add in the fact that the cat weighs more than 200 pounds and you will have an idea of what it was like to play with Eldridge. Everyone loved to rub his tummy and quickly learned to move fast if one of those big paws came at you. I never saw him break any skin, but he could grab you fast and it was always wise to be on your guard. Still, when we returned from combat missions, he was the first thing we saw on returning to the squadron and in many ways he came to symbolize a safe return home.
In time, it became clear that Eldridge would have to move on. He became too big to handle, and began to have the urges every healthy American male feels when he encounters puberty. Since we had no female, it was determined he would move to the Phoenix, Ariz. zoo, where he could find a mate.
In November 1973, we bid good-bye to our old friend. I am told that he died in 1994, having fathered six offspring and having been visited by generations of fighter pilots, their families and the general public.
He was in truth the best mascot any Air Force Squadron ever had.
John E. Norvell, a 1966 graduate of Hobart College, has written for historical journals and newspapers around the country, including the Washington Post. He is a retired assistant professor of history from the Air Force Academy and lives in Canandaigua.