Vietnam

Robert here, again.  In 1968, I got orders to go to Denver (Lowery AFB) for cross training into the munitions maintenance field.  I was going to be a BB stacker in Vietnam. Oh, fun.  I finished training in December and headed home for leave over the New Years. Even though my father was a P-51 pilot in WWII, both of my parents worried about me going to Vietnam.  I wasn’t particularly enthralled myself, but I had volunteered in 1962, so it was part of being in the military.

I don’t remember much about getting down to Travis AFB in California or the flight over, but, somehow, we got to Cam Ranh Air Base.  One of the guys I went to tech school with, Doc, and I shared a hooch while we processed in.

I grew up in Vietnam when it dawned on me that I was in a combat zone and could get my ass killed within the next 12 months.  Oh, I knew when I signed up that meant putting my life on the line, but, when you’re young and stupid, you never really consider the possibility that you would be the one who gets on the wrong end of someone’s weapon.  Here, however, the chances were greatly increased.  And the fact that Tet was next month and remembering what the VC did to us last year.  Fortunately, there was no repeat of 1968.

I found out that Tuy Hoa was pretty well protected.  We had a large Army depot to the south, mountains to the west, a ROK unit to the north, and the South China Sea to the east.  That, of course, didn’t stop rocket attacks, infiltrators, and other such mean and nasty things.  However, it seemed to me that we were our own worst enemy.  Security briefings were rather strange.  For example, someone with an AK-47 and a satchel charge strapped to their back, could not be fired upon without first yelling HALT! three times in Vietnamese.  Really?  In a war zone?  With an AK-47 and explosives on them?

But, the topper and the one single incident that made me change my mind about a career in the Air Force, came on night when a sapper (someone carrying explosives) was thought to be in the bomb dump.  So, they load a ton of us on buses and issue us our weapons, then drop us off in the bomb dump where we formed a line the width of the dump, ready to sweep thru the dump and flush someone loaded with explosives.  Well, not really ready.  When I started to load my weapon, the Master Sergeant standing next to me said: Sergeant, you can’t load your weapon.  Really?  Someone is out here who wants to kill me and you don’t want me to load my weapon?  Am I supposed to yell HALT! before or after I load my weapon?  Not known for obeying stupid orders (like: Go mop around that radar scope running on 12,000 volts. [Mop?  With water?]), I was the only one to lock and load.

Then, for the icing on the cake, the Air Police showed up and promptly starting firing off flares.  Flares.  In a bomb dump.  With napalm.  500 pound bombs.  20mm shells.  Fuses.  Who’s the enemy here?  Turned out, no one except the Air Police.

Our in-processing provided our assignment: receiving and storage of all munitions used on base; deploy munitions to the flight line for scheduled missions; rapid deployment of munitions for unscheduled, critical situations.

Turns out, that the “critical shortage” of munitions maintenance personnel wasn’t so short after all.  When I got there, we were over staffed, which left me with a lot of free time.  Tuy Hoa had it’s own radio station – a pirate station not affiliated with AFVN (although most of our equipment was “borrowed” from them).  So, since I had done the same thing in Spain, I volunteered to work there.  I worked the 0900 to 1200 shift, playing mostly current hits and oldies and, of course, Chicken Man!.  As in Spain and something that would follow me in my “music career”, I was music director again.  And that is the primary way I kept myself occupied for the next year: spinning the hits on FM Tuy Hoa!

The year went quickly, albeit, not quick enough, and I found myself on my way home.  I hopped aboard a C-123 for Cam Ranh air base, we flew out over the ocean to avoid small arms fire and ended that part of the journey with an assault landing.  Assault landings are not fun.  You approach the air field rather high (again, avoiding small arms), then from about 1,500 feet, the pilot makes a sudden decent and almost crash lands on the runway.  It’s a scary ride and you trust that the pilot knows what he’s doing.  He did.

After out-processing, I boarded a Tiger Airlines 707 and headed to McChord Air Force Base, outside Seattle, Washington, with a quick stop over in Japan for fuel.  Of course, after landing I kissed the ground, I was so happy to be back and off to my final assignment: Perrin AFB, Texas.

I was lucky.  What I went thru was absolutely nothing compared to those who were in the field and I knew it (still do).  The point was driven home when a couple or years later, I was back in civilian life and working for KBOY-AM in Medford, Oregon.  I was reading the news one after noon, when I ran across an article about a Lt. Robert A. “Lefty” Brett of Klamath Falls had been shot down and lost over Cambodia – a country we weren’t even supposed to be in.  I had met Lefty when he was a student in Corvallis going to OSU and we had become well antiquated with each other in the Adair bowling alley.  Lefty was a little younger than I was and was very personable.  Not to mention he was a hell of a bowler, too.

I was “rip and reading”, meaning I didn’t pre-read the stories before hand, and got half way thru the first paragraph about a young pilot from Klamath Falls was missing and presumed dead.  When I read his name, I could no longer read the news.  Vietnam had just re-entered my life in a most unwanted way.  I didn’t say much after that, I really had the wind knocked out of me over that and Vietnam had become way too personal.

It was 30 years before anyone welcomed me home, so now, I make sure every vet with a combat cap I see, Vietnam or not, I take the time to say: Welcome, home!  We’re the lucky ones.