Dawn, Day 1, Tan Son Nhut

Commercial aviation of the 1970’s compared to commercial aviation of the 21st century hasn’t changed much in the way the pilot talks to the passengers.  Well, the pre-landing briefing during our final approach into Saigon was a bit different…

“We are on our final approach to Saigon, we are going to douse the interior lights, and our approach will be a bit steeper than your accustomed to, we’ll be on the ground in five minutes.  All of you be safe and God bless, and we’ll see you flying back home with us in a year.”

Nowadays, you don’t hear the pilot say God bless and be safe…he’d probably be fired for violating someone’s rights, or offending someone.

Like I said, the cabin was very quiet, no talking, no conversation…not even whispering.  From the inside of the DC-8 holding some 200 members of the military, there was nothing to see from the middle seat.  There was nothing to see from the window seat.  Still dark.  The landing was very smooth and we taxied to the darkened terminal.  It was about 0530.  No jetway, here.  A stairway had been pushed up against the DC-8, we would be leaving the DC-8 right onto the oil-stained tarmac adjacent to the terminal.  I remember the sky was just starting to lighten but the disc of the sun had not broken the horizon.  A C-130 was off to the right, engines revving, a C-123K was resting, a Northwest Orient 707 was resting.  In the distance, the roar of a jet fighter, the chop-chop-chop of a helicopter.  A lot of smells to process:  jet exhaust, reciprocating aircraft engine exhaust, motor scooter exhaust, diesel engine exhaust, a faint smell of…sewage(?).  The air was heavy, humid, moist and dead-calm.  It had a stickiness to it, you could feel a film building on your skin.  Our home for 23 hours, the United Airlines DC-8, the last symbol of the U.S., and the “Freedom Bird” for the members of the military who completed their tours and would be heading home today, was behind us.  Looming in front of me was a very large arched concrete structure.  The arch came within eight to ten feet from the ground.  No doors, no screens – just open to the elements.  The interior was lighted by neon tubes hanging from the high ceiling that cast a greenish glow over the interior.  There were wooden counters bearing the names of various airlines – Air Vietnam, Pan Am, Air France, Thai Airways, Cathay Pacific, Air Cambodge (Cambodia).  There were large piles of luggage, everywhere.  On the interior walls were many (perhaps hundreds) of small gray lizards (gekkos) hunting for insects.

There were many military organizers, telling everyone what to do, where the luggage was, where to go after you retrieved your luggage.  The Air Force enlisted pukes were directed to a dark green bus, we were told to board the bus after loading our luggage into the back door area.  The bus was much like a city transit bus with one strange difference – there was a heavy metal mesh covering all of the open windows…I asked later about that mesh.


We were unloaded at a wooden barracks type structure surrounded by a wall of sandbags.  Each of us was given a bunk number, we unloaded our luggage, and we were told to get some sleep, until the next morning, some 24 hours away.  We were also told:  DO NOT LEAVE THE BASE.  WHEN THE SIRENS SOUND HEAD FOR THE BUNKERS.  DO NOT DRINK THE WATER IN THE LATRINES.

No sirens during my sleep.  I awoke eight hours later – about 3:00 a.m. Chicago time.  I had about 20 mosquito bites.  A sergeant who was on my United flight was COVERED with mosquito bites – hundreds – he looked more like a measles, or chicken-pox victim.  A few of us ventured out onto the base and found the dining hall, open 24 hours.  Good food, a shower, shave and we were ready to begin our tour of duty in Vietnam.  Oh, on the way back to the transient barracks, we observed this sign.  Yes, this is a war zone.

Tan Son Nhut mine01
Tan Son Nhut AB warning sign, this is a war zone.

It always happens to other people…

Friday evening, July 17, 1970.  Watching television with several other fellow students.  A bulletin comes on concerning two Chicago Police officers gunned down by a sniper at a housing project.  Live on-scene coverage.  I’m called to the Captain’s office.  Your uncle was killed in Chicago.  You will fly home tomorrow.  When you return, you will pick up with the next class.  My Uncle Jim…I had just received a long letter from him.  He was a Chicago Police Sergeant working the so called “walk-n-talk” program in the notorious Cabrini-Green public housing complex.  He and his partner, Patrolman Anthony Rizzato were shot down, seconds apart, by a .30 cal rifle.  Died on the Seward Park baseball field where they fell, probably dead within a minute.  Two officers trying to make a positive difference in the lives of people who were faced with only negatives in their lives.  Cabrini-Green, Division Street west of Orleans, several blocks west of the famed Michigan Avenue commercial district.  I always told people, “Never, ever, walk west from Michigan Avenue…no man’s land.

Those god-forsaken high-rise buildings are all gone, torn down several years ago.Cabrini-Green

The grief, the sorrow, for this young Sergeant and his partner was staggering.  The wake, the miles long funeral procession, the mourners.  I saw the entire City of Chicago and suburbs in disbelief.  I know my father went to every hearing, every day of the trial.  And to this day, family members and a phalanx of Chicago Police show up at the parole hearings for the remaining two killers; the third died in the penitentiary several years ago.  The next parole hearing is on June 21st.

Back to Lowry to finish Intelligence school with deployment to Vietnam looming in the near future.

Summer 1969 – Enlistment

Now days, I’d call it marketing and propaganda.  The war in Vietnam, nightly newscasts, the dire threat of communism, the domino-effect.  But in the mid and late 1960’s, the U.S. government and it’s citizens strongly believed in the threats posed by Communist China and the Soviet Union.  And a half century later…?  Vietnam buys Boeing jet liners while pieces of B-52s taken out of the skies by SAM ground-to-air missiles are displayed with great pride by the people of Hanoi.  Anthony Bourdain met with Barack Obama at a back-street restaurant in Hanoi for a CNN segment on Bourdain’s fascinating series, “Parts Unknown.”  And the people of Vietnam love Americans…funny how things work out.

My parents sent me to Loyola Academy, a Jesuit High School in Wilmette, a near north suburb of Chicago.  I joke that I went there when they could still hit you.  No talking in the halls, demerit cards, writing compositions as punishment for transgressions, memorizing a page torn from the dictionary during J.U.G. (really).   The hitting part?  I have vivid memories of students being knocked out of their desks, students being grabbed by the lapels of their maroon Loyola Academy blazers and slammed into the hallway lockers.  Paying attention, respecting authority, getting the job done.  If you went to Loyola Academy, it was assumed, expected, and understood that after Loyola, you would be attending college, hopefully, a Jesuit college.  But, the nightly newscasts about Vietnam and my  desire to do something different, to take wing from the nest, so to speak, was overwhelming.

The U.S. Air Force Recruiting Office was in nearby Evanston, IL.  The recruitment sergeant promised me photography school after I scored well on the Aptitude tests.  By November, I had taken the physical exam and had been sworn into the military.  I waited until February of 1970 until receiving the orders to report for Basic training at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas.  Little did I know that the rigors and philosphies of the Jesuits at Loyola Academy would be serving me well in the near future.