Light snow, no wind, upper 20’s. I was taking the first morning train out of Glenview into downtown Chicago. My parents, brothers and sisters were all still asleep. Each had their regular day ahead – work, school, housework, meals to prepare. I had been notified the prior evening that I was on stand-by for entering Basic Training today, February 9th, 1970. Perhaps I would be back home today, perhaps I would be in Texas. I walked the five blocks to the Glenview train station. I brought with me very little in the way of…anything. The Armed Forces Entrance and Examination Station (AFEES) was a yellow brick warehouse type building. The Air Force guys went through some additional paperwork processing…and waited. A coach bus drove us to O’Hare field in the early evening. I remember a Continental Airline 727 (the proud bird with the golden tail). The on-board meal was veal parmesan. The airport in San Antonio was new looking. The Air Force guys were greeted by a Sergeant, “Sit down and shut up.” Another bus ride from the San Antonio airport to Lackland AFB. It was around midnight. We were off-loaded from the bus, and ordered into a formation. Other buses pulled up with additional young men. One of them was already in uniform and had a uniform with one stripe, an Airman instead of a Basic Airman. He got more shit from the Training Instructors (TI) than anyone else. Turns out he had been in the Civil Air Patrol and had earned his first stripe. A lot of yelling from the TIs who were organizing us. The first word out of your mouth is SIR and the last word out of your mouth is SIR! DO NOT LOOK AT ME! What is the first word out of your mouth AIRMAN???!!! Basic organizational efforts took up the next hour. Basic marching, left foot HUH! We were referred to as a FLIGHT, albeit in civilian clothes with civilian haircuts. And that would change within eight hours. Our FLIGHT was “marched” into the dining hall which was located on the ground floor of very new looking, three-story dormitory. We were fed bread, hot dogs, and milk. Nobody complained. We were then marched upstairs to Dorm Unit A-2, an open floor plan with steel-framed beds in a rectangular checkerboard. We were ordered to make our beds, and get some sleep. It was just past midnight, 10 February, 1970. It was “lights-on” at 0500.
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.
This is the post excerpt.
In my closet there are several plastic bins filled with photos, letters, and documents that are a record of my enlistment in the United States Air Force, and more importantly, a record of two tours in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam conflict. I was a non-volunteer from October 1970 to October 1971 at Tan Son Nhut Air Base outside of Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City. My next duty station, where I would have probably finished out my four year active duty commitment, was England Air Force Base in Alexandria, Louisiana, with the 4410th Special Operations Training Group. My Air Force Specialty Codes (AFSC) at the time were 20450 (Intelligence Operations Specialist) and 20630 (Photo and Imagery Interpreter). These intelligence (or, intell) jobs were listed as critical for the U.S. war effort in Southeast Asia, which at the time included on-going conflict in South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. I volunteered to return to Vietnam (to the amazement of my parents and siblings), and in early August of 1972 I was back in Saigon at MACV Headquarters, Directorate of Intelligence – in the shop that ran the air war in Southeast Asia, especially in North Vietnam areas around Hanoi and Haiphong. In December of 1972, our shop selected all of the targets “up north” for what has been called the “Christmas Terror Bombings.” Everything in the U.S. arsenal was unleashed – including B-52’s – to bring the war to an end, at least for the U.S. politically. For our intell shop, it was on to Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base where we ran the air war in Cambodia. An interesting time in how to select targets to bomb when you have no knowledge of who is where the bombs will fall. I left Nakhon Phanom in August of 1973 and returned to the United States for separation from active duty.
Most, if not all Vietnam veterans will tell you that certain smells, certain sounds, certain tastes, will take them right back to Vietnam. And for most, if not all veterans, from all conflicts, this is undoubtedly true. For me, the sound of helicopter blades, especially the unique sound of a Huey, will take me right back to a 12-man hootch, tin roof, surrounded by a wall of sandbags, next to the Camp Alpha Army Heliport.
I will be taking my readers on a chronological journey that starts at the USAF enlistment office in summer of 1969 and ends at Travis AFB outside of San Francisco in August of 1973. You will read my original letters, see photos of my experiences in the military, and hear my commentary and thoughts on how the military and my time in a war zone continues to influence my life. I look forward to sharing my Vietnam experiences with each of you.