California to Vietnam, the long way

O’Hare International Airport in Chicago (ORD) in 1970 was MUCH different than present day travelers are exposed to.  No security – anyone could walk right to a departure gate.  Watch the airplanes, watch the people, bring your children on an outing (like my Dad had done frequently with me and my siblings, and I did with my children).  But on this day in October 1970, my parents were with me at the TWA gate to say good-bye.  A one-year tour in the Republic of Vietnam was less than 36 hours away from Chicago.  Tech school at Lowry had ended and I had been home on leave for 30 days.  But I wanted to get going, to get this next chapter of my life going, get going to Travis AFB, outside of San Francisco, get going to Saigon, and whatever awaited me there.  There were no tears at the TWA departure gate for San Francisco.  I had no idea, no concern, for what my mother and father felt at the moment I boarded the Boeing 707.

A coach bus ride to Travis Air Force Base, about 90 minutes.  Memories of that day bring to mind the process of travel, you have no idea of what is about to occur, but you just continue to move forward in the process, being told what to do and just doing it.  What kind of plane will be transporting me to Vietnam?  A surprise – a United Airlines (stretch) DC-8.  All coach, you board by rank.  Boarding number 163, an E-2 enlisted puke, a nobody.  I do recall walking from the front of the aircraft, passing by all of those who had boarded before me.  Most were returning Vietnam veterans, several rows of ribbons, colonels, majors, senior NCOs.  Of course, by the time the enlisted nobodies boarded, the only seats open were MIDDLE seats.  Middle seats on a full stretch DC-8, a DC-8 that will be flying, the LONG way, across the middle of the Pacific Ocean, around 8,000 miles, 23 hours in the middle seat.  While awaiting my flight at Travis, I purchased a paperback version of Mario Puzo’s, THE GODFATHER.  A smart idea, a very good buy.

An excellent way to develop homesickness for troops on their way to Vietnam was the first fuel stop in Honolulu.  We were allowed to leave the DC-8 during the re-fueling process.  Warm, tropical breezes, palm trees, and those subtle signs of life-stateside that will be passing from view for a year.  Now, things were starting to get a bit depressing.  If you can imagine 23 hours in the middle seat on a trans-Pacific flight, you might be thinking a lot of things – boredom, anxiety, more boredom.  I do not recall a lot of chatter or talk on the plane.  All of us were alone, no families were flying together to Vietnam, and each passenger appeared to be in his own universe.  Service from the flight attendants was exemplary.  Four meals were served, three movies were shown.

Fuel stop #2 was Wake Island.  Fuel stop # 3 was Kadena Air Base.  From Kadena, the DC-8 flew directly into Saigon.  Touchdown at Tan Son Nhut was just before dawn.

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.

Lowry and the true meaning of your “dream-sheet.”

 Former Air Intelligence School, present day Lowry

Lowry as an active Air Force Base was deactivated in the mid-2000’s.  Lowry has been redeveloped into residential and business.  Many of the former buildings have been re-purposed.  The Lowry-Denver community maintains an air museum on what was formerly the Base.

After two weeks awaiting the start of the next cycle for the Air Intelligence school, I moved into the barracks for the Student Squadron.  Two man rooms, a common washroom area, and views of the Rocky mountains.  For the most part, we were treated like students at a university.  On some days, but not all days, we marched in formation to the AFAITC building.  Nights were spent studying and working with fellow students on grasping all that was being thrown at us.  For example:  Plotting longitude and latitude three different ways, plotting coordinates for air strikes or artillery barrages,  the capacity of POL tanks from four different types of photos (vertical, oblique, panoramic, or a 90 degree scan), identification of Soviet-bloc vehicle and armor, interpretation of radar, laser, and infra-red imagery.  I had a great roommate, Richard Zarwell.

Lowry Tech School
Tech School barracks at Lowry.  Typewriter, LP record on the record player, probably Crosby, Stills & Nash coming from the speakers.

At the start of AFAITC school, all students were ordered to complete paperwork  for their “choices” of their first duty station.  I was soon to find out that volunteering for overseas (I checked Hawaii, Netherlands, Germany) meant that you were volunteering for overseas ANYWHERE!  I also requested Air Force Bases in California, Colorado, and Washington State.  (The sound of laughter in the background.)

The rhythm of AFAITC was very pleasant.  School five days a week, the weekends were free – for the most part.  Get through the BLOCKS of instruction, be tested, pass, and move onto the next BLOCK.  On occasion, we marched in parades.  We were inspected weekly, and we were brought in on menial details.  The AFAITC students were on a timetable, get through school, pass the tests, move on to the next part of your Air Force career.  On July 6th, Permanent Change of Station (PCS) orders came down for all students in my class.  For three us, including yours truly, APO 96307, 7th Air Force, 377th Combat Support Group.  And my first question was, “Where is APO 96307?”  The answer:  Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Republic of Vietnam.