Non-combatant with the combat sound track.

 

TSN map
The Camp Alpha Heliport is the H, highlighted in yellow, just to the left of Camp Alpha was the 1500 area, my home during my first one-year tour.

To be clear, during my first tour, I was not issued an M-16, I did not fire a shot, I was not slogging through the jungle.  But the background sound track was a reminder that the war was near, especially at night.  C-47s or C119s, would fly a racetrack pattern around the fortified Tan Son Nhut perimeter – the drone of their engines, monotonous, all night.  Parachute flares were dropped from these aircraft.  These flares burned with a very bright orange-yellow light as they would slowly descend over the base perimeter, easier to spot Viet Cong sappers.

TSN flare
C47s or C119s flew a constant racetrack pattern over Tan Son Nhut at night, dropping  parachute flares over the heavily guarded perimeter.

Rumble of outgoing artillery, miles away.  Another distinctive sound, more felt than heard, was a rapid thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump…, sounds muffled by a great distance, always in sets of three, each set separated by 15-20 seconds.  Arc-Light strikes by cells of three B-52s, dropping their bomb load over the same area, not simultaneously but in separate carpeting barrages.

TSN arclight
The telltale bomb crater pattern from B-52 ArcLight strikes.  The 3 aircraft cells, flying in close formation, would drop their loads, separately, over 15-20 second intervals.

The Camp Alpha Army Aviation heliport was adjacent to the 1500 area.  Hueys, Chinooks, Cobras, Loaches, Bell Jet Rangers.  Constant aerial activity.  The takeoff pattern usually brought the helicopters to the north and then a sharp turn to the east, right over the north edge of the 1500 area, right over my hootch, #1510.

TSN 1510
Hootch 1510 – 12 men to a hootch.  Blast walls, open rafters, lots of cockroaches, various insects, mice and rats.  We did have showers and toilets in a separate latrine structure.

The lower level enlisted personnel assigned to 7AF and the 12 RITS were housed in the 1500 area, just east and north of the Army’s Camp Alpha Heliport.  Tin roof, open rafters, 12 men to a hootch.  The sleeping areas were divided by metal lockers set up in three separate areas.  There was electricity, everyone had a large Japanese fan to blow on them, there was a refrigerator for each hootch.  Separate from the hootches were separate latrine buildings that had showers, sinks, and real flush toilets.  When I was issued my in-country gear –  flak jacket, helmet, webbed belt – I asked, “a mosquito net?”  Sorry, we’re out of those.  While I eventually purchased the T-frame for the mosquito net, and the netting on the “black market,” I endured several months of sleeping uncovered in hootch 1510.  Nightmares that continued well into my early 50’s included cockroaches, mice, and other critters crawling on me and in my bed.

The destruction of classified material generated by the intell shops at 7th AF HQ invariably fell to the low-echelon enlisted pukes.  The paper material was pushed into an industrial shredder that could accommodate document thickness up to one inch.  The shredded material was bagged up, driven out to the perimeter and thoroughly burned.

TSN Burn pit
Tan Son Nhut perimeter adjacent to the burn pit.
TSN perimeter def pos
Defensive position on the Tan Son Nhut perimeter near burn area.
TSN Mine 15-18
Claymore mine position on the Tan Son Nut perimeter.
TSN LZ OWL
LZ Owl, psp surface, somewhere on the Tan Son Nhut perimeter.

Coming up…7AF Headquarters, 4th floor, Target Materials Shop.

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.”

AFAITC
 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.

Lackland to Lowry, and down…

The transition from Lackland AFB to Lowry AFB included events which will always be burned into my memory.  The flight into Denver-Stapleton was VERY rough – people puking, constant up and down, extreme turbulence, and a HARD landing.  That is one of two flights I have been on where passengers were using the “air-sickness” bags.  I held my own, meaning I did NOT throw-up…but I was close.  Upon arrival at Lowry on March 24, 1970, I was told that the next cycle for Air Intelligence was in two weeks.  My home for the next two weeks was a two-story wooden barracks that was heated by a coal fired furnace – coal that was stored outside and brought into the barracks by the personnel assigned that duty.  I had to lug in coal in the mornings a few times.

Lowry AFB barracks
Wooden barracks, WWII era, heated by coal.  Lowry 1970.

Now was the time that we were told, in no uncertain terms, that the new trainees fresh from Lackland were the low men on the totem pole, the bottom feeders, the nobodies.  The NCO over-seeing our time in “limbo,” advised that the next day, we would be starting “Commander’s Week,” and our squadron of one-stripe airmen with nothing to do, would have PLENTY to do, commencing the next morning with an 0300 wake-up call – for a WEEK of KP.  The barracks was very clean and comfortable, but not as nice and well-equipped as the dormitories at Lackland.  I actually started to wish I was back in Basic – at least you knew your schedule from minute-to-minute.  No uncertainties about anything.  When we awoke at 300 am for the start of KP, there was a blizzard in progress.  We were told to arrive at the Dining Hall at 0400…and we waited outside in the blizzard for 40 minutes before someone showed up and let us in.  No apology.  But things can always be worse…right?  The following day with the weather clearing, the view to the west was my inspiration for the remainder of my time at Lowry – the magnificence of the Rocky Mountains.  My duties during KP were interesting and pleasant – making salads, serving food, operating the dish water, general cleaning.  The worst jobs, pots and pans, and trash detail, were never assigned to me.  If you’re are not sitting down for a meal with the rest of the KP crew, you were kept busy.  12 hour shift, go back to the coal-warmed barracks and get some sleep.  One of the smells at Lowry was coal-smoke.  During the spring snow-falls, when the streets were wet and the air was damp, I actually enjoyed that smell.  After our week of KP we would be dispatched to other details – painting, trash pick-up, cleaning barracks, drill.  My class cycle was about to begin.  I was moved into the training squadron barracks, two-man rooms where you were allowed stereos, shelving, a mirror and a view of the Rocky Mountains.  Within days, I was in the real Air Force, learning a new skill.  And we also filled out our “dream-sheet,”  where we wanted to be stationed after tech School.

Basic Military Training

In the 67th year of my life, I know I have experienced parts of life that have been MUCH more difficult than my time at Lackland AFB.   The first day, during that transition from civilian life to military life was almost…embarrassing.  You were still wearing civilian clothes, civilian haircuts, civilian demeanor, when you were brought into the dining hall and you were surrounded by all the other trainees who had already made the transition into the military – uniform, haircut, demeanor – and you just wanted to start looking like them as soon as possible.  Basic Training is not the place you want to stand out.  In Basic, it was all about:  Paying attention, respecting authority, following directions, following orders, doing the best you can and realizing that Basic had an end.  No trainee in my flight was mentally or physically abused.  Your job was to get through six weeks (just six weeks) of:  Physical training (PT), the obstacle course, M-16 training, classroom work, marching and lots of marching, learning all about presenting the proper military bearing, KP, fire-watch, inspections and keeping your head OUT of your ass.  The tone of my letters home transitioned from homesickness to hope to pride and then a high degree of pride.  There came a time when our flight was marching to and from the dorms and we were VERY SHARP and we had our SHIT TOGETHER.

I tried taking up cigarettes several times.  I would always get nauseous.  I had bought a carton of Kools, tried smoking again, and was nauseous, once more.  I gave the carton to the flight leader, a tall African-American kid, who smoked Kools.  I turned 19 on March 17th.  Mail call was always just before marching into the dining hall for dinner.  I had received a large volume of letters and packages for my birthday.  We were at parade rest (quiet, no talking) but I was laughing and talking quietly.  A TI from another flight saw this  and marched me into the dining hall table where all of the TIs sat.  I was ordered to laugh, for about five minutes, while standing in front of my TI, Tech-Sgt Georgieff.  He called me in his office after dinner asking me if I wanted to graduate from Basic with this flight.  Later that evening, he complimented me on my spit-shine shoes and boots.  I felt I had dodged a bullet.

Two weeks into BASIC, I was given an order for a medical (eye) appointment.  During the eye exam, I took a glance at the paperwork.  Written in large black letters was AIR INTELLIGENCE.  Mmm, this must be part of photography school.  I was promised photography school by my recruiter.

There was no graduation ceremony on March 24, 1970.  BASIC was completed and all flight trainees received their first stripe and the National Defense Medal.  Some received the ribbons for marksmanship on the M-16.  Most were given orders for the next phase of their Air Force careers.  I was going to Lowry AFB in Denver, but not for Photography School.  I was assigned to the Armed Forces Air Intelligence Training Center.  I was in Denver some eight hours after leaving Lackland AFB.

 

 

Retracing steps to Vietnam

This is the post excerpt.

HQ7AF TSNAB

 

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.