UNTOLD STORIES section - vnafmamn.com
I joined the Air Force at the age of 19 in 1962 for no reason other than that I was unemployed, immature and had no goals or direction for my future. My recruiter told me that aircraft mechanics were needed and I fit their profile. So off I went to Basic Training followed by Technical Training at Amarillo AFB. I graduated as an aircraft mechanic helper. My OJT continued at Scott AFB, Illinois until November 1963. This was the start of the aviation career that I have pursued for over 50 years. As I reflect back on those years from 1962 to 1966, I can see why so many of us young men grew up quickly. We had some good times and we had some very, very bad times but we bonded together. Many of us were lucky and came home. I was able to take full advantage of the extensive training and experiences provided to me during my four years in the Air Force. I was convinced early that I would stay in the Air Force for thirty years. November 1, 1964, the reality of war hit home. The following are my reflections as a Crew Chief working on the B-57 during that time in history. They are supported by photographs and news articles that I saved and brought home.
On November 10, 1963
I arrived at Yokota AFB, Japan on my first overseas assignment. I immediately found the Beer Garden and to my delight a 12 ounce can of beer was ten cents and a carton of cigarettes $1.10. How lucky can a 20 year old be with a two year assignment in Japan. What a life, living in Paradise on $61.00 a month paycheck, all I can eat and a place to live. I enjoyed every day at Yokota. The base was very large with many activities. There were no restrictions on travel off base the exchange rate was 360 Japanese Yen to $1.00. We could buy all of the electronics, such as cameras, stereos and tape recorders, at a good savings. Most of us took advantage of the cost of the Japanese Motorcycles. A new Honda CB250 cc was the hot bike at the time and only cost $375.00.
Saturday Morning,November 23,1963
Just 13 days after arriving in Japan, the alert horns all over the base started sounded. The base was closed down and we were all told to report to the flight line for possible deployment. The Crew Chiefs were told to get their aircraft ready for deploy ASAP. Then for the next 8 hours we sat and waited. It was war for sure, but no one knew with whom. That night we finally got back to the barracks and had the evening to reflect on our futures. A few days later, several of the B-57's and crews returned from Pad C as part of their normal two week rotation. As soon as the canopy opened, I was on the ladder asking the crew what happened on the Pad the morning President Kennedy was assassinated. I was told Pad C went on alert at 4:00 am. The crews rushed out in the cold winter morning and strapped in but were told not to start their engines. They were to sit and wait for verbal notification from the Operations Officer to start their engines. They sat strapped in the cold, soaked aircraft for 6 hours on hold with radio silence. The ground crews huddled next to the APU trying to keep warm until the word came to stand down. Twenty-four aircraft were sitting ready, each with a Nuclear Bomb and a designated target. The end of civilization as we knew it seemed so very close.
Kunsan, Korea, Pad C or K-8
On January 1, 1964, I boarded a C-123 along with 53 other Crew Chiefs, Assistants and Armament Specialists headed for our 90 day tour on the Pad. I was looking forward to the experience but I had no idea what to expect. When we arrived I met with M/Sgt. Banka, the Line Chief, M/Sgt. Ramsay "B" Flight Leader and my immediate supervisor. Sgt. Ramsay assigned me to an aircraft as Crew Chief along with an assistant. He pointed to the Quonset hut that was to be my home for the next 90 days. The living area gave each man enough room for a locker and a GI bunk. Two Quonsets were bolted together making them long enough to put the Crew Chiefs together. The same arrangement was made for the Assistant Crew Chief's. There was also an area for the Armament Troops we called the "A" Men. The living space was tight with only a bunk, an old wall locker for each man and an oil burning stove for heat.
Life on the Pad
Our entertainment was a ping pong table in the hangar or playing pinochle and hearts each day. At night, a B&W movie was scheduled in one Quonset hut converted into a theater. All the movies shown were black & white. They were very similar to the "movie night" episodes of the TV series M.A.S.H. when Radar would run the 16mm projector.
We had unscheduled practice alerts 3 to 4 times a week. Sometimes they were during the daylight hours. As one or two days would pass without an alert everybody started to get on edge. We knew the alert was imminent and we had to be ready to go as soon as the siren went off. So, we stayed fully dressed with our boots on.
When the alert siren sounded we all ran for the aircraft at top speed. My assistant crew chief was normally ahead of me out the door of his Quonset hut and I would meet him at the aircraft. The first one to the aircraft hooked up the battery and started pumping open the canopy and the bomb door. At the same time the engine covers and tail stand were removed by the second one to arrive. After the canopy and bomb door were open our Pilot arrived. He quickly climbed onto the ladder and into the front seat. The Navigator was last to arrive at the aircraft. First he went into Operations to grab the maps and orders from the operations officer. As soon as he checked the bomb and got a hand on the cockpit ladder, he would tell the Pilot "Start the Engines or Don't Start". If the start was given the Pilot would start #2 after giving the Navigator time to get strapped in and the canopy closed before starting #1. As the captain started the engines, black smoke from the starter rose into the sky. This all took place within five minutes of the initial siren. A quick engine run was accomplished, and then the engines were shut down. The crews then returned to their quarters. We would close up the aircraft, replace the engine covers and install new black power starter cartridges. "First Smoke" was an honor among the crew chiefs and we would put $5.00 into a pool with winner taking all. It was always the luck of the draw for the winner because our flight crews rotated back to Yokota every two weeks. We never knew who the crew replacement would be. Seconds counted and it was always frustrating when you saw others smoke before yours.
Last Day on the Pad
On April 2, 1964, K-8 was deactivated with one last alert horn signaling all of the aircraft to start their engines and return to Yokota. As the engines started, the sky filled with black smoke. When the B-57's started taking off we were certain that spies were sitting in the sampans along the Yellow Sea watching the activity on the pad and wondering who the U.S. was going attack.
Reporting to Clark Air Base
On April 16, 1964, we moved all of our aircraft from Yokota, Japan to the Philippines for future deployment into Viet Nam. For the next 4 months, we were told we would be going to Viet Nam but week after week nothing changed. Our flight crews continued to fly practice bomb missions and we worked on the planes as was needed. The freedom we now had by not being confined to the alert pad at K-8 was overwhelming. Clark was a large base with a lot to offer. We had activities from bowling, golf and even a USO show with Bob Hope. I would estimate that Red, Smokey, Tipton and I played pinnacle an average of 18 hours a day at the K-8 Pad. Now with all this freedom, we never played a single game. The Philippines had a local beer called San Miguel that was sold everywhere. The base golf course had beer on every other hole and the barracks had a bar. To our delight there was an American Legion on base where the three of us went to practically every night. The Legion was where we first learned about "The Beatles" and their music. All of the entertainers were Filipino so it wasn't until I got back to the States that I heard the real thing.
How We Got To Viet Nam
President Kennedy decided to stand behind Ngo Dinh Diem, the first President of South Vietnam. In the wake of the French withdrawal from Indochina. As a result of the 1954 Geneva Accords, Diem led the effort to create the Republic of Vietnam. Kennedy was sending military advisers and Special Forces to the Vietnam. By 1963, there were 16,700 advisers in South Vietnam. Although these advisers were not supposed to engage in combat some in fact did. The U.S. and the South Vietnamese army adopted the strategic hamlet program, an effort to beat the guerrillas by destroying villages which supposedly harbored them. In addition, President Diem attacked the Buddhists who opposed his anti-Buddhist repression. Some responded by killing themselves to draw world attention. The US began to think about withdrawing its support of Diem. There were indications that Diem might negotiate a peace with North Vietnam. When South Vietnamese generals began talking of overthrowing him, the U.S. did not protest. He was overthrown and murdered in November, 1963. It wasn't long before the new government was also overthrown.
Deployment to Bien Hoa
With the Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed by congress, it was now clear that we were going to Viet Nam. The orders for the B-57 squadrons to deploy to Bien Hoa were sent down, only to be withdrawn at the last minute. The stress on all of us and those who had their families living with them at Clark was enormous. But these orders, and then orders rescinding them, continued, on again and off again. Finally, after both squadrons had been told to stand down for several nights, the 8th and 13th bomb squadrons were ordered to send 20 aircraft to Bien Hoa as soon as possible.
During the next few weeks, more B-57Bs were moved from Clark to Bien Hoa to reinforce the original deployment. The Flightline at Bien Hoa became very crowded at that time because Bien Hoa was the home for the US Navy's A-1E & A-1H Skyhawk's, Army helicopters and the famous U-2 recon aircraft. My tent had 10 bunks, 3 Air Force Crew Chiefs, 5 Navy Plane Captains and 2 Army armament specialists. Jim Hendry and Hyden Weaver both Crew Chiefs, were in my tent.The B-57's were parked beside the runway in two rows wing to wing. The planes were so close together I could walk on top of the wings across all ten end to end. To make matters worse, we used so many bombs that they couldn't get enough of them (from the bomb dump) during the day to load up jets for afternoon missions after the morning missions had come back. So the 500 & 750 pound bombs were now being stored under the aircraft wings on the ramp. There were also canisters of napalm stored on the ramp along with hundreds of drums of Agent Orange.
Don't Worry, Be Happy
In 1961, President Kennedy authorized the herbicide Agent Orange to be used to defoliate the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the surrounding forested land. The trail was used by the Vietcong to transport arms, equipment and food from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. Between 1962 and 1971, the United States military sprayed nearly 20,000,000 U.S. gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Spraying was usually done either from helicopters or from a low-flying C-123 aircraft fitted with sprayers and 1,000.S.chemical tanks. In 1952, the US government had been informed by Monsanto, the manufacturer that the chemical used to produce Agent Orange was contaminated with an extremely toxic dioxin called Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (TCDD). It wasn't until 1969 that this was revealed to the public. Dioxin was causing many of the previously unexplained adverse health effects which were correlated with Agent Orange exposure. TCDD has been described as "perhaps the most toxic molecule ever synthesized by man". But until then, we were told not to worry about the chemical because it was harmless! Later studies have shown that veterans have increased rates of cancer, and nerve, digestive, skin, and respiratory disorders. Higher rates of acute/chronic leukemia, lymphoma, throat cancer, prostate, lung, liver and colon cancer were found in those exposed to Dioxin. With the exception of liver cancer, the U.S. Veterans Administration has now determined that these conditions may be associated with exposure to Agent Orange/dioxin.
Our First Mortar Attack
By dusk on Halloween we were all back from dinner and starting to get into the beer. Our aircraft were all airworthy and had been secured for the night on the ramp. As usual, the planes sat out in the open in rows, parked wing to wing. There were no revetments between the planes; they are full of fuel. Bombs are loaded for the next day's assignment. With no warning, at about 1:30am on November 1, 1964, we began to here rockets going off someplace off base and decided it is time once again best to go the bunkers just outside out tent. This happened 3 or 4 times a week, so we were not too concerned. Nights at Bien Hoa were usually like the 4th of July. In the distance, you could see tracer rounds, an occasional bomb going off and flares being dropped. They lighted up the night sky. While in the bunker, which was only about 100 yards from the aircraft we could see the mortar rounds beginning to drop onto the B-57's. All we could do was hide deep inside the bunkers and hope it would soon end. Later in the early morning, everyone set a record making their way to the Flightline to see the real damage. Airplanes were on fire and ammo was going off. Our job was to get the bombs away from the jets before they could cause more damage. Four Americans had been killed and another 72 wounded in the attack. Six of the 20 B-57 aircraft had been destroyed. Two had been burned to the point that only their engines remained relatively intact. Not one Canberra had escaped some degree of damage. Four Navy A-1Hs were also destroyed in the shelling.
Back to the Philippines
I was one of the lucky ones. On November 4th my second 120 day tour was up and I shipped back to Clark Air Base for some needed R&R. My Flight Chief gave me 5 days off with a pass to Manilla. Three of us took advantage of immediately. Returning after leave from Manilla, we continued to party at our favorite bar, the American Legion.
My Last Rotation to Bien Hoa
In February, 1965 it was my turn to return to Bien Hoa. This would be my last tour. In a way I was looking forward to seeing what improvements, if any, had been made to the base. The Air Force had arranged to replace most of our destroyed B-57's with Air National Guard B-57's and crews from the States. To my dismay nothing had changed. The Flightline was exactly the same as before. Planes were parked wing to wing on the ramp with napalm canisters, 500 & 750 pound bombs, 20 & 50-cal machine gun rounds stored under the wings. The five 50,000 gallon fuel storage bladders that initially were hit with mortar had been replaced in the very same spot. No revetments had been built to separate aircraft from one another. In fact, little or nothing had been done to make the ramp a safer place. The one exception was building new personnel bunkers near the Flightline. We all knew if there was another attack (like the one last year) it might be our last.
It pays to have friends
My immediate Supervisor and friend TSGT Dewey's two year tour was coming to an end. He received his orders to return to the States on June 7, 1965. Sergeant Dewey had a wife and three children living at the NCO Base Housing at Clark. He was authorized to have a chaperone to assist his family flying in back to San Francisco. Dewey asked if I was interested in being that chaperone. I quickly jumped at the opportunity! It turned out to be the best decision I ever made. On April 8, my orders came reassigning me from Bien Hoa back to Clark to begin processing for my return to the States and on to Eglin AFB in Florida. It was "Party Time", at the American Legion.
"Things will go wrong in any given situation, if you give them a chance or more commonly, "whatever can go wrong, will go wrong."
If we only had revetment
Our Base Commander requested revetments after the November 1, 1964 attack. His request was denied. Once again, we were told, "Don't Worry Be Happy"! And I was Happy. Twenty one days later, I was sitting in coach class on a Continental Air Service 707 with Sergeant Dewey and his family headed to San Francisco.
Eglin Air Force Base, Florida
On June 16, 1965 after a 30 day leave at home, I reported for my final assignment. I was older and very much aware of the direction in which my career was headed. The Air Force provided me with great training and experience in the field of aircraft maintenance. I was going to take advantage of what I had learned. I enjoyed working on planes and I wanted to learn more, but I knew it was not going to be in the Air Force. I had seven months left in my four year commitment. Every week my First Sergeant called Smokey, Red and me into his office for his weekly reenlistment speech. He said our tour in Viet Nam was completed and we would not go back. We knew better. The Air Force had just purchased the new McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom Fighter Jets and the plan was to send them to Viet Nam. The Flight crews and ground maintenance personnel were being trained on the new F-4 at Eglin. It was a "No Brainer" that everybody being trained on the F-4 would be headed to Viet Nam. Finely the sergeant got our message, "NO WAY"! He reassigned us to Base Maintenance which was like a four month vacation. I was discharged on February 25, 1966. I enrolled at Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics to obtain my Federal Aviation A&P certificates and to continue working in the commercial aviation industry. Red moved back to Texas. Smokey got a job as a bartender in Niceville, FL just outside Eglin's main gate. It's sad that we have never communicated with each other over all these years. We each went our separate way with fond memories of our four year friendship. We felt fortunate that each of us lived to remember our experiences.
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