Air Force Pilot in Vietnam
Things were beginning to happen in the southwest Pacific area almost like the 'no you don't' of Korean War times. Communist forces had walked all over the French troops in the country of Vietnam. Most people, as with Korea, hardly knew where it could be found on a globe. The US had advisory troops in that area if no more than to keep our intelligence at a decent level so officials would know what was going on. The hammer finally fell in the summer of 1964 when other KC-135 squadrons were alerted to send crews and airplanes to the Philippines to fly out of Clark Field over the Tonkin Gulf just east of Viet Nam itself. We were to refuel any thing that belonged to us that needed a drink. My crew was picked to go in the latter part of October of that year but there are two things that the reader should know that make a difference in the rest of this autobiography.
Number one was the fact that Air Force retirement entered the picture of about 1965 and both my wife and myself were looking out for ourselves in the planning. It all goes back to the alert business and the ninety six hours per week that SAC had put on our backs. Some crew members got off alert and spent their time at the lake fishing and enjoying their boats and beer, others had to have something else to do and I was one of the latter. I had a flight scheduled after my mandatory off time so I reported for it, ready to go. For some reason, a myopia of dire proportions hit me and they got another aircraft commander to take the flight. I wound up in the hospital, knocked out for two days while this myopia subsided. Myopia is a severe muscle cramp and it had hit me in the shoulder.
The squadron took its turn and headed for the Viet Nam area in 1966 for six months where aerial refueling duties were needed. Part of the squadron had to stay home to man the EC-135s used to maintain the radio links with SAC Headquarters and its Air Forces. I stayed 'home' and watched the war escalate to a full blown conflagration and knew I'd have all I wanted of this, the third major conflict for me. The Old Man upstairs was looking after me for sure, never putting me in direct contact with an enemy but close enough to make my services necessary. Korea was simply a left-over from WW II, as was the Cold War time spent in Europe doing what destiny had for me and what I loved best--flying airplanes. Hardly a day goes by that I don't review some of the good things that have come my way and also the bad choices considered as part of life that has nothing to do with aircraft.
A year to a child is forever but to an adult that same period of time goes by like a race car. Time didn't mean a lot to me, only what I could do with time I had so a year went by and the squadron was alerted that it was their turn again to spend another six months near where the actual fighting was occurring. In the meantime the alert schedule never dropped a day and the mission to take fighters across the Pacific kept up its pace. Crossing the Pacific was like taking a daily stroll to the exercise instructor. One such mission was to mother hen some F-4s out of George Air Force Base, California and we were to meet them near the Farrilon Islands off the coast of San Francisco at a given time the next day. My crew was to stage out of March Air Force Base, California , so we had to get a briefing as to times, altitudes, airspeeds, offloads, etc.. We took off from Ellsworth as planned, climbing to our assigned altitude when I felt a pain like I had never experienced before. My right side almost doubled me up and the point of trouble didn't go away, just got a little better as the flight continued. I told the co-jock that a flight surgeon would have to look me over when we got on the ground at March or they had better plan on another aircraft commander if the pain didn't subside.
By the time we arrived over 'high station' at March the pain had gone away enough to allow me to make the letdown and landing, but it still persisted. The flight surgeon was never called and alerted to my condition. The crew, bless their hearts, unloaded what baggage we had onto the crew bus and we headed for the assigned quarters. Upon arrival there, I had to urinate----pronto----like yesterday if there was such a thing. It felt like someone had stuck an ice pick into my right side and drug it around to the front when simultaneously the pain ceased and I heard a --CLUNK-- as the only kidney stone I had ever had hit the porcelain of the stool. Several months later I told another flight surgeon about it and got royally reamed out for not reporting the incident. The mission continued and the fighters were delivered to do their jobs. So ended my first encounter with kidney stones.
I took another trip to the Far East as scheduled when the wing took its turn. We had airplanes all over to cover the necessary missions. Some of us wound up at Kadena AFB, Okinawa, also at CCK near Taichung, Formosa, Utapao, Thailand, Anderson AFB, Guam, all for 179 days and if that isn't six months l'll eat your hat. I have to tell you about this six months because I got promoted during this time and that meant a lot of changes in future life. I landed at Kadena and parked the airplane. I was met immediately, before I had filled out the necessary paperwork so the mechanics would know what was wrong before the next flight.
Before I had unloosened the seat belt and shoulder harness, a friend of mine came aboard that had been at Ellsworth some months before. He was called the 'Alert Force Commander' which meant that he took care of the billeting and other regards for incoming crews. Unlike the flight crews, he was on Okinawa for thirty months, which meant that his wife and children could accompany him for his overseas tour. He was on the wing staff where the Commanding Officer could nail him to the wall if anything went wrong in his line. He came to the cockpit and said his hellos and welcomed the whole crew to Kadena. He asked me to accompany him to see the ‘Old Man' and I wondered 'what did I do now to rate this?' He assured me all was okay and that I was to meet an old friend of mine, that’s all.
The staff car pulled up in front of a decrepit Quonset Hut where the Controlling Wing had been formed. I was ushered in to the Wing Operations Officers room and sure 'nuff, there sat my friend as Director of Operations. He had been the Squadron Operations Officer during my KC-135 training days at Roswell AFB, NM, was the Operations Officer that I had hauled to the Philippines some three years before from Glasgow AFB, Montana. He was by this time a Bird Colonel, I was just a Major but rank didn't seem to enter the picture at all. We recalled old times and people like Air Force people are supposed to do when the subject of WHY was I in his office came up. I had never been to Kadena before, my bags were taken care of by airmen unknown, and assignment to quarters had all been arranged simply because my friend from Ellsworth, the Alert Force Commander, knew that I was a bit handy with woodworking and carpenter tools.
The 'Old Man' and my friend stashed me in a staff car and away we went to a new building on the other side of the runway that was to house the Wing when it was ready. I had not been to the assigned quarters as yet and knew nothing about the base. Our first stop in the building was a very large and new briefing room and the 'Old Man' asked me if I could frame the painted insignia of every Bomb Wing and Squadron that had participated in the Wing activities, forty four of them, simply for wall decor. Each panel was some 24 X 30 Inches, an easy job with the right moulding and proper tools. I made the excuse that all my tools were still back in the States and if I had known. He assured me that the base carpenter shop and base supply would furnish anything needed to complete the job and further drove me to each facility to make sure they knew who they were serving.
Majors in flying suits are NOT their regular customers and I had little to say other than 'yes sir' to everything he asked. After all it was a new building and decorations came few and far between. The second and third day found me looking at the rest of the building, some 144,000 square feet of it, and not a piece of wood adorned any of it. I had said yes to the frames and thought that would be the end of it and I was dead wrong. The frames were finished in a couple of days with the help of some excellent base carpentry shop saws, the next thing asked for was a frame around a huge area of responsibility wall map behind the desk of the Operations Officer. I quickly found that visiting Washington heads frequently visited this office and first impressions were paramount. The knowing and curious will want to know how permission was granted so quickly for me to use the base equipment, such as the 'dangerous' saws. Machinery like this were my meat and had been for years. Ability was the answer and had to be demonstrated to the shop chief's satisfaction. Shop safety practices showed up repeatedly and the permission to use any machine in the shop was granted.
The building had been built to Air Force Specs by Okinawan contractors without a speck of cabinetry involved. Why the Air Force 'bought' the building without such amenities will never be known. When I was introduced to the American GI that actually ran the carpenter shop, the Okinawan workmen looked at me in utter bewilderment as though an officer couldn't do anything but order another person around. Their personal respect showed up at Christmas time in the form of a complete teakwood sewing cabinet for my wife which she still has. It also showed up in the form of a turkey dinner invite from the NCOIC [Non Commissioned Officer In Charge], of the shop and spending that time with a family was a lot better than anything the Officer's Club had to offer. At a later date, a teakwood table showed up as another present for my wife--from these same Okinawan workmen. I was a bit overwhelmed.
I was assigned an Air Force Pickup for my twenty four hour a day transportation, old but very serviceable. I found that my friend had put me in a swanky corner downstairs room, more like a suite than a room, and that it had been previously designated as a VIP room. By this time I figured that more was expected of me than just flying airplanes and further duty was unjustifiable as far as the Air Force was concerned. My primary job was to fly that KC-135 to the best of my ability. I cannot take all the credit because my crew kept the action oiled like a proper machine, the extra activity is and was unheralded.
All this extra curricular activity took the better part of a week. I flew twice during this first week to get acquainted with the route and procedures which were not much different than back home, except they were mostly over water. Again, this was where a good navigator as part of the crew was a necessity. The flying duties were passed around, that is, thirty days at Kadena, thirty days at CCK on Formosa, both refueling B-52s, thirty days at Utapao, Thailand, refueling all kinds of fighters, nine days at Anderson AFB, Guam again standing by for B-52s needing fuel as they returned from 'in country' and then the routine started all over again until the 178th day when the leapfrogging trek to Ellsworth would begin. I found that the 'Old Man' had ordered my tours to be cut to fifteen days at each place and that I was NOT to repeat any of it. That meant I was stuck pretty much to Kadena. The crew loved it because Kadena was considered a 'plush' assignment of the lot.
To set the record straight, my crew flew just one mission short of the highest number flown by any crew from our base. I was lucky in that none of the crew were bar hangers or carousers but they didn't help any with the chores with which I seemed to be saddled. My spare time was taken up with a hobby that had followed me all the days of my life and I was grateful. I flew missions that had to be flown anyway even though I was more or less restricted but I had a 'thing' to look forward to when the mission was finished. And there was one more thing in my favor, that of being a senior major and an experienced lead crew commander, therefore the lead position in a flight of three or more always fell to my lot.