Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Long ago – yesterday.


“Happy Veterans Day Dad”. Chrissy has never missed this greeting on November 11th. I never really know what to say, so I say “Thanks sweetie”.  I appreciate her remembering. 

April 23, 1971 – the day I returned to “the world”. 37 years ago – can it be that long ago, that short of time ago? Today is Veterans Day. There are really millions and millions of “Veterans Days” – we all had our own experience, our own tour of duty, our own memories. Mine are as boring as many, more harrowing than some and mine alone.

I spent 21 years in the Air Force and the Air National Guard. I began as an Airman – pay grade E1 and ended 21 years later as a Lt. Col. – an O5. I spent time in 4 countries during that time – with duty ranging from a radio repair man to being the OIC (Officer In Charge) of an Avionics shop for a fighter wing. Yet, when I think of my service, of being a veteran, my memory turns to Vietnam. I do find I get emotional – I have no idea why. I suffered no real trauma. I was never wounded – although I had a watch hit by shrapnel. The number of fire fights I was in could be counted on a two hands. The number of nights I was rocketed – well – that’s a different matter. I was at one of the most active air bases in the Central Highlands – so no real surprise that we were a prime target. But, we had a well informed “mama-san” who would let us know the nights we should spend some time in the bunker. She probably batted .400, not bad when someone is trying to drop high explosives on your delicate little body.

I did spend a little time with the Army – 4th ID. I would tell you what unit, etc. but, honestly, as an Air Force guy, I never really “got it” as far as unit designators. There was a unit of us stationed at Ahn Khe – of “We Were Soldiers Once – and Young”. We were their ALCE unit and provided air support to move supplies, man power – even entertainment.

Vietnam was a “have to” for me. I’m not really sure why. My dad was too young for WWI and too old for WWII. He spent his time in a GM plant building tanks. I even have an award for some sort of innovation he came up for to make manufacturing better. My uncle Victor was a bomber pilot over Germany. He completed his 30 missions loosing only one crewman. My uncle Clemmy was a flight instructor for the war. I was raised on a host of TV shows that showed the man to be the take charge, the get things done guy. And, regardless of the political times of the late 60s, I saw our war in Vietnam as just and believed the people of South Vietnam deserved our support. It was a place I needed to be. And, while I had a full scholarship to a local community college, I enlisted just before graduation and then told my mom what I had done. She didn’t say much – “Oh Willie.”   Vietnam was dinner fare – body counts, dead soldiers. I think she took solace that I was going to the Air Force, not the Army. I graduated 5 months after Tet – if you were male, could walk, the military was in your future. And, the Air Force was perfect for me, I was very interested in electronics and they were very interested it teaching me. From basic to electronics school to - - - Taiwan.

Talk about culture shock. Our primary mission was deterrence of China. We also acted as a repair station for severely damaged aircraft. It was a challenging job, a foreign culture and a true adventure for a 19 year old. December 1969 I presented my mom her Christmas present – a letter saying I would not be home in April, but rather I had volunteered for Vietnam and would be going there directly from Taiwan. I’m told she cried for weeks. The foolishness of a 19 year old. Yet, I was going to where I knew I needed to go.

So, on the evening of April 21st I boarded a plane in Taipei and flew to Tan Sa Nut AFB. We arrived in darkness (I always seemed to travel in darkness). There was no one to meet me, everything was closed, so I curled up in a corner on a concrete floor and slept as best I could. It was strange seeing armed APs in flack jackets walking around – all business.

A couple days later I walked out on the ramp and stepped on to the ramp of a C-123. This was a combination of a turboprop cargo plane with jet assist. You sat sideways in web seats, the pilot stood on the breaks, cranked up all engines and you were airborne in a very short distance. A handy feature since it wasn’t unusual to pick up a couple of rounds on takeoff.

My first base was Pleiku, in the Central Highlands. I got there as we began a real push into Laos to interrupt the Ho Chi Min trail. Thousands of troops left our base in May of 1970 – the same time students were killed at Kent State. The local VC didn’t like this at all and hammered us nightly with rockets. You hear it come, hear it hit and wondered as you halled ass to the bunker whether it’ll go off before you hit the bunker. Based on personal experience, the answer was usually “yes”.

I made road trips to our ALCE unit at Ahn Khe. We road in a 1 ½ truck, sand bags tucked under the seat – our version of “up armor”. The worst patch was MangYang Pass. Very steep, very crowded and a very big target. But, we were never directly attacked. Our number just never came up. Eventually I transferred to our ALCE unit at Ahn Khe. A small team, focused, busy – we were their complete airport support – probably 15-20 guys total. We were technically “outside the gate” of the Army. We were responsible for our own security. So we had our usual duty hours and then hours on guard duty. I was there around 4 months, arriving back at Plekiu the beginning of March 1971.

This was probably the most dangerous time of my tour. The US had begun pulling out. And, while the Vietnamese were still flying missions from Pleiku, most US missions were out of the larger US bases. This made us a easier target. I joined the APs as an augmentee. What that meant was days of duty and nights in secure bunkers around the base on an M60 team. We were tested nightly, probes here in there, sappers coming in trying to take out the A1 Sky Raiders – old WWII aircraft that could absorb tremendous amounts of ground fire. They were called Sandys and were used to protect downed pilots or for close air support for ground troops.

In mid March, we were completely penetrated. Our control tower was severely damaged with two controllers gravely wounded. My roomie, Mike, and I grabbed our weapons, repair bags, and headed to our shop and the tower. The shop had been blown by satchel charges, the tower hit by B40 shoulder launched rockets. The area was unsecured. We spent a hairy night playing hide and seek with some VC intent on damaging more aircraft, more equipment. Finally securing things enough to see how bad off we were, we were able to establish enough communications to let the replacement controllers to contact the aircraft that had scrambled and either land them or guide them to other bases.

The next three days were a blur. A portable tower was flown in from Clark AFB in the Philippines. Mike and I jury rigged it into our communication systems. In the end, communications were only out for a few hours.

More nights in bunkers with M-60s. More days just keeping things going, counting down the remaining days. Finally, on April 23, 1971, I left for the world. When I left men were wearing black suits, white shirts, black ties, black shoes. When I came home, the colors of the 70s were in full bloom – very strange. I landed 11 hours after I took off – international dateline you know. Finally, I was on the runway in Flint, Michigan. The folks around me asked me if I was coming home. They let me out first. Across the ramp I could see Susie waiting at the gate. The first time I had seen her in over 2 years. We got engaged that night. Married the next August. And celebrated our 36th anniversary this past August.

I spent another 15 years both regular and National Guard. Mike and I were presented the Bronze Star for our efforts those 3 days in Pleiku.

I visited the Traveling Wall this summer as it passed through our town – I can’t seem to bring myself to visit the real thing. I got there late at night, very few people around. I was in tears by the time I reached the end. Again I wish I could explain why – can’t really. But there are times I truly wonder – with all those good men and women on The Wall, why not me? What right did I have to pass unscathed – while others came home in a box? I think that is a question many vets ask – there simply is no answer. It was not my time. I pray I have used the time since well.

It all seems so long ago – yesterday.

No comments: