Three Years in the Life
My name is John Ellis. In February of 1971 I began a 26 year career in the United States Air Force. Needless to say, I
had many experiences throughout those years; some were bad - but most were good. I often wish I had kept some sort of a journal,
which would make it so much easier to recall the good times, but as it is, like most people after so many years I'm forced
to extract my memories from my gray matter. Following are some of the memories I have of the nearly three years I spent in
Thailand. I've written them here, many years later, in an attempt to preserve them for myself, but also to share with others
this truly exciting time in my life.
My friends bidding me farewell the day
before I departed for the Air Force.
(I'm the third from the left)
I guess it's only natural that as the years pass people tend to remember fewer and fewer of their experiences. More than likely
too, the memories they have aren't of the way it really was back then, but rather the way they wish it was. In all those years
I spent in the Air Force at countless assignments, one thing I learned was that people most often tend to remember the good
times and forget the bad. No two people will ever remember South East Asia in the same exact way. We all came from various
back grounds, had different experiences and saw everything through different sets of eyes. One thing is for certain though,
and that is most people will tend to exaggerate both the good and the bad experiences. Although it is difficult after all
these years, I will try to be as accurate as I can in writing some of the things I remember from that time.
South East Asia:
My story begins in August of 1971. I just finished technical school at Chanute AFB in Illinois to become an aircraft electrician
when I got my first assignment, Minot North Dakota. What kind of a person working in Airman's Assignments could be so twisted
to send an 18-year old boy to a place like that? The day I got there, I volunteered for Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, The Philippines
and even hell just to get out of there. After all, I joined the Air Force to get out of a town like Minot. I can still hear
my fellow electric shop workers and barracks mates laughing and saying, "Mother SAC has you now. You'll be at Minot for
years before you'll be transferred", and they would point to a fellow that had been there for several years. Well my
friends there is a God, and all the praying I did paid off. In less than four months I was sent to Utapao Royal Thai Naval
Air Base in Thailand.
U-Tapao Air Base Main Gate
Anyone who served any time in Thailand will most likely remember the obvious things like the heat, the 12 hour shifts, the
tailor and jewelry shops at the main gate, and oh yes the little kids swarming you at the gate for "one baht" "one
baht". The things we tend to forget are the little things like the fried rice which was wrapped in a banana leaf and
a page from an aircraft maintenance manual for only 5 baht; the black smoke coming from the exhaust of those baht buses with
those god awful rattling windows, or the sight of two young girls or two guys walking down the street holding hands. Another
thing to remember was walking out the gate and hearing "Where you go GI" from the Ka-tois. (The Ka-tois were those
dressed-to-kill transvestites trying to prey on the GIs).
A B-52D Parked on the U-Tapao Flightline
I arrived at Utapao Air Base in January 1972 on a C-141 flight from Clark Air Base in the Phillipines just days after a sapper
attack on the B-52 side of the runway. I remember my first days of going through the shock of it all. The heat, getting issued
the jungle fatigues, learning my way around the base, trying to figure out the base bus system, and just the 24 hours a day
of constant activity. This was a busy place, unlike Minot which rolled up the sidewalks at 4:00 PM everyday. The 307th FMS
Electric Shop at Utapao had well over 120 guys assigned to it, not including the Alternator/Drive shop. I was assigned to
work from 0600 to 1800 out of "27 EAST". That was the call sign of our truck, which drove around the Juliet, Kilo,
Lima and Mike rows of B-52s to cover the pilot's in-flight write-ups.
Alot of our work was troubleshooting and repairing instrument lighting problems since most of the Buffs flew night missions,
but we also had our share of landing gear malfunctions, and electrical power distribution problems with which to contend.
These were the B-52 D-models which were beginning to show their age. I also recall having to rewire a lot of engine firewalls,
which was a requirement at each engine change on these eight-engine monsters. I was just an Airman First Class and still a
3-skill level (apprentice) when I arrived, but it didn't take long to get upgraded with that kind of on-the-job training being
I remember one day during this training that I met Mr. Electricity up close and personal. I was being taught how to take a
resistance reading at a distribution box in the flap well of one of these behemoth planes. My trainer (Sergeant Brunk) assured
me there was no power on the connector pins I was checking. My God was he wrong. There was more power there than was needed
to light a small city, and it knocked me right on my keister. Naturally he thought it was funny, and to this day I think he
purposely set me up, just to teach me to respect the power of AC current.
This is the launch truck that I worked out of every day
Another moment worth mentioning is when a fellow electrician, Sergeant Laulau (pronounced low`lew) from Samoa, and I were
dropped off of the launch truck to work a problem with the hatch light staying on in the cockpit. This light was supposed
to illuminate anytime one of the several access doors to the plane was open or even slightly ajar. We were both still pretty
green on this plane and relied a lot on luck and instinct to fix anything. The technical orders in those days left a lot to
be desired too. Since they received so much abuse, a lot of the pages were torn or missing. The troubleshooting guides were
poor at best, and most of the schematic diagrams were outdated, torn, or missing. Anyway, I told Laulau to get in the cockpit
and watch the light as I went around and closed all the hatches. I told him to yell if the light stayed on.
This is me at U-Tapao in 1972
I was in reasonably good shape back then and probably weighed about 180 pounds, but I still had a hell of a time getting the
main hatch to latch properly. Laulau on the other hand had arms the size of my thighs and weighed about 250 pounds. He said
"Ellis you pansy, you get up here and look at the light and let me close the hatch". And he did, with about as much
ease as closing a car door. I don't recall if the light was on at that time or not; that's not what was important at this
time. What happened next was that I was unable to unlatch this door from the inside. It had jammed somehow and I couldn't
get it open with the eight to ten inch release handle which was mounted on the inside of the door. I struggled and struggled
until I decided to stick my size nine jungle boot in behind the lever to give me more leverage. Well, I got leverage all right.
When I gave it a kick, the hatch actually blew off the aircraft and bounced around the revetment a few times. It scared the
crap out of me, but luckily Laulau was clear of its path. Just as it happened, our truck was driving by to check on us so
everyone on our crew got a good laugh. It seems the hatch had just been installed and rigged, and incorrectly I might add,
which is what was causing the light to stay on.
It was generally a pretty good bunch of guys on our crew. We all worked pretty well together considering we all had a different
background and levels of experience. I remember the crew leader, TSgt Brand. He had come there from instructor duty in the
States and was very knowledgeable of the B-52 electrical systems. Another fellow I remember was a Buck Sergeant Norwood who
was the quiet California surfer type of guy whose only reason for being there was to do his four years and get out. Had there
been no draft at that time he obviously would never have enlisted in the Air Force to avoid the Army.
Although it was work, we also really had some fun moments out on the ramp. A lot of our slack time between jobs was spent
sleeping in the truck or stretched out in the shade of a B-52, that is until around the middle of April. That was Song-Kran,
or Water Festival time. That time of year marks the beginning of the rainy season, and as I learned people like to celebrate
by getting each other wet. In other words, it is one big water fight. This was a lot of fun off of the base with the Thais,
but in the true American spirit of things, we needed to take it all to a new level out on the flight line. This meant throwing
as much water at each other as possible by any means possible. Not only would we sneak up on people with trashcans full of
water, but water fire extinguishers were used as well as balloons and condoms. It was like a mini war out there with all of
the different trucks pitted against each other. It was a real blast until a flying water balloon broke a truck windshield.
The Chief of Maintenance quickly put an end to our fun on the flight line after that.
A Sattahip Jewelry Shop
My first few months in this completely foreign land were spent mostly on the base. Occasionally A friend and I might venture
to Sattahip, a small town to the east of the base, on one of our days off. This was a real good place to buy jewelry and clothes.
Generally though I stayed pretty close to the safety and familiarity of the base. I remember going to the movies at the outdoor
theater at the end of the runway in the evenings, and having to hold my ears during the B-52 launches. Who decided to put
that theater there anyhow? I also spent a great deal of time at the airmans club on base and working to finish my Career Development
Courses (CDCs) so I could get upgraded to a five skill level. Days off were usually spent sleeping in and going to the base
beach. I was gradually getting comfortable with my surroundings and getting used to a culture that was such a change from
"The World", but my exposure to the culture was really only through the Thai Nationals that worked on the base.
Since this was my first time being so far away from my family, I continued the letter writing to my Mother and Father about
once a week, a habit I formed while I was in Basic Training less than a year earlier.
With all of the bizarre things I was seeing on my few trips to town during the day, I wasnt quite ready to hit "the ville"
at night on my own quite yet. After awhile though I wanted to experience the nightlife that I was hearing so much about at
work. Finally one of my five barracks mates (Bernie Zwickel from the engine shop) took me under his wing and one night offered
to show me Kilo-sip. This was a small bar town about two or three kilometers from the gate. Man-O-Man! I thought I died and
went to heaven. There was a big party going on outside the gate all this time and I never knew it. It was like one big carnival
with lots of drinking, dancing, balloons, chicken on a stick, the works. One place I remember even had beautiful oriental
girls with numbers on them, sitting in a huge glass-fronted room which looked like an aquarium. I got my initiation that night,
and in no time at all I was a veteran of the club scene.
A Typical Day:
For about the next eight months, I worked myself into a routine that went something like this: I'd show up for roll call at
0600 and jump onto "27 EAST". We'd drive the 2 or 3 miles to the east side of the base (the B-52 side), and if there
was little or no work pressing we'd try to get breakfast at the hilltop chow hall. After breakfast, half of our crew would
get dropped off at the USO for a couple of hours while the other half were dispatched to work the B-52 jobs and respond to
red-balls. A red-ball is what a job was called on an aircraft that was within two hours of its launch time. After lunch the
other half of our crew was usually dropped off at the USO. The USO at Utapao was really a great place to relax. It was the
only building I can remember that had air-conditioning, and it had the most comfortable chairs in the world. It was a great
place to catch up on the sleep I missed the night before. There was always a lot of activity going in this place; Pinochle,
Spades and Gin Rummy games, racks of magazines, and a great snack bar.
The USO at U-Tapao Air Base
By early afternoon, while in the truck cruising the flight line, the subject of discussion was usually centered around who
was, or was not, going to hit the town again that night. At one o'clock I was usually still pretty tired from the night before,
and I was saying I wasn't going to go. I planned on going back to the barracks to catch up on my sleep. Around three o'clock
for some reason I began to murmur "maybe Ill go". There was a lot of coaxing going on, and with the stories about
the great time everyone had the night before, I began to perk up. By the time five o'clock rolled around, I seemed to have
my second wind and I couldn't wait to get off and hit the town again. At six o'clock our shift was over, and we were driven
back to the shop for turnover.
The work atmosphere in Thailand was one that I never saw again in my 26-year career. Most everyone did their job the best
they could, and there was little or no kissing the boss's ass for a good performance report. It seemed that the guys just
wanted to do their year and get back to the land of the big BX. Something that may have helped to contribute to such an attitude
was that a tour over there was only one year long. So, at any give time half of all the people over there at any given time
had less than six months to go, and they usually reminded you of it somehow. This was done either by posting their short timer
calendar on a locker, under the Plexiglas on the desk, or by them yelling the word SH..O..RT!
Pete the Python
After dragging our sweat-stained selves off the truck at 1800 hours each day, we usually met at the hooch behind the FMS building
for a beer. This is where Pete, the 10-foot python was kept. Pete was sort of the squadron mascot, although I think everyone
on base thought of it as a mascot of the entire base. The sheet metal shop made this snake an elaborate cage with a water
trough in the middle and a five-foot tree trunk standing upright in it. This was always a sight to see about once a week when
it was feeding time for Pete. Someone would throw a live chicken into the cage, and Pete seemed to sense that he was supposed
to put on a show. For some odd reason it seemed he wouldnt wrap himself around his meal to crush and eat it until a large
crowd gathered around to watch.
This is my house-a-girl "Noi"
By 7:00 or 7:30 PM there was usually only a few guys left at the bar and it was now time for us to head to our barracks for
that much-needed shower. It was so nice to get to the barracks and see the bed made and all of the clean clothes and polished
shoes lined up. I think my house girl, Noi, only got $5.00 a month from each of us for all that she did, but with 6 guys in
our cubicle, that was probably pretty good money. From what I can remember, the average wage over there at that time for a
Thai was about one dollar a day.
After a nice soothing shower, I would throw on a pair of bell-bottom pants and a paisley or tie-die shirt that I thought somehow
went with the pants, and I was off to town once again. I had my own little group of guys that I liked to hang with when going
out on the town. Our group was strictly into the legal fun, even though there were a lot of marijuana-smokers over there.
You could always get a good whiff of pot when walking between the rows of barracks. Word was that some real potent drugs were
being used too, although I never saw or wanted any of that either.
Just give me my Bacardi or Ronrico rum. I can still see that yellow ration card with all the ink marks on it. I'm not certain,
but I think we were authorized 10 cartons of cigarettes, 5 cases of beer, 5 bottles of wine and 5 bottles of liquor each month.
I don't remember the details, but I do remember that by the end of the month there was a lot of ink on my ration card. When
all the rations were used, we had to resort to the Thai Mekong or Running Deer whiskey. I never did acquire a taste for that
stuff, but it served its purpose.
If I remember correctly, most of the American beer seen around the base was usually Olympia, Hamms, or Budweiser. I don't
remember the cost, but I can remember buying a half-gallon of Barcardi 151 rum for $3.40 and a fifth of vodka for around a
dollar. Cigarettes were .25 cents. Its a good thing everything was so cheap over there, because I only took home about $280
dollars once a month and I had car payment back in the states to keep up. We only got paid once a month too, so it was a long
time between paydays.
My buddies and I eating grilled kobe steaks
Boy how I wish I could remember more of the names of all the different guys I hung with during that year. There was a tanker
crew chief named Bill Smith, another Smitty who worked in the U-2 photo lab, and my dear friend Garland who I showed the ropes
to near the end of my tour and the beginning of his. Garland and I still keep in touch after all these years.
The Entrance to Newland
Our clique of just three or four guys usually ran the bars at Newland, which was another bar town located about 15 kilometers
down the road in the opposite direction from Kilo-sip. Anyone that was there in the early 70s knows that no words or even
pictures can describe this place. It was literally a Sin-City set up off the main highway for the purpose of entertaining
the GIs. I heard that it was set up off the beaten path to keep the riffraff off of the main highway between Sattahip and
Rayong. It was literally one bar after another with an occasional massage parlor and restaurant here and there.
A typical Newland Establishment
One of my favorite bars was the Long Branch Saloon. At the bottom of the hill after going under the Newland sign, you took
a left and it sat on the right hand side of the street. I could've found it blindfolded. It was just a small bar that played
reel-to-reel tape recordings of Country and American pop music. They served cokes and ice to go with my rum, and naturally
Mekong, Running Deer and Singhai and Amerit beer. The Venus bar sat directly across the street from there, but my favorite
of all time was the Lucky Dollar. This one was on the right hand side of the street, near the top of the hill, just after
you entered Newland. Being at the edge of Newland towards the base, this is usually where we caught the baht-bus as we drank
ourselves out of town. It was owned and operated by a Chinese fellow by the name of Jack, and for some reason we got along
great. I'm sure it had nothing to do with the fact that I was one of his best customers too.
After a few hours of sleep it was up at 0500 to start the process all over again. I would stagger half awake to the end of
the hall towards the community latrine to shower, and while shaving there might be an occasional gecko lizard stick his head
out from behind the mirror to watch me and then scurry across the ceiling. It still amazes me how they did that. Then I would
throw on my freshly starched fatigues and head back to the Electric shop for another roll call. I had a short timer calendar
inside my locker, which I marked off every morning, but I dont know why. I was now beginning to have the time of my life.
Most of these places were bars up front, with short-time and all-nighters available in the back. A short-time ran $3.00 and
an all-nighter was $7.00, and there was a charge of .50 cents for a fan. At least this is what I have been told. After drinking
ourselves stupid while listening to the local Thai bands sing American songs like "Yellow Leever", or attempt Credence
Clearwater Revival, about 1:00 AM we would either grab the last baht bus or hail a taxi to take us back to the base. I can
still remember telling the cab driver what barracks to take me to after we went through the Utapao gate; "SONG-SONG-HA-HOKE
Seeing the Sights
Bridge over the River Kwai
Although I worked 12-hour shifts for the entire one-year tour over there, we were fortunate to get two days off in a row.
This opened up the opportunity to see some of Thailand that was not in the immediate vicinity of the base. The USO offered
tours at reasonable prices, and I went on a few of them. I specifically remember taking a tour to the Bridge over the River
Kwai where we saw and walked across the railroad-bridge and saw some of the remains of the actual WWII bridge in the water
below us. We also took a boat trip a short way down the river to a Bhuddist temple that was built in a cave under the ground.
It was all very interesting.
I also took a couple of tours to Bangkok and went to most all of the places that other tourists went to see; places like the
floating market, the Saturday-Sunday market, the Emerald Bhudda etc. I also took my mid-tour R&R in Bangkok. My running
buddy Bill Smith and I arranged to take R&R at the same time, so we got a room at the Bangkok Hotel and drank ourselves
stupid for a few days. We cruised the famous Patpong Road and tried to hit as many different bars as we could. It was a lot
of fun, but nothing like Newland. I can remember we had a personal taxi driver for the four days we spent in Bangkok, and
it only cost us a bottle of American whiskey and a carton or two of cigarettes. He took us anywhere we wanted to go when we
wanted to go, and he even drove us the 100 miles back to Utapao at the end of our R&R.
Utapao was the ideal location to be stationed. It was only about 100 miles to Bangkok and only 20 or 30 minutes to Pattaya
Beach. Pattaya beach was a lot different in 1972 than it is today believe me. There were only two or three large hotels, and
the water was so clear you could stand in chest deep water and still see your toe nails. We once took a weekend trip up there
and went out on a fishing boat. The boat captain pulled up close to one of the islands, and we swam in the crystal clear water
while he took our catch on shore to be cooked for us. It was truly a paradise. One like you can only imagine today.