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Written Memories Part IV

Three Years in the Life (Continued)

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Chosen Again

As I may have mentioned a time or two before in this story, there really is a God. One day in mid to late October I got a wake up call from the shop telling me that I got an assignment to the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Korat Air Base in Thailand. I can't tell you how happy I was to get this news. I was supposed to report in January, which was still a couple of months away, but at least I knew I was going. I wasted no time in writing this news to Paiboon.

My remaining days at Seymour Johnson were a lot easier to take now that I had my orders. I never did really mind the base or the area, but my heart was in Thailand, and I wanted to get back. I remember as soon as I got my hard copy orders how I wrote "FIGMO" in big letters across the face of a copy and taped it to my barracks room door. The FIGMO stood for F_ _ k It, I Got My Orders.

Butch Broadwater and I were pretty good friends by now. We were at Ubon together and since our return to Seymour Johnson, we both worked the swing shift. This meant that we both were known to sometimes kid around and joke with each other. He knew how much I loved Thailand, and I knew how much he liked being back in the States with his young wife. He and I both knew too that he was probably getting pretty hot for a short tour assignment because he never had one.

I distinctly remember a joke we pulled on him one night while at work. Butch was out on the flight-line working on a job while I was back in the shop. I had just picked up the hard copy of my orders on my way to work that evening, and I commented to Staff Sergeant Crisp, the shift supervisor, that we should play a joke on Butch by editing a copy of my orders and putting Butch's name on it.

This now became a group effort of the few of us that were in the shop that evening to pull this nasty trick on Butch. We methodically took a copy of my orders, erased my name, social security number and leave address, applied the necessary whiteout and typed in all of his personal information in place of mine. Then someone ran upstairs to one of the offices, made some copies and stapled them together to make it really look official.

Later that night when Butch came in off the flightline, Sergeant Crisp called him into the shop chiefs office and told him the bad news; that he had an assignment to Korat, and handed him the orders. He was obviously in shock. He was so worried about how his wife would handle the news that he decided to call her right away. She didn't take this news well at all. We could hear her crying and screaming on the phone as Butch tried to calm her down and assure her how everything was going to be OK. Finally enough was enough, and someone spoke up and told him it was just a joke. Butch was a good sport about the whole thing, and we all laughed it off the rest of the night. We got him good, but we felt a little guilty about how it affected his wife.

Sometime during that night while at work, Butch lost his line badge somewhere and the next morning he needed to go to the orderly room to initiate the required paperwork to get issued a new one. While he was in there, one of the clerks recognized him right away and said "Oh by the way Sergeant Broadwater, I was trying to get hold of you this morning. An assignment came in for you. Youre going to Thailand". Butch of course just went through that gag the night before so he wasn't biting again. This time though it was a legitimate assignment notification, and no one was pulling a joke on him this time. Once he realized this, he immediately ran down the hall to my barracks room and started pounding on my door while screaming "ELLIS! YOU-SON-OF-A-BITCH!" He thought for sure that I had something to do with it. I can't remember how his wife took the news.

The Air Force sure was a great place to make new friends. Butch and I became really close, almost like brothers. Another thing about the Air Force though is that no one stays in one place forever. This made it really difficult to maintain those friendships. Butch and I both left Seymour Johnson around the same time and picked up our lives at new locations. We haven't had contact with each other since, and about the only thing I can remember is that his home was near Jacksonville Florida. I often wondered if he stayed in the Air Force like I did, or if he got out like most guys and returned to his home of record. This loss of contact with friends would repeat itself many times throughout my career with Uncle Sam.

I don't remember much else about my assignment to the 4th but 1st Fighter Wing. I was only assigned there for a year, but spent six months TDY to Ubon, two weeks at Hickam, and now I was taking 30 days leave over Christmas before I had to report to Korat in early January. As a matter of fact I set foot on Korat exactly one year to the day after I left Utapao. That Chief at Airmans Assignments actually pulled through for me after all.

Korat and the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing

I arrived at Korat on a C-141 from Travis in early January 1974. God, I was so glad to be back in Thailand that I could hardly stand it. With nearly all of the previous two years in country, I was really getting accustomed to the lifestyle. It was unbelievable how much further a dollar would go in Thailand versus in the United States. At Seymour Johnson I was really struggling on the pay of an E-4 while in Thailand I making more than most of the people in that country.

The first thing on my list after arriving this time was to get Paiboon up at Korat with me. Since my good friend Garland from Utapao had rotated back to the States, I don't remember exactly how I got in touch with her, but we somehow agreed to meet at the gate at a certain time on a certain date. That date and time came, and we were so glad to see each other again. After my stay at Ubon was cut short on such notice, we both agreed we had better proceed with the paperwork required for getting married.

Getting married to a Thai National was not as simple as you may think back then. Due to my rank, I first had to get written permission from my squadron commander. We then had to complete a checklist that had everything on it from getting her a chest X-ray, to a briefing by the chaplain, to the background investigation by the OSI, to you name it. To this day I think the Air Force purposely made it difficult on us to avoid spur of the moment marriages. After all, it wasn't hard to fall in love over there with all those beautiful girls. I can understand that the Air Force was looking out for our best interest however, because alot of those beautiful girls were just looking for a free trip to the United States.

It seemed to take forever to get that background investigation by the OSI completed, but once it was completed we didn't hesitate any longer. We got married on April 1st, and I guess at that age it was kind of fitting that we should be married on April Fools Day.

It was extremely difficult for both of us to pass the word of our marriage on to our parents. I grew up in an ultra conservative area of western Pennsylvania. My dad was a Roman Catholic and my mother was Lutheran. I wasn't quite sure how they were going to react to the news that their son married an oriental Bhuddist. But, as I would find out later, they accepted her into the family as though she was their own daughter. I was so glad to have parents that understood the power of love.

As for Paiboon, passing the word onto her parents that she married a Falong was probably even more difficult. The older uneducated Thais didn't really see the true American. Their exposure to the Americans was only what they saw in the GI presence in their country. That was not always an image to be proud of. I only met her father once, and due to the communication barrier I never did learn to know how he took to me being his son-in-law. Paiboon once told me later however that even though he hated seeing her leave, he knew it would result in a much better life than she could ever have had in Thailand. As for her mother, she came to spend a summer with us in the States many years later and we got along great. She found out first hand what a good life her only daughter was enjoying in the United States.

That year spent at Korat was really a year of transition. Not only because I was a newlywed, but because the Air Force presence in Thailand was rapidly changing as well. Many of the other bases in Thailand were beginning to close, however many of the aircraft were still required in-theater to show our presence to the North Vietnamese. As the other bases began close, these aircraft were sent to Korat. As if we didn't have enough aircraft at Korat as it was.

When I arrived at Korat, we had quite a variety of aircraft: B-66s, A-7s, F-4s, F-105s, C-121s, C-130 trash haulers, and some C-130s with electronic capsules in them. I don't think I ever really knew the mission of those capsules, but if I did I forgot. The B-66s were sent back to the States shortly after I arrived, so I never really had to work on them. When Takhli closed, we received F-111s, and as Ubon was closing down we got more F-4s and the AC-130 gunships. As an aircraft electrician, we weren't as specialized as some of the avionics career fields. We could work on anything that had wings and wires. It was quite a challenge to say the least.

Shortly after we got married, as this shuffling of airplanes was taking place, out of the blue I was given an out of cycle assignment to the Philippines. This obviously ruined my whole day, and I was convinced that the Air Force made a terrible mistake. After all, I was sent to Korat in January on a one-year tour and this was only May. It seems that I was sent to Korat under a code that identified me with the C-130 aircraft, and the trash haulers were being transferred to Clark Air Base.

This assignment once again put me in a real uncomfortable position. I had only been married a few weeks and Paiboons passport and visa paperwork hadn't even been started. If I had to go, I knew that there was no way possible for her to travel with me. She would have to follow when she received her passport and visa.

My shop chief, Master Sergeant Head, was a very approachable guy. I bent his ear as much as I could by telling him what affect this assignment was going to have on me. He sympathized with me, but told me that the only way out of it was to find someone of equal rank in the shop who would be willing to go in my place, and to hope that the Personnel Center would allow us to swap. Luckily I found a guy named Paul Breymeyer who was willing to go in my place. He had been to the Philippines before, and was more than willing to trade so we made the request. I was on pins and needles for a few days, but finally it came through that Breymeyer could go in my place. God came through again, and Breymeyer shipped out in a matter of just a week or two.

I had a really great time shile at Korat, but the memories are not near as vivid as the time I spent at Utapao and Ubon. The city of Korat was a few miles away from the base, which resulted in a bus ride to and from work everyday. We had a small bungalow not far from the train station called Ban-Chaleun. It was a fenced compound of perhaps 15 or 20 bungalows, which was owned by a wealthy Thai family. Everyone in the compound knew each other, and we all got along great. It was really a close knit bunch of people. The Thai family that owned the place really made each of us feel like part of their family.

The night before becoming a Bhuddist Monk

The night before becoming a Bhuddist Monk

A really fond memory I have of this group of people is when two young men in this Thai family were to become Buddhist monks. The family hosted a huge party at the compound the night before, with more food and drink than you could imagine. The two who were to become monks the next day wore white robes, and there was a ceremony that evening where their heads were shaved. Everyone ate, drank and danced to the live band playing Thai music well into the night.

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The procession to the Temple

The next morning, everyone who was at the party the night before all lined up in a procession as we paraded throughout the city of Korat to the Buddhist Temple. This is where these young men would spend the next 30 days. Once at the Temple the two new new monks, dressed in their white robes, walked up the steps, turned around, and tossed a fistful of coins to the group of spectators. This was to symbolize them throwing away all of their worldly possessions and dedicating the next 30 days to Buddha.

Paiboon and I never really got to take a honeymoon when we were married, so a couple of months later we took a trip to Chaing Mai in northern Thailand. We took an air-conditioned bus up there from Korat and spent about four days seeing the sights. Paiboon was from Lopburi, and was from a poor farm family, so she never visited that part of the country before either. We stayed at the Prince Hotel, and had a guide take us to Doi Suthep, PhuPhing Palace (The Kings summer home), and all of the craft factories that made lacquer ware, wood carvings, silk, pottery etc. It was really an educational experience for both of us because it was so unlike the other parts of Thailand.

I also wanted to make another trip back to Utapao one last time before I rotated back to the States. My good friend Garland was gone now, but I still had fond memories of the place and I wanted to return one more time if I could. I was able to get a few days off somehow, so Paiboon and I decided to take a bus to Utapao. This trip gave true meaning to the term adventure.

We caught our bus at the bus station in Korat. This time it wasn't the luxury bus like the one we took to Chaing Mai, instead it was the dreaded big red. This was the one I had witnessed with the black diesel smoke just pouring out of the exhaust, and because of it's size literally ruled the roads in Thailand. Riding in one of these is a truly Thailand experience. These things go what seems like a hundred miles an hour and pass anything that is slower than they want to go. The only way to keep your pulse at a normal rate is to not look straight ahead to see what is coming.

About an hour or so into the trip, while we were cruising at what seemed like the speed of mach one, our driver all of a sudden stood on the brakes to bring this hughe orange Mercedes monster to a stop. I wondered what in the hell happened until I saw him get out of the bus, run behind the bus about 50 yards and return with the dead bird he had just hit. The driver had just gotten lucky, and killed some meat to throw into his soup at home.

An hour or two later, again while still cruising as fast as this thing would go, the driver stood on the brakes again. After screeching to a stop, he got out and began screaming out across a rice field. Then he came back into the bus and grabbed a handgun from under the seat and started shooting out across the field. With me being the only Falong on the bus, needless to say English was not the chosen language at the moment. To this day I still have no idea what that was all about. And Paiboon, even though she is fluent in Thai said she could only guess. She was as suprised at the whole ordeal as I was.

After the initial shock of just riding in this thing, hitting the bird, and then the shooting, I figured nothing else on this trip could possibly shake me up. Wrong! An hour or two later just after it got dark and I was beginning to doze off despite the speed and wind noise from the open windows. You guessed it; the driver jumped on the brakes again. When I woke up, it was pitch black. I mean there was not a light on in the whole bus, as it swerved back and forth just to stay on pavement. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, it did finally come to a complete stop. It seems that there was an electrical problem that took out all of the lights including the headlights. The driver and a passenger got out and looked under the hood of the bus with a flashlight, and I could barely hear them chattering in Thai. I got a peek at them through the crack left between the hood and windshield though, and I saw one of them twist some wires together with his fingers. Just like that, the lights came on and we were back to doing what seemed like 100 miles per hour again. That bus ride is one I will never forget.

Once at Utapao, I found that things were no longer the same. All of my friends that I had while I was stationed there had rotated back to the states and the atmosphere was completely different. Even Newland was a different place. On the North side of the highway, just across from Newland someone went in and built some high class nightclubs and called it Freeland. I dont know how it got that name, because the prices were high and everyone of them had a cover charge. Down in the old Newland, the Long Branch and Lucky Dollar were still open, but it was obvious that very soon they too would be run out of business like many of the other bars. There was only a trickle of GIs walking the street, and even fewer sitting in the bars that remained open. From my viewpoint, it definitely was not a change for the better.

After "the bus trip from hell" to get down to Utapao, I wasn't prepared to tempt fate and go for another ride like that. So, to return to Korat we instead rented a car with a driver to take us back up country. I am pleased to say it was completely uneventful.

Another vivid memory I have of Korat is an experience I had going to work one morning. The compound we lived in was about 300 yards across an open field to the baht bus stop on the route to the base. I had walked it many times before, many times alone, and always without incident. It was a well-traveled path, and I often would see members of the Thai Air Force out there jogging on the circular pathway.

In the mornings, I would usually with one or two of the other GIs that lived there, and we would walk to the bus stop together, but this particular morning I decided to go it alone. About half way across the field I saw a couple of fellows jogging towards me and as the first one passed by me, he immediately turned around and put a knife to my back. This was just as the other one was directly in front of me. They stole my Seiko watch and my wallet with about 20 bucks, but that was that. I reported it to the Security Police in order to get an new ID card, and that was the last of that.

In my nearly three years over there, that is the only negative incident I had, and I honestly blame myself for putting myself in that position. The only person that was more upset about it than Paiboon was the Papa-san from our housing compound. He was furious. Everyday after that, he would have one of his vehicles at the gate to take us to the bus stop or drive us to the base.

As the saying goes, time really flies when youre having fun. It sure held true in 1974, because that year at Korat went by in no time at all. It was December, and my year was up. I distinctly remember the night before I was to depart for the States, the Papasan had a big going away party for us at the bungalow compound. We partied well into the night and I was so thankful for the great friendships that I made, and the memories of Thailand from the previous three years. The only regret I have of that time I spent in Thailand is not writing down some names and trying to stay in touch with some of the comrades with which I served. I met so many wonderful people over there - not only US Servicemen but a lot of Thai Nationals as well. It's such a shame that at the moment I never thought to jot down a name and address. Here I am nearly 30 years later. I can still see their faces, but can only remember a few of their names.

As for Paiboon and I. Well, as rare as it may seem to have two people from such different cultures stay together for any length of time, I can honestly say I am happier now than at any time in my life. We've been together since 1972 and we have two wonderful children. I feel the only appropriate words to use in closing are words that I used once or twice previously in this written recollection. As I look back over the wonderful three years I spent in this exotic corner of the world I can only close by saying; "Yes, there really is a God"

You can read more about some of my experiences or view some of my photographs by making your selection on the left side of this page.