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Written Memories Part II

Three Years in the Life (Continued)

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Linebacker II

Bombs Bombs and More Bombs

Bombs being trucked to the B-52s

Up until about 10 months into the tour my life developed into a hazy routine without much real thought of the terrible war that was going on just a couple hours away to the east. Our limited exposure to the war was through the government controlled Stars and Stripes newspaper, and the two or three-week old stateside newspapers we would see in the USO. The news we heard was never about the number of men being killed or what was being bombed. It was always about Nixon and Kissinger's effort to bring an end to the war. The truckload after truckload of bombs being loaded onto the Buffs never really sank in. Maybe it was because it became so routine to see all the bombs and firepower around me, or maybe it was because I was just an immature 19 year old kid who had up this point kept his mind occupied with the 12 hour shifts of working electrical problems on the B-52s, and the off duty party life.

Then one day, the reality of the war and our part in it, really set in with me and my buddies. We knew something was about to happen when all of our days off were canceled. The rumor was that President Nixon had ordered the bombing of Hanoi and the mining of Haiphong harbor. Suddenly hundreds of planes began taking off and landing each day, many more than what I had witnessed thus far in my tour.

It was the 18th of December 1972, and Operation Linebacker II had just begun.  During the next several days I remember hearing about some of our B-52 crews refusing to fly because they were being sent in as sitting ducks over the same SAM sites, but it wasn't an issue with any of us maintenance guys. We just did our jobs to keep the planes mission capable. Our B-52Ds had the black bellies, so they were usually tasked to fly the night missions. The G models with the white bellies flew most of the daylight missions.  

I don't remember the exact date, but it was just a day or two into the campaign when I was awakened about 0430 by a far off muffled explosion. I tossed and turned and couldn't get back to sleep, so I headed into work. Rollcall was at 0600 anyways.  It was then that I learned that a crippled B-52 had crashed on approach at the end of the runway. All but two of the crewmembers were killed. In all, through the course of the 11-day operation, I think seven bombers from Utapao and eight or nine from Guam were lost to the enemy SAMS. Reality had finally sunk in.  Everyone now really felt like they were contributing something to the war. In our hearts we just knew that since we were now permitted to unleash our power that we were going to walk away as the victors in this unpopular war.

Little did I realize until many years later what real effect those 11 days had on the war and the individual lives it touched. It wasn't until about 18 years later, in 1990, when I was a student at the Senior NCO Academy at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery Alabama. A former Vietnam Prisoner of War, who was in the Hanoi Hilton at the time of those bombings, was asked to come over from the War College across town to speak to our group of one hundred or so Senior NCOs. To this date it is the most moving story of the war that I've ever heard.

He was an army grunt who was captured at the age of 19 and held as prisoner by the North Vietnamese for seven years. As he spoke in the auditorium filled with blue-suiters, he walked the aisles rather than standing behind a podium on the stage. He told his story of being captured and of his harsh treatment as he paced in square patterns over the auditorium aisles. This was probably a habit he formed while being confined in his small cell for such a long period of time. Most of his words were really what you would expect if you had seen movies or read books about the treatment of our POWs. The story of his capture and torture however is not what I remember the most about is talk with us that afternoon. Rather it was the words he shared about his return to the States in 1973.

He told us that the most difficult thing to accept was not what had happened to him, but how everything had changed while he was gone. He explained that as a 19 year old being captured and held isolated from the real world for a little more than seven years, he remained as that 19-year old; even in his 26-year old body. When he saw his mother for the first time after all those years, he told how he wept not because he was so happy to be in her arms again, but because this was the first time he realized he had been robbed of seven of his years of his life. When he departed the States for Vietnam in 1966 his mother was a beautiful dark-haired woman with a youthful smile. Now, upon his return she had touches of gray and wrinkles on her face that were not there seven years earlier.  She now had the look of someone who could be a grandmother.

He went on to tell us how upon his return when he telephoned his old high school buddies to go out on the town, he ran up against one unfamiliar story after another. Their wives wouldn't let them out, the kids were sick, or some other excuse that this 19-year old just couldn't comprehend coming from his good buddies. He was unable to get used to the idea that he should now be a mature 26-year old man rather than a young kid just out of high school. Time somehow went on during those seven-years and everyone he knew grew older. But for him it was like his life skipped a seven-year beat. He was the same young boy who had just gone off to the Army.

After about twenty minutes or so of unrehearsed speech, he opened it up to our group for questions. Many questions asked of him were about his treatment while being held captive, and the answers were as you might expect; torture, starvation and worse. When I was given the opportunity to ask a question, I asked him what those days and nights were like during Linebacker II when the B-52s filled the skies over Hanoi with more conventional explosive power than had ever been seen in any war in history.

He put a lump the size of a baseball in my throat and gave me a sense of pride about those days that I've never felt before or since. After nearly seven years in captivity, he said it was the first time since being captured that he felt that someone cared about him and his fellow prisoners. He also knew now that the end was near because the sound of the bombs exploding in the distance brought a completely different atmosphere in the compound. The guards began treating them like captives rather than animals, and the meals began to have some substance to them. He knew then that the powers in Washington finally meant business and it was only going to be a matter of time until something broke; and as the history books now record, he and our other POWs were released about six weeks later in February of 1973.

The hour or so spent with this graying colonel was one of those experiences where you had to be there to really feel and understand it all. Someone like myself trying to explain the feeling in that auditorium is an impossible task. It's like trying to explain the Grand Canyon to someone who has never seen it, or how you felt when you heard Kennedy had been shot. But in a way, wasn't the entire South East Asia experience that way to those who served there? If you weren't over there at that particular time in history, you'll never know what it was like. There are no words in any language that can explain it.

As I mentioned earlier, I've learned over the years that people tend to remember the good times and forget the bad, and that they tend to exaggerate their experiences as time goes by. In my case, I too probably tend to remember a lot more of the good times than the bad. I probably have somewhat of a selective memory and tend to exaggerate from time to time as well. But I definitely learned from this gentleman how fortunate I was to experience so many more of the good times than most people did over there. I thank God for that.

I also remember during those 1972 Christmas bombings, that the great Bob Hope was to visit our base. All I can remember is that it was a late afternoon or early evening show, and knowing the tradition of Bob Hope shows it really made anyone in attendance feel really special. I can still see him up on stage with his golf club. The other celebrities I remember being with him were Lola Falana, Joey Heatherton, and Neil Armstrong. Can you imagine what it was like back in 1972 for a young GI to see the first man to ever walk on the moon? Wow!

Shortly after the 11-day Linebacker II operation ended, it was my time to rotate back to the States. My year was up and although I was anxious to get back to the land of the big BX, deep down I really didn't want to go. Just a couple of months earlier, I met this really special girl, Paiboon. I felt that if I had to leave now, I might never get to see her again.

I made a lot of friends in that short year at Utapao. I guess it only makes sense that on a base that size, and with everyone only serving a year, that a lot of people will come and go. It never dawned on me how many good friends I had made until the night of my going away party. Paiboon and my good friend Garland arranged this thing on a deserted beach about 10 kilometers from the base and I was really surprised at the number of people that showed up. We sat around campfires eating grilled prawns and shish-ka-bob and drinking beer until early the next morning. I think that night was the first I realized that I was in love with Paiboon.

My assignment was the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina. I heard that they had a squadron of F-4Es with support personnel deployed in northern Thailand at Ubon Air Base. I didn't know what my chances were of returning to the land of smiles, but the wheels in my head were beginning to turn. All I could do was promise Paiboon that I would write, that I had a good chance of getting back to Ubon, and that I would let her know as soon as I was coming back. I departed Thailand on the "Freedom Bird" or "Silver Samlar" around the 10th of January 1973. Seems like everyone on that plane cheered at liftoff but me.

Back in the World

The year 1972 was by any standard a very troubled time in our nation's history. The Kent State shooting had just occurred 18 months earlier, and the anti-war movement was as strong as ever. The American people were fed up and tired of hearing Walter Cronkite close his nightly newscast by giving the number of American troops killed in Vietnam that day. This public outrage and hatred was beginning to be vented towards the US troops. Lucky for me I was out of the country during most of the early 70s so I only recall seeing demonstrators at the main gate at Travis Air Force Base as I was passing through. I was never spat upon and was never called a baby killer, but I guess it did happen. I do know that I was never afraid to wear my uniform off base no matter where I was. My father, a WWII veteran taught me to be proud of my profession, and I was.

Even though on paper the civil rights movement was over, there was still a lot of racial strife going on then too. In 1972 there were even race riots at Travis Air Force Base. That is actually what brought about the race relations classes that all of the military people were required to attend over the next several years. I grew up in a small western Pennsylvania town; one which only had one or two black families. This racial strife was all TV and newspaper stuff to me. I never experienced first hand any of the rock and bottle throwing violence that was seen on TV.

During the year I spent at Utapao I do recall the black brothers going through their greeting routine called "The Dap". This was a series of choreographed slaps and taps with their hands that at times seemed would drag on forever. I must admit it was a little annoying while waiting in line at the chow hall or something, but it was really no big deal. A lot of guys thought they did it just to annoy the whites.

Calvin kirk

One of my room mates, Calvin Kirk

I always got along well with everyone. I had a pretty good friend at the time that was black by the name of Calvin Kirk. We had met on the plane going over to Utapao, processed into the squadron together, lived in the same barracks, and even left on the same plane together. In the late 1970s we were fortunate enough to meet up with each other again when we were stationed together at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa Florida. He was about the same age as me and worked in the corrosion control shop. I lost track of him like I did with so many other aquaintences when I left there in 1985.

Immediately after my return from Utapao, I took a few days of leave at home in western Pennsylvania before heading south to my new assignment in Goldsboro North Carolina. Although readjusting to the States was nothing as extreme as the return of the colonel who spoke to us at the Senior NCO Academy, I can associate with some of the feelings he said he experienced upon his return.

When I tried to get together with some of my old high school buddies, it seemed most of them were now married and were tied down. Some of them even had kids already. I found that after only one short year I now had very little in common with these guys; the same guys with whom I had spent nearly all of my life. What was really difficult for me to accept, was the look they gave me when I tried to explain what life was like in Thailand. They looked at me as though I was lying. No way were they going to believe that there were lizards over there the size of footballs that would say "_ _uck you, _ _ uck you", or that beautiful girls with numbers on them would sit in an aquarium waiting to go in the back room to give a you a massage. After awhile, I just gave up trying to explain what I had seen. I just tried to blend into their conversations about the drag racing and deer hunting, but after a year of what I had just witnessed, that was no longer exciting to me. After a few days of this I was more than ready to move on and get back to my Air Force.

I drove my 1970 Camaro to Seymour Johnson and arrived on a Sunday evening where I immediately called my new supervisor to let him know who I was, and where I was coming from. He told me where to report the next morning, and asked how I liked Thailand. When I told him I loved it, he asked me "Do you want to go back"? It seems the six-month rotation of personnel at Ubon was coming up and they were still looking for volunteers. Yes! There is a God! I arrived at this base just at the right time. After a day or two of processing into the base, getting issued my personal tool box from base supply, and driving my car back home, I was on my way back to Thailand after only about three weeks in the States.

I wasn't so lucky as to fly commercial this time across the Pacific pond. I, along with about 100 other guys, got to ride a C-141 packed full of supplies and equipment from Goldsboro North Carolina half way around the world. We were on our way to Ubon Rachitani with just one stop at Elmendorf in Anchorage Alaska. We were only on the ground in Alaska long enough to refuel, but I did get a chance to get off the plane to see the beautiful snow covered mountains and to snap a few pictures. I knew from the year before, that this was going to be the last I would see temperatures below 65 degrees until I once again returned to the States. Incidentally, I would return to Elmendorf as a Senior Master Sergeant in 1990 and this would be my final Air Force assignment.

Continued in Written Memories Part III
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Written Memories Part III

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