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In early 1970 I returned from work one day to find that my father had put a note on the front door, "Bon voyage." I knew what that meant. A marine recruiter had been calling me every couple of weeks to let me know what number the selective service was calling at the time. My lottery number was 151. As I recall the official notice read, "Greetings from your friends and neighbors, you have been selected to serve in America's fighting forces..."
In June of that year I was inducted into the U.S. Army. After basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, I was sent to radio operator school. A major portion of this school was learning morse code. One of the incentive that was offered was that if you did well in morse code you might be selected to go to radio-teletype operator school. I did my best and was selected for the additional schooling. The radio-teletype schooling was at Fort Gordon, Georgia.
After these 5 months of training I returned home for leave. This brief vacation was my last for the next year. In January 1971 I shipped off to Vietnam. I was 20 years old, naive and patriotic. I really had no idea what the Vietnam War was all about, but I "knew" it was my duty to go. I never questioned it.
The story of my Vietnam service is not written in blood or violence. I saw very little of that part of the war. The story of my Vietnam service is written in sweat, boredom and stress. I was assigned to the Second Signal Group, Aviation Detachment in Long Thanh North. My job title was radio relay operator.
My primary job was to fly in a light aircraft (U-21) and facilitate radio transmissions between ground troops in the field and their headquarters. Ideally this was just a matter of tuning a couple of radios and listening for endless hours as we circled the combat zone below. But on many occasions the equipment malfunctioned and I manually relayed messages between the two parties.
My training did not prepare me exactly for the job I was asked to do. I had never flown in an aircraft before my trip to Vietnam. I was never trained on the radio equipment I had to operate. I took one flight as on-the-job-training and I was on my own. Our crew consisted of pilot, co-pilot and radio operator. We used encrypted transmissions which complicated things a bit.
Our missions were almost always at night. We would support ground troops as they moved out of range of their headquarters radios. If their mission lasted any length of time a ground relay would eventually be set up and we would be released. But usually we supported brief ground missions that went temporarily out of their radio range.
Over the course of the year I flew to most parts of South Vietnam north of the Mekong River. Although we were based out of Long Thanh North, I probably spent more time away from there than living there. We would go TDY (on temporary duty) to an air base near our mission area.
I spent a considerable amount of time in DaNang Air Base flying missions near the DMZ and over Laos. In this area we often supported Vietnamese troops. We also flew a little out of Hue. One of my favorite assignments was a mission we flew out of Pleiku. We had flush toilets!
A typical mission started with a call from the pilot in the middle of the night. While the crew chief got the plane ready we were briefed and given our encryption information. We keyed this into a special device which we carried with us. One of the first things I would do when boarding the plane was to use this device to set the codes on the radios. Basically I plugged it in and gave it a push and pulled it back out.
Once we were airborne the pilot would let me know when we were in our target area. At that point I would begin attempting to communicate with the parties involved. It was unpredictable whether this would be an easy process or long and drawn out. Believe it or not, many times the guys on the ground had no idea who I was or what I was going to do to help them.
If all went well I would eventually have communications set up with the two parties on separate frequencies. I would simply throw a switch and if the equipment worked right the two parties could then talk directly with one another. It was great when it worked. Trouble is it often didn't work.
It is scary now thinking back that peoples lives depended on what I was doing and whether the equipment worked. If there was equipment trouble I would have to sit there and manually relay transmissions. This was a lot less boring than a perfect mission, but also very stressful. I recall one instance where none of the radios worked properly and we ended up using the aircraft's flight radio to manually relay messages until we could get another plane airborne to take our place.
We flew quite often at night. It was rather eerie. Pitch black except for a few lights in the aircraft. You could often see flashes and explosions on the ground from the action below. B-52 flights were particularly impressive. Our planes were not armed, but in certain areas we were supported by aircraft that were. We usually flew at about 10,000 feet, which often put us right in the clouds. If danger lurked we would intentionally hide in the clouds.
I often thought about the danger. Our aircraft had no parachutes. We usually carried an M-16 and some ammunition or a 45 caliber pistol. Since my jungle training consisted of a brief time in a mock village in basic training I doubt I would have survived a crash even if I lived through it. I was basically unprepared for this whole experience.
Truthfully I had little idea at the time or even now whether I was in any particular danger during most of my missions. The pilots were usually pretty cryptic about where we were and what was really going on. But like anything else, you can read a person by their actions. There were many times I could sense their apprehension.
On the ground back at the airbases it was a different story. The sound of 122 mm rockets exploding nearby was pretty clear evidence of the danger involved. I lost count of the rocket attacks I shivered through in DaNang. The rockets would be picked up on radar and sirens would sound warning that there was incoming. Oh boy, thanks for the warning.
There was usually very little time to do anything but roll under a bunk or sprint to a shelter. I was always scared to death when that happened. Since we were TDY personnel in DaNang we always got the second best in accommodations. Essentially our accommodations were quonset tents that held about twenty guys.
After one attack which destroyed the mess hall next to our tent we were finally moved to a block building. Fortunately no one was hurt in that attack. In fact, it occurred while I was on a flight so I was spared that experience.
Our assignments in the north of the country were the only ones where we experienced actual rocket attacks. Down south the most excitement I had was the one occasion when during an alert some nearby friendly forces dropped several artillery rounds behind our lines and blew several holes in the runway.
During the second half of my tour we flew less and less. I spent a good deal of my time working in the avionics shop at Long Thanh North, pulling details and working guard duty. Eventually I began volunteering for guard duty and burm details just for something to do. Boredom was a constant companion.
I think a big part of the stress of my year in Vietnam was just that fact -- one day you're dodging rockets, the next you're bored to death. It was a never-ending cycle. The army command spent a good deal of effort just keeping us busy when we weren't busy with mission details. We hated it at the time, but looking back I can see the necessity of it.
There was a lighter side to my tour. In DaNang when TDY we were out from under the gun of most of our superiors. We answered directly to our pilots, who were mostly young, cocky and a bit irreverent when it came to protocol. I enjoyed many a day at China Beach, the local clubs and lounging around keeping up my tan.
There was one month period where I was completely on my own with no supervision! Incredibly, I was sent TDY to Vung Tau, a town on the coast, to work with some American electronics technicians in an attempt to fix our screwed up radios. I stayed in a barracks where no one knew me and I knew no one else.
Each day I would go and struggle with trying to fix the radios while the civilians I was supposed to be helping lounged around, slept or disappeared. If I hadn't put the effort into trying to find the problems myself I would have spent the rest of my tour there. My biggest beef was that I wasn't getting my mail. Eventually after about two weeks one of the pilots showed up with a box full of my mail.
Mail from home was my life-line. Most of my croanies were jealous of all the mail I received. My parents wrote me every single day, so there was seldom a mail call when I didn't get something. I also wrote home every day. I mentioned once in a letter home that one or two of my buddies never got mail. My mother began writing them too!
One of my favorite things from home were the audio tapes I would get. It was great to hear everyone's voices. I used the tapes too, to send home a better picture of what I was doing in that far away land. I remember always being torn between wanting to tell all and wanting to protect my family from worrying about me.
The support that I got from home was just incredible. It motivated me to do a good job, to think about the future when I'd finally go home and to be positive about things in general. The whole experience was tremendously positive from a personal perspective. I matured more in that year than I had in the 20 years before.
I've never really resolved in my own mind the justness or importance of the war in Vietnam. I think that is something that while significant as a global learning experience (so we don't repeat the mistakes of history) is not really significant to how it affected me personally. I felt at the time that I was fulfilling my duty to my country. That and a lot of love from home made it a positive experience for me.
The big lesson in it for me was that I am a survivor. I still feel that there is nothing I can't do if I set my mind to it. I often draw motivation by thinking back on my Vietnam experience and realizing that I did what I had to do, made the most of it, made it home and moved on. It was one of the defining moments, albeit a year-long moment, of my life.
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