Vietnam First Impressions

I wish I could remember more about going to Vietnam.  I don't mean being in Vietnam but rather, the going and the first week.  I can remember being at Eglin AFB in the Florida panhandle for just a few months and all the talk was about the F-4 Wing going to the war.  I can remember sitting on a radar scope and learning how to control and thinking this is bull shit.  Nothing but training.  The place was crawling with 2/Lts and I was one of them.  I mean we were falling all over ourselves trying to keep busy.  The radar site was at an airfield that was 25 miles from main base out in the middle of the pine forest.


All of lieutenants had to pulled officer of the day.  Actually it was just called OD.  What you really had to do was spend a night or weekend in the admin shop along with an NCO.  On the weekends it was quiet, very quiet.  They were converting a hanger by the runway into some big project and when they first started I walked all around the place.  They were putting up these huge plotting boards and constructing all these little pedestal with telephones.  A few weeks late a C-121 Super Constellation flew in and spent some time next to the hanger.  Many months later I was told they were constructing the Task Force Alpha test facility before taking it to SEA.  This was part of McNamara's electronic wall.  Sometimes during the week the security police would come around and make everyone get out of the offices near the runway.  They were flying QF-104s out of this field.  The airplane would be started by remote control from a van next to the runway and then a T-33 (T-bird) would swoop down as the QF-104 started its takeoff.  Control would be passed from the van to the pilot in the T-bird and they'd take the 104 out over the gulf and fighters would shoot at it.  I was told the idea was not to hit the drone but rather to see how close you could come.  They claimed to have lost one and found it orbiting over Birmingham, AL.  I doubt that since those airplanes couldn't stay up very long at all.

One day I got tired of all this crap and did two things.  I wrangled a slot to a school at Hurlburt called Air Ground Operations School and I volunteered for Vietnam.  Several of the other lieutenants said I was crazy.  All of us were going remote to somewhere.  Many of them were going to places on the DEW line or to radar sites in Okinawa or Korea.  Several of the guys said I didn't know what I was getting myself into.  They stressed the chances of getting killed.  I listened and volunteered just the same.  I mean who would want to go to Northern Alaska when you could go to Vietnam.  When I went into the Consolidated Base Personal Office (CBPO) and signed the volunteer papers the NCO asked me if I was sure that this was what I wanted. 
It didn't take long to find out the results.  I was in AGOS learning all about how airpower supported the army and how the Direct Air Support Center worked and the air request net and how you de-conflicted artillery with aviation assets.  You sat in these overstuffed theater seats that put you to sleep and watched all these boards and lights move explaining how everything worked.  One day I had a note to call back to my unit and they told me I was going to Vietnam.  It was to a detachment that no one had heard of and no one knew where it was.  I figured I find out when I got there.  A few weeks later I get a portcall for McChord AFB in Washington.  My folks lived in Southern Oregon so I got a chance to see them before I left.  They took me to McChord and as I look back on it I can't believe how hard it must have been for them...taking there only child to the airport so he could go to Vietnam.  I never told them I volunteered.  I think they suspected it but I never said anything.

When the airplane left we went over the top.  That is the airplane stopped in Yokoto but I never got out of the airport terminal.  When we took off from there the next stop was Cam Rhan Bay.  Now I do remember something about that part of the trip.  The closer to Vietnam the airplane got the quieter it got. 

There was a mixed bag of people on the airplane.  Some had been to the war and were returning for another tour.  Some were very young and very uncertain about what was ahead.  And then I remember the weather.  It was late in the afternoon as we approached Cam Rhan but the sun was shining all over the airplane.  Then the pilot started his decent into Vietnam and went through a thick layer of clouds.  Underneath it was cold, dark and rainy.  And I'll tell you that was the greatest jolt of what was to come. 

When we got off the airplane in Cam Rhan I saw sights I couldn't describe.  There was a mass of humanity waiting in the hanger for airplanes.  Some were going home, others going on R & R, and others, like me, were waiting for a ride to our duty station.  It didn't take but a minute to determine who was who.  I'd never seen such an assortment of uniforms and partial uniforms in my life.  As we walked around one of the guys that had been on the airplane with me whispered, "I guess you can tell what the guy's give-a-shit factor is."  But it was more than the uniforms.  You could see it in their eyes and on their faces.  It was sadness and pain.

I finally wandered over to a counter and showed my orders to somebody.  They told they'd be a C-123 going to Nha Trang in a couple of hours.  It was the middle of the night when we took off for the very short (15 minute) flight to Nha Trang.  There weren't many passengers on the airplane and when we stopped it was still raining.  Just about everything at the airfield was closed.  I was concerned.  I didn't know how secure this place was.  All I knew was that I was in Vietnam and somebody could kill me at any instant.  I felt like I was being immersed in all of these strange sights and sounds and I didn't have a clue.  It was a vulnerable feeling.  I hung around the base until daylight and people started coming to work.  That's when I learned I had to take a boat to my duty station.  They told me I had to go down the beach a couple of miles to where the LST was on the beach.

I found the LST and hung around until things started happening.  Soon I was aboard along with a handful of people and some jeeps and deuce-a-half's headed for Hon Tre.  A couple of the people said they'd been expecting me and reminded me I only had 364 days and a wakeup.  They on the other hand were going home much sooner.