Although born in 1947 and therefore 18 years at my high school graduation, I gave little thought to the draft situation at that time. For one thing, the war didn’t really grab anyone’s attention until late in 1965, and then the draft allotments began to creep up. But as long as you were enrolled in college, we understood that you were exempt.
For reasons I’ll never understand, I actually attempted to join the Navy after my college junior year. I found out just recently that two fellow Air Force comrades had done the same thing! We all failed our physicals, though, so nothing doing. I remember a feeling of great relief when I got the notice that many had applied but only a few could be taken, and I wasn’t one.
But after graduation a year later, the probability of getting the 1A notice was much in mind. I decided to ignore the possibility (after all, I was my father’s son), and went off to San Francisco to become a professional photographer, staying at my aunt’s. Although pounding the pavement is never any fun, I had a couple adventures, one of which I remember well.
I walked into a professional photo lab and asked about work. The young lady at the reception desk, about my age, whispered conspiratorially that this might indeed be my lucky day. The boss had just fired half his crew, and would surely be needing to restock the employment larder. An appointment was made for me, whether for that day or the next, I don’t recall.
I do remember the interview very well, however. I had brought in a small portfolio of pictures I had taken while at college, some of my very lovely girlfriend. These did not go unnoticed by the boss. But the general situation was interesting. He had had a crew of photofinishers that could be divided in half by the attributes of ‘artist’ and ‘technician’. Basically, technicians produced twice or more the work of the artists. Remember, this was a business, and although one that catered to artists (who were shooting on contract), it had no business being arty itself, in his opinion. The artists would argue for hours about this or that point while the technicians were busy producing finished prints, and after a while he just couldn’t take it anymore—out, all of you!
We talked a long time. Clearly, we both enjoyed the experience. My only chance was due to the fact that said boss had purchased—at great cost—a machine that more or less automatically solved the great problems of adjusting color filters. His problem was that the technicians wouldn’t use it—they’d been doing it by hand and that was good enough. So he played with the idea of this probably artist kind of guy using this machine in his shop. It wasn’t a computer—they didn’t exist yet, but it’s safe to say that all such shops are using computer-based equipment these days.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said to conclude our second day of interview, “I’ll consider this over the weekend. If I don’t call you on Monday, you call me.” I, too, thought it over that weekend. Although the subject of the draft had not explicitly arisen, I felt it strongly myself, and I eventually decided to join the Air Force and resolve the situation directly.
Why the Air Force? Well, when I began my junior year at UC Santa Cruz, I was faced with a requirement for two years of a foreign language. I had taken a year of German while at San Jose State, but only passed when I promised not to take another year (a joke, but not far off). Santa Cruz was a small school at the time, and the foreign language offerings were typical: Spanish, French, Russian, and German. But that year they’d added a new one: Chinese. Wow, I thought, that’s weird enough for me (it was the sixties, after all).
My teacher had moved down from Berkeley due to a fight with her department chair, probably over a grant from the Air Force she was working on—for computer translation of Chinese. It would take another book to describe this class and its effects on my life but let’s just say that it was a big deal for me. I figured that having studied two years, the Air Force would welcome me with open arms. My recruiter, who might well not have known what Chinese is, managed to convey that feeling to me, and even offered me a “guaranteed” position as “voice processing specialist.” I would not know for a couple years yet how amusing any such guarantee is in reality but the fact is that that is what happened. But we’re not there yet.
Anyway, I signed the papers in September, a fact that would entirely escape me until 1973 as I was getting out. It turned out that in September of that year (just minutes before my early out) I became a “career airman.” The benefits were incredible (personal baggage shipped back for free, a ticket for my wife!), and it was all a delightful surprise. Back to 1969, I went on active duty (ie, off to basic training) sometime in November, certainly before Thanksgiving.
We probably all have our memories of basic training. The training instructor (TI) for my flight was like the guy you see in the movies (“Get down and give me a hundred!”), and I’ll never forget as we rolled off the bus at Lackland (in the middle of the night, of course; was everyone like that?) that we assumed some kind of formation and the TI “interviewed” us, one by one. When he got to me, he announced to the flight that before long he was going to “wipe that smirk” off my face. I always got special attention, until he more or less retired from his job. Turned out he was months away from retirement and had opened a Der Wienerschnitzel franchise across the street from the base. So, he terrorized us for a couple weeks then had other things to do. The slack was made up by his assistant, a nice enough kind of guy who would come in to see us at night sometimes, reeking of booze. My introduction to the Air Force.
I have other “introductory” memories. The on-base facility that issued our field jackets (our first piece of uniform, thrown at us upon our arrival) would take an airman from the group each day to handle the actual “work” of sorting field jackets and making up bunches for the next incoming flight. The sergeant who ran this facility (he was the only one on staff) was a popular guy. All day long, various career guys would stop by either for a drink or—directly to the real reason—just to grab a free field jacket. Often these were for a son. Sarge would yell out to me “Get me a such-and-such size,” and the transfer of ownership would be made. He kept the bottle in the lower drawer of his desk, and at the rate I saw it being used, probably went through a couple bottles each week. More introduction to the Air Force.
I want to say that next to us in our spotless and very modern facilities was a flight that had a saint for a TI. He saw his task very simply: teacher. This is what you need to know to be in the Air Force. He was kind and his “students” loved him. We were jealous beyond description.
I truly remember very little from that—what, six weeks? But one memory is fun to run through my head every now and again. A flight-mate named Jim was the son of an Air Force chaplain. He found my company agreeable, even though I have not a religious bone in my body. We were strolling around one night and I must have mentioned that I like organ music. Jim then excitedly pointed out that he had the key to the Air Force chapel (which I recall was an I. M. Pei creation) and that he—Jim—could sort of play the organ there. Sort of.
He opened it up, and he went up to the organ loft while I found a place where I thought the sound might be best, and stretched out in the area where the preacher would normally do his work. As I often do when listening to classical music (Jim had promised to try to play some Bach), I closed my eyes and listened as Jim struggled to find some of the notes that Bach probably tried to use in his compositions. I didn’t care. Nothing else to do on what was probably a Saturday night, in an incredibly gorgeous space, and listening to the gorgeous sounds (if not actually music) of that chapel instrument.
At some point, I heard sounds I shouldn’t have been hearing. In other words, something other than Jim fiddling around on the keyboard. I opened my eyes and looked toward the pews. In the movie version of this we’ll have the entire church full of people, but in reality there were just a dozen or so couples. And that was the key: couples. With the number of men in basic training, there were undoubtedly going to be some with wives or girlfriends who either lived in the area or who came there intentionally to see their man. Where else could good church-going folks go than to a church? I felt horribly embarrassed, lying there on a part of the church that believers probably found sacred, but in the movie you’ll see that no one cared. Each couple was there for themselves, and chancing upon a church that night with actual music (or more accurately “music-like sounds”) from an organ was just too fortuitous to pass up.
We took a test during basic training. I remember it as being taught a Spanish-like language, then asked questions about it. The winners were assigned as “voice processing specialists.” I think I was already enlightened enough about Air Force practice to forget about bragging that I didn’t even have to pass the test to become a voice processing specialist. In truth, if I had not passed the test I would have become a policeman, as all the rest of my flight did. All the rest, except for Crow—the “Lurker.”
Crow was a tall, skinny guy who seemed to just hang around all the time. So much so that everyone called him “The Lurker.” His chief activity was getting to the top of the lockers we all had (with toothpaste that we had carefully pushed back into tube, to avoid the consequences befalling anyone who didn’t do this), and jumping down into the cot below, using his arms (wings) to mess up the bed, as he made his nest. Crow, who not one of us would have judged sane, was made an air traffic controller out of basic. More introduction to the Air Force.
Evidently, this was also when the winners of the fake language exam were given yet another test. This one I had a better chance of passing, as it was instruction in Mandarin Chinese, then an exam on same afterward. Winners of that experience were considered screened for competence in Chinese—the target language of that particular week—and slated for the next phase of training: Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. Oh Brer Fox, don’t throw me in the briar patch!
I think that Mandarin Air Force Aural Comprehension (MAFAC) was an eight-month course. Because Monterey was sort of near my home in the Santa Cruz area and because I would be married three months before graduation, I did not experience the Monterey area in the way that many of my classmates did. I lived in the barracks for five months, and have not a single memory of doing so (except for the pictures I took then). In June, my wife and I found a small apartment in the home of an immigrant Italian family, and lived something of an idyllic life for about three months. While I was doing Chinese at DLI, Lynn was doing intensive Japanese at Monterey Institute. She is racially Japanese, and her grandfather had even gone back to Japan after the death of his wife, his experience in the US during WWII not having endeared him to the American experience. We had great hopes of being stationed somewhere in Japan.
One Monterey experience I’ll describe here, as it would prove significant for the rest of my life. The “gang” (classmates from MAFAC, including an occasional wife or girlfriend) would often spend the evening at the Monterey Public Library. I can still remember one of my classmates excitedly exclaiming, having discovered H. P. Lovecraft, that we must find and read the Necronomicon (a fictional book of magic often referenced in Lovecraft stories)! That was easy for him to say, because he had not listened to a recording of “The Rats in the Walls” in a dorm with all the lights off.
But one of Lovecraft’s influences had a story included in some anthology I read in that library, and an impression of that story has stayed with me ever since. Eventually, I found it and published it on my web site: How the Office of Postman Fell Vacant. I would become a “student” of its author—Lord Dunsany—in the late 1990s, just from remembering that story read in 1970.
We finished our MAFAC course in August 1970, and flew back to Texas—this time to San Angelo—for training in the equipment and techniques of reconnaissance by radio. This was probably our first real experience as airmen. We lived in WWII barracks with guys from all sorts of languages, and had a fair amount of time to ourselves. Of course, without a car one wasn’t going to be going too far, but we got into town on occasion. I remember my first experience of Brahms German Requiem, sung by the San Angelo community choir and orchestra. I would hear it several more times in concert over the next 40+ years, and thank them for that introduction.
The base had photo facilities, too. I remember a decent darkroom, and I suppose that some of the negatives I retained (until converting them in the digital age) were processed there, probably even the set of portraits I did of airmen I must have been fairly close to. One, I still know! And the library was good, too. All in all, not a bad life.
For Thanksgiving that year, two couples who were living in a trailer near the base both went home for the holiday, and my wife flew out to have Thanksgiving dinner with me. Although we would only learn after this event that bases often serve holiday meals especially for families, we walked into town (quite an adventure, that) and ate at the only restaurant that was open—a Mexican restaurant. It was wonderful. I doubt that Lynn fell in love with Texas but at least she’d seen something of how I lived and therefore what she might expect when we received orders for whatever base to which I’d be sent.
At some point in the Goodfellow experience, we had to make a decision: should we go airborne? For me, this was a done deal. The rumor mill had it that only airborne intercept missions were at bases that welcomed dependents: Yokota, Japan and Kadena, Okinawa. That meant I would be flying. I cannot now recall whether they had to force some guys to go on flight status, but I do recall that the general desire was to stay on the ground.
Whatever. Those of us slated for flight status were sent to Webb AFB, somewhere else in Texas, and I suppose those who weren’t flew off to their postings. All of us went overseas, and all to the Pacific Rim. Bases of which I’m aware included Taiwan, the Philippines, and Thailand.
Webb was kind of a kick. I can still remember the mess hall. It was not unlike entering the dining room of a Hilton hotel. I had never seen anything like it, nor would I again. Food (every kind you can imagine) was available on a central buffet, and you simply helped yourself. Very, very unmilitary and very, very wonderful.
We did some kind of training to familiarize us with aspects of life in the air. I remember getting picked for the oxygen deprivation demonstration. I was deprived of oxygen and then told to name the cards in a deck, one by one. Evidently, all the others could see the effects of this deprivation, but everything seemed normal to me. I suppose there’s a lesson in that.
At some point I learned that I’d be going to Kadena on Okinawa. I was very disappointed, as about half the guys would be sent to Yokota on the Japanese mainland. After a few months on Okinawa, I would hear that the mission from Yokota had been canceled, and the crews there were sent to non-accompanied bases. So, once more I lucked into a sweet deal.
Once all stateside training was complete, we were sent to survival school at Fairchild AFB in eastern Washington State. When I tell stories about this experience, I always call it “winter survival school,” as there was a 2 or 3-foot snowpack when we got there. We all wanted to wear snowshoes but they told us the time for those was past (in fact, it would rain while we were there), and so were issued overshoes.
I can still recall the beauty of at least the first part of our experience. We were taught how to make a tent from a piece of parachute, and various other things, but then left pretty much alone. The mountains used for this exercise were gorgeous, but nothing could compare with the midnight walks we took. I’m not sure I’d ever seen stars before. Gosh, there are a lot of them.
Thousands of military folks went through survival schools, and I’ve read about eating lizards and the like. My own memory is that we were given a couple strips of meat and told to make the best of it. I don’t remember being hungry (in that phase of the exercise).
The part we all really remember was going through the obstacle course only to be captured at its end (they wanted us physically exhausted). Everyone knew that these enemy guys were just us wearing different uniforms, but it was fascinating to see how well most people went along with the scheme. I’m a frequent visitor to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia where folks wear 18th century costumes and act as though that is when they’re living. Some do it very well, and occasionally a visitor gets into the same “Let’s play!” frame of mind, but in general people don’t really enjoy that kind of play acting. But something about the seriousness of what we were doing gave most of us the edge needed, and it was truly interesting to see how we and others did in this situation.
One aspect was a group camp. We were given indoctrination that mostly comprised criticisms of American hypocrisy in, for example, race relations. The lead character was an East European emigre who was absolutely convincing as a POW camp commander. Punishment consisted of being forced to stand outside (it was damn cold), but of course no one could be really endangered. We were fed “fish heads and rice,” where tuna took the place of the fish heads. We ate some of it but not all, and tossed the remainder. This brought an impassioned rant by one of the camp personnel: “That might be all you ever get in a real situation. Save it!” He was right.
The real work began on a more individual basis. We were kept in the infamous “high school lockers” you read about. No room to sit, really, and a frequent attempt to discover whether you were trying. You had a can to do your business but it wasn’t much of a problem as we hadn’t exactly been eating and drinking normally for the previous few days. Every now and again, someone would get thrown in the hole, a light-less facility of some sort. Over the next couple days (we never really knew how much time had passed), we were all interrogated using the various methods known for such an activity. I respond very well to the good cop of the good/bad cop routine. In the debriefing that occurred after each kind of interrogation, the good guy had asked me how I was doing. “Great,” I said, “no problems.” He then reamed me in the debriefing. “Jesus, we’ve kept you in a box for you don’t know how long, don’t give you anything to eat, don’t tell you anything, and you’re doing great?” He told me that I should insist on my rights, etc, etc. But I can’t help it; if someone’s nice to me, I’m fine.
In the group-wide debriefing after this experience, a story was told that I’ve often revisited. During the good/bad cop routine, the bad cop told the good cop as they were interrogating some high-ranking officer that he should just forget about that lackey. “The guy is just a desk jockey working in some nothing office in Honolulu.” The officer being interrogated rose to his full height and proudly announced that he was no desk jockey. He’d just signed the papers authorizing the transfer of the such-and-such fleet from Hawaii to wherever. Both “enemy” interrogators just looked at each other. Would have been fun to hear that debriefing.
After this experience of however many days, everyone was released except for USAFSS personnel. We underwent another day (or two?) of training to counter the rather more serious interrogation to which we would be subject if the captors knew what we did for a living. They probably should have just taught us to kill ourselves, but I was chosen as the target for this more cerebral interrogation because, as we would learn upon leaving, someone had squealed on me in a previous survival school, and the enemy now knew that I was part of an interracial marriage. I guess they were less common than today. Anyway, I got to sit in that hot seat for an hour or two of attempts to embarrass me to tears or something, but in the end I walked out with all the secrets I’d walked in with (none).
My last memory of the survival school experience was riding the bus back to our barracks. The drivers were well used to the pleas of my comrades to stop at McDonalds. Money was offered, but he kept on driving. I turned to a Japanese-American officer behind me. “You know what I would like?” “What?” “A bowl of steamed rice.” He licked his lips in agreement.
My only regret was not taking my camera on this experience. I would only have been able to use it during the first part, but it would have been worth it. I would not fail the next time.
I reached Okinawa in April 1971, and I still remember what it felt like when they opened the exit door and that humidity hit you—almost physically. I was assigned to the 6990th Security Squadron (later Group, then even later back to Squadron), and although I took up residence in a barracks, my first non-working goal was to find residence for my wife, who would come in May. That was easy enough, as an office in Koza City facilitated the renting of apartments “on the economy.” I suppose that the primary benefit for Okinawan landlords was economic (perhaps twice the rent they might otherwise expect), but I learned from further stays in Asia that we could actually be more desirable tenants than natives. Whatever.
I see that my first flight was on the last day of July 1971. That means two things. One, I had some sort of training for almost four months. I can’t even imagine what that might have been. Later, we would reflect on our jobs and the training that had gone into them, and concluded that if we simply picked anyone off the street, brought them in, and taught them a few phrases of Chinese, they would have done as good a job as we did, with no need of two years of training.
Two, our people were taking care of us. What most of us non-career folks did not know were all the ins and outs of living off the government. I had seen some of the shadier aspects of this already, but putting me on a flight in July gave me a benefit I hadn’t been aware of. If you flew even one minute within a combat zone (which our mission did), you were excused from income tax for that month. I wonder what the congressmen who came up with that little provision were paid. The most egregious use of that provision (that I would see) was the Burning Pipe mission out of Offut AFB, Nebraska. Once a month, a plane-load of mostly Russian linguists and electronic warfare officers (EWO) would fly over to the area around Vladivostok, then down the coast to Okinawa. Up to that point, the mission was ferretting—testing enemy radar as you passed by. But once on Okinawa, the Burning Pipe mission would pick up a relevant linguist or two and fly down to the Gulf of Tonkin. There, the nose would touch the combat zone, and then the plane would turn around and go back to Okinawa. As we often flew two missions a day—and orbited for 12 hours when we did, the idea that a plane from the States was necessary to test enemy radar was so ridiculous that no one even made that claim. The point was simply to go tax-less until the next month.
I would reap this benefit one more time before I left, as my last flight was the first day of September. By mid-month, I was out of the service and resident in Seattle.
The sole mission of which I was aware was called Combat Apple. It is acknowledged in several locations, including Wikipedia and By Whatever Means Necessary. The mission as I saw it ran something like this.
We provided tactical support for airborne platforms operating in the Gulf of Tonkin. By far the largest responsibility for that tactical support was that of the chief Vietnamese linguist, who operated by listening to unencrypted air traffic, usually between the ground controller and any airborne fighters. A smaller tactical effort was in the Mandarin Chinese language, and this was because the Combat Apple platform was violating Chinese air space (depending upon definition of same) during part of its orbit. Also probably for tactical support, an EWO sat at the same bank of instruments that served the linguists. I recall a high ranking sergeant as controlling the USAFSS portion of the effort, while the EWO was a SAC officer who did not participate in the USAFSS (linguistic) efforts.
Given the twelve-hour orbit, onboard linguists had opportunities to listen to whatever traffic was available. Again, the primary effort along these lines was in the Vietnamese language, and as I recall this was primarily what could be called ‘strategic’, as the traffic—encrypted and understood as secure by the Vietnamese—dealt with such matters as shipping supplies from one location to another, movements of troops, etc. I, a Mandarin linguist, do not recall any such traffic from the Chinese, so we probably weren’t intercepting encrypted Chinese communications.
I need to say something about the Vietnamese linguists. On my crew, the tactical intercept operator had only been to a school in the States that taught him Vietnamese numbers. His training program presumed that he would be listening to map and radar coordinates, and was only a few weeks in duration. Our lives were in his hands, and he had obtained his skill the way most of the career linguist operators had obtained theirs—by living with native speakers of the target language. All the Vietnamese linguists I knew fit this category, and at least one Mandarin linguist.
Although the tactical operator was the most important (for our lives), I’m sure that NSA, et al, was more interested in the encrypted strategic communication. What I—eventually a PhD in Chinese—remember so clearly was that the guys on my crew had not graduated from college if they had attended college at all. The chief Vietnamese linguist in the crew told a story I’ve often retold. He was living with a woman in such-and-such a village, and he would go into the village store for groceries every now and again. One day he was in the store and he heard two sisters talking. He listened for a while, then approached them. "Say, you’re not from here are you? You sound like you might be from such-and-some-other village." The girls were stunned, first because a white guy could understand Vietnamese, then because he had picked out their dialect. On our platform, this was the guy who listened to the supposedly secure chatter among North Vietnamese operatives on the ground, and he had to be able to understand anything they might talk about.
I once talked with a somewhat older guy who was also one of the linguists of incredible ability. I asked him where he’d been as I’d not seen him over the previous year (I would be on Okinawa for 2.5 years). “I was in Monterey studying advanced Chinese,” he told me. Now it was my turn to be stunned. “But you’re a Vietnamese linguist! What are you doing studying Chinese?” He then explained that he had a family in Okinawa (whether Okinawan or Vietnamese, I would now like to know), and because the Air Force only allowed personnel to stay about three years at any one post (a rule folks tell me has changed), he had to figure out various schemes to stay on Okinawa.
So, who did we work for? So far as I know, we had no place in the Air Force command structure. I think I saw once that we reported directly to some mucky-muck in Washington, and we weren’t involved in the various numbered wings and other military organization. I understand now that we were tasked by NSA, although surely the tactical mission was directly in support of air traffic within the Gulf. We all knew that whatever our relationship with NSA, the official word was that NSA didn’t exist. But one day someone came to visit who made it clear.
Like a few other guys, I was a reader. We had a lot of downtime, especially in my early days (Lin Biao’s attempted defection in late 1971 caused Mao to ground the entire Chinese air force (little caring how boring this would make my life)). Anyway, I read everything in the single book shelf we had, mostly Air Force manuals, etc. One day, after a visitor had come from NSA to train, brief, or whatever the Vietnamese linguists, I noticed a new volume in our bookshelf. It was an official report on the communications intercept situation at Khe Sanh. Utterly fascinating. Of course, it had been written by our visitor, who had also been at Khe Sanh during the siege. It’s a sad but criminal thing to admit now, but I regret not having lifted that report. We can only hope that it has surfaced somewhere among declassified materials.
What about officers, you ask. I like to tell people that I only saw one officer during my time in USAFSS, that being our commander, Colonel Anderson. This is technically absurd, of course, because on every flight I sat near or next to the EWO. But I can’t recall ever hearing any contact between the EWO and the linguists. Burrows writes about this division, in his book By Whatever Means, and he ascribes it to an understood division between SAC and USAFSS. But I don’t think so. I really think we didn’t talk with him because we didn’t know how to deal with officers. Relations and communications among us was, shall we say, extremely loose and often ribald. You can’t talk to officers that way. I recall that our language was so bad that we had to invent new profanity just to top the guy who’d just spoken.
In 1971 we flew both the Gulf orbit and also an orbit over Cambodia and Laos. We all paid close attention to the reports of SAM positions, in the pre-flight briefing—as if anything we crew members did had anything to do with flying the plane, but that does put me in mind of a certain incident.
Everyone was loose flying from Okinawa into the orbit area. All bunks were full (I think there were four but I really don’t know) and usually only one guy was monitoring the radio until we had achieved position. As we began to cross Vietnam into the target area a tremendous explosion woke everyone up, and the cabin filled with white smoke. We were sure it was AAA (a SAM would certainly have just ended the flight right then), and went into emergency procedures (spoken to us by the lead USAFSS guy; there were never any such procedures taught to us), making sure that everyone was taking oxygen from his back pack. It was soon revealed that we’d simply blown some sort of gasket, so we dropped to 10,000 or so and made our way back to Okinawa.
The inland orbit stopped in early 1972, is my guess. Just got too dangerous.
For most of my comrades, I think, living on Okinawa was a real downer. I base that statement both upon comments from same but also on the fact that most of my fellow airmen chose to leave Okinawa and go anywhere to finish out their enlistments. We had committed to a four-year enlistment, and the tour on Okinawa must have been 18 months. That left as much as a year until discharge. Most of my buddies who left Okinawa went to a drone station in Thailand. Those serving elsewhere usually went to a base somewhere in the States.
But I, an accompanied airman with a racially Japanese wife having a decent time among her ancestor’s people, was happy to extend my tour until my discharge. I probably gained a stripe from this but otherwise no other benefit. Although we did not choose to live on Okinawa, we accepted our situation and made the most of it. Lynn had always wanted to play the piano, so she found a Japanese teacher and a piano, and began her study—in Japanese. In time she would find work with the Army as a career counselor, and we would make the acquaintance of a family of CIA people who were on the island for their own version of reconnaissance (and lived in base housing and had a car!). It was a full life. She had visited her grandfather on the Japanese mainland, and in June 1973 we even went up there together to allow me to share the truly Japanese experience.
During our two and a half years on the island, we met a lot of people and had some adventures. Here are some photographs of our time there.
At some point during the Vietnam War, the military had noticed that downed pilots and crew members would often survive jumping from their plane but then die or be captured once on the ground. The chief reason for this seemed to be that they were scared stiff. Hard to imagine but I guess it happens.
So the idea was hatched that airborne folks would experience The Jungle! We would be taught to hide deep in all that muck, and then make our way to safety (which way is south, anyway?).
It would make sense that I attended jungle survival school in the Philippines in January 1972. After all, I would have another year and three-quarters of flying to go yet. But this was the government, so it was probably 1973. The last nearly 20 years of my working career was spent in government facilities, and if anyone got sent to training it was usually someone in his or her last few months. It had become a way to take up the time of the lame duck employee.
But whichever January it was, there I was in the Philippines. Ninety-five degrees in that window-less barracks. This time I brought my camera, and although the nature part of the experience was nowhere as welcoming as the snow of Fairchild AFB, I did what I could to record the experience.
One strong memory was sitting around a campfire with a bunch of F-111 pilots. The F-111 had already been making news by mysteriously blowing up or falling apart or just killing its crew for the hell of it, but like all pilots everywhere each swore it was the greatest plane ever built. All the problems were “pilot error,” these so-far error-less pilots told me. A table of aircraft losses during Linebacker II I just saw lists the cause of F-111 losses as “unknown.” Most other get the more reasonable “SAM” cause.
The highlight of this training was when the student was given 30 minutes to hide himself in the jungle. At that point some wild “Indians” would attempt to find you, screaming and hollering all the while. This was a tribe culturally and probably racially distinct from the native Philippine population. Certainly, no love was lost between them. We dug in or whatever—it was every man for himself, and then they would pass over the area a couple times looking for you. Once found, you were encouraged to try again, but I don’t think many of us did. I remember concluding with someone that some of us just don’t have a strong will to live.
One interesting aspect of that experience was the discovery of the “Black Berets.” A group of earthy guys wearing black berets (at some point) were led by a young officer, and we came to understand that they were some sort of rescue group. I remember one guy—noticeable because his hair was nearly white but he had only one stripe—who actually followed the aboriginal group around without being seen! I explained the single stripe to myself as what he was left with after a period of bad behavior. But I’m glad he was on our side.
Because of the nature of our mission, a typhoon could not be allowed to cancel a mission. First destination in such cases was The Philippines, but if the PI was in danger then U Ta Pao in Thailand was our mission headquarters until the danger passed.
I liked going to the PI, because a buddy from language school was stationed there. I would stay in his barracks, but I can’t recall how meals were handled (since I wasn’t with the rest of my crew). The one visit to Thailand that I recall involved staying in a hotel that had been closed for excessive venereal disease. We re-opened it.
Marcos declared martial law in Sep 1972, but I clearly remember what the Philippines was like before then. Everyone carried an assault rifle, at least that’s how it will appear in the movie. I think that in reality the waiters did not, but I could be wrong. I remember having dinner with the crew in our hotel, and the waiter whispered to us not to play cards with the guys behind us. We looked over, and his warning was not needed. You see, we weren’t armed and therefore would have lost every hand.
And I have to say something about the women. In the movie, as soon as our plane touches down, Philippine women will rush up to us with their offers. A very friendly and aggressive group. But in Thailand they sat demurely around an area where you would pace before them as you made your choice.
The trip when we re-opened the whorehouse (I noticed that the warning we’d had didn’t dissuade anyone) I sat in the dining room with some of my crew while dessert sat nearby in more or less the same room. Most of the guys had item #1 on the 33-page menu—a steak—but I’d seen a French dish on page 27 that I’d always wanted to try. My friend Richard sat with me as he and the other guys finished their steaks, the other guys going off to dessert right after. Loyal Richard nervously waited with me (he was worried that there wouldn’t be enough dessert; he needn’t have worried), and then finally my coq au vin arrived. Delicious! Richard ran off.
I’ve always been incredibly naive. Once in my last year we were informed of the upcoming typhoon, and the TDY crews were designated. Although I preferred to stay (I only sat out one typhoon with my wife), I was then lead Mandarin operator (I think there was a name for the position) and couldn’t get out of it. One of the guys on my crew was very disappointed, and said that he had been promising his wife he’d pick up one of those huge forks or spoons they sold in such places as the Philippines. As I was preparing for the evacuation, I told my wife that I’ll just stop by so-and-so’s house to see whether I could purchase said item for them. His wife opened the door, and two little rug rats were running around the house. When I explained my reason for stopping by, my crew member stared at me as if he’d never seen such an idiot in his life, and truth be told, he probably hadn’t. I don’t remember when I finally figured out that he wasn’t all that interested in forks and spoons, but it was probably years later.
I don’t recall when this happened, but I’m guessing 1972, probably late.
We went in to the Gulf orbit, and everything was quiet. In fact, the evidence was that we were the only plane flying in the Gulf. All of a sudden, the Vietnamese tactical operator reported that a MiG-21 was communicating with its ground controller, and was reporting that it was within sight of its target. Descriptions of that target soon made it clear that we were the target.
Much scrambling occurred, communications-wise. Attempts were made to confirm another aircraft in the Gulf other than us, but nothing—Vietnamese radar included—could confirm that.
As the pilot reported readying his missile for firing, our pilots were ordered to dive. I don’t know how far down we went, but it was quite a ride. The mission was then aborted.
What was interesting to reflect on afterward was the behavior of our crew. Everyone knew what was happening. Everyone had his parachute pack on (for those of us on station, the parachute pack served as the chair back). Everyone was waiting for the explosion. There was no shouting, no running around. Everyone just sat there with his thoughts. In the debriefing there were all sorts of comments about “peanut butter” in the seat area of one’s flight suit, but in fact I don’t think anyone lost any bodily fluids.
The conclusion, perhaps not passed to us until later, was that the whole thing was a hoax. The Vietnamese knew what we were doing, so I doubt that they were testing any theories. They probably just wanted to play with us. This went on for a couple more days, but each crew only encountered the situation once. Once was enough.
As far as personal responsibilities go, I see from my flight record that we flew either four or five flights a month. Each flight was 19 hours long from take-off to landing. We had a pre-flight briefing about midnight, and then the after-flight debriefing about the same time the next night. When you went back to work at Torii Station depended upon which shift (day, swing, or mid) your crew was working.
Although I don’t think we were told this, action for us picked up during the Easter Offensive (=Tet of 1972). The US response was a bombing campaign against the North that lasted from May through October (Linebacker I). There had to be three days between flights for us (I see in my flight record that that was not always honored), and sometimes that is all the rest we had, as we moved up to keeping a platform in orbit for 24 hours during those times. Linebacker II occupied the second half of December that year, and required the same participation as the earlier campaign.
I remember well the effects of sleep deprivation. As I’ve stated, we were on duty from roughly midnight to midnight. Our instructions were to get our sleep before we came to the flight. Great idea, but I’m not sure how many folks managed this. I was married and seldom if ever got any sleep before a flight (remember, we were only in our twenties). One night, I returned from the after-flight debriefing to join my wife in our bed. I soon awoke, because I heard a strange noise at the glass partition that served as our apartment door. When I looked, I saw through the glass that a very colorful but wicked character (much like the Joker of the Batman legend) was jumping around outside, and was sliding the door open, smiling wickedly. His intent was clear: murder!
I had to act, and tried to move. Nothing. Not able to move a single muscle in my body. OK, I thought. I’ll scream, waking Lynn, then she can get me up. Nothing. Completely unable even to scream. I just had to, just had to, so I concentrated all my effort to producing a sound and, evidently, was somewhat successful, as Lynn awoke and asked what the hell was going on. “The monster! I’ve got to get the monster!” Well, we got me calmed down eventually and, presumably, back to sleep, although I suspect it was just me. Someone had to guard against the monster.
This happened a couple more times.
By my last year I was the lead Mandarin operator on our crew. Being the government, this meant that I didn’t work any more, just supervised. My primary function was monitoring Guard but this also included listening to the pilots talk among themselves. I’m glad the rest of the crew didn’t hear any of this, because they would have stopped flying. What it sounded like was that the pilots put us into auto-pilot and then discussed who they were going to fly for when they got out—next week. Often a spirited argument would ensue about what kind of car best suited their positions in society. But one night it was very different.
This must have been Linebacker II and thus during December. The B-52s flew in cells of three, and before beginning their bombing run would check their comms, which included Guard. Until the day I die I’ll remember “Orange 2, Orange3, this is Orange 1,” and then all three planes acknowledged their mutual communication. About a minute later Orange 1 was screaming “Orange 2, where are you? Orange 3, can you read me?” Complete silence. I’ve since seen confirmation that Orange 3 went down (the survivors were among prisoners exchanged within the next year) but although Orange 2 did not respond, it is not listed among the casualties of that night.
We later learned that the B-52s had not worried too much about SAMs, because their radar jamming was so good it kept the ground-based missile launchers from locking on. The Vietnamese, seeing that the cells were always configured identically, decided to use their targeting radar against the lead plane, which would then jam the tracking. But manually calculating where the second and third planes were allowed them to fire without the tracking radar, and they were very successful.
Monitoring Guard also gave me the most moving moment of my Air Force career. This is so difficult to explain but perhaps you can understand without all the details. Operation Homecoming involved picking up POWs that had been kept in North Vietnam since their capture. In my mind, I’d always assumed that the planes used were C-130s, but I see now that they were C-141s.
Guard was used to communicate with the Hanoi air traffic controller, and I must have listened to the planes go into Hanoi and land. My memory begins from when they had loaded their former prisoners and were ready to take off. The lead C-141 pilot clicked on his mic and said "Hanoi..." and then he broke down. He could say no more; he just cried. The ground control operator gave him about a minute to regain his power of speech, then just clicked on his own mic and said, "Roger, C-141. You’re clear to take off."
And that was pretty much the end of my Air Force career. Chinese had become such a big part of my life that I decided to try graduate school in that subject. Mark William Baxter, a fellow linguist, was from a place called Seattle. I’m not sure I’d ever heard of it. Anyway, he suggested that I apply to the school there, and I did. The rest of my life began in September of that year (1973), and has continued ever since.