How the Hell’d I Get Here?


May 1, 1970, was a big day in the Viet Nam War and in my life.  On that day South Viet Nam and US military forces advanced into Cambodia in the open in large numbers and I landed in Saigon.  Coincidence?  Karma?  Don’t know, but the pairing has enabled me to remember both events and that date so very well.  I sure can’t/won’t/don’t have the energy to address the larger picture, but do let me layout my own little piece of the action.

     All through college I’d pretty much blown off the Viet Nam War.  I focused on school, girls and beer, with widely varying success depending on which of the three topics were under discussion.  A couple of things became clear in my senior year in 1969 though:  I was going to have to address being in the military and I wanted a way to avoid going into the War.  Students are often very good at kicking the can down the road in committing to a course of action, and I was a pretty good student!

     Finally, graduation approached in June 1969 and I had no offers from school districts for employment as a teacher because they knew I’d be drafted before or in my first year of work.  All that was hanging over my head, but my focus was on the work of being an undergraduate teaching assistant in Eastern Washington State College’s history department, finishing my two degrees in history and education, hanging out with my girlfriend and drinking beer with my friends.  In retrospect, so damn dumb!

Anyway, to avoid the draft to avoid the Army to avoid Viet Nam, at my girlfriend’s urging I joined the Air Force.  The Delayed Enlistment Program (DEP) enabled/enticed folks to sign up now and go on active duty 90-120 days later.  The DEP also guaranteed a technical specialty of choice.  I grabbed for and was awarded the Education career field.  I figured I’d probably end up in a base education office somewhere in the US or maybe even Germany, Japan or Korea.  Lookin’ good so far.

After a summer of chasing my girlfriend, drinking beer, and water skiing, it was time to go to Basic Training.  Honestly, I was in a cloud and had no idea whatsoever what I was doing or what was going to happen to me on September 15, 1969 when my parents drove me to the induction center in downtown Spokane.  After a bit of administrative processing, we were sworn in.  Naively, selfishly and in great fear, I mouthed rather than verbalized that oath.  I thought not actually having said it would provide me an “out” somewhere down the line.  Talk about your immoral wimp wallowing in the sweat of his own anxiety!

Somehow we were then heading to Spokane International Airport.  I’d only been there twice before:  once with family to pick up my dad when he returned from a training session in Seattle with American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) and once to see the first Boeing 707 airliner arrive in Spokane.  I don’t recall a moment of the ride to the airport, but I do recall my first plane ride.  It was a four engine prop job.  I still remember seeing its shadow on the runway and harvested wheat fields as we lifted off and headed west to Seattle.  There we changed to a jet plane headed for Los Angeles, where we changed to another jet for the flight to San Antonio, Texas.  One day I’d never been on a plane; by the end of that day I was a pro traveler with both prop and jet aircraft under my belt.

Still none of it registers in my memory bank for that day until the plane’s door opened in San Antonio.  A burst of humid September night air washed through the plane.  Nope, never before had a damp hot feeling hit me in the face like that.  It was ShowTime:  a man in a khaki uniform came on the plane and asked that all the people arriving for US Air Force Basic Training remain on the plane while the others departed.  Only then did I notice so many young adult male and female passengers seated around me.  When the civilians-to-remain departed, this same person told us civilians-no-longer to get up, get our stuff, and go into the terminal.  So far, so good.  Damp, but good.

But not for long.  As soon as we got into that terminal around 11 pm, that same khaki-clad man started screaming at us to line up against the wall, keep our eyes forward, not to look around, not to talk, and to stand up straight.  Okay, now this venture was starting to go downhill.  I’d been in the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program my first two years at Eastern.  I sort of knew the drill for the drill, but I’d not experienced this yelling-in-public approach for the sake of intimidation routine.  We haphazardly marched/meandered/swerved forward through the dark hallways of the airport at midnight and onto a blue school bus.  It was a quiet (silent!) ride along the yellow neon lit freeways through San Antonio to Lackland Air Force Base (AFB). 

We finally stopped outside some vast low building and the yelling started again.  I don’t recall the words, but everyone clearly got the idea we were to get off that bus, stay quiet, go into the building and eat – fast.  I bolted down sliced ham and something like potatoes and cheese from a steam tray.  Then back on that same bus.  We proceeded to drive to our barracks to be:  08 Squadron, one of the new huge barracks buildings.  I was not to learn how lucky I was in that craps shoot of squadron assignments until six weeks later when I encountered airmen who’d ended up in the wood World War II barracks.  Two different worlds, each with its advantages.  Our big advantage that trumped all others was the air conditioning.  Real air conditioning in San Antonio, Texas in September.

Anyway, we were herded upstairs, told to sit on the floor in a big open area and be quiet.  After a few moments that seemed like an hour we heard a tap, tap, tap on the floor in synch with a man’s sturdy footsteps.  We learned this was Technical Sergeant Stephenson who would serve as our Technical Instructor (TI).  We were called to attention when he entered and stayed that way while he sat down on a folding grey metal chair at the head of the room.  His Assistant TI, Staff Sergeant Coleman, then told us to sit down.  We did.  It was silent.  Very silent.  Then that tapping began again as TSgt Stephenson sat there slowly tapping the toe of his spit shined black leather oxford on the high gloss tile floor.  Finally, he spoke.  I don’t remember a word he said, but do recall that I grasped the concept that he was in charge and I was helpless.  I thought back to that lip-syncing of my oath just a dozen hours earlier.

We showered and were in bed in minutes.  We weren’t all asleep though.  Too scared, too worried, too tired to sleep.  I laid there stifling the sobbing and shaking within my body, not wanting to admit to myself how scared and helpless I felt.  Much more so, I didn’t want those around me to notice those emotions emitting from me.  Thankfully, the sobbing from most of us drowned out the noise from each of us.  I guess the remainder of the guys were stronger, faked it, or were asleep.

The following 41 days are a story in and of themselves.  One day – the fifth day – ties in with my shared experience with Palace Lime (later Palace Dog), the program nickname for English Language Training in South Viet Nam.  That day was Career Day, the early point in training when Basic Training airmen are sent to personnel processing sites on Lackland AFB to be told about the Air Force Specialty in which they would be trained and work as their first assignments after Basic Training.

As part of the DEP, I already knew my specialty was to be the Education career field.  I was singled out of my flight of 50 guys and sent to another location in the old part of Lackland.  Marching by myself I thought it was kind of cool how I knew much of my future, while the others were starting out from scratch.  Yup, yet another example of a Dude countin’ them hens afore they be hatched!

As I arrived at the designated site for my orientation, I noticed all of those milling around outside were older than most of those in my Basic flight.  My flight, like all those in Basic Training, was composed primarily of men (boys?) right out of high school.  A few were in their early to mid-twenties for various reasons (due to deferments for college, a job, medical issues, etc.), but, by and large, it was 18-19 year olds in Basic Training.  We older guys gathered that day were ushered (not yelled at) into the squat white wood building and seated at regular school desks with folding arms/writing rests.  Hey, this was nice.  This was real.

Then a sergeant walked to the front of the room, confirmed our names from a roster, and reassured us we were all going to be education specialists.  Even better, he said we were going to be English teachers.  I was getting pumped.  This was even better than I’d imagined, though I hadn’t really given it much thought at all since June when I enlisted, got word I’d be in that specialty, and had beaten the draft!

The next words out of his mouth were to the effect that this English teaching was to be at the “University of Saigon.”  No doubt he said it with a smirk on his face as though he’d announced to the masses the emperor had no clothes!  Though I don’t recall his exact words or how he said them, I do recall my reaction.  No kidding, I started to faint and fall out of that school desk.  I went as white as a sheet of paper.  The guy to my left stuck out his right arm to prop me up in my desk.  I couldn’t fall to the right because the desk was closed on that side.  I was going down and going down fast.  Ya know how you can’t know the depth of the canyon until you’ve been to the top of the mountain?  Well, in just a few seconds I’d scaled and spelunkered to each.

This was not the plan.

That night TSgt Stephenson opened his door to anyone who wanted to talk about the career fields they’d been assigned that day.  His general purpose was to give folks ideas about their upcoming schools, job duties and assignment locations.  Apparently, I went into his office with my tail tucked between my legs, not sobbing, but no doubt feeling sorry for myself.  I then had the first verbal slap in the face to grow up I’d ever experienced.  His general thrust was that men were in the Service to serve their country.  Many had done it before; I was just one of many to come who would serve.  The Service was an obligation and responsibility as a man in the United States of America.  Even at that, I was going to be an English teacher.  Most would have it much tougher than me.  Grow up Airman Basic Gale.

Geez, this harsh enlightenment came from a position and perspective that didn’t hold hands.  Stand up, do your job, stop complaining.  I heard him.  I’ve remembered that admonition many times through the years.

Even so, I still tried to get out of that assignment.  I volunteered for the Food Service and Security Police specialties figuring they needed volunteers and I’d be eagerly sought as a college graduate.  I was naïvely grasping at straws:  almost every cook and cop got assigned to Viet Nam.  Most of them served in operational units at sites close to the combat lines, lived in hooches, ate in canvas covered messes, showered in communal latrines (when showers and water were available), and slept on cots or bunks.  I even tried the Sole Surviving Son route because my brother was in the Navy assigned to the carrier USS Shangri-La off the coast of Viet Nam.  I was scrambling.  Had I gotten what I asked for I might not have survived.  For sure, I’d be a different person along the way and today.

Nevertheless, I finished Basic Training in late October and entered the pipeline ending in Viet Nam.  My next step was Casual Control on the old part of Lackland, adjacent to the base’s parade ground.  While the others in my flight lined up for buses to take them to San Antonio International Airport to fly home enroute to their next assignments or to head directly there, I humped my duffle bag onto the base shuttle bus to head over to the Casual Control barracks.

Wow, my eyes opened that chilly October day as I entered the two story barracks.  They were cozy, but they were dark, the latrines were open stall, and every plywood footlocker was loaded with cockroaches and those palmetto bugs endemic to the humid warm southeast United States.  I wasn’t alone though.  I was just one among a rotating population of 1,200 to 1,500 men and women waiting to move on to their technical schools.  We were all jammed up in the personnel pipeline because the backend of it, the USAF units worldwide, were cutting back on filling their positions as USAF and other Services’ manpower was drawing down from the height of the Viet Nam era.  It was all part of the results from President Nixon’s Vietnamization.

Those of us in the Palace Dog English teacher pipeline were in a little different situation.  It wasn’t the manpower in the schools in-country that was being cut back.  Our logjam was caused by teachers already in Viet Nam extending their tours!  Yes, many of those there didn’t want to leave!  The result was the technical school at Lackland put a hold on new entrants like me.  It was clogged and easier to keep us in “Casual.”  Perhaps we’d even be reassigned to other specialties if it kept up too long.

It didn’t.  Casual for most of us lasted about two to four months.  For me, it was from late October to mid-January.  During that time, I moved among four barracks and performed a variety of duties.  I worked in the military post office sorting mail, served as dorm chief for a barracks of 50 fellow Casuals; did a few tours of kitchen police (KP) at various dining halls on the base, including Big Willy – Wilford Hall Medical Center.  People liked Big Willy KP because it was only two shifts long (breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner) whereas the other dining halls’ KP duty was all day, three long sweaty shifts that left you just plain worn out and your clothes filthy and smelly. 

Ever available when not on those other jobs was the duty of weeds and seeds.  All airmen in Casual not assigned to other jobs were given this duty.  As a result, almost a thousand airmen were spread across that sprawling installation to clean up and pick up whatever was out of place.  Of course, with so many people involved, cleanup went fast.  However, we still had the duty to perform all day.  As a result, many people would throw back down on the ground the cigarette butts and other things they’d spent the morning picking up.  Why?  It’s crazy:  we needed something to pick up in the afternoon.  Go figure!

At last, the school logjam broke and we advanced into Personnel Awaiting Training (PAT) status.  This meant we were moved into the same barracks we’d live in while in tech school.  Our daily duties were similar, but without the KP.  We also knew there was an end in sight:  PAT was just two weeks long.  It was here I met my roommate/compadre-to-be for the next year and half, Tom.

Tom was from Michigan.  We both missed our homes and our families.  We commiserated for hours, days, weeks and months.  Tom and I were together the two weeks of PAT, the eight weeks of teacher training, and ended up getting with one another on the flight to Viet Nam.  We even rode home to the US from Viet Nam together a year later.  Tom was a good person; a kind man.  I lost track of him after that.  I missed the chance of growing old knowing him.

Yet, as we advanced through our training together, I thoroughly enjoyed having Tom as my roommate.  On our flight from the US to Viet Nam we were seated next to another classmate, Fred.  We arrived at San Francisco International Airport at various times, but funneled into the single gate area for the first leg of our flight.  We’d all gone our separate ways after finishing tech school, but gathered at SFO over two or three days for flights to Viet Nam.  Tom, Fred and I ended up in the same row on the port side the aircraft.  Fred was at the window, Tom was on the aisle and I was tucked in between as we went from SFO to Alaska (Elmendorf AFB), then to Japan (Tokyo or Okinawa?), and finally to Viet Nam.

As we flew over the coast and westward toward Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon, Fred looked out the window and remarked, “Oh, look, the war!” referring to the bomb craters pockmarking the red dirt of the South Vietnamese coastal area.  As if on cue, the Pan American 707 charter aircraft shuttered violently and stared to descend.  We’d been hit before even arriving in-country!

Nope, air brakes.  I’d never heard of them and would experience them only one more time (while on a small military aircraft approach to Vandenberg AFB in 1975).  The timing of applying those wing flaps with Fred’s comment about entering the war zone couldn’t have come at a more perfect part in the flight.  In fact, the use of the brakes was done to protect us from missiles, mortars and rockets by flying at high altitude over the land as long as possible, then diving at a sharp angle to the airfield.

It would have been nice if they’d told us it was a planned maneuver.  I just about lost it all as I thought we’d been hit.

Regardless of how we got to Saigon, we’d arrived.  They popped those doors of the aircraft open in the late morning and the rush of hot humid air rushed aboard, just as it had six months earlier as I arrived in San Antonio at night.  Well, I survived the events following that arrival; maybe I could do it for this one too.

Though the flight was a mixed group of men and women, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, we were broken up by Service and shuttled off to various sites on Tan Son Nhut.  We airmen got shuttled by bus over to a barracks and moved upstairs to an open bay pretty much the full size of the barracks.  It was late in the morning.  After sitting down, a member of the host unit told us to be quiet and then he turned on the TV at the far end of the room.

We stared watching and listening to President Nixon‘s televised address to the nation announcing the US invasion into Cambodia.  I didn’t realize the impact of that action for years to come.

That day, though, I’ll never forget.

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  • ralphmattia  On May 3, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    Rod. Excellent. This is almost exactly as I remember it. I remember “self-reporting” for KP duty at Big Willy; because, I did not want to do “weeds and seeds”. Ralph

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