SAIGON --- 1966. I was a Staff Sergeant, stationed at Wurtsmith AFB, Oscoda, Michigan.
At the time I had two career fields. Maintenance Analysis Technician (43470) and Jet Aircraft Mechanic (43151C). In Michigan I was working on the flight line, as a crew chief on the F-101B (Voodoo) aircraft.
Several in the 445th Fighter Interceptor Squadron had already left for South Vietnam. I knew it was just a matter of time before they put a check mark by my name. I was twenty-five years old, married with three young children. While I was willing to serve in Vietnam, I knew it was going to be a problem for my family. I had already seen how if affected families when they had to leave for Southeast Asia.
I had reverted back to my Maintenance Analysis secondary career field. While this put me in a less critical field, I knew I would go eventually, regardless of the career field I was assigned.
But the day came. I was to learn the check mark magically appeared next to my name.
In the fall of 1966 I was tending to some business at the computer center on base when I was tapped on the shoulder by a friend. He came over from our work place to pass on the news. When I turned around he grinned and asked me if I had my bags packed. I didn’t have to ask him what he meant.
But I couldn’t leave. Don’t they understand? I was instrumental in setting up the key punch system in our unit. I was a valuable asset. Who would take over my responsibilities?
I am not valuable. I am only a commodity. They need me to help fight the war. How could reading key punch cards win a war?
Pack your bag, Staff Sergeant.
I slowly drove home and told my wife. She took the news with some difficulty. She cried. I cried too. But we had anticipated it, so it wasn’t a complete surprise.
All Air Force personnel heading for the war zone of Vietnam had to attend a two day weapons course at Hamilton AFB, California. The course was instruction of the mechanics of the M-16 automatic weapon, including extensive live fire qualification.
They gave me two weeks to get everything packed, move my family to Duluth, Minnesota and to report to Hamilton. They must need me badly to read key punch cards, and generate computer listings to make reports. I thought how in the world am I going to help fight a war with key punch cards, computer listings and reports.
We were a very busy family in those two weeks preparing to move an entire household from Michigan to Minnesota. My wife handled everything like a pro. She had been a military wife long enough to know it was part of life. She was twenty-one years old, with three children and a husband that was going off to war for a year.
Leaving my family was very difficult. I said good-bye as best I could and left for the airport visibly shaken. My daughters didn’t really know what was happening, but they knew something very sad was going on within our family. The worse memory of Vietnam was leaving my family.
The M-16 training in California went very well and I qualified as an expert. My experience as a teenager on the NRA small bore rifle team in my hometown of Fargo, North Dakota was a big help. For the first time I was being taught to use a weapon for defending myself. All the other times I was just trying to hit the target to win a trophy. Everyone took the instruction very seriously.
At 100 yards I put most of my shots in the center of the target. My partner on the range was a 2nd Lt. He was also going to Tan Son Nhut. He told me if we were ever attacked he’d look me up. He said with my shooting skills I might keep him alive.
Shooting people? Me?
All I ever sighted down a barrel at was a target. I shuddered with the thought I’d ever have to put all this practice on targets against another human being. But, I knew if called upon I could do it.
I flew to Vietnam from Travis AFB, California aboard a Pan American DC-8, with a stop over in Alaska. We arrived in the Saigon air space at night during a horrendous thunderstorm. We circled the area for over an hour waiting for the storm to pass so we could land. As we circled the lightening lit up the ground and I could see bomb craters throughout the countryside. We had arrived in Vietnam, no doubt about it. I had a knot in my stomach the size of a grapefruit.
When I got off the airplane the temperature and humidity hit me right in the face. I hadn’t experienced tropical weather before, so I was overwhelmed. I began to miss the autumn leaves of Michigan. I’d miss the dear hunting and the Smelt netting.
The next thing I notice was the smell. I asked the man in front of me what the smell was. “Welcome to Vietnam”, was his reply. He had been there before. They put us on army buses to drive to the processing area. I noticed the windows of the bus were covered with metal mesh to stop hand grenades. I knew this was going to be a long year.
The clock started ticking.
The next morning I reported to my work place with the 460th TRW as a Maintenance Analysis Technician. When I reported to the Lt. Colonel in charge he threw his hands up in the air and exclaimed, “Not another one!”
He went on to tell me that I was the eighth man to report for an office that required no more than four technicians. I really felt downhearted. They had been in such a rush to get me there and now I was being told I didn’t even have to a desk to work at. I thought about the inconvenience this was causing my wife in Duluth. She had to move in with her parents, in a small house, with three children, until she could find a place of her own. Now I was being told I wasn’t needed. Wonderful.
I went on the night shift with three other men who were also an overage on the staff. The personnel during the day shift did most of the work, leaving a few things for us to do at night, i.e., summarizing reports, etc. We spent most nights writing letters home and listening to “Hanoi Hannah”, blabber about the victorious North Vietnamese.
I arrived with a fellow co-worker from Michigan that talked me into renting a small apartment with him downtown Saigon. I thought that would be a good idea. It was better than living in a barracks with dozens of other men.
By the end of the week we found an apartment off Trough Minh Ky that was suitable for two people. It consisted of one large room, two single beds, lockers for our belongings and two nightstands. It was on the second floor over looking a narrow street. The other apartments in the building were occupied by Air Force and Army personnel, many with their Vietnamese live in girl friends.
While we were at the base housing office finishing the paperwork to move downtown I noticed dispensers of salt water tablets and malaria pills. I thought I might as well get started, so I took one of each before leaving the housing office. An hour later I was sick as a dog. Someone told me later that it wasn’t wise to take the pills together. I learned the hard way.
The seventeen year old nephew of our landlord was a fervent anti-communist that would sit for hours in our room and talk about how important it was for the American’s to be in his country. He had an excellent command of the English language, and would rave on and on during the evening hours. At first it was interesting to listen to him, but after a few days it became unnerving. He finally reached the age when could enlist in the South Vietnam Army. We never saw him again. I wonder if he survived.
Since I worked at night the transportation back to my apartment was always a problem. The army had a scheduled bus route, but the last bus in the evening left the base before I finished work. I would have to walk back to the apartment. There was a strict curfew, so there wasn’t much traffic on the road. The Vietnamese police would stop and check my identification, but never offered to take me home. They could speak good English when they were checking me out, but if I asked for a ride they acted like they didn’t know what I was saying. A few times I would be chased down the street by stray dogs. My main concern was being robbed by the Vietnamese thugs, or “Cowboys”, as we called them.
The Cowboys made a big mistake one night when they jumped a Korean that lived down the street from us. They didn’t know he was a karate instructor. When the civilian police arrived at the scene they discovered the Korean had killed two, seriously injured another, and a fourth man was attempting to crawl away on his hands and knees. It didn’t take us long to figure we would do well if we made friends with the Koreans. They had the best stocked liquor cabinet in Saigon.
A fellow worker had a Honda motorbike and always asked if I wanted a ride home since he lived right down the street from me. I refused, thinking that would be the most hazardous thing I could do in a combat zone.
It was raining when my shift ended one night and rather than walking home I accepted his offer. I remember telling him to be careful. He had an extra helmet. I put it on, and hung on for dear life.
We traveled about twenty feet, and as he attempted to dodge a puddle of water he spilled the bike in the middle of the parking lot right in front of the 460th Wing Headquarters. I couldn’t believe it! Here I was lying dazed in the middle of a parking lot, the result of doing something I knew full well had the potential of being dangerous.
My right leg was laid open to the shin bone and I had a sore head from striking the pavement. The helmet was cracked from the blow. My friend had a separated shoulder and a few scrapes. Someone called an ambulance and they carted us off to the Army 3rd Field Hospital, outside the main gate. This is where many of the wounded were taken directly from combat.
I felt pretty low coming in with a minor cut on the leg, when many soldiers arrived seriously injured. And I really felt bad when I became dizzy and had to put my head between my knees. I apologized to the army medic, but he told me no to worry about it. He patched us up and I hobbled the rest of way home. I suffered what they termed, “Honda Rash.” I stayed away from motorbikes the rest of my tour.
We were always concerned about being the target for gunman or a terrorist with a bomb. There were many bombings in hotels and restaurants so we kept our travel downtown to a minimum. At one point a Viet Cong team on a motorbike was being sought for gunning down military personnel as they walked down the street or stood waiting for a bus. I didn’t’ need that.
One Sunday morning I was lying in bed looking out through the balcony doors and noticed, for the first time, the rooftops of nearby buildings in the area. It suddenly occurred to me that someone could do me bodily harm if they climbed an adjacent building and shoot me while I lay in bed. I got up and closed the curtains.
Out of sight, out of mind.
The next morning, before daylight, several of us were waiting for the bus to the base. I noticed a male approaching us on a bicycle and as he went by he threw an object right in the middle of the group. It rolled about ten feet and stopped against a fence. We all scattered and hit the ground. We later heard it was a Chinese hand grenade. Thankfully it was a dud. Five minutes later a bus picked us up. I wondered how I was going to survive all this.
The next morning there were about a dozen of us again waiting for the bus. I noticed several men had .38 pistols strapped to their sides. I could visualize their reaction when the next suspicious Vietnamese rode his bicycle down the street. If a hand grenade didn’t get me, a pistol-packing G.I. would. I could image the bullets buzzing around my head. Not a good feeling.
When I got to the base I went to our First Sergeant and told him I needed to a place to stay on the base. I told him it was getting to be hazardous for my health and well being staying downtown. He assigned me to a top bunk in an open bay barracks right next to the NCO club and army heliport. It certainly wasn’t as private and comfortable as living downtown Saigon, but I liked the idea that the base offered more security.
I finally got tired doing very little at work for the 460th, so I went to the 7th Air Force Director of Material and asked if they needed some help. My former boss in Michigan, TSgt. Emil Kruttlin, worked there so I had a good recommendation from him.
The NCOIC of the Maintenance Analysis Section was CMS Elmer Maloney, who quickly accepted me as an additional analyst on his staff. It was a smart move on my part. I enjoyed working for Chief Maloney. He was a great supervisor as well as a great person. Much of what I carried throughout my military and civilian careers was due to his mentoring. Chief Maloney is now a member of the TSN Association.
Chief Maloney sprouted a handle bar mustache while in Vietnam. The mustache was about six inches long, tip to tip and curled up at the ends. He was quite the sight. He took his two week R&R to Hong Kong. When he got there he discovered he had forgotten to bring his mustache wax. Finally, after hours of searching local shops, he was forced to cut it off. He looked like an entirely different person when he got back to Tan Son Nhut.
On 4 December 1966, about three months after I got there, the base was attacked by Viet Cong. They managed to penetrate the base perimeter by crawling though the drainage ditches and tall grass. At about midnight they opened fire with mortars, rockets and small arms fire. The sky lit up with illumination flares dropped by our C-47’s that were always keeping a constant surveillance. The noise from the gunfire, rockets and mortars had the appearance and sound of a July 4th celebration. But there was the realization that men were fighting for their lives.
Several in the barracks, including my former boss Emil Kruttlin, ran for the bunker. I always knew the bunker would provide safe haven from rockets or mortars, and I always planned to be one of the first inside, but at that moment I suddenly changed my mind. It occurred to me that if we were going to be under a ground attack the enemy could inflict serious injury to the occupants by throwing a satchel charge or hand grenade into the bunker. It’s not that I was a brave soul. I just didn’t want to be on the receiving end of a surprise package. I was surprised at my reluctance to leave the barracks. But if they were going to get me they’d have to face me.
Gunfire from automatic weapons had been going on for several minutes when we received word that the bad guys had penetrated the base and were seen in the area of base supply and the mortuary. That was about a quarter of a mile from our barracks. This was a cause of concern because we didn’t have a weapon among us. All this training in California, and all we could was hope it was a false report.
At one point I opened the screen door facing the heliport to take a look outside and at that moment there was a loud explosion on the flight line. The sky lit up. A few months ago someone that was there at the time told me that the explosion was caused by a Viet Cong throwing a satchel charge into a conex container that was full of magnesium flares. It caused quite a bang.
Two 377th Air Police personnel set up what appeared in the dark shadows to be a 30 caliber machine gun mounted on a tri-pod about 25 feet from the barracks door. At least at the time I thought it was a 30 caliber machine gun. I remember thinking, my god, a World War II weapon is protecting me. Reflecting back I suppose it was an M-60. At any rate, we all felt a bit more comfortable having those men outside our barracks.
The defenders of the base fought all night and into the early morning hours. By around noon the next day they had killed over thirty of the enemy. Thankfully the rumor that a ground force was moving in our directions was false.
Among the enemy dead was a teenager that worked at the barber shop. The boy would sweep up the hair after each customer. When there was no work he would sit on the front step with his broom across his legs watching people as they walked along the shop. I always had the impression that he was a sad, lonesome young man. But, all this time he probably was intently surveying the area to come back some night and blow the place up. I heard the next day that a Vietnamese barber from the officers barber shop was also killed.
That evening, after the lights went out, I lay wondering what the rest of my tour would be like. Up until that time things were relatively calm. Life had become more complicated, more fearful, after the attack of December 1966. It was a reality check for those of us that had a cushy office job at Tan Son Nhut.
We lost three young 377th Air Policemen that night: George Bevich, John Cole and John Riddle. George Bevich was a dog handler and was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.
A few days later they held a memorial service at the base chapel. I sat in a pew wondering who had to tell their parents. I owe a debt of gratitude to these young men. The 377th fought gallantly and won the battle. Later, shortly after I left Vietnam, the 377th was once again called to defend the base. Tan Son Nhut was hit very hard during the Tet Offensive. The brave men of the 377th once again showed courage and endurance. And, again, they were victorious.
About two weeks after the December attack I took a jeep tour of the airfield with Chief Maloney and the NCOIC of the Air Police squadron. He pointed out the various sites involved in the battle. Our final minutes were spent at the K-9 kennel. I was escorted to the outdoor pen holding one of the heroes’s that fateful night in December. Almost everyone that was stationed at Tan Son Nhut has read of the German Shepherd, Nemo. He was severely wounded in the right eye requiring eye removal. In spite of his wound Nemo was alert and showing a lot of strength. A2C Robert Thorneburg was the handler the night of the attack. Robert was wounded in the shoulder.
Two other sentry dogs weren’t as lucky as Nemo. Security Policeman Larry G. Lauder with his dog Cubby were at the first line of defense. Cubby was killed. Fortunately Larry survived without injury. Also, Leroy E. Marsh and his dog Rebel where on duty that night. Rebel was killed. Leroy survived.
From the moment I saw Nemo I was determined to someday own a German Shepherd. In 1974 I bought a beautiful Shepherd pup and called him Tan Son Nhut. I knew the name would be one of a kind, but when I received the AKC acceptance notification, they had called him Tan Son Nhut II. Someone beat me to it.
Many times I’d look at Tan and remember the time I was in Tan Son Nhut. I’d remember NEMO. I remembered Cole, Bevich and Riddle. I remembered the memorial service for them at the chapel. A few months after I left TSN, during Tet the chapel was destroyed, but they never destroyed my memories of paying homage to those fallen men.
Work on a new dining hall was being completed at the end of 1966. I personally never heard this, but several men said Hanoi Hannah made a radio broadcast that no one would eat Christmas dinner in the new dining hall. We later heard that the security police had discovered plastic explosives being carried into the building under the finger nails of Vietnamese women.
They increased security around the work area, finished the building and we had our Christmas dinner in spite of Hannah’s prediction. No one sitting in the dining hall that day had their backs to the doors. This was a common practice when we ate downtown. There had been enough bombings in restaurants and bars downtown to make us all aware that you had to keep good vigilance. I guess that’s why even to this day I seldom sit anywhere with my back to a door.
The work pace was steady and often intense. We usually worked ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week and sometimes seven. No one complained because the time would go by faster if we kept busy. Many times when I had a day off I’d go to the office and work a few hours just to have something to do.
Our office was in a secure room set aside from the other offices in the building. We had classified information pouring into our office from all the bases in Vietnam and Thailand. All the walls were painted black. I don’t know what that had to do with security, but everyone called it the “Blackroom.”
Our duties involved receiving aircraft maintenance and operation data from the other bases. This information included the number of sorties and hours flown of all the combat aircraft. The data would be complied and a summary was prepared for the Commander of 7th Air Force, General Momyer, PACAF, and ultimately, the Pentagon.
We also prepared special briefings for 7th Air Force command structure. Whenever a unit was experiencing abnormal aborts of aircraft or difficulty maintaining operational status we would investigate to determine what was causing the problem.
One day I was assigned the task of determining why the A-26 light attack aircraft stationed in Thailand was having problems meeting their assigned operations. Before I headed off to Thailand, I called the unit and told them that General Thompson, Director of Material, had asked me to investigate why they were having problems launching the required number of aircraft for each combat mission. I expected the person to give me a song and dance routine in an effort to cover up the problem. What I heard was no excuse.
“Save yourself a trip”, the NCO said, “tell the General that the aircraft was never designed to fly at high power settings for extended lengths of time!” I spent the next two days working up a briefing summary reflecting the past and present engine status of the A-26 aircraft, including a brief explanation of the engine limitations. It satisfied the General and everyone was happy again.
Normally if the General had a request he would make it known to Colonel Kemper, the Director of Maintenance. I was in the bathroom one morning when the general walked in. He took the urinal next to me. He said, “Salisbury, go down to the C-130 unit and find out why they have so many ground and air aborts.” “Yes Sir”, I replied.
I walked back to the office, advised Chief Maloney of what the General requested and from there the ball begin to roll. He went to Colonel Kemper, who went to his deputy, Lt. Colonel Stanley Wilkerson. Colonel Wilkerson called me into his office and told me to stay out of the bathroom when the General was in there. I didn’t bother to tell him I was there first.
In a day or two three of us went to the flight line and walked into the Chief of Maintenance office. We told him of the General’s request. We were expecting an all day investigation and a report that would take days to prepare.
The Chief of Maintenance called his Maintenance Control people, they got a jeep and we all went to the flight line where several aircraft were preparing to take off on a mission. The Line Chief in charge of the flight line quickly gave us a rundown of what it took to get that number of aircraft prepared for the morning’s mission. He nearly had us in tears. The mechanics and technicians worked twelve to sixteen hour shifts, seven days a week, trying to maintain the aircraft. The number of missions was staggering. A closer look revealed nothing but a lot of people busting their tails to fly an enormous number of combat missions.
The aircraft took off as we were talking. A few minutes later two of the aircraft with engine failures, one aircraft with both engines out on one wing. We investigated the cause, shook hands with everyone, told them they were doing a superb job, and left. Our report addressed the entire issue in simple terms: The aircraft were being flown hard and the maintenance people were working hard fixing them. Again, the General was satisfied.
To avoid the pitfalls of spending my idle time in the club or downtown I would write letters and tape messages home. Nearly everyone had a small tape recorder for this purpose. Several of us purchased reel to reel tape recorders and would tape music from one machine to another. The base library was also a good source of recording music. They had several recording stations set up for personnel to use. We all had a good collection of tapes by the time our tour ended. One night I set up my recorder outside and recorded the B-52’s dropping bombs in the far distance.
Bob Hope came to Vietnam during Christmas 1966. I was there to watch his show, but it was extremely hot that day so I left shortly after the show began. My air conditioned work place had spoiled me.
I met Billy Graham when he was touring Vietnam. They set up a stage in the soccer field where he delivered a very nice Christmas message. After he spoke several of us walked on the stage and visited with him. The majority of his message dealt with the negative reaction in the states over the war. He told us to remember there were many that supported us.
Time went on. I had my nice air conditioned office to sit and work. I’d hear (or see) other men doing dangerous work. I’d walk by the mortuary and see the dozens of caskets. My head would always bow in reverence. That was hard for me to see. I was thankful I didn’t live a high risk life while at Tan Son Nhut, but something inside me always…well, it always caused me discomfort.
Bevich, Cole and Riddle. Their names still ring loudly in my heart and soul.
I left before Tet. I’ve always felt I should have been there. My brothers fought the fight and I was not there to help. People tell me I should not think that way. But I do. I guess I always will.
The year went by slowly. There were times I didn’t think I’d ever get on that airplane for home. I maintained a “Short Timers Calendar”, like most did. The calendar was a hand drawn picture of a woman – nude from the knees up. There was a block for everyday – starting at day 365. Each morning I’d color out the previous day with a red lead pencil. Slowly, ever so slowly, each day was colored out until only three days remained and I don’t have to tell you where those three days were drawn on that figure.
After becoming a “short timer” the one thing to really look forward to was the MAC Boarding Pass. You had to have that in hand in order to get processed at the terminal. Everyone hung on to the pass for dear life. Years later I’d dream I lost my boarding pass and couldn’t get on the airplane. I’d wake up in a sweat.
My enlistment had ended so I was discharged at Travis before getting on the airplane for my final leg to Minnesota. I regretted leaving the Air Force because I really enjoyed military life, but after witnessing the frustration in Vietnam and with the prospect of having to return for another tour as an aircraft mechanic gave me reason to give up eight years of active duty. I later joined the Air Force Reserve and finished my career as a C-141 Flight Engineer Instructor/Examiner at Charleston AFB, South Carolina.
I flew non-stop from California to Minneapolis. At Minneapolis I boarded an airplane for Duluth and sat up front next to a friendly elderly lady. When we reached cruise altitude the cabin attendant served coffee and sweet rolls.
The lady and I talked for a few minutes and she asked me where I was going. I told her I had just returned from Vietnam. She turned away and didn’t say another word. Maybe she was one of those that resented our involvement in Vietnam, but perhaps she just didn’t know what to say.
It was my first experience of being a Vietnam Vet. There would be others.
Welcome home, Vietnam GI.
to return home
Charles Penley Copyright © 1998 - 2005 all rights reserved.
Charles Penley Copyright © 1998 - 2005 all rights reserved.