We first flew into Clark Air Base on an airlines called Southern Air Transport which had some of the cutest looking flight attendants. After a few days at Clark, and Angeles City, we took off on a C-130 and first landed in a place called Bien Hoa before going on to our final destination of Tan Son Nhut (located near a little city called Saigon). Little did I know that I would be returning to Bien Hoa for a PCS tour in 1964. When we arrived at Tan Son Nhut, we were assigned to the 6220th Air Base Squadron Air Police, which probably was the predecessor of the 377th Security Police.
At this time, there were probably less than 10,000 Americans in-country, and no combat troops other than Special Forces, helicopter pilots and USAF pilots. The duty was fantastic. At this time, not much was going on except for the coups which finally resulted in the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Ngu. The famous Dragon Lady was in vogue.
The things I remember most were: carrying World War II carbines while racks of M-16s were not used; USAF pilots were flying A1E Skyraiders with Vietnamese Air Force markings; going on a “joy ride” with an Army Caribou to all kinds of Mekong Delta towns; a typhoon coming in unannounced and flipping planes on their back; sitting at the end of the Tan Son Nhut runway guarding RF-101 Voodoos and watching Pan Am 707's crank up for a very quick takeoff; many trips into Saigon to enjoy its “fruits”; and going to a place called Bangkok for the first of 3 R&Rs. What a place to spoil an 18 year old. Every time I think of Bangkok I smile. When I do this, my wife of 30 years, Zosia, (Polish for Sophia) asks why I am smiling. I just smile again. I went to Bangkok with a guy named Paul Larochelle. I believe that he also joined me on a trip to Japan. I haven’t heard of him since. I wonder if he is still smiling.
Things were so good in these days that 3 of us extended for another 90 days before returning to Japan in June 1963.
Upon arrival at Bien Hoa in May 1964, I was assigned to the 34th Air Base Squadron Air Police, which I believe was the predecessor of the 3rd Security Police.. Again, things were kind of slow during this period, that is until November 1964 when Charlie decided to pay Bien Hoa a visit.. I’ll discuss that later.
Some of my more vivid memories of Bien Hoa were: USAF pilots who were now flying US marked aircraft; we were now deploying with M-16 rifles and M-60 machine guns; while we were guarding the ammo dump near the old French fort, we were guarded by a Vietnamese K-9 handler - the only problem was that he was sleeping under a mosquito net, his dog was tied up to the ammo boxes, and his rifle was lying on the ground; watching the U-2s, and C-130 aircraft with the reconnaissance drones under their wings take off and return. (In those days, we all wondered where they went. When we asked, we were told “Top Secret”. A hint: The Stars and Stripes reported that a “pilotless U2” was shot down over Red China); 2 more R&R trips to Bangkok; and a number of junkets for various reasons to Nha Trang, Da Nang, Pleiku, Du Co, Ban Me Thuot, and Gia Nghia.
The true wake up call came in November 1964. The USAF had just brought in the “new” B-57 jet bombers. After watching all the propeller planes, the jets really seemed like something, even if they were small. I think they caught Charlie’s attention because before very long his mortar team came by and paid their respects by blowing the hell out of the B-57 pad. The finger of the future had been pointed.
Then in April 1965, just a couple of weeks before I was to come back to the states, four of us were sent TDY to Qui Nhon to guard some A1E aircraft. I believe that we also guarded Madame K’s place of business. The other 3 persons were Ron Pounds, Gerald Lummus, and Jim Starling. I wonder what happened to them. Charlie’s Welcome Wagon wasn’t far behind. He mortared the billets we were at. Can you beat that hospitality?
Then came late April 1965. After 3 ˝ years overseas, it was time to go home and be discharged. What came next in Vietnam is all history. I would never again return to Vietnam (or so I thought).
I started by asking my wife if she would like to go on an exotic vacation to a place with lots of sandy beaches. After she said yes, I told her where we were going. Her eyes said it all and her affection really grew as she got all of her shots.
We first stopped in Tokyo for a couple of days and visited Tachikawa Air Base which is now totally run by the Japanese. No USAF forces were present. We then took off for Bangkok. It was kind of strange to hear the Northwest pilot state that we were now flying over Da Nang and would shortly be over Laos. We then landed in Bangkok. Don Muang was as I remembered it, but there were no USAF aircraft visible, as there had been in the 1960s. After a couple of days in Bangkok and Phuket (a resort south of Bangkok on the Andaman Sea), it was off to deja vu.
As the Thai Airbus approached Tan Son Nhut, I could see the Saigon (oops Ho Chi Minh city) skyline in the distance. I didn’t remember the tall buildings that now dotted the skyline. I immediately wanted to take photos of Tan Son Nhut, but the flight attendants cautioned against it for security reasons. I would have to wait until later. The most striking feature of Tan Son Nhut, other than it now being called Tan Son Nhat, were the bunkers which didn’t exist when I was there and the old dilapidated hangar which did exist when I was there. We cleared customs with no problems and stepped outside into the madness of the cab drivers wanting your business. And then there was the heat, which with the smells brought the far distant past rapidly into the present. Luckily, our tour guide met us with his air conditioned van.
It was now time to become a tourist. On the first night, we had a dinner cruise on the Saigon River. It was mainly westerners on the cruise with all of the Vietnamese on their bicycles and motorcycles watching us. The next day we were off to Tay Ninh, Cu Chi, and Vung Tau. It was a long day with the heavy traffic and pollution. At Tay Ninh, we visited the Cao Dai Temple and saw the Black Lady (Black Virgin) Mountain. At Cu Chi, we visited the tunnels. After the visit, to the tunnels, my wife decided that she would not like to return to Vietnam for a second “vacation”. At Vung Tau, where I paid a brief visit in 1963, we went on top of Jesus Mountain which had a large statue of Christ, and an excellent view of the surrounding area. I don’t know how much water I lost after climbing 0ver 900 steps to get to the top.
The next day we were off to Bien Hoa. We passed through Long Thanh and Long Binh, the latter of which I never heard of in my time at Bien Hoa. A part of Long Binh is now an industrial park while the other part is manned by the Vietnamese Army. Finally, we arrived at Bien Hoa. I really didn’t remember the town, and the hooches that I remember couldn’t be found. We got to the main gate of Bien Hoa, but we couldn’t get in because the base was now manned by the Vietnamese Air Force. The old water and radar tower were still visible. After coming so far, I was disappointed that we couldn’t get onto the base. Maybe another time.
The last day was spent in Saigon. We visited the old Presidential Palace (now called Reunification Hall), the Saigon Cathedral, the old Congress building (now an arts center), and the site of the old US Embassy. It is now torn down and will be replaced by a new US Consulate. We also drove around Cholon where I had spent many fine evenings. Then the time came to leave. It was at this time that I took some pictures of Tan Son Nhut. As we took off for Bangkok, I knew that I would like to return to Vietnam again. As noted, my wife didn’t share this view. She stated that next time, I would have to go alone or with some friends. Any takers?
In spite of not getting onto Bien Hoa, the trip was fantastic. I would highly recommend a trip back to anyone who is so inclined. Everyone treated us great. But I swear they are more capitalists than communists. Uncle Ho is definitely spinning in his grave. Watch your wallet because they still do love the dollar.
I’d like to conclude this article with two small stories related to my time in Vietnam. The stories really show how Vietnam, which happened so long ago, sometimes meets up with the future. The first story relates to meeting a Vietnam acquaintance years after leaving Vietnam. As noted, I left Vietnam in April 1965. In 1968, I was hired by the Pennsylvania State Police and was sent for my first assignment to a small town named Mercer. As I was sitting in a training class, I noticed another one of the Troopers who looked familiar, but I couldn’t recognize him. I then asked him if I knew him. It then hit both of us. His name was Kenny Will from Erie, Pennsylvania, and we were the best of drinking buddies at Bien Hoa. Our drinking togetherness continued for a long time after that initial encounter. Ken left the State Police a few years later and I haven’t heard from him since. It would be good to see him again.
The second story relates to how something that happened to me in Vietnam in 1965 “almost” happened again in 1996. In 1996, I was on a small US Army 2 engine, propeller driven aircraft flying from Pittsburgh to Fort Pickett, Virginia. I was invited to take the trip by our 2 star Commanding General who was also on the aircraft. On our way back to Pittsburgh, I was day dreaming and looking our of the window. The General asked me what I was thinking about. I related that the last time that I had flown on a 2 engine propeller aircraft was in Vietnam. It was a C-123 returning from Da Nang to Tan Son Nhut. He asked me why I remembered that. I stated that as I was looking out of the window of the C-123, and I could tell that something was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then it hit me. One of the 2 propellers was not turning. However, we did land safely. The US Army aircraft also returned safely. However, a month later, the General was flying again in the same aircraft. I wasn’t on the aircraft this time. Guess what happened? Yes, one of the engines quit turning, but luckily it too landed safely. I wonder why I haven’t been invited back for another ride since.
Best of Luck to Everyone.
Author: Bob Anisko