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Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.
-- Otto Von Bismarck
Late November 1963, the day president Kennedy died, was the day on which I was going around John Adams high school in South Bend getting signatures allowing me to leave early in my senior year to join the Air Force. Vietnam was seldom mentioned on television in those days, but by then had already become what it eventually became. I was 17, fed up with school, seeking serious work for my country of whatever kind they might see fit to give.
My AFSC qualifications test showed me best able to handle what they called "abstract reasoning", so I had been assigned to 43131A school, at Shepherd AFB in Wichita Falls before ever arriving at Lackland. They felt I would probably make a decent reciprocating engines aircraft mechanic, though I had rarely ever touched a wrench. I chose Air Force because my uncle served with them during Korea, and because I've always liked birds and the color blue. Most of my buddies were signing on with the Marines, only one of that bunch ever returned home. None of us had any idea what was in store. We were young, full of it, and never once questioned anything our country might have asked us to do. It was a very different time than it is today, forty years later.
Area recruits were gathered down in Indianapolis for the physical, the swearing in, one night in a flop house, a couple of beers, a "Blue Movie" in a seedy theater, and shipping out next day. Most of us had never been much further from home than the state line, and only rarely that far. We were met in San Antonio at the airfield by a military bus, and found ourselves greeted by SSgt Hacker when we stepped out that door of no return a few minutes later. Bojack did not cease reminding us that he had been wise enough to dwell within the slit girdle beforehand; Bojack, who laughed and banged his head on his footlocker. SSgt Hacker, whose silent iron gaze was something we had never heard of or imagined before, got the group in our first ranks and files, not by size yet, in civilian dress and off we went into a Wild Blue Yonder from which none can ever come back.
Quickly, so quickly, we learned the sound of reveille, the buttoning of ALL buttons, always having on our cover, no hands in pockets, arranging ourselves in miracle minutes according to height, how to remove invisible hairs from razors, the meaning of "Slick", and how to roll underwear in extremely tight uniformly symmetrical tubes. Nobody had ever yelled at any of us the way Hacker did. None of us once questioned his authority to do so, nor did we fail to respond instantly. Days were spent learning and practising drill, which we wrongly thought had to do with orderly marching. Hacker, in his unassailable wisdom, appointed me Right Guide, for reasons which I will never understand. I came to regard that as a high honor, to this day, to carry the flag.
We also attended school each day, learning about CBR (chemical, biological and radiological) warfare, safe sex, operation and components of an M-1 carbine, command structure of the United States Air Force, and a few other mysteries of armed forces service. We each had our turns, or more than that, at the endless KP, 5BX, "Confidence Course", and sometimes even a "Smoke 'em if ya got 'em" or an hour-long BX break. We learned that the Air Force does not hesitate not only to command you what to do, but to explain in detailed steps exactly how that is to be done and in no other way. Some of us got our first share of dear John letters, with more to come at Tech School. We wrote our letters home with enclosed official Basic Training photos in our proud uniforms, on patriotic USAF letterhead. Nobody had any hair, and we felt very proud to have survived Basic when that awesome graduation assembly formed up on the parade ground to pass in review. General Curtis LeMay was our branch's highest ranking officer in those days. None of us had any idea how he earned that rank or that post, nor did we care. What we did know for sure was that the american president is commander-in-chief, and that General LeMay would get the word to us about what to do next. That was all there was to it, so do it. A world away, my buddies were becoming Marines, at Paris Island. They had not a clue beforehand whether it was rifle or a gun either, but now we both did, and they would very soon also learn for what purpose their weapons were designed. I was sent to learn about recip aircraft, in one of the very best educational experiences of my entire life. They, nor I, had once been told of a war in Vietnam, nor of the role we were going to fulfill in it. We were patriots, very young and brave. We wore our uniforms on the street wherever we went on pass or leave, and americans would offer us rides or coffee and food, without our having to ask. We were even granted conditional introductory access to daughters, just because, though penalities for malfeasance remained unchangeable.
Following successful completion of Tech School, I was assigned my first and only permanent party base at Chanute Field. There I worked on the C-123 Provider, C-47 Goonie Bird, and U-3A Cessna 310, with an Air Training Command unit. Our job was teaching, flight crews and pilots. Barracks life was easy, the food was fine (though some say Chanute's was awful), the duty was light. So it went for awhile, we enjoyed the UofI social life just south of us, and sometimes got off-base moonlighting work to supplement a $26 every two weeks paycheck. I got myself onto any manifest that would let me, for long cargo or training sorties, just to experience flying. Things were orderly and smooth running, we played around with and traded cars; my best were a '58 Dodge convertible and a '39 Cadillac LaSalle. I got my first motorcyle while there, and rode one thereafter for 26 more years. Meantime, my buddies were on their way to or already in Vietnam. We had lost touch, and life had begun to change in ways none of us, or our America, had ever dreamt possible.
It wasn't long before we began having NCOs and officers return from Vietnam; Da Nang and Saigon mostly. They came in strange uniforms, patches we'd never seen before. During lunch, or work, they began telling what they had seen there. They came back to help teach those whom they knew were going where they had been. Slowly, without ever having been informed of a certain mission, we began piecing together what we were actually doing in service to our country; with 123s and 47s. Nobody higher up ever said to us, "We are now at war". But, the NCOs did, with a kind of far away look and few specific words. War kind of snuck up on us here stateside, between 1963 and 1966. I volunteered to be sent, but never was.
Eventually I passed, to my amazement, the 43151A test, and got busted for insubordination to a CMSGT instead of promoted to A2C. In a fit of pique, I lost my temper with the wrong guy, and for no sensible reason at all. Most of the males in my graduating class had gone on to college or stayed home for marriage, and were about to become deferred from the draft. Very few volunteered, or signed on with ROTC in those days. With a big university a few miles away from Rantoul, those of us who visited the campus began seeing "underground" newspapers, such as the "Chicago Seed" which were beautiful to look at, but also told very disturbing stories about Vietnam; unbelievable stories, seemingly unpatriotic and even traitorous stories. There were many heated arguments among students and airmen. Our position was simply that those were lies, and some of them were; but not all. Back on the flightline, the NCOs with us would confirm and deny various parts of the news. As I went about my duties, eventually to include showing films of battlefield triage methods to incoming TDY personnel, it became clearer what we were doing and why.
Nothing prepared us stateside, for the years and sorrows that were to come. Nothing can prepare anyone for it. So, we have our memories of how it was, when we were where we were sent, and we have our Wall. We, also, learned the meaning of Taps.
Note: by Michael S. Bell, 3346th Consol. Maint. Sq., Air Training Command
This Day in History
Puritans jail Governor Stone after a military victory over Catholic forces in the colony of Maryland.
The Secretary of the Navy approves the first formal uniform of the Marine Corps.
The frigate USS Essex
flies the first U.S. flag in battle in the Pacific.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton presents the first Medals of Honor to six of the surviving members of Andrews Raiders. They are the first Medals of Honor ever presented.
The Battle of Paducah Kentucky takes place.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee makes Fort Stedman his last attack of the war in a desperate attempt to break out of Petersburg, Virginia. The attack failed, and within a week Lee was evacuating his positions around Petersburg.
The Battle of Bluff Spring Florida takes place.
The Battle of Mobile Alabama takes place.
Japan invades the kingdom of Liuqiu (Ryukyu) Islands, formerly a vassal of China.
Italian troops invade Abyssinia (Ethiopia).