A retrospective by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright March 2001
It was 1967, and college was not for me... at that time. I could have waited for the "draft shoe" to drop, but I chose to enlist for three years. Originally I signed up to be a helicopter crew chief. I went through Basic Training at Fort Knox, KY, and then was transferred to Fort Rucker, AL. There, just before crew chief training started, I was offered a chance to do Air Traffic Control (ATC) instead. I was attracted to ATC by the longer training, and the instinct that Uncle Sam would protect his airfields vigorously, and so I took the plunge.
I trained at Kessler AFB, Biloxi, Mississippi. That was my first exposure to the Deep South, the Air Force, and air traffic control -- all proved fascinating.
All during training we knew there were two likely places to go, Vietnam or Germany. As my training ended I was told I had been assigned to Vietnam, my one year big adventure was about to begin...
The ending and the beginning: our ATC class in April 1968.
Names (in alphabetical order): Thomas Fisher, Kickard Gorecki, Gary Griffin, Steve Hague, Charles Hamann, Terrence McEvoy, David Smith, David Swindle, Roger White, Dennis Wiener, Don Williamson,
In the summer of 68 I took a big jet plane from Travis AFB in Northern California to Vietnam. Curiously, instead of following the "great circle" route from California to Vietnam -- which would have taken us over Alaska and Japan -- we flew for hours across the wide Pacific and refueled at Wake Island. I remember Wake for two things: first, it was flat and small. I stood on the high point, 20 feet above sea level, and saw the entire island. Second, there was an SR-51 "Blackbird" on the ramp. The SR-51 spy plane that was as secret in the 60's as stealth planes were in the 90's.
Vietnam time was unique. Soldiers going to Vietnam knew when they were going to leave -- typically exactly one year from when they came. This date was important, and became more important the longer one stayed. Soldiers measured their time in days to departure, and a common conversation opener was, "How short are you?"
An answer back of something like, "So short I'm sliding under razor blades." was the envy of anyone in earshot.
Your time to departure determined how you interacted with those around you. "Short timers" -- those leaving sooner than you -- were envied, and long timers -- those leaving long after you would -- were often politely ignored because what they did wasn't relevant to your experience.
Everything in Vietnam was measured by one event: leaving. When you just arrived you were a long timer, and you got shorter one day at a time.
We arrived near sundown, and we were bussed from the plane to a line of 30' high earthen bunkers somewhere on Long Binh base. The bunkers were somewhere truly out in the middle of nowhere -- there wasn't a building or man-made structure to be seen from them. We were told to guard them, and then the people who brought us rode off into the distance on the buses -- we were on our own. We organized watches, and some time in the early evening a single white phosphorous shell exploded about a quarter mile away. The rest of the evening was uneventful, and the buses came back the next day.
At the time it was a confusing activity, and no explanation was ever given. In retrospect I presume this was some sort of "Welcome to Vietnam" initiation.
I spent the next few weeks at Long Binh in "hurry up and wait"-mode, waiting for assignment. We lived in barracks that were walls with canvas tent tops.
|Hurry-up-and-waiting in tent barracks at Long Binh. This was a land of "honey pots" cleaned by burning with kerosene, and "solar heated" hot water. Being a cold water phobe, I quickly learned that shower time was late afternoon.|
After what seemed forever... I was assigned to the 125th at Hotel 3 in Saigon. Hotel, I found out, stands for "H", and Hotel 3 was the heliport that was nestled in between the runways at Tan Son Nhut AFB in Saigon. Tan Son Nhut was Air Force-run, and Hotel 3 was Army-run, and both were very busy places.
At first I was assigned to do flight following, which I found to be deadly boring work because it called on me to watch a clock constantly as I recorded departure and arrival times of airplanes. I finally made some peace with my work by realizing that it was probably the most existential existence I would ever have. In no other work would I be required to recognize and acknowledge each and every minute as it passed!
What I longed for was tower work. Each day as I left the flight following van, I would gaze up at the tower and imagine myself there. I got there, but not without a detour. I spent a month, probably my third or fourth month, working at the remote flight following facility in Song Be.
Song Be is 75 miles north of Saigon, about 10 miles from the Cambodian border, and on a major invasion route for NVA troops headed for the Saigon area. It was a provincial town, and there I experienced "country living" in Vietnam. Our compound was one of a series of military encampments along a low ridge overlooking the Song Be river.
|I spent one month in Long Binh (Bien Hoa on this map), one month in Song Be, and ten months at Hotel 3 in Saigon.|
After a month at Song Be I returned to Hotel 3, and I found that change had been afoot. While I was gone the 313th ASD had been organized to take over running Hotel 3, while the flight following was to remain under the 125th... and I had been assigned to the 313th! -- my dream of working in the tower was realized at last!
I remember my first day was marred by the first of two fatal air crashes that I personally witnessed while I was in Vietnam. In this case a helicopter lost its tail rotor as it was slowing for approach, and it spiraled into the ground between two barracks and caught fire. Many months later, the irony increased: I met a soldier who was scheduled to be on that flight, but was too sick to travel that day.
In my mid-timer days I did VFR air traffic control in the tower while I was on-duty, and off duty I kept busy with photography, movie watching, and and pursuing other odd things that looked interesting.
I took my one week out-of-country R&R as late as I could -- in month nine or ten. I spent the week in Hong Kong, sightseeing and shopping for camera gear. When I came back I was a short-timer. Then my goal became staying out of trouble, making sure nothing would stand between me and my departure date. Nothing did, and I flew out from Tan Son Nhut on out schedule back to Travis AFB. Once again I was on a big jet plane, but we went via Okinowa this time (which is on the great circle route). And, the great adventure was, blessedly, over.
That was my stay in a nutshell, now some pictures to flesh it out. The pictures are in several different pages to keep the downloading time from taking as long as my tour. Enjoy.
My last year in the Army I spent as an air traffic controller at Micheal AAF at Dugway, Utah. Dugway Proving Grounds is a huge, naturally sterile, salt mud flat, about as far from anywhere as you can get in the US. It's a place where the military tests chemical and biological weapons. My first awareness of Dugway came about three weeks before my assignment there. I read an article in the Stars and Stripes that some sheep farmer was sueing the goverment claiming poison gas drifting from the base had killed 500 of his sheep. How encouraging! <grin>
But my year there turned out to be a quiet respite from the hustle, bustle and stress of Vietnam and Hotel 3. Hotel 3 had about 300 operations a day, Micheal AAF had about 3. During my stay there I fell in love with Utah, and when I'm not traveling, it's my home.
For more information about other Vietnam War experiences check out the 1st Aviation Brigade web site.
For more about me since my Vietnam Days, check out the rest of my web site.
|This is me on the Gulf Coast near Kessler AFB, just before leaving for Vietnam.|
|And this is me on leave, in Ohio, just before heading over there.|