|Download PDF of this full issue: v43n1.pdf (21.1 MB)|
RECOLLECTIONS: Christmas Forty Years Ago: Random Thoughts About the Roar of War Planes
By Douglas M. Mason
I extended my enlisted tour in the US Air Force by 7 months so that I could serve in the Southeast Asian (SEA) conflict. On Thanksgiving 1972, I arrived at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB), exactly two years after my older brother, Frank, had served there. Dropping out of college after one semester at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, PA, I joined the Air Farce in hopes of getting some training that would be useful in the civilian sector after my service. At Korat, I was assigned to the 388th Combat Support Group as an information specialist (military journalist) at this Tactical Air Command (TAC) base.
I arrived already radicalized by two events from 1970. Princeton students protesting the Cambodian incursion on campus (I had gone to see Country Joe McDonald perform there), and the Earth Day events in Philadelphia. Music, my bliss, also informed my politics. I had turned my pen against the Pentagon when I began writing in 1971-72 for the GI Underground newspaper, "Fragging Action," which gave servicepersons at Fort Dix and McGuire AFB, near Wrightstown, NJ, an alternative view to the propaganda coming out of Washington, DC about the Vietnam War (which should more correctly be termed the Indochina War). I learned that the press used to produce the previous GI anti-war paper, "Shakedown," had been destroyed when some drunken Drill Instructors from Fort Dicks had fire-bombed the Wrightstown coffeehouse where it was housed. My photographer friend Bob from Roanoke, VA, often helped me secretly distribute the anti-war papers at McGuire, and he joined me for several demonstrations outside the gates of McGoo. The dedicated staff at "Fragging Action" also brought the FTA (Free the Army) show to Wrightstown, featuring actress Jane Fonda, actor Donald Sutherland and singer Holly Near, among others. The house was packed with soldiers and airmen of all types and stripes.
The USAF bases in Thailand held their annual talent contest just before Christmas 1972 at U-Tapao RTAFB, a Strategic Air Command (SAC) base. As I was practicing "Johnny B. Goode" on my harmonica, my rhythm was rattled by the extremely loud, seemingly non-stop takeoffs of B-52 Stratofortresses headed to North Vietnam carrying full bomb loads a few days before the Christmas Day truce. After the contest, I returned to Korat, where the constant roar of F-4a Phantoms ("fast-movers") and F-105 Thunderchiefs ("Thuds") heading out to support the B-52s was equally memorable. My aunt Jeannie had bought me a subscription to the Philadelphia Inquirer so I could keep up with the news back in the world, where I learned the extent of the air raids a few days after they ended. I was outraged, and some of my buddies, all of them "heads," were equally pissed off. We all agreed to a work slowdown for the duration of the Indochina War. We kept our spirits high with potent Thai bud and rock music, especially from the "Woodstock" albums. Our favorite performances were Jimi Hendrix playing "The Star Spangled Banner" and vet Country Joe McDonald hollering out "The Fish Cheer" (give me an "F"," etc.) and then singing the "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag." It may be that the Christmas bombings forced the hands of the North Vietnamese to sign the peace agreement that ended the war in 'Nam in January 1973, but the USA was still at war in Laos and Cambodia. The USAF continued bombing Laos through April 1973, and in Cambodia until August 15, 1973, hence my references to the Indochina War. American war efforts in Southeast Asia began in 1961 with the CIA-directed war in Laos, and we began secretly carpet-bombing Cambodia in 1969.
Like everyone who served in Vietnam, Thailand, Guam, etc., I was awarded the Vietnam Service Medal. There are some out there who think only Vietnam combat vets should have received that badge. I disagree, because without the support of those of us in the rear, there would have been many more than 58,000 plus names on the Wall. I have occasionally been harassed by combat vets who, upon learning I was in the USAF, make comments such as "did you get any paper cuts?" I'd like to point out that anyone stationed at four bases in Northeast Thailand (Isan) was physically closer to Hanoi than those who served in Vietnam, except for POWs and, perhaps, some special forces. There were two insurgencies going on in Thailand during my year, a guerilla war in Isan similar to those in the rest of SEA, and an Islamic uprising in southern Thailand (not far from U-Tapao). As the new guy, I was given perimeter guard duty until the end of the Vietnam "police action." It was scary out there in the dark of night, concerned not only about guerillas and bandits, but also tigers, leopards, poisonous snakes and assorted other creepy crawlers. I only learned recently that I was exposed to Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals used for vegetation control those lonely evenings. When doing public affairs duty, I saw some pretty horrible things, such as the remnants of a family killed while scavenging in Korat's ammo dump, and an EC-139E Hercules plane crash that killed the crew and several Thai villagers, among other less dramatic but equally gruesome scenes. You didn't need to be in combat to see blood and gore in the Vietnam Theater of War.
Doug Mason is a soil scientist and great grandfather who retired to Belize but now resides in State College, PA. He loves the outdoors and occasionally writes for the monthly alternative newspaper, "Voices of Central Pennsylvania." He is a member of VVAW and Chapter 17 of Veterans for Peace.