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National Security: War Stories

Everyone who has been to war has stories they retain for the remainder of their lives. Some are told; others are just ‘filed away’ in a forgotten part of our mind, maybe to be awakened by a reminder. Some are tragic; some funny; some ironic. A friend sent me an e-mail last week with a website called “The Virtual Wall” where more than 58 thousand names of Vietnam casualties are catalogued. I looked up a couple of names I recall and they reminded me of some “war stories” from long ago. One name was Captain Tom Amos. On Saturday, April 1, 1972, the phone rang at an early hour in the upstairs dayroom of the ‘Few Q,’ the modulux dorm that housed the 35th TFS Panthers. Nearly all the Panthers were sound asleep, hung over from a ‘wild and crazy’ party on Friday night. The fellow who wasn’t hung over was Tom Amos who had just arrived at Kunsan AB, South Korea the day before. Tom answered the phone and a voice on the other end said, ‘This is the command post. Wake everyone in your building and have them report to squadron operations in 30 minutes. This is a silent recall.’ So Tom Amos walks through the building, opening doors (we never locked anything) and informing everyone within earshot of the message. Now picture this scenario: it’s April Fool’s Day about 5 in the morning; you’re hung over; a stranger just opened your door and said something about a silent recall. Would you buy this or conclude it was a prank from the neighboring squadron, roll over and go back to sleep? When no one showed for the recall, the Director of Operations Colonel Tyler G. Goodman stormed into the Few Q and the recall wasn’t silent anymore. My squadron mates told me (I was off-station in Seoul that weekend and sober as a judge) that his greeting was both loud and traumatic. The gist of the silent recall was that two days prior, the North Vietnamese had launched their largest ground invasion yet, and the 35th was executing Operation Commando Fly to augment Air Force fighter units in Southeast Asia. No one I knew of had ever heard of Commando Fly before that morning. Two weeks or so later, I’m at DaNang Airbase temporarily assigned to the 421st Black Widows along with Tom Amos as fill-ins to replace combat losses. After a week of hard flying, I’m DNIF (duty not to include flying) for a couple of days and assigned as night duty hog, running the Ops desk at the squadron. One of my jobs is to check the sign out log which was our method in combat of filing a flight plan. I notice that Larry “Howdy Doody” Trimble and Mase Burham didn’t sign out when they went to fly. When Trimble and Burnham return from their mission to sign in, I inform them of their infraction and the penalty – one case of beer for the squadron bar. This was not a major financial setback since beer cost 10 cents a can in the warzone. Major whining ensues. Then Trimble’s light bulb goes off: “Hey Joe, is there any rule that we can’t drink the beer we just bought?” My cogent reply: “No, but you’ve got two strikes against you. First, its 7:30 in the morning and second, no way you two are going to down a case of beer.” Trimble thinks this over for a moment and comes back: “Well, we’re coming off duty so we can start drinking, and three can drink more beer than two. When’s your shift over?” “In 30 minutes,” I reply. “Great says Howdy; Mase and I will get a head start and you can join us when your relief shows up.” A half hour later, I’m sitting on a bar stool joining my friends for a Budweiser breakfast. We started strong but gave up after consuming about half the case. Yawns were followed by heavy slumber. I realize that these war stories might damage my reputation with my tee-totaling friends. I would offer in defense that it was a long time ago; I was young; it was war; yada, yada, yada. Within a week, all three of these fellows were dead. Larry Trimble’s jet was hit by a SAM over Dong Hoi, North Vietnam. His backseater was able to eject, survive, captured, and repatriation a year later, but Larry was not so fortunate. Tom Amos and Mason Burnham were killed during a night bombing mission over Laos. Their bombs hit the target, followed immediately by a fireball at 12 o’clock. Our maps for this area were very inaccurate, especially the heights of the surrounding mountains. Also, it was very easy to become disoriented during night dive-bombing. It could happen to anyone. I never had the opportunity to fly with any of these fellows in the short three weeks I knew them. They were each considered to be excellent aviators. So there you have a couple of stories from long ago, containing humor, irony and tragedy. So goes war.

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