I have been asked repeatedly by my editors and friends to pen my own story, and I have repeatedly refused. I just don’t like honking my own horn. But the requests keep coming in, so honk-honk; I’ll give it a shot.
Basic training took place at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas. We were taught to march, sing cadence, make a bed and clean the latrine. We were screamed at a lot, which caused a few mommas-boys to wet their fatigues or embarrass the whole flight (platoon) by sobbing like babies late at night under their bed sheets.
Qualifying on the rifle range spoke volumes why certain people should never own a weapon. Each airman received 60 live rounds to fire from various positions at the silhouette of half a man 100 yards down range. Yours truly received the only marksmanship ribbon awarded with a 60 out of 60 perfect score. One mommas-boy shut his eyes every time he pulled the trigger for a score of 5 out of 60. His lousy aim disqualified both airmen on each side of him with scores of 82 out of 60 and 71 out of 60. The range officer was fit to be tied.
The obstacle course resembled a poorly laid out amusement park which several of us ran twice to kill the boredom. We bypassed momma-boys paralyzed from fear caught under the barbed wire of a mock mine field. To be fair, the ‘smoke’ from detonated mines resembled Martha White flour, so perhaps the momma-boys suffered from wheat allergies.
We were required to do our 1-mile graduation ‘run’ with no backpack in less than six minutes. How cruel. After graduation, orders came down for advanced training, except for yours truly; I remained behind for reasons unknown. Regarding the momma-boys, persistent rumors claimed they received inter-service transfers to attend Officer Candidate Schools.
I was sent to pull three weeks of KP duty; I mopped barracks and scrubbed latrines, plus pulled one delightful week with the base engineers busting up road asphalt. My father, via telephone, kept advising me that my idea of going AWOL was not an intelligent option. Plus dad informed me something was in the works: the F.B.I. was questioning my pastor, former teachers, neighbors, friends, and a few acquaintances that I had hoped to forget. So I continued busting asphalt and awaited orders for advanced training or a stint at Leavenworth. With a heat index over a hundred degrees atop the asphalt, I was game for anything.
I finally received orders: A.I.T. at Lowry AFB in Denver, CO. I asked, but not one soul knew what A.I.T. signified. Considering my present duties, I presumed A.I.T. indicated Asphalt Inspired Torture until my squadron commander finally informed me the F.B.I. had approved my Top Secret clearance to attend Air Intelligence Training. Intelligence? Maybe F.B.I. guidelines had been dummy-downed to meet war quotas.
If you don’t believe in a Supreme Being, then travel to Colorado to gaze upon the Rocky Mountains. The majestic panorama will compel you to believe in something bigger than yourself. When allowed off base, the boys of Intelligence scrutinized the nightly ‘target-rich environment’ at the Mad Russian Lounge. There are no ugly women in Denver, but the mile-high city altitude has been known to effect vision. We ‘hit’ the ski slopes, literally, at Breckenridge and Arapaho Basin, no broken bones, but lots of bruises. There are no ugly women on the slopes, either.
Intelligence school was demanding, interesting, secretive, informative, and open to military officers from Middle East countries. Surprised at first, we soon learned the Middle East officers did not attend the same classes as American flyboys. It really didn’t matter. Within weeks the 1967 Six Day War in the Middle East erupted and the Jordanian, Syrian, and Egyptian officers flew home to fight Israel. They lost.
For over 4 months we were taught mission planning, photo Intelligence, map reading, coordinates, Communist tactics, Soviet and Chinese arms and hardware, code breaking, dot-dot this and dit-dit that. It was mid-winter and snowed as soon as the previous snowfall melted. Marching to chow and school in three-foot snowdrifts was surprisingly enjoyable, the first day, after that we recognized snow as Satan incarnate. Graduation came in June yet I was still awaiting orders in July. My parents came to see me, driving from Memphis to Denver in nice weather. I drove them to Breckenridge where we spent the night at the Blue Hotel, so named because, well, it was painted blue. Mom did not appreciate sharing the hall bathroom with other guests, didn’t care for heights, and awoke the next morning to witness a snowfall in July. She had a breakfast without anything recognizably Southern and the drive back to Denver was a bit testy on fresh snow. They left for home the next morning.
I swapped snow for sand. McCoy AFB in Orlando, FL was home to the 306th Bombardment Wing of the Strategic Air Command, which meant supporting Cold War missions for the deadly, yet beautiful, B-52s. On my first night at McCoy I walked about a mile from the barracks down to the flight line. The massive bombers were undergoing maintenance tests, refueling, repositioning, and high-pitched engine run-throughs on a flight line lit-up like a ball park. With several B-52s revving all eight powerful engines, nearby structures vibrated as did my eardrums. The noise level was deafening. I loved it.
The Intelligence Building was a beehive of planning and plotting and an occasional viewing of an old XXX flick back when the men still kept on their black socks. These viewings were for historical research (that’s the best excuse I can offer). I had access to sensitive information plus the tools of the trade which meant an ability to create an unauthorized driver’s license. Unlike liberal Denver, Florida enforced their underage drinking laws. Since I needed an I.D. rarely seen in the Sunshine State, I falsified a driver’s licenses from the Sagebrush State which fooled all the local bouncers except one. He noticed I had misspelled Nevada as Navada.
Part of my responsibilities included drawing radar predictions for B-52 low-level terrain avoidance missions. I could do so with special gizmos that predicted the shadows and/or radar returns using the topography of classified maps. The radar scope predictions looked a lot like bowls of spaghetti. The neat thing was, to become familiar with radar scopes plus compare my predictions to the real depictions, I was authorized to fly as an observer on the bombers. Flying on B-52s, authorized to wear a flight jacket, and toting a misspelled fake I.D. in my wallet at nineteen years of age…..it just don’t get no better!
Ground school for flight status included psychological tests plus sitting in a pressure chamber at a simulated 40,000 feet as the instructors on the outside watching us through pressurized windows told us to take off our oxygen masks then take a short multiple choice test. Without oxygen your mental abilities decline to a level equivalent to the worm on the bottom of a bottle of Tequila. Panic prevailed. Airmen quickly grabbed their masks to refill their lungs with life-saving oxygen. Then the instructors panicked. “Mecca, what are you doing? Mecca, put on your oxygen mask! Now, Mecca!” I finished the written test, the only one ever to do so, then calmly strapped on my oxygen mask. Outside the pressure chamber, I was asked a million questions. I suppose they considered me a freak or a superman, but I never told them about the big gulp of oxygen I took into my lungs before removing my mask then holding my breath long enough to finish the written test. Sometimes I just can’t help myself.
Flying aboard a B-52 is beyond awesome; the noise, the majestic power and size, the almost unrestricted capabilities. I sat directly behind and between the pilot and copilot in the V.I.P. seat. The pilots implied that I was indeed a V.I.P. - Vaguely Intelligent Person. The shortest route to the Soviet Union is over the North Pole. We probed their defenses and they tested ours; we feigned crossing their border and they intercepted us, such was the Cold War. We practiced terrain avoidance bomb runs over Canada with, I assumed, permission of the Canadian government. American fighters would ‘intercept’ us as we struggled to ‘evade’ them over American airspace. The fighters always won. Then orders finally came down for Southeast Asia. No big surprise, I had volunteered.
Nakhom Phanon (NKP) Royal Thai Airbase was hot, dusty, tropical, yet noticeably improved by the American military. Positioned in extreme northeastern Thailand, a thin bottleneck of Laotian territory separated us from North Vietnam. Slow-as-Christmas Cessna O-1 Bird Dogs and OV-10 Broncos provided eyes in the sky for A1E Skyraiders and vintage WWII A-26 Invaders, plus relayed strike coordinates for the fast-movers (jets) from other locations. Huge Jolly Green Giant and Huey choppers were utilized for rescue or special ops missions in Laos. Laos was a war that didn’t exist, a clandestine interdiction campaign denied by the USA and North Vietnam. Men died in this war that didn’t exist, they evaded capture when shot down, they suffered wounds, became POWS, saw a buddy perish in a ball of flame while bombing a worthless target. These men were the unknown heroes of the Vietnam War. Yet they remained silent, loyal, and soldiered on.
The North Vietnamese infiltration network was called the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In reality, the ‘trail’ was a well-developed road system with truck parks, POL (petroleum, oil, and lubricant) dumps; fuel pipelines made of bamboo, ammo dumps, and rest areas. Although primitive by modern standards, the dirt roads were highly efficient and almost impossible to interdict due to crippling rules of engagement.
I worked out of a Top Secret location identified by several goofy names which most likely confused non-essential personnel. We weren’t James Bond but in a weird sort of way did have a license to kill. Flash Gordon, Batman, and the folks from the House of Cards would have been proud. I never discussed our location or duties until a few years ago, but that short-lived slip of the tongue came to a halt when I discovered via new satellite imagery that the location is still active. The Ho Chi Minh Trail is now an international tourist trap and of no military significance, so any explanation of the current activity is beyond my paygrade.
After 18 months at NKP my next port-of-call was Tan Son Nhut AFB in Saigon, Vietnam. No big surprise; I had volunteered. I was scheduled for an early morning shuttle flight to Vietnam aboard a C-130, but I’d stayed up most of the night playing poker, fell asleep, overslept, and missed the flight by five minutes. NKP did not have a big terminal, but it did have a floor, I had my duffle bag which became my pillow, and the floor became my bed. Falling fast asleep, I put faith in the scheduler to wake me if another ‘hop’ made a pit stop at NKP.
Someone started kicking the soles of my combat boots. How impolite! I sprang to my feet to confront the ‘boot kicker’ and came face to face with my boss, Brigadier General Willie McBride. He was not the least bit intimidated by my agitated expression. “What are you doing here, Mecca?” he asked. After explaining I was en route to Tan Son Nhut but had missed my flight, the General asked, “Why?” The excuse of an all-night poker game was not the answer he sought. “I’m not talking about missing your flight, sergeant,” McBride shot back. “Why are you going to Vietnam?” That I had volunteered brought forth a laxer tone. “Have you been home to see your folks?” A ‘yes, sir’ gained me a ride into the war. “Well, grab your gear, Mecca. I’m on my way to MACV in Saigon. You can ride with me.” Instead of a lumbering C-130, I boarded General McBride’s personal Lear Jet.
I was sole occupant of a nicely-appointed cabin. McBride and his pilot sat behind the controls in the Lear’s cockpit. Flying to war via a Lear Jet piloted by a one-star General and his pilot was a war story to tell future rug rats and grand-rug rats, which I’ve done, but 2 generations of family rug rats still think I’m joshing. The fondest memory I have of the flight was General McBride coming back into the cabin. He sat with me for at least 20 minutes, asking questions about my family, my plans for future education, if I planned to stay in the military, offered advice and if ever requested, offered a written recommendation for any endeavor. I will always remember the fatherly General who spent time with the lowly sergeant.
Tan Son Nhut AFB in Saigon, Vietnam – 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing: I was put in charge of map layouts and plotting of every mission flown by the 460th. I was given unrestricted freedom to correct a huge problem with incompetence and apathetic attitudes within the plotting team. Easy enough. I cleaned house and replaced the ineptness with fresh faces and better mindsets. My team made no mistakes for the entire year I was stationed at Tan Son Nhut. We lost one pilot due to catastrophic engine failure, not a plotting mistake. In mid-1970 my team stayed up 3 days and 2 nights planning and plotting missions for the Cambodian Invasion. Enemy rockets or mortars hit Tan Son Nhut every so often just to keep us on our toes, but we remained relatively secure in one hell of a nasty war.
They tried to pin a medal on me when my tour was up but I refused to attend the ceremony. I was told to show up, or else! I chose the ‘or else’ option. The next day a young captain I worked with came in and slammed the medal box on the plotting table. “Not one word, Mecca, not one word!” So I took a medal I didn’t want. I opened the box 10 years later to see what I had tried to refuse.
My hardheaded attitude concerning the medal was a personal choice based on what I had done and survived versus what other guys went through and paid such a heavy price. I lost school chums, I lost friends; I’ve given a left-handed hand-shake because a buddy lost his right arm. Barry lost his right eye, Mike lost use of his right arm, a sniper’s bullet paralyzed Steve from the neck down, a few lost their faith, a few lost fingers, a few lost toes, a few lost their minds. Dan has never lost his thousand yard stare, Joe relives Nam every night in night sweats and nightmares, and Agent Orange keeps on killing. Our countrymen said we were baby-killers; now they say we’re heroes. We are neither. The Vietnam warriors did their jobs under impossible rules of engagement, died for ground given back to the enemy after the battles were over, or blown out of the sky hitting insignificant, but politically correct, targets. That, was our war.
I write with humor. Perhaps that’s my method of affirming that after Vietnam, every day is gravy. There are 58,267 names on a long black wall in Washington, D.C.; those are the heroes, those are the men and women who deserve medals. But the rest of us? We were just lucky.
And that’s my story.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.