Seventeen-year-old Macon native Ron Holmes received the displeasing news upon high school graduation in June of 1963 — his appointment to the Air Force Academy had been denied because of a new prerequisite that required uncorrected 20/20 vision.
Dispirited but undefeated, Ron’s parents agreed to sign the papers so he could enlist into the U.S. Air Force. “My intention was an Air Force career,” he stated. “Test scores showed my lowest qualification to be maintenance. Of course due to typical military reasoning that’s where they put me.”
After basic training at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas, Ron’s next port-of-call was Chanute AFB in Illinois for a ten-month course in mechanics and electronics. “I wasn’t gung-ho at first but gradually started to enjoy the courses. Anything painted yellow on a flight line I learned how to fix, equipment like ground air-conditioning units, air compressors, light carts and self-propelled generators.”
Sent to Dover AFB, Delaware, Ron worked on flight line equipment for such aircraft as C-133 Cargomaster. “That plane had a bad rep,” Ron stated. “Its nickname was the Flying Coffin.” (50 Cargomasters were built, nine were lost in airborne accidents; one in a ground fire — erratic stall characteristics was one major problem). Ron continued, “I was valuable because my small physique allowed me to climb into the framework of larger compressors to change worn belts. I can honestly say there’s no way I could fit into one of those compressors today!”
As new C-130 Hercules and C-141 Starlifters gradually replaced the C-133s, Ron figured he’d complete his four-year enlistment in Delaware. “I only had 14 months to go when we received word that 25 of us were needed in Vietnam. Somebody couldn’t count. We had exactly six men in our shop so I was Vietnam bound.” After a temporary assignment to Williams AFB in Arizona to study the procedures for high compression turbines, Ron reported back to Dover. The Air Force had lost his orders and had essentially lost him during his interim assignment.
“They gave me a 30-day leave,” he said. “My first wife and I returned to Macon where I called Dover for three weeks before they finally figured out what I was supposed to be doing.” Sent to Hamilton AFB near Oakland, California, Ron took combat training in his words, “less arduous than my high school ROTC course,” before taking a commercial airline fight into Tan Son Nhut AFB in Saigon, Vietnam. “We flew on a Braniff Airlines jet,” he recalled. “The cute stewardesses wore cute space suit outfits. At least that made the long flight enjoyable.”
June 1966: Ron is bused 19 miles northeast of Saigon to the airbase at Bien Hoa. “The land around Bien Hoa was full of gorgeous flowers, very beautiful (Bien Hoa literally means “Land of Peaceful Frontiers”) but the airbase was flat and bleak looking.” And the Land of Peaceful Frontiers was anything but.
Asked to describe his 12 months at Bien Hoa, Ron said, “Actually it was 11 months, 22 days, and 16 hours. At first I was excited and scared at the same time, but a routine of work and war eventually dampens fear and you just get the job done.”
He continued, “Bien Hoa serviced Lead Sleds (F-100 Super Sabers), the F-102s used for intercept and escort duty, A1E Skyraiders, small Cessna forward air control aircraft, and a long-winged black airplane called the OL-20.” The ‘OL-20’ signified the Bien Hoa Operation Location 20, the home of U-2 spy planes.
The Army bivouacked directly behind Ron’s shop at Bien Hoa. “When Operation Junction City kicked off the 173rd Airborne Brigade boarded C-130s for the largest parachute drop since D-Day in Normandy. They dropped near the Cambodian border and choppers started coming back with wounded even before the second wave departed Bien Hoa. They also brought back POWs, mostly in the black pajamas of the Viet Cong, and a lot of those were women and children forced to fight against the Americans.”
Pausing a moment, Ron said softly, “You know, seeing our boys laid out under rain ponchos really got to me. Those were the real heroes; those were the guys that did the dirty work.”
On the Vietnamese, “I liked the Vietnamese people. They were friendly and seemingly humble, but when a suicide truck tried to infiltrate Bien Hoa through the mine field, well, the mine field did its job. One of the dead insurgents was a local man that swept our runways during the day.”
Ron recalls boredom broken by reality. “We were in our bunks when an airman in the bunk above me said, ‘I wish something exciting would happen.’ Well, he got his wish. A moment later satchel charges blew up our napalm mixing area. It was a well-planned attack. Outside the airman kept repeating, ‘I didn’t mean it, I didn’t mean it.’ Nonetheless, we had a 16 hour light show.”
For six months Ron worked on ground equipment, bomb lifts and tugs that moved aircraft. Then he received, in his own words, a ‘gravy’ job. “I drove a tractor around base delivering repaired equipment. I knew each snack bar on base and received free goodies if I returned ‘priority’ equipment. ‘Priority’ equipment was determined by me and the snack bars.”
Ron’s ‘gravy’ job had its drawbacks. “I was in front of the control tower waiting for two Skyraiders to safely pass when a 500 lb. bomb dropped off one of the planes and rolled up against my tractor. I stared at it for a few seconds to be sure I was still alive before calling in a ‘red one’ (a base emergency). They very calmly told me to turn off the ignition to my tractor and leave the area. Which I did, abruptly so, I might add.”
In another incident Ron was sitting in his tractor watching a STOL (short takeoff and landing) aircraft take off. He recalled, “Suddenly something told me to ‘move’. I did. My Guardian Angel must have been working overtime because the STOL stalled and plunged onto the spot where I had been parked. The pilot never had a chance.”
May 1967: “We got clobbered,” Ron said. “They hit us with 140mm and 122mm rockets, mortars and leveled anti-aircraft guns at us. We were later told 400 unexploded rounds were found on base. It was a coordinated attack; the enemy knew every inch of the base. Instead of personnel, they went for our planes. We lost at least 20 aircraft. One week later we had a concerted ground attack. By sheer luck, the 173 Airborne had returned to camp and we were able to repel the assault.”
Ron Holmes served as many did in Vietnam, surviving rockets, mortars, ground probes and just doing his job. “I was sitting around my in-law’s dining table three days after returning from Vietnam. I never had the down time needed for readjustment. That’s the same thing our veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are going through. We haven’t learned, we just haven’t learned.”
Ron retired last year after a long career in sales. Divorced in 1980, he met an attractive young lady in 1981 and they married the same year. Ron and Patsy Holmes have lived in Conyers for 33 years. Why’d they choose Conyers? “Patsy was born and raised in Conyers. I didn’t have much of a choice,” Ron replied, teasingly.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.