Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Recollections of Vietnam

By Jim Hermanson

f100.jpg I had volunteered for Viet Nam in 1966 when at Luke AFB in Phoenix, AZ, becoming a fighter pilot in F-100’s. Having received orders to join the wing at Homestead AFB, FL, that was deploying to Viet Nam, a classmate from the class at Luke and I attended Survival School at Fairchild AFB, Spokane, WA. We were in what was labeled the last summer class which meant that we were issued summer clothes and survival gear. Unfortunately, the weather did not comply with the plan. We had lots of rain, cold weather, and snow. Whenever we saw an instructor, we reminded them that we were all en route to Viet Nam. They reminded us that their job was to prepare us for worldwide deployment. The Air Force did send us through Jungle Survival School in the Philippines, so we did have excellent preparation for the combat tour, at least to the extent that any training can, for the real thing was so much more intense.

I was airborne in an F-100 out of Phan Rang near the Laotian border in I Corps when the NVN's Tet offensive started after midnight of 30 January 1968. We were on final for a TPQ10 radar bomb drop when our controller said that they were taking incoming artillery. He soon broke us off, as they abandoned their location in Hue for bunkers. When we turned back for Phan Rang evidence of the attacks was visible many places as the battles illuminated the countryside below. Upon landing we did a quick turn and returned to attack a convoy in Laos. Lead took us past our bingo for home planning to recover at DaNang, which was much closer. When we contacted DaNang tower, we were informed that they were under a heavy attack and that both runways were closed because of shell craters, so we called Chu Lai Marine Corps Airbase.

They were under a ground small arms and mortar attack, but their runway was serviceable. However, they did not want us to land, but we explained that we’d have to eject if we did not get fuel, so they told us to minimize our ground time. I don’t remember the normal runway lights being on, and we used no external lights. But, the small arms fire was pretty heavy and provided some illumination and helped with depth perception, so the approach and landing weren’t too hairy although we had a lot of folks shooting at us. Lead did not realize that they had a mid-field barrier (I had been a Forward Air Controller in I Corps previously and was familiar with Chu Lai), so when he saw the cable he thought he had only 1000 feet plus the overrun remaining like at an AF base and jumped on the brakes. We had agreed not use our drag chutes, but we both still exited the runway at midfield.

They hot refueled us—my first time taking on fuel with the engine running but a Marine/Navy standard—and lead's brakes ignited. The Marine/Navy refuelers showed little concern and just shot a few puffs with a CO2 fire extinguisher until the flames went out. That happened several times. We both had about 3-4000 pounds of fuel when the tower told us that the bad guys appeared to be marching mortars toward the revetments in which we were parked, and they cleared us for take-off from the refueling pit. We accelerated to a pretty good speed to taxi to the runway and had to brake hard to make the corner onto the runway, and I lit the afterburner while still in the turn. Although it seemed like a long time, we were probably on the ground only about ten minutes. The third hop of the night got us back to Phan Rang and was without further excitement.

The next several days we had no preplanned sorties; all of our missions were from an alert status responding primarily to troops-in-contact situations. My R&R flight was scheduled just a few days after Tet, but fortunately I was to fly out of Cam Rahn Bay, just north of us, for it was the only R&R site open. Tan Son Nhut near Saigon and DaNang were closed.

Perhaps the most unusual target I ever attacked was in those interceding days. Bad guys overran parts of Tan Son Nhut, and we strafed a couple of the “line shacks” on the flight line in support of retaking the base which was accomplished by noon of 31 January.

Barb had traveled from her home in Colorado Springs to visit friends in San Francisco, CA, and because of a newspaper strike and no TV was unaware of the massive Tet offensive and resulting cancellation of R&R flights until she got to the airport en route to Honolulu. Uncertain of my status, she prayed for the best and went on. After landing in Honolulu she was sobered by a chaplain coming on board their aircraft and escorting several women off prior to others deplaning. When she arrived at Ft. DeRussey, many of the women were informed that their husbands would not be coming because of the cancellation of R&R flights from the other two bases and some were casualties. She learned that I was still scheduled to arrive, and a retired veteran’s wife helped her with Anne as she waited. Interestingly later that year that lady, Rose, helped a young bride from Iowa marry her Viet Nam stationed Army convoy commander on his R&R in Hawaii later that year. We know that because he later interned with the Forest Service in western Montana where we were teaching high school and ranching and became best friends.

While at Ft. DeRussey waiting for our bus, a freelance photographer asked Barb if I had ever met Anne, then four months old. When Barb said, “No.” he told her that he was doing an article on the R&R program for Viet Nam personnel and got permission to use a picture in the article. We would not have gotten a copy of this picture except for another unique coincidence. He sold his story to the Sunday News, New York’s Picture Newspaper. The next week a neighbor of Barb’s parents who lived in Lincoln, NE, brought over the 3 March 1968 edition with the article.

Our week in Hawaii was magical. The lady who had greeted and escorted Barb also took care of Anne on several occasions so that I could have Barb all to myself. Several times as we ate in restaurants, other diners anonymously paid for our meals. And, we were told that our service in Viet Nam was important and appreciated. This treatment was in stark contrast to my return to the Mainland less than a month later. Barb had traveled to LA staying with other friends and met me at LAX. I was still in uniform, and just as I got to her war protesters confronted me, and one spit on me. I did not retaliate against that protester. Although I believed that his expression was wrong, part of my being in Viet Nam was to protect our rights including free speech. But, I do remember Barb’s shock and anguish and my wondering what had happened to our nation in the year that I had been gone.

Many years later at a high school reunion, a classmate helped heal that wound. She spoke to all of us, aware that several of us, her classmates, were Viet Nam veterans. She had become a nurse and said that she still thought that the Viet Nam war was wrong, but that the way she and other protesters had treated veterans was wrong, too; we were just doing our jobs. And, she asked for our forgiveness which we gave.
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