By Richard Wangard, Navy, Air Force
Writing Type: Prose
In my dad's defense, I was not like Jim or Tom. I was the black sheep. If you get no attention, then you created it through behavior that is frowned upon. My fate was sealed in 3rd grade, ever a book report on Jet Pilot. I was fascinated by the cover of this swashbuckling pilot standing on the ladder leading up to his cockpit. I think I was 8 or 9 years old. I think the plane was an F100 or an older F-86. Can't remember. But I read the book four times. From that point on my bedroom was covered in pictures of planes and I kept up with all the latest and greatest. Right up until I was 17. Right up to the point where I entered the Air Force at 17. Dad couldn't sign for me fast enough! It was 1968 and Nam was going strong. All I wanted to do was fly!
Jim and Tom had no interest in military affairs and both went to college and both were really smart. So smart and intelligent and so successful that they both wound up being millionaires. They worked hard and deserved their wealth. I went a different way and I am very glad I did.
I knew it all at 17 just like 17-year-olds everywhere. Perhaps the late teens are God's way of preparing His children for adulthood. Nobody could tell me anything and I was invulnerable. I felt like I was just a little bit short of being Superman--right up until I got to Amarillo, Texas, and Air Force basic training. Right up to the point where a drill instructor grabbed me by the neck and threw me into a wall and said, you are in the Air Force now, and every button is buttoned. I was still in civvies wearing a cool jacket. So the fear started and I learned to shrink and make myself small. Blend in and don't say a word. It did not work. Drill instructors always find a way to break you down and build you back up the way they want and the way the military wants!
All I wanted to do was fly, so this was the last thing I wanted. I thought the best way to get near aircraft was to fix them so I signed up to be a jet engine mechanic. After basic it was to Chanute Air Force base for Tech Training. All 10 weeks of it. Basic jet engine tech. Then a 30-day leave back home, and onto my first overseas base--Naha, Okinawa. I transitioned to C130A model aircraft and learned their engines. The T-56 Allison Turboprops. Mainly held together with safety wire. These planes were built in the late 50's and produced up until the E models came out in 1968 and 69. About 6 months later after I had "learned enough" I was asked to go to Vietnam on a 90 day temporary assignment to Tan Son Ute Airbase. I did not have to go but my curiosity of what was going on over there caused me to say yes and I had heard that jet mechs could get up in the air over there to fix planes all over Vietnam that were "broke". I bit, and I bit hard. Remember that all I wanted to do was fly.
It turned out that the rumors were somewhat true. I had to pull my regular shift on the Tan Son Ute flight line fixing planes for eight to ten hours a day, but then I could go to operations and find out what planes were flying while I was "off duty." And so it started, burning the candle at both ends. A mission lasted anywhere from four to eight hours depending on where in Vietnam we were flying. Sometimes diverted in mid-air to get to those that needed us most. I was 18 now and an airman first class. A decent mechanic who knew my stuff. I was never denied to get onboard for a flight. You see the C130A carried no tools of her own. I had this huge tool box that I would make sure the aircraft commander saw when I asked if I could go with the crew. "Hop on!" was always the answer. The crew was a little bit older than me. Usually a young 1st Lieutenant or a young Captain was the aircraft commander. Nice guys! The oldest was usually the flight engineer who held a high enlisted rank. The crew was an aircraft commander, a co-pilot, a flight engineer, a navigator, a loadmaster ,an assistant loadmaster and me. However, I was not crew and had no wings. I was a volunteer and got no credit for flying, but I did not care as long as I was up in the air! To this day my heart is still in the air, but I settle now for a Harley.
My first TDY of 90 days went by fast, and did I ever grow up fast! One of the first missions I flew involved getting the 101st airborne to hospitals. It was May 1969 and those poor guys took 90% casualties at a place named Hamburger Hill. Our planes could get into very tight places and we landed at field hospitals where these guys were "stabilized," and then we Medivac'd them to Da Nang, Cam Ron Bay, or Tan Son Ute where our main hospitals were in country. Most were then further medivaced to Japan and then to the states. We had no medics. The crew were the medics. All of us except the aircraft commander flying the plane. I learned more medical information in 90 days than I did on how to fix planes. We tried real hard to ease their pain and discomfort. Some did not make it. People wonder why I have such a hard edge, why I am the way I am? I still do not know and that was 50 years ago. I fixed many planes while on that first TDY and flew to all points in Nam. By the time I got back to Okinawa my roommate noticed a change in me that I did not.
My tour in Okinawa was for 18 months and in Nov. of 1969 1 was asked if I wanted to go back to Vietnam for a second 90-day temporary tour. This time I knew what to expect and I could not say no because I knew the stakes. Again I did not have to go but flying was in my blood and the thrill of assault landings and assault takeoffs was too much for me to resist.I now knew the price that I would pay. The candle kept getting shorter as I burned it. Working my shift and then flying. Same gig as my first TDY. This time when I got back to Okinawa my best friend and roommate knew I was on a very short fuse. I drank like a fish, had a short temper, and was just plain obstinate. The eighteen months in Okinawa were up, and my roommate and I needed new duty stations. Denny chose to go to Travis Airbase in California. I choose to go back to Vietnam for the third time but this time on a PCS.
That means permanent duty, for a year. All I wanted to do was fly, but by now it had taken a toll. I went on a 30-day leave back home before going back to Nam for the start of my third time there. It was now April of 1970 and I was a 19-year-old Sergeant. I hated everything about that leave: being forced to change into civilian clothes once we landed in Hawaii. My family's attitude. My high school friends trying to redress me, the protestors, just plain everything. I did not belong there and I did not fit in. Dad did not help matters. I left never wanting to return. Vietnam was home. I understood it and my brothers needed me and the skills I now had. Again I flew all points in Nam: North, South, East, and West. I met guys from so many different units. All great guys who always took good care of me sharing food and warm beer. Same thing--work eight to ten hours fixing engines each day with maybe a day off here and there. Then fly for four to eight hours. Every different kind of mission vou could imagine, many times being diverted.
The candle finally burned up in Sept. of 1970, and I had to be medivaced out of Nam back to the States because I had turned into Nick from The Deer Hunter. You will have to rent the movie to understand what I am talking about. It is still to this day that I feel sad and shocked by the way I left Vietnam. I would never have left on my own. I refused to abandon my brothers, but I just got too wrapped up in the War. I lost it, and thanks to the Air Force doctors they brought me back from the brink of destruction. PTSD has been my enemy all my life. I at least know how to fight it now. I am not afraid to ask for help and I still counsel to this day. Amazing how something can stick with you for 50 years and you remember things like they happened yesterday. So So many brave, gallant, courageous, good guys, and most of all brothers willing to do anything for you. I never met one that would not do it all over again!
My two real brothers Jim and Tom don't get it. They can't they were not there. They enjoy lives of luxury and wealth that they both deserve from their smartness, intellect, and hard work. However, they understand nothing when it comes to empathy, sacrifice, duty, honor, country. At least they did not protest to my knowledge. You see, there is only one universal color and it does not matter if you are white, black, red, yellow, or brown, or even purple with pink polka dots. All of humankind is equal when it comes to conflict. We all will bleed red until we learn to get along. And share!
And women too sacrificing everything trying to make things better for their kids. In short I have experienced so much in such a short amount of time (from 17 to 20) that it changed me forever and my path after the Air Force was always a rather low paying job trying to help people. You see I don't have business skills or the brains of my brothers Jim and Tom. I could not do Calculus like Tom could or Organic Chemistry like Jim could. I suppose they helped people in their own ways but it seems they helped themselves more. Me? I always choose try to help those who for whatever reason could not help themselves. The Air Force taught me that, and I never lost the compassion that made me happy. I will always respect the givers, but it seems the world is far more full of takers. No, we are not all created equal.