A few weeks ago, my good friend Don Walsh told me he was going to recieve the Distiguished Service Medal for his service in Vietnam over 30 years ago. I asked him to share his experience with our visitors, and the article that follows is his story. I’ve known Don for many years now, and I first learned of his story as we were flying back from a clinic in Indianapolis. Our plane was hitting some pretty horrible turbulance, and as I was white-knuckling it, I glanced over at Don… who wore his typical Cheshire type grin. He asked what was the matter, and I said… “Man, I think we’re going down.” He just started laughing at me, and begun to tell me about REAL turbulance. Learning more about Don’s life history and knowing the type of husband, and father he is today, is one of the many reasons he is such an inspiration to me, as mentioned in my article from a few weeks ago. Congratulations to Don for being honored, we’re all very proud of him!
The Vietnam era was the darkest period of my life. I was in college at the time and lost my father to cancer. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. The only thing certain was that I would have to serve in the military after graduation. Trying to help my mother out financially, I left college, got married, and joined the Air Force. As I look back it probably wasn’t the wisest choice (you should never join the military during a war). I selected the Air Force because my older brother had served in the Army and spent a year in Vietnam. I didn’t want to put my mother through another year like that. Little did I know what lay ahead.
Don receiving his Distinguished Service Medal from Brigadier General Eugene R. Shojnacki of the Air Force.
After basic training, I trained as a Crew Chief on multi-engines jets, and was permanently assigned to the 99th Bomb Wing at Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts as a Crew Chief on KC-135A tanker aircraft. The day I reported to duty I was told that within three months I would be sent overseas. As far as introductions go, that was not my favorite! It was almost three months to the minute when I boarded my KC-135A Tanker Aircraft and headed to an unknown destination on the other side of the world. We would be involved in something called Operation Arc-Lite, and our tanker was assigned the task of refueling B-52 Bombers and F-4C Fighters in-flight over Vietnam. I didn’t know it at the time (spring of 1970), but this would be the first of three Vietnam tours.
It took us three days of flying to reach our destination. We picked up troops at various air bases across the US, and then island-hopped across the Pacific. It was definitely the local route! As Crew Chief, I was trained on every system on the aircraft so at each stop I had to inspect and refuel the aircraft, while the troops were picked up and taken to the local base for food and rest. This was about as far away from traveling first class as you can get! After three days of traveling, I arrived at Ching Chong Kong Air Base, affectionately known as CCK, located on the island of Taiwan.
I reported to duty and the friendly NCOIC (NCO in Charge) told me that I would have to report to work at 1200 hrs (noon). Wow, I get to sleep in! “What time do I get off,” I asked. The NCO replied, “You get off at 1200 hrs.” “You mean I report to work at 1200 hrs and then I get off?” I replied. “No,” the NCO said. “You report to work at 1200 hrs and you get off at 1200 hrs the following day. I said, “But that’s twenty-four hours” I said. He smiled. “Good. So you do understand.” I then asked, “How long will I have off after my shift is over?” The NCO explained that I’d be off for 24 hrs and then should return at noon the following day. “So I’ll be at work every day,” I said. The NCO replied, “College boy, huh?” I just looked at him and wondered how I was going to get through this. He then added the icing to the cake, “If your plane flies during your shift, you have to fly with it.” Well let me just tell you this… I got very used to spending endless hours inside my aircraft.
Don showing his trade mark smile.
In a way, this experience helped me prepare, mentally and physically, for the marathon swims that I now love to do, including the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (28.5 miles). I got used to working non-stop for long stretches of time. Once, during a typhoon evacuation (during a typhoon, all aircraft were evacuated to an air base out of the path of the storm), I worked four days in a row without sleep. Add to this the steam-bath-like conditions in Southeast Asia, and it’s easy to see how a swim around Manhattan now feels almost like a walk in the park.
It was a very sterile war for us in the Air Force as we watched from our balcony seats at various altitudes. Day after day we would fly our assigned missions and orbit, waiting to hook up with bombers and fighters in-flight. We refueled the heavy bombers at our ceiling altitude of 43,000 feet, but would orbit much lower to give fighter support. Refueling the fighters brought us closer to the war and the danger of being shot down. It’s not like watching a war movie when you see fighters drop napalm and fire missiles at their targets. You feel it in your core as you view this endless trail of destruction and senseless loss of life.
Of all the missions I flew, the first stands out. I reported to work on my first day, thinking that my aircraft was assigned to fly FLS. FLS was our version of mass transit; it provided a daily route for troops going from air base to air base in Southeast Asia. This was a nice, safe way to begin my tour, I thought. Flying FLS would certainly not involve a refueling mission. I pre-flighted my aircraft and awaited the arrival of troops, but no one except the flight crew showed up. I asked the aircraft commander, “Where are the troops?” He smiled and said, “There won’t be any troops today, and we’ll be refueling a B-52 over the Gulf of Tonkin.”
It was like being thrown into the deep end, — no time to ease your way into war. Before long we reached our assigned orbit and hooked up with a B-52 headed for its mission. I could see the external bombs on each wing as the huge aircraft drew closer to our boom. To think of all the destruction that lay ahead in the path of this one aircraft. Yet it’s amazing to witness these two large aircraft flying in close orbit while off-loading thousands of pounds of fuel. At the time, one flight by either a tanker or bomber consumed more fuel than the average family used in their car in a lifetime!
KC-135 – The big one!
What made this flight so memorable, besides being the first, was that our #3 engine caught fire before we had off-loaded all the fuel to the B-52. Our aircraft commander ordered us to put on our parachutes, because we might have to jump! I now think it’s fun to go to an amusement park and choose NOT to go on a ride. When my friends say, “What’s the matter? Are you afraid?” I just smile and say, “No.” I know what fear is and it’s not about going on a ride at an amusement park.
You can’t get free of an aircraft flying at 600 miles an hour unless you’re in an ejection seat, and tankers do not have ejection seats. In order for a tanker crew to “jump,” the entire entry hatch is jettisoned and you hang from a chinning bar and drop down the entryway. At 600 miles an hour it would be a miracle if you didn’t become road kill on the underside of the fuselage. We were flying at 43,000 feet and our chutes didn’t open until 10,000 feet. At that altitude there isn’t any oxygen, but we had oxygen bottles in our parachutes. The only problem was that we didn’t have a regulator to breathe through. Without the regulator the oxygen was continuous flow at 1800 PSI! Trying to exhale against a pressure of 1800 PSI is an experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life. The only way to exhale is to scream into your mask, which we all had to do in the altitude chamber. As soon as you stop exhaling you fill-up like the Goodyear Blimp! The thought of free falling for 33,000 feet and screaming into my mask just didn’t seem like an option to me. I remember pacing up and down in the back of the aircraft saying over and over, “Bring this plane home!” As you can guess, the aircraft commander was able to extinguish the fire on engine #3 and return us safely to CCK. Welcome to the Vietnam War!
There were many missions to follow and after a while I didn’t even bother to put on my parachute, because I knew that jumping just wasn’t an option. Once on take-off we lost the #2 engine; it broke off the strut and shot into the air like a missile. We flew over the China Sea and off-loaded our fuel and returned to base with the remaining engines in tact.
Millie enjoying the honor as well.
My second tour began with a phone call in the spring of 1972. Nine hours later I was headed to Southeast Asia. I called my wife at work and asked her to meet me at home and I wasn’t allowed to tell her over the phone why. We only had time to pack and process out, which meant giving Millie power of attorney in case I didn’t return.
On my third Vietnam tour, I was assigned to B-52s flying out of Guam. During the bombing of North Vietnam in December of 1972 they shot down 26 of our aircraft. We would send 600 aircraft a day to bomb North Vietnam, so sighting wasn’t an issue. All they had to do was fire their missiles upward. It was like shooting into a flock of ducks; they had to hit something!
When I was in the military, I was on something called temporary duty (TDY). This meant that the Air Force could send me anywhere in the world for six months and then they had to return me to my permanent assigned base at Westover. Since is was their game and their rules they sent my unit overseas for six months and then extended all of us for another month. After seven months we returned home and were given two weeks leave off the books. Upon returning from leave we were told to take another week off the books and take care of any personal business as we were going to be sent overseas again. After arriving home after my third tour I was told to take two weeks leave off the books. This was sounding very familiar but fortunately for me, it was June of 1973 and my four years in the Air Force was due to end in just three weeks; otherwise, I would have gone back overseas for a fourth tour, as did so many of my friends.
I completed my fourth year as a Staff Sergeant and was honorably discharged in June of 1973. Thirty years later I received the Distinguished Service Medal for my three Vietnam tours, which included countless combat refueling missions over Vietnam. Better late than never, but it was nice to be recognized for efforts in support of the war. Without the support of the tanker aircraft, the fighters and bombers would not have been able to complete their missions and return safely to their home bases.
To compound the hardship of the Vietnam era, I lost my mother to cancer between my first and second Vietnam tours. Fortunately I’ve used this experience to benchmark the rest of my life. Although nothing should compare with that era, I now try to fill my life with joy, and view any hardships (including a swim around Manhattan) as relatively inconsequential.