Remembering the OreANG's Vietnam Veterans

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142FW/HO (Volunteer)
On this Veterans Day, 2015, we remember all the men and women who served and who serve our nation in the armed forces.  This year we pay special attention to our Vietnam War veterans, marking the 50th anniversary of major US involvement in Southeast Asia from 1965 and the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in 1975. 

A number of Oregon Air National Guard (OreANG) veterans also served our country in Southeast Asia, either going to the war as OreANG members or, in the case of most, returning from the war to join the OreANG.  Following are a few highlights from some of those who served - there are many more examples yet undocumented or shared.

Some OreANG Vietnam veterans were Guardsmen who served on active duty during the war.  Under the Palace Alert program, several 123rd Fighter-Interceptor Squadron (FIS) F-102 Delta Dagger fighter pilots volunteered.  William B. McDonald was one of them.  Already familiar with Southeast Asia from being on active duty with the Clark Air Base, Republic of the Philippines-based 509th FIS, the first unit to deploy F-102s to South Vietnam and Thailand in 1962 during the Laotian Crisis, as an Oregon Air Guardsman he volunteered for two Palace Alert tours of duty. 

One tour took him to Cold War Europe where he joined the 496th FIS at Hahn Air Base, West Germany, as NATO faced off against the Warsaw Pact.  Southeast Asia called too, and he then  returned to Clark Air Base, RP, where he joined the 64th FIS, with forward deployed duty at Da Nang Air Base, South Vietnam, where he flew 41 combat missions.  He was later one of the primary members of the OreANG's first team to participate in the William Tell competition, in 1970.

An Air Guardsman was also briefly involved in airlift operations in Vietnam during the war.  Jerry Baird was a C-130 loadmaster in the 146th Tactical Airlift Wing, California ANG, and one time undertook a TDY mission from the US to deliver cargo to Saigon (probably Tan Son Nhut Air Base), South Vietnam. 

Baird remembered his arrival to Saigon, and did not like that his aircraft came in to the field right over an artillery fire base.  His fondest memory of the brief five and a half hours he spent on the ground in South Vietnam was "Seeing it out of the windows upon leaving."  Jerry Baird joined the OreANG in 1986 and later retired as a Senior Master Sergeant. 

But the bulk of the OreANG's Vietnam service veterans joined the OreANG after their active duty service in SE Asia.  They came from a wide range of assignments to units in Southeast Asia. 

Airmen of the "In-Country" War

Some OreANG veterans served in Republic of Vietnam (RVN), perhaps more commonly referred to as South Vietnam.  CMSgt Rodney R. Smith was drafted into the Army and served as a young soldier in Army aviation, a Specialist 4 (E-4) Structural Repair Technician / Airframe Repairman (sheet metal repair) repairing stress cracks and bullet holes in helicopter airframes.  He was assigned to the 120th Aviation Support Helicopter Country of the 1st Aviation Brigade at Phu Loi and Long Bien from 1 September 1971 to 30 September 1972, which encompassed the time of the North Vietnamese Easter Invasion of South Vietnam. 

Chief Smith recalled "About six months into my tour of duty, I started flying with the crews aboard (CH-47) Chinook helicopters delivering supplies to Fire Bases.  We also transported troops to and from the field (both US and ARVN) and recovered damaged helicopters in the field that had been shot down from enemy fire."  Rod Smith joined the OreANG in 1975 and eventually rose to the position of State Command Chief, retiring in 2009 with 37 years of military service.

CMSgt John Serlet was a young airman and a jet engine mechanic in the A-37A Dragonfly-equipped 604th Air Commando Squadron at Bien Hoa Air Base, South Vietnam.  He was in country 1967-68.  His unit brought the new A-37 into combat service where it performed in an exemplary manner and commenced combat operations in August 1967 only three months after receiving the new aircraft.  Under project Combat Dragon, the test was to determine if the A-37 could replace the famed A-1 Skyraider in the Air Commando attack role, as the A-1, long out of production, was dwindling in numbers.  Chief Serlet and his squadron successfully passed the test and proved the A-37 a suitable combat aircraft for Close Air Support and Forward Air Control work in SE Asia.  

Serlet was at Bien Hoa during the epic Tet Offensive which began in late January 1968, when the base was attacked by a Viet Cong regiment, with two infantry battalions and a reinforced infantry company (60% of the attackers were North Vietnamese), as well as being mortared and rocketed.  The battle went on for several days but defenders repulsed enemy attacks and retained control of the base. 

Chief Serlet reflected on his Vietnam experience:  "There were a few of us in (OreANG) maintenance that had served in Nam or Thailand.  I always felt a special bond to those guys.  Sort of that "Band of Brothers" thing."  He continued:  "I'm very proud for having served over there.  I still carry the mental scars and images of the war.  It is never far from my thoughts. ...for many of us vets the war goes on each day."  John Serlet joined the OreANG in March, 1971, as an E-4 J-57 jet engine mechanic on the F-101 fighter-interceptor and served a total of 34 years in uniform by the time he retired in 2001.

Carl Falk was a soldier in the US Army in Field Artillery, and served with the Americal Division at Chu Lai, South Vietnam, about 50 miles south of Da Nang, from November, 1969, to December, 1970.  He was a Specialist-4, with MOS of 13B20, an Assistant Gunner, and was assigned to B Battery in the 1st Battalion of the 82nd Field Artillery, where he was on the crew of one of the battery's four M114 155mm Howitzers. 

He served at three different outlying Landing Zones in that timeframe, including Snoopy, Debbie and Stinson.  When Falk joined his unit, they were still talking about Bravo Battery's epic battle at LZ Snoopy in May, 1969.   "We sent many rounds down range, but we had incoming as well," he remembered about that time.   After his service Carl Falk worked in the Portland area and joined the OreANG in 1983, and retired as a Master Sergeant in June, 2008. 

Richard Stearns was a young airman assigned to the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing, the Gunfighters, at Da Nang Air Base, South Vietnam, from December, 1970, to December, 1971.  Da Nang was called "Rocket City" by some and with good reason.  Dick Stearns remember the base being rocketed by the enemy 26 times during his tour of duty there.  He worked in the release shop, responsible for the circuitry between the pickle button and the weapons rail/bomb rack.    He also overhauled the pylons for mounting external stores and the black boxes connecting it all.  By the end of his tour of duty, the 366th TFW was the last USAF fighter wing based in South Vietnam.

Stearns served during the time of Operation Lam Son 719, the incursion into Laos against the Ho Chi Minh trail, which the 366th TFW provided air support for.  He recalled the awesome impression of times when all three fighter squadrons of the 366TFW were on a large force employment mission, "We were informed at 0600 of a maximum effort at 1300.  About an hour before takeoff, everything was quiet.  Fifteen minutes before takeoff, one after another aircraft fired up their engines, all the way down the line.  The jets taxied out and took off four at a time with a full afterburner takeoff.  The end of the runway guys were quite busy."  how the entire flightline was quiet up to the time of engine start.  F-4 after F-4 starting engines, taxiing and taking off was a tremendous sight.  He joined the OreANG at the start of the F-4 era, where his Vietnam F-4 experience was quickly utilized - "Dick knows" became a common expression as the unit grew familiar with the Phantom II.

F-102 pilot Major Jimmy K. Angel came to Portland in 1968 with 300 combat missions and 409.5 combat hours in the F-102.  He served with the 64th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron and was among the first pilots to deploy overseas in the F-102 by mid-air refueling in June, 1966, and flying across the Pacific Ocean to Clark AB, Philippines, from which he deployed forward to detachments in South Vietnam and Thailand.  With this experience he became a member of the OreANG's first team to fly in the William Tell fighter-interceptor meet in 1970.

Airmen of the "Out-Country" War

Many Oregon veterans served in units based outside South Vietnam that took part in the conflict.  One of the iconic aircraft of the Vietnam War was the superlative F-105 Thunderchief, the aircraft which carried out 75% of the USAF bombing missions during the Rolling Thunder air campaign.  Curtis Scott, who joined the USAF before the war, made a PCS move from Portland AFB and arrived at Korat Royal Thai AFB (RTAFB), Thailand, in April, 1966, as the Rolling Thunder bombing was underway. 

Then an Airman First Class (A1C), Scott was technically an assistant crew chief due to his rank, but a de facto crew chief on the line at Korat.  He kept the F-105D's of the 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) flying as part of the 6234th Tactical Fighter Wing (Provisional) and then the 388th TFW which replaced it.  As he hadn't been trained on the F-105, the unit sent him TDY to Kadena AB, Japan, to go through a Field Training Detachment crew chief's course.  He thought well of the Thunderchief:  "The F-105 had the most crew chief toys, like aft section dollies, the buddy wheels, MJ1 Jammers, etc."

A USAF combat cameraman caught him in the camera briefly in the USAF documentary from 1966 titled "There is a Way."  As a crew chief in a combat zone, he saw evidence of the air war in more than just empty bomb racks.  He was sent to repair the F-105 credited with the first Thunderchief MiG kill of the war, flown by 421st TFS  Major Fred Tracy on 29 June 1966.  It had been damaged by North Vietnamese MiG fighters 23mm and 37mm cannon shells during the fight - "...everything I touched in the cockpit just crumbled.  I don't think that aircraft ever left Korat after the battle damage sustained during the MiG kill."

Scott was happy when he became a member of the 421st TFS. "We finally had an identity and belonged to somebody.  We took pride in it.  It was good to belong."   He joined the OreANG in 1967-1969 and again from late 1971 - he became the crew chief for the F-101B flown by William Tell 1976's Top Gun aircrew, Brad Newell and Don Tonole.  Curtis Scott attained the rank of Master Sergeant before he retired from the OreANG in 1994.

The F-4 Phantom II was another outstanding combat aircraft flown by the Air Force, as well as the Navy and Marines.  Many OreANG veterans flew the F-4 in Southeast Asia, mostly it appears from bases in Thailand.  Witness the aircrew lineup for the Redhawks William Tell 1986 Team, whom in total had accrued 3,533 combat hours over SE Asia:

Beaver 1
Pilot:  Lt Col Scott Powell, flew in the 390th TFS at Da Nang AB, South Vietnam, circa March 1971; then the 34th TFS at Korat RTAFB, Thailand, circa March 1972, accruing 300 combat sorties and 650 combat hours.

WSO:  Maj Steve Allison, served at Ubon RTAFB, Thailand, and was awarded Vietnam Gallantry Cross.

Beaver 2
Pilot:  Capt Larry Kemp, served at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand, circa 1975.    

WSO:  Maj George T. "Tom" Tutt.  During the war he was based at Da Nang AB, South Vietnam, with the 362d Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron.  He arrived in South Vietnam in July, 1971, from a jet-speed F-101 fighter-interceptor assignment in the States to serve as navigator in a prop-speed EC-47 "Electric Goon."  "We trailed the world's longest extension cord," he mused in a telephone interview.  The aircraft performed an Airborne Radio Direction Finding (ARDF) mission against enemy communications, and could pass vital information along to call in army artillery or launch a quick reaction force against a lucrative target, or to other command and control authorities for further action if they chose.  

The missions became routine, even mundane, "...every mission grew to be the same, and it was hard to see what we were accomplishing there."  Still, situational awareness was required and danger was in the air.  "We had to stay out of the way of the fast movers, artillery guys and Vietnamese gunners," he remembered.  Five EC-47s were lost in action during the war.

Around February, 1972 he was stationed at the squadron's detachment at Nakhon Phanom RTAFB, Thailand.  He said of Nakhon Phanom (simply NKP to many),  that "...NKP was like a WW II air base.  No jets, just AC-119, A-1E, Jolly Rescue plus support aircraft for rescue and (Ho Chi Minh) Trail support." 

Comparatively speaking, he remembered that "...Da Nang Air Base was a garbage dump!  I was never issued any jungle fatigues, and only got jungle boots from another fellow who was leaving.  There was no food there, given all the stolen goods from the port area.  The mess hall was a mess and the Officers Club became the "No Have" kitchen.  We sometimes flew over to NKP to go shopping and bring food back," he recalled.  Still, it was a matter of perspective, "There were Air Traffic Controllers who came down from Camp Eagle in Quang Tri, where they were living in ammo crates.  They thought we were living in a life of luxury at Da Nang!"

Missions he flew up to the Laotian Plain of Jars area presented a chaotic mission environment:  "There were four groups fighting up there, with the VC, Pathet Lao communists, North Vietnamese Army and Laotian troops under command of a character named Vung Pao.  We never knew who was fighting whom."

After his year in Southeast Asia, he returned Stateside to Travis for separation from the service.  Paperwork complete, on terminal leave, he was in uniform at the civilian air terminal on the way home to rejoin his wife and see his five month old daughter whom he had never seen when an angry young man approached and spit on him.  People watched to see what Tutt's reaction would be.  He kept his composure and simply said "'I wear this uniform so you have the right to do that.'  It took the wind right out of his sails," he remembered.  The negative experience didn't stop him from continuing military service, and Tom Tutt joined the OreANG in 1972, and served until he retired as a Colonel in 1996.

Beaver 3
Pilot:  Ronald B. Moore, served at Ubon RTAFB, Thailand.

WSO:  Maj William C. DeJager, served at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand.

Beaver 5
WSO Capt Todd Petty, was a B-52 Tail Gunner, and was awarded the Vietnam Gallantry Cross.

An OreANG F-4 aircrew member who flew in William Tell 1984 was also a veteran of SE Asia, First Lieutenant Carl Hellis, was a WSO in the 523rd TFS, based at Clark Air Base in the Philippines.  Although he did not fly on combat missions over North Vietnam during this period of the bombing halt, he had occasion to go forward to Udorn RTAFB during his time in Southeast Asia.  He joined the OreANG in 1974 and served until he retired as a Lt Col in 1995.

Ground crew expertise in the F-4 also joined the OreANG after the war.  Ken Coats was a young two-striper assigned to the 432nd TFW at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand, commanded by Col Charles A. Gabriel, later Chief of Staff of the Air Force.  Ken was a crew chief and made buck sergeant in the famous 555TFS from September, 1970, to September, 1971, during the time of the Son Tay POW Raid, the Laos incursion and other operations in SE Asia.  "The F-4 was labor intensive," he recalled, " reconfigure it for a mission, drops tanks, weapons; engine bay inspections every 8 to 10 hours." 

Although at the time there was a bombing halt over North Vietnam, Coats worked hard, putting in 12 to 14 hours a day, and worked 29 days consecutively on one stretch.  He remembered one day when the squadron's jets worked hard too - "We dropped 200,000 pounds of bombs in 12 hours," he recalled, "...and when we asked to drop more they said no, we already used our allotment."  As for what it was like to be so busy and take care of all the things needed to generate combat airpower, he said "It's always been a team effort." 

Late in Coats' tour the 555th TFS was commanded by Lt Col Joseph W. Kittinger II, already famous for his 1957 free-fall parachute jump from 102,800 feet and on his third combat tour in SE Asia.  Ken Coats joined the OreANG in 1973, serving as a crew chief until he retired as a Master Sergeant  in March, 2004.

Mike Adams was an A1C in the 432nd Field Maintenance Squadron of the 432nd TFW at Udorn from December, 1972, to December, 1973 a period which encompassed the Linebacker II air campaign.  He was a Hydraulics mechanic on the F-4s of the 555th TFS, and remembered that Triple Nickel pilot Richard S. "Steve" Richie became the first USAF fighter ace of the Vietnam War in August, 1972, just before he arrived in country.  

Adams' unit did a lot of air-to-ground work, as well as escorting the B-52's on their missions up North.  "Our aircraft were loaded with 500-lb bombs on two of the three squadrons of F-4's ". The goal was to bomb the North and get them to the bargaining table and end the conflict. I remember our work schedule that year was 6 (12 hour-plus) days on and 1 off. Never changed the entire time I was there."

He remembered that "The base was attacked one time while I was there. I was at a remote location on the flight line doing leak checks on an F-4. Next thing I knew, the jet shut down the light carts were shut off and the base was completely dark. We heard three explosions and  gun fire. A short time later we heard the all clear siren, the lights came back on and we went back to work. Heard later that three VC had made it onto the base with satchel charges, they were caught before they reached the flight line."   Mike Adams went on to join the OreANG in 1977 as a Staff Sergeant and retired in April, 2007, as a Chief Master Sergeant.

Strategic Air Command aircraft, normally reserved for strategic air warfare with nuclear weapons, were used in a conventional, non-nuclear role in Southeast Asia.  Two of the most prominent types were service by B-52 Stratofortress and KC-135 Stratotanker.  CMSgt Joseph Agloro joined the OreANG in 1973.  From 1966 to 1967, Agloro was a SSgt and jet engine mechanic assigned to the 22nd Field Maintenance Squadron at Andersen AFB, Guam, and Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, during the war.  

Captain Glenn D. Scott, a Weapons Controller in the OreANG's 116th Tactical Control Squadron in the 1970s, flew as a B-52 navigator during the Linebacker I and II air campaigns.  He participated in such missions as the 15 April 1972 raid on the Haiphong area during Linebacker II.  In December, 1972, during the intense "11 Days of Christmas" period with repeated attacks on enemy targets in the Hanoi area.  He said that his unit had lost 18 aircraft to enemy fire during this period but all returned safely from the 28 December 1972 mission he flew when new tactics were tried.

Another Tactical Air Command aircraft employed in Southeast Asia was the F-111 swing-wing fighter-bomber.  Floyd Siepmann was a young A1C in the weapons release shop in the 474th Tactical Fighter Wing, equipped with the F-111A fighter-bomber.  His unit, the 474th Munitions Maintenance Squadron deployed to Takhli RTAFB, Thailand, in September, 1972, and participated in the Linebacker II air campaign against North Vietnam, in which the F-111A performed in a superb manner.  It was a redemption for the F-111A after its problematic initial combat introduction in SE Asia in 1968.  Given the large payload and multiple weapons/stores stations of the F-111A, Floyd kept busy ensuring the proper function of all weapons/external stores release-related equipment.   

Siepmann served in SE Asia into 1973, seeing the last US combat missions flown against North Vietnam in January.  He returned to the states for six months and then another six months TDY at Takhli,  where he saw the final USAF combat missions in Cambodia in August, 1973.  After six months stateside again he was PCS-assigned back to Southeast Asia, and joined the F-111's at Korat RTAFB after they moved from closing Takhli.  He was in Southeast Asia when Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge communists on 12 April 1975, and when the end of South Vietnam came on 30 April 1975, from invasion by North Vietnam.  From Korat, however, the F-111s were involved in the Mayaguez Incident of May, 1975. 

"I'm very proud of my two years of service in Thailand; however, it pales in comparison to those who served in country and even more to the thousands who gave their lives during the Vietnam conflict.  I'm thankful that the nation has once again embraced the military, including those who served so valiantly during Vietnam," Floyd Siepmann wrote.   He joined the Oregon Air Guard in March, 1983, and retired in December, 2010, as a Senior Master Sergeant.

These are but a few examples of the many Oregon ANG members who were also veterans of the Vietnam War.  This sample shows the wide variety of units, duties and locations at which they served.  The war touched the lives of many people in that generation, with ripple effects still felt today.  But all have this in common, answering the call to duty serving our country with honor and dignity during a time in which it wasn't a popular thing.  And many continued to answer the call to duty through service in the Oregon ANG.

Chief Rod Smith summarized his Vietnam experience in a way that perhaps speaks for many veterans of the war in Southwest Asia:  "Most of the men and women that served in Vietnam did not ask to go there.  Being in the military, we go where we are told and do the best job that we can because we feel it is in the best interest of the United States.  If I had to guess most of them did not want to be there in the first place but they did their jobs and they should not have had to defend themselves for doing a job that they didn't have any control over.  The public should be proud of all military personnel that served in the war..."

On the year of these twin anniversaries of American combat operations in Vietnam War, we remember and honor the service of OreANG Airmen who served in Southeast Asia.  Regardless of one's political view of the war, these Americans served their country honorably.