March 29th is National Vietnam War Veterans Day, a day meant to pay tribute to veterans of the Vietnam War, including personnel who were prisoners of war or who were listed as missing in action. It was established in 1973 by then-President Richard Nixon. This story describes my experience on the day I departed for the War. And it pays tribute to all veterans who served during this fraught time, given the political turmoil our country was experiencing.

“If you are awake and wondering why we have been flying donuts for the last 45 minutes above this blanket of clouds, it is because the runway at Bien Hoa is full of holes. The airfield took several enemy122 mm rockets last night. The runway is still being patched, but we should be able to land soon; sit tight.”

That was the First Officer of the FlyingTiger DC-8 chartered by the U. S. military to transport soldiers to and from The Republic of Vietnam. The flight, beginning at McGuire Airforce Base in New Jersey on May 5, 1970, was already 28 hours long. I was squirming in my seat. We, the young soldiers dressed in hot, khaki uniforms, were getting restless due to the cramped seating and the anticipation of what awaited us when we finally landed.

After another hour of flying circles, the First Pilot announced: “Fasten your seat belts; we are cleared to land; welcome to Vietnam.”

Among the several hundred troops on board, anticipation had now turned to anxiety and, for some, dread. I thought back to a time two years ago. Despite the protests against the Vietnam War on many college campuses, including my own at conservative Purdue University, my decision to enlist and volunteer for helicopter flight school seemed easy. Now I was having second thoughts. “What had I gotten myself into?”

Example of a Draft Card.

In the spring of 1968, the last semester before I graduated college, every graduating, able-bodied male held a draft card with a 2-S education deferment. We knew the deferment would expire on graduation day and that our draft boards were eagerly waiting for us because, at that time, they were hardly meeting their quota.

Beginning around 1965, the Vietnam War became a TV war. We religiously watched the CBS nightly news with Walter Cronkite. On January 30, 1968, the North Vietnamese attacked more than 100 cities and outposts in South Vietnam. This was the famous Tet Offensive. Tet, usually a celebration of the lunar new year and the most important holiday on the Vietnamese calendar, was one of the bloodiest days of the war. It was a strategic success for the North Vietnamese. Walter Cronkite announced that it “seemed more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam will end in a stalemate.” Nonetheless, General Westmoreland requested, and President Johnson sent, 200,000 new troops to mount a counteroffensive.

Walter Cronkite during a visit to Vietnam in 1968. Before, a warhawk, now, conceding America’s lost cause.

There had been many bloody demonstrations against the war nationwide. It seemed that when Walter Cronkite, the most trusted voice in America at the time, conceded a stalemate in Vietnam, the country’s attitude toward the war changed. The Tet Offensive and Cronkite’s admission accelerated the unrest.

Even President Johnson gave up: On March 31, already in campaign mode for the 1968 presidential election, Johnson announced he would not run for a second term. Johnson’s announcement was welcomed because he wasn’t trusted, nor was his Vice-President, Hubert Humphrey, who became the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination. When Robert Kennedy threw his hat in the ring for the nomination, young people regained much hope, only to be devastated by Kennedy’s brutal assassination at a campaign rally on June 6.

View of anti Vietnam War demonstrators standing and protesting outside the White House during a march to the Pentagon in Washington DC to plead for an end to the conflict, 1967. (Credit: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images)
Vietnam War demonstrators outside the White House during a march to the Pentagon to plead for an end to the conflict.

Several friends of mine were adamant about not being drafted for the War. One explored a move to Canada. Another admitted he had connections with a sympathetic doctor who would write a mock physical exam providing him a medical deferment. This was not uncommon. I didn’t know these young men, but Dick Cheney said “he had other priorities” and was able to get five successive deferments. With rich, politically-connected fathers, Dan Quayle and George W. Bush got into the Indiana and Texas National Guards, respectively, when no one else was admitted. Bill Clinton stayed in England on an academic scholarship. Mitch McConnell had then U.S. Sen. John Sherman Cooper (R-KY) write a deferment letter: Tom Brokaw had “flat feet,” and Donald Trump avoided the draft with a letter from a podiatrist friend of his father’s that claimed he had debilitating “bone spurs.”

Never once did I entertain such options. Not that I had a mature sense of patriotism at the time–——-answering the call to support my country simply seemed responsible. The day after graduating college, I visited the U.S. Army recruiting center. I volunteered for Officer Candidate School and then flight school, not knowing that being a helicopter pilot increased my chances of not returning alive from the War from 45:1 to 18:1.

On May 4, 1970, I arrived at McGuire Air Force Base in NJ for a flight to Vietnam the next day. I was a newly commissioned 2nd LT and a helicopter pilot with all of 220 flight hours. I settled into my BOQ room and turned on the small, black-and-white TV to live scenes of the Kent State shootings that happened only minutes before. It was absolute chaos on that college campus in Ohio. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! Ohio Army National Guard troops shooting college students with live, metal jacket, lead bullets for protesting the war in Vietnam (The linked video: As seen through the eyes of Professor Jerry M. Lewis, Virginia Tech).

“My God,” I thought. “Is this the Army I joined? We are literally killing ourselves!” Later, during the same broadcast, President Nixon, in a speech to the nation, justified his recent order that greatly expanded the war across the border into Cambodia to eradicate the enemy assembling at the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail (an area into which I would be flying within a week).

Mary Ann Vecchio kneels over the body of the student Jeffrey Miller, who was killed by Ohio National Guard troops during an antiwar demonstration at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.
The iconic photo of the Kent State shooting, May 4, 1970.

On the final approach to the bombed-out runway at Bien Hoa Airfield, I wondered what I was getting into and what was happening to the country I was leaving. Was I a patriot for volunteering for this duty? Or was I a Johnson/Nixon “chump,” naively being sucked into a hellhole for their political purposes (watch Ken Burns’ documentary The Vietnam War on PBS). A number of my cohort mentioned above probably thought the latter.

The Flying Tiger hit the runway hard and thumped and bumped down the uneven runway for what seemed like a very long time. The jet pulled up to the makeshift terminal and stopped. Not waiting for permission from the First Pilot, we soldiers immediately stood to relieve our cramped muscles. It had been hot on the plane; we were sweating. After nearly 30 hours on this flight, we smelled. The door opened. It almost took my breath away. We stepped out into intense heat, humidity, the overwhelming stink of JP4, and burning latrine excrement and garbage. In-processing was surprisingly quick and efficient. An Army Spec 4 looked at my orders and pointed to a Warrant Officer pilot standing against the wall. He was expecting me, along with a recently-arrived Huey crew chief and infantryman. Without a word, he motioned us to a waiting Huey on the other side of the terminal for the short ride to Di-An, Vietnam, headquarters for B Troop 3/17th Air Calvary, the “Smokin’ Stogies.” my new unit for the following year.

During the thirty-minute flight to unit headquarters, I stared out the open door of the Huey flying low-level across the landscape. I watched Vietnamese children playing in villages and adults working in rice fields. It seemed very peaceful, although I knew a war was happening somewhere. I did my best to clear my mind of all the turmoil back home related to the War. I resolved to focus on the job my country asked for and do what I needed to stay alive, and I hoped the 200 other troops on that Flying Tiger would do the same.

Arriving at Troop Headquarters, the Huey flared, came to hover, and touched down.

Somewhere in Vietnam, 1970

Go HERE for some additional Vietnam War Stories.