A former electronic warfare specialist in Vietnam recalls the day, in the relative safety of the flight line, when he realized what war is really about.
I’ve never been shot at. Braver men than I faced that every day. But for 18 months, I saw weapons of war take off every day with bombs hanging under the wings. It never really hit home until the day some of the planes didn’t come back.
In the early 1970’s the U.S. was fully engaged in the Vietnam War. Most of the fighter planes used to support the war were based in Thailand or on aircraft carriers. I was 19, in the middle of a hot war learning how to repair electronics as fast as I could. It was everything life could throw at you at one time with minimum direction and almost no rules.
It would be decades before I would realize I had an unfair advantage. I had grown up in a home where I learned how to live in chaos and bring some order to my small corner of it. For me, a war zone was the first time all those survival skills came in handy.
But the temptations in Thailand for a teenager were overwhelming: cheap sex, cheap drugs. I saw friends partying with substances in quantities that left some pretty badly damaged. At a relatively young age I learned the price of indulgence and the value of moderation.
While stationed at an airbase called Korat, a new type of attack aircraft showed up – the A-7D Corsair. It was a single seat plane with modern electronics. And it was painted with a shark's mouth. The A-7D joined the F-4’s and F-105 Wild Weasels and EB-66’s reconnaissance aircraft on a very crowded fighter base.
The author near the flight line in Thailand during the Vietnam War (Courtesy of Steve Blank)
One fine May day, on one of my infrequent trips to the flight line, I noticed several crew chiefs huddled around an empty parking spot next to the plane I was working on. Typically there would have been another A-7 parked there. I didn’t give it much thought as I was crawling over our plane trying to troubleshoot some busted wiring. I quickly noticed more vans stopping by with other pilots and technicians. I hung back until one of my fellow techs said, “Lets go find out what the party is about.”
It was no party, it was more like a funeral. The A-7 had been shot down over Cambodia. The pilot wasn’t coming back.