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Tom Fowler

Excerpted from I Was A Kid When I Was A Kid, copyright 1997 Tom Fowler

Tom Fowler arrived in Hoa Air Base (near Saigon) around noon on April 12, 1969, and arrived back in the U.S. on March 31, 1970.

The group I was with left Travis Air Force Base, near Oakland, CA, around 3:00AM on April 10. While waiting to leave, a plane arrived with a group of soldiers returning from South Vietnam. A deeply tanned fellow came up to me and said, "Going to 'Nam?" I said, "Yes." He handed me a 10 and a five cent military scrip, (no regular U.S. currency was allowed in Vietnam or other parts of Southeast Asia because of Chinese black marketers), and walked away before I could reply. I thought he was being a smart aleck and perhaps he was, but I was glad I had that 15 cents after we arrived "over there," as I was thirsty for a cold drink and had no other scrip in my pocket!

After stopovers in Hawaii and the Philippines, we arrived in South Vietnam around the time stated previously. However, when returning home almost a year later, we took off from Cam Ranh Bay at 12:00PM, March 31, and, after a stopover in Japan, arrived back in the United Sates at Fort Lewis, Washington, at 11:45AM, March 31. There is a 14 hour time difference between South Vietnam and Central Standard Time here in the United States. Even though I realized this, it was somewhat surrealistic to travel 10,000 miles and arrive, by the clock, 15 minutes before leaving! I was in the Tokyo airport for an hour and a half. It was enough time to buy two Japanese silk prints that are hanging in my bedroom to this day.

But, back to my arrival. As our plane taxied into Bien Hoa Airbase, my first impressions of what would be my "home" for the next year came quickly. I observed, from my window seat, Vietnamese civilians walking and bicycling unhurriedly around the airport terminal. It seemed odd to me that things could seem so peaceful, so normal, in a land ravaged by war. I thought, If things are like this, what am I doing here? This thought stayed with me as we departed the plane after taxiing to a stop. However, this line of reasoning left me quickly as I walked through the side door of the airplane and the first rush of tropical air hit my face.

Although it was partially overcast, the air was hot as a blast furnace. If you have ever stood outside a home or building by an air-conditioning unit that is blowing hot air on your face, then you can imagine what my first experience with tropical heat was like. Only, in my case, the air was not moving, just unbelievably hot, and it would take several days for me to get used to it. Indeed, my first week in country, while I was in transit to my
permanent unit and getting processed in, I pulled KP duty in the officer's mess hall in Bien Hoa. It's a good thing I was 19 years old and fresh from several months of rigorous training, otherwise, I would not have made it. (A few weeks later, the 299th Engineer Battalion, the unit I was assigned to, moved into a place known as Bong Song. Bong Song is a few miles inland from the South China Sea, in approximately the middle of what was South Vietnam. The day we arrived there was miserably hot, with the full brunt of the tropical sun bearing down on us. Somebody had a thermometer and told us it read 118 degrees. Nobody asked if he took this measurement in the shade. Nobody cared. Hot is hot!).

I spent my first few days in country getting used to the heat and attempting to get suntanned without developing a painful sunburn, something which was not as easy to do as you would think. In Vietnam, the sun burns hotter and brighter than in North America, and a person with pale skin can over expose to the sun's rays very quickly. I experienced sunburn, but not as seriously as several of my peers. (I was surprised to learn that even the darkest skinned black soldiers could experience sunburn). The standard uniform over there at that time was jungle fatigues, which were loose fitting military green trousers & shirt, with the sleeves rolled up past the elbows. This baggy, but comfortable, uniform was designed to dissipate heat, and the jungle fatigue uniform was as comfortable as anything could be in that climate. However, riding in the back of an opened-ended five ton truck en route to my permanent unit in Kontum caused me to develop the dreaded sunburn on my arms and neck, as it didn't take the tropical sun long to burn my lily white skin, even though I thought I was paying attention to what I was doing. The next day, we continued our ride, again in the back of the opened-ended truck, and this time I rolled my sleeves completely down and wore my collar up as far as I could get it. However, I had torn my sleeve on a sharp edge shortly after it was issued to me, and I was unaware that a 1" x 1 1/2" spot on my left arm was once again exposed to the sun. I got a secondary burn on this small spot and, were it larger, would have created a serious problem for me. It was my first lesson in what would be a very important concept in a war zone: Pay attention to the small things.

My first few weeks were spent in Kontum, a place where the French had located years earlier. When I arrived there, one of the first stories I heard from the "old-timers," (GI's which had anywhere from one month to several years in country), was of a nearby minefield which had been abandoned by the French before being defeated by North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap's elite troops. History repeats, as, not long before I arrived, some South Vietnamese Regulars, (Regular Army of South Vietnam, similar to our Regular Army of the United States, of which I was a member), had gotten overrun by NVA, (North Vietnamese Army), had panicked, and retreated hastily on foot through this old minefield. You probably can guess the rest.

Another item of interest was the day I received my field gear from the 299th supply warehouse. I was issued a brand new M16 rifle, steel pot, canteen, flak jacket, and various other items needed for field duty. What makes this notable is what happened to the man in front of me in line. There were half a dozen of us "newbies" receiving our gear. The rifles were new, but the other items were not. Among the gear the poor fellow in front of me received was a used flak jacket with blood on it. The poor guy got very agitated and the supply sergeant had to help calm him down.

Not long after I arrived in Kontum, I got to use the flak jacket that was assigned to me. One night, the air raid siren went off, which meant incoming rounds were detected. Soon, we would be under attack. It's amazing how quickly one's mind focuses when danger is imminent, and the fear I felt was the most intense I had ever felt until that time. Funny thing about fear, it either paralyzes you or prompts you to quick action. (I knew spit and polish "crack" troops who were useless in an emergency, and slovenly, alcoholic marginal soldiers who were at their best when the chips were down. Go figure). On this occasion, I was ready for action, but, not having been through this before, did not know what to do. As it turned out, it was a false alarm and things quickly returned to normal. The experience was a good one, though, as I and the other newbies got our first taste of what the war really was without anyone getting hurt.
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Jim Schueckler
"Soon we were heading towards the mountains with a Huey full of mail, food, Christmas cargo, and two American young women."

Tom Fowler
"Fortunately, the firefight, such as it was, did not last long and nobody inside our company area was hurt."

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The average cost per B-52 mission during Vietnam was $41,421, with an average of 27 tons of munitions dropped.
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