Huh! A Military Award! Sounds simple enough. But how did it come about? Therein, as they say, lies a tale.
In the Beginning
I joined the Air Force in April of 1966. My neighbor, a draft board member, told me that I was 1A and would be on the list that came out in two weeks. So I chose to enlist rather than be drafted. I’m not sure which was the lesser evil back then. I had wanted to become a musician so I tried to enlist as a bandsman but there were no openings so I went to Lackland for basic training and to await my assignment to Electronics Technician tech school. Somewhere in the middle of basic training I took what was called a by-pass test, actually got a slot in the Air Force field band program, and in late June of that year found myself assigned to the First Air Force Band at Stewart AFB, N.Y. Sounds impressive! And it was! These guys were good! They had the top rated big band in the entire AF system and one of the best Concert bands as well! All of this was due to Vern Proctor, the commander. All he wanted to do was play bass in the jazz group so he let Gus DiFonzo, a Master Sergeant, conduct the Concert Band. Gus did a great job of selecting material and preparing us for the many, many concert gigs we were tasked to perform. Morale was as high as the performance caliber. But all that changed when Mr. Proctor retired and a new guy(who shall remain nameless but whose initials were Kroebel) was imported from a band in England. Well, he was mostly military and didn’t place much stock in how the band had been run. So he fired Gus, who was devastated, took over the concert band, and let the big band languish. And did it ever! And so did morale. The more he tried to beat us into shape the worse we became musically and emotionally. Morale took such a dive that you could hear it dragging across the floor every time we set up to rehearse. I finally decided that I had to do something before I lost all my love of music and my taste for the military.
The conflict in South East Asia was definitely heating up at that time. Lots of men were dying. And all we were doing was moping around and complaining. So one morning I got in my car and drove the 15 miles down to West Point and enlisted in the Warrant Officer Flight Training program. The NCO in charge told me this would be a certain ticket to Viet Nam. I said I was ok with that as long as it wasn’t one way. So we shook on it and I went back to Stewart to tell the boss the good news. He was not amused and refused to sign off on my release from the Air Force. So after a rather unpleasant exchange of meaningful ideas I went up the road to the Civilian Base Personnel Office(CBPO) to see a good friend of mine. Eleanor, who had been nicknamed Pinky(affectionately, of course), said that she would take care of everything as long as I was willing to extend my enlistment for an additional 18 months. No sweat! Two days later I had a set of orders in my hands releasing me from the cold, slimy grip on the band master into the unknown critical field of Intelligence Operations Specialist. A few days later I left Stewart and headed to Lowry AFB in Denver to attend the Air Intelligence Tech School
The 16 week tech school was demanding and challenging with long days and sometimes longer nights. One of the instructors, TSG Ira Ross, had a wicked sense of exceedingly dry humor and an amazing knowledge of the subject material. I learned a lot from him including how to plot bomb runs on Phoenix, Atlanta, and several other unsuspecting American cities! And he even taught me how to calculate the height of burst above mean sea level, whatever that was! I was a ‘buck sergeant’ when I went and became friends with a group of other NCOs. I had volunteered for this. But these guys, all older, all career airmen, all with families and homes, had been involuntarily uprooted from those homes and other jobs and been forced to retrain because there was a critical need for this specialty overseas. We became close during the 16 weeks and even closer when we all received our orders in the last week of school. Every one of us was going to Viet Nam. But before that trip we were all going to Tactical Air Command Southeast Asia Orientation Training. Another eight weeks of long days and tiresome studies. But now we were at McDill AFB in Tampa, FL! Denver had Yosemite night life but Tampa had Jai Alai and Llamas club! (not that I would ever partake!) I had gotten to know one guy really well because he was from Springfield, MA, a short distance from my home. I got to attend the Christening of his newborn son as a proxy for the boy’s Godfather(probably due to my Italian heritage…). And when it was time Earl and I rode down to Bradlee Airport and took the long, long flight to Viet Nam together. Before leaving his wife Diana handed me a folded up piece of paper. She promised that paper would keep me safe no matter what. I still have it and carry it daily.
I don’t really remember much about the trip over. I do remember we were wearing our dress blue uniforms. And I remember landing at the air base at Cam Rahn Bay. We had been in the cabin of an air conditioned aircraft for a whole lot of hours. Someone opened the exit door and now I was certain we were standing in front of some huge evil creature with nasty, hot, wet breath! The humidity and the heat hit you as soon as the door was opened. And it got worse from there! Standing on the top step I looked down and saw yards and yards of steel, fairly glowing in the heat. This was the PSP, pierced steel planking, I had heard about and which was used to lay down and repair a lot of the runways in Viet Nam. It took mortar and rocket impacts fairly well and was easy to replace if damaged. Little did I know that there would soon come a time when I would long for than damn PSP. Earl was actually going to be stationed at Cam Rahn so we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. He went to his duty station and I went to the terminal to try to arrange a lift up the coast to Nha Trang.
I caught a ride on a ‘puddle jumper’ and was enjoying the view of the South China Sea when the aircraft began a descent into Nha Trang. I checked in at the PAX terminal and was given a ride to the orderly room. I had been assigned to the headquarters section of the 14th Special Operations Wing, the unit that had all the gunships…the Shadows(AC-119), Spookies(AC-47), and Specters(AC-130, still in use today in Afghanistan). I was assigned to the night shift which was 8 PM to 8 AM, seven days a week. I was also assigned to a bunk and a ‘wall’ locker in a huge thirty man tent with no walls and a sand floor! Well, it was quiet during the day for the most part. The frequent mortar attacks usually occurred at night and on the other side of the base. But I was overjoyed when I was told to move out of the tent and into a 6 man hooch! Now THIS was more like it! WE had a mama-san who made our beds, shined our shoes, kept the place clean, and made sure we were alive and well. All for a couple of bucks a week! The job itself was broken into two distinct periods of frantic work with a long period of slow in between. When I went in at night I had to review whatever intelligence reports had come in, plot various sightings and activities on wall maps, and help brief the air crews before they went out on station or for close air support. Once they took off all we could do was keep track of anything new and wait for their return. Debriefs were sometimes difficult, depending on what the had encountered. And down time was used to try to prepare for what that might mean.
Back then a ‘tour of duty’ was 12 months if you were lucky. If not it was cut short by some unfortunate event or another. People rotated in and out on an extremely frequent basis and it was sometimes disconcerting, not knowing who you would be working with that night. But at some point a lot of those misgivings gave way to a sense of comfort and ease when my old friend Tech Sergeant Ross walked through the door! After the initial shock of recognition he made a point to say hello and even remembered my name! I gotta confess, it was good to see him…maybe just because he was from back home. In the short time I was there I worked with a lot of good guys…Brett, Daryl, James S Jeffries, Neil, Ross, and on and on. And I got to be real good friends with one X David R. That would be David Lady, a Navy Transplant who liked to make sure I didn’t soak into the floor at the NCO club, which is where we wentjust about every day after shift. Ahhhh, those were the days…..
Johnny’s Gone for a Soldier
At some point during the summer the Vietnamization program was in full swing and the 14th SOW was being turnedover to the Vietnamese AF. We were all reassigned. I ended up just down the road at the II Corp Direct Air Support Center, commonly called DASC Alpha. I still worked mostly night shifts and at some point I had lost my hooch and been moved into an old French hotel in downtown Nha Trang. The dank, dark room was actually a blessing and made sleep actually possible. And the fact that it was right next door to the USO and a hoppin' bar made it all the more tolerable. Of course the ride back and forth on a ‘bluebird’ bus with my M-16 locked and loaded was a constant reminder of the surroundings. At the DASC I got to actually be in contact with the field and units that needed help from air support. It was sometimes so quiet it would bother you and sometimes so hectic you wondered if anyone would get out alive. I sometimes felt that I was actually out there, in the field, with the guys calling for help.(hold that thought!). And I hadn’t been at DASC Alpha for more than a month when I received another set of orders assigning me to something called MACV ALO/FAC Tm 32. Wow. Uhhh….what????? Military Assistance Command Viet Nam Air Liaison Officer/ Forward Air Controller Team 32 was home to what was known as a Tactical Air Control Party. And I was now part of that party, which really wasn’t. I was told to pack my gear and wait at the terminal for my ride.
I stood there, slumped against the building, getting impatient, when a long tall Texan named Major George Lattin walked around the corner of the building. He was wearing a flight suit which was stained red from the dirt of the central highlands. Any concern I had was gone as he gave me a huge smile and said “Are you Sgt Sacco?”. “Yes, sir, I am”. Well, get your gear and lets go!”. So I reached for my duffel bag and my guitar and turned to follow him. “Where ya goin with that??” , he said. “Uhh, with you, sir??”. “Well, not with all THAT stuff! There’s barely room for you in the airplane!” Well….Now I was a little concerned. The airplane tuned out to be a Bird Dog, a single engine Cessna fitted with a lot of radios and some rocket tubes under the wings. And he was exactly right…there was barely room for me in the back seat, what with all the radio gear. Maj. Lattin was the Air Liaison Officer for the entire Quang Duc province and had a little weight with his title. So thanks to that and Air America my gear eventually followed me to….wait….where was that again? Gia Nghia?? Turned out to be a small village out in the central highlands with the runway made from slicing off the top of the highest hill…literally! We’re gonna land where????? The Bird Dog was small and reasonably light so any air currents would bounce it around a bit so when he pointed out the ‘runway’ I was glad to have something other than the knot in my stomach to focus on. We landed in a cloud of red dust and parked the Bird Dog in a shelter off the runway.
Once I had oozed out the back seat I was greeted by about the most pleasant, happiest person I’ve ever met. By the stain on his clothes and his huge mustache I figured he’d been there a while. His name, he said , was Hillbilly, and he was an Army Crew Chief for the Bird Dogs that they had there. Well, so far so good! Two members of this unit seemed to be happy and well adjusted so how bad could it be?? Maj. Latin and I caught a lift to the actual compound at some point after Air America unceremoniously delivered my gear, throwing it onto the dirt as they swung the tail of the aircraft around and headed back into the wild blue! The compound was about a mile or so away from the airstrip on the other side of the village. The entrance was heavily guarded and the six guard towers were manned 24/7. All the bunkers were faced with claymore mines and there was more barbed wire than on all the ranches in Texas! After a quick tour of the grounds I was shown to my quarters in the Fac Shack, as it was affectionately known. My room in this plywood building was about 6X9 and barely had room for a bunk and a wall locker. There was a curtain for a door and a sheet of plywood for a window. And there were lots of 55 gallon drums filled with sand around the outside to slow down shrapnel from any impacting mortars. Little did I know that this was spacious compared to what would happen in a few days. As I adjusted to my surroundings I realized that the rest of the base was populated by grunts who were out humping the boonies on a daily basis. And I couldn’t wait for the fun to begin!
And I didn’t have long to wait. The mission of the ALO/FAC Team was to provide reconnaissance and facilitate close air support for troops engaging the enemy. Many of our taskings involved Special Forces units. We were only six miles from the Laos/Cambodian border very near the ‘Parrots Beak’, the point where the Ho Chi Minh Trail came in country. The area was hot with Victor Charles(Viet Cong). It was also fertile ground for the North Vietnamese Army, a well-trained, very well equipped fighting force. When I arrived at Gia Nghia the unit was already involved in an ongoing operation involving a platoon from 5th Special Forces on Hill A-236 (named for the elevation), or Camp Bu Prang. Their mission there was to observe and possibly interdict any infiltration by either VC or NVA along the trail. Tm 32 initially had only two FACs assigned but more were brought in from other bases as the conflict deepened. Facilitating close air support was a dangerous, sometimes complicated job. Flying low in poor conditions with small arms fire and artillery being used against you left little or no room for mistakes or carelessness. Either of those could have resulted in heavy casualties of the troops you were fighting to protect. Marking targets with Willie Pete(white phosphorous rockets) while trying to avoid a mid-air with the jets delivering the ordinance took skill and incredible concentration. Knowing what these guys were facing I decided to give a AAA(anti-aircraft armament) briefing a few days after I arrived. The very next day Maj. Lattin flew his Bird Dog right into a whole slew of trouble and took a mortar round through his wing root. With no control of the flaps or ailerons on that wing he still managed to put the Bird Dog reasonably safely down at Bu Prang, singing(really!!!) Comin' In on a Wing and a Prayer. And I got more than a few dirty looks!!!
Things heated up quickly and it was soon necessary to station a FAC on the ground with the SF unit. It soon became clear that using a hand-held radio would not be adequate to handle the needs of the ground troops and the aircraft providing support. Maj. Lattin somehow commandeered a Jeep that the radio guys outfitted with UHF, VHF, Low Band, and every other radio that might come in handy. And as soon as it was done we headed out to Bu Prang in convoy to deliver it. The trip was too long and very dangerous and I did my beast to just relax and enjoy the scenery from the back of the rear deuce and a half. And I was only partially relieved when we delivered the jeep with no incidents…we still had to get back to Gia Nghia. And as soon as we did we found that the radio jeep had been targeted and completely destroyed before anyone there could even fire up the radios.
Things were getting hectic…and crowded as well. As the intensity of what was now a full blown siege increased so did our manning. I was the second Intel guy to arrive closely followed by an additional crew chief and one more radio operator. One of the radio guys ended up being my ‘room’mate and we added a top bunk and another locker to accommodate him. So my spacious quarters now only left room to navigate sideways when entering or leaving providing endless amusement during attacks! Maj. Lattin formed us into teams, TACPs, or Tactical Air Control Parties. We were to take turns rotating out to Bu Prang to assist with air support form inside the SF camp. Our pilots still flew their Bird Dogs and other, outside, pilots were brought in to work the TACP from the ground. Pilots talking to pilots seemed to work very well.
The Hand of God
The actual siege began somewhere around the third week of October with more and more artillery, mortar rounds, rockets, and small arms fire coming into the camp. None of us was sleeping much, grabbing naps when we could, so that we could stay on top of the problems and provide whatever support we were able to find. By the third week of November the shelling had become almost non-stop and the VC were testing the perimeter on a more regular basis. Also we had already lost three of the ground FACs who were killed by shrapnel, all in the same location, standing in the entry to the command bunker, directing air support. In combat there are an incredible number of ways to die. There are not so many ways to save you. It is said that each man knows his own God. Well, mine certainly found me! One night, about mid-conflict, I decided to go outside the hooch for a quick smoke. I was up to about 4 packs a day by then. I stood in the darkness flicking my usually reliable zippo, which just did not want to light. The was barely a breath of air but it seemed like every time I got a small flame a quick wind blew it out. So I figured I would turn my back and bend over to see if I could get my cigarette lit, just as a bullet whizzed by the space where my head had been. I uttered a few expletives, tried to overcome the cold chill now gripping me, ran to the guard tower and told them, and then ran down to the Army Commander’s room to inform him we had snipers outside the wire. I know God and his Angels get very, very busy in times of conflict. I just didn’t expect to meet one in person.
Just before Thanksgiving my roomy Jay C. Peacock, and I were told by Maj. Lattin to grab our gear and get up to the airfield as fast as we could. There was a Chinook arriving in a few minutes to rotate us out to BuPrang. I grabbed my helmet, my M-16, and a web belt and off we went. The ride out was fairly short and we ere soon notified it was time to leave the chopper. I stood and got my gear together and headed for the rear hatch which was now opening. It became very obvious very quickly that we were NOT on the ground! Actually we were still about 20 feet in the air! I looked at the crew chief, he just tsked and said they couldn’t land because of the incoming rounds. How comforting. So Jay and I made our leap of faith. I hit the ground and rolled. Jay hit the ground, twisted his knee, and caught a piece of shrapnel there as well. I grabbed him and we made our way off the now mostly destroyed runway into the trench that connected the various bunkers and positions. We found some ARVN troops in a bunker who gave us directions to the general vicinity of the command bunker and we turned to go, just as the bunker took a direct hit and collapsed, killing all six. When we got to the command bunker I slid down the stairs to report in, only to find our FAC laying on a stretcher with bandages covering the wounds he received standing in the same place where the other pilots had been killed. He was a very young, boyish looking lieutenant, doing his best to present some semblance of courage, even playing John Wayne and asking me for a cigarette. Not a good idea, LT, with a chest wound! But he insisted and spent the next 5 minutes almost coughing off his dressings. He had been treated by the SF medics and left to await MedEvac. He could talk and directed me toward the TOC(Tactical Operations Center). Jay had waited outside in the trench so I got back to him and we made our way to the TOC. I got him inside, got him set up on his radios, reported in to the SF NCOIC and then headed back to check on the LT in the command bunker. The next twenty four hours or so was spent making that trip back and forth. At some point I went into the bunker to check on the LT and found an Army Major standing there. He had just arrived by chopper(UH-1H) and I thanked him for coming to airlift the LT out. He informed me that he was actually there to take the dead Vietnamese back to the coast. I lost it totally, said some things I shouldn’t have, and walked up the stairs to cool off … just in time to have an artillery round land in the very same place that the others had landed that killed three pilots and left a fourth critically injured on the ground. And there, once again, was that Hand. This time it unceremoniously grabbed me by the back of my collar and yanked me, hard, back through the bunker opening, whacking my head and doubling me up as it did so, and depositing me 10 feet inside the bunker against the wall, next to the LT.
Are We Dead?
The intensity of the incoming mortars and rockets continued to increase. That first night the VC tried a couple of times to get through the wire. The second night they were more insistent. And that’s when I got to talk to some old friends over at DASC Alpha, skipping the pleasantries, and letting them know we were in dire straights! I also heard more than one call sign and aircraft numbers that I recognized from Nha Trang. My tour had now come full circle. I started out at Nha Trang briefing and debriefing the pilots who flew the gun ship missions. Then I sat in front of a radio, taking frantic calls for air support form the guys in the field. Now it was me out in the field, holding my hand out, looking for some serious help. By this time it was obvious that the NVA wanted this SF Camp badly. They had increased the shelling till it was essentially non-stop. The VC were either in the wire of trying to blow it up. And then on the third night it got even worse. We had six or eight Spookies and Shadows on station, ready to engage, waiting for clearance. Jay C had been in constant communication with them, making sure they were ready, just in case. And then it happened. ‘Preacher’, the SF manning the 50 cal screamed into the radio that ‘they were in the wire’. I could hear the very distinct sound of his weapon as I heard Rocco behind me yelling into the radio, trying to maintain contact. It only took about 30 seconds for Rocco and some other guys top go bolting up the stairs out of the bunker and out to where the VC were in the wire. Once we had confirmation of their position Jay radioed the gunships that they were cleared to expend. And nothing happened. Shit! Seems we had some newbies on station that night who were unfamiliar with our location and the camp layout. Just great. When Rocco bolted out, another SF troop, Sgt Sanford, and I took up positions at the top of the stairs. Right outside was the US Flag, waving in the breeze, lit up so everyone would know who we were. Apparently the gunships couldn’t see that. So Sanford and I improvised and used the strobe light form the pilot’s survival vest to mark our location. They finally confirmed and began to fire. And it was so comforting to see those yellow-orange cones of death raining down from our gunships onto the enemy trying to over run us. The noise of the incoming artillery rounds, the small arms fire, and the outgoing 50 cal had become deafening. But I watched quietly, enjoying every burst of bullets fired from the aircraft. And then it stopped. Suddenly. Everything just stopped… the bullets, the gunfire, the Spookies….everything…and it was deathly quiet. I fought back the chill, turned to Sanford and asked quietly in all earnestness “Are we dead?” He turned toward me, took a breath, and said “I don’ think so”.
It soon became clear that we had survived. The NVA had given up the siege and gone on to some other fight. The VC had gone back to their tunnels. I made one last visit to see the LT and eventually he was airlifted out, Jay and I got back to Gia Nghia, and the SF guys took a break and got ready for the next round. Back at Gia Nghia I took time to clean up, get some clean clothes on, and get some food. At Bu Prang we had been eating LRRP rations(freeze dried rice with shrimp or something in it) mixed with Jim Beam. We had been out of water for more than a day. But the rations were filling and the bourbon took the edge off. And to this day I never did find out where Sanford got that case of Jim Beam. Anyway, the Army cook had saved some leftovers from Thanksgiving and the chow hall was still set with fall decorations. A few people waved or tapped my shoulder. I was glad no one actually started a conversation. My ears were still ringing and I couldn’t hear very well anyway. And I wasn’t really in the mood to talk so it worked out OK. After eating I went back to the hooch to collapse for as long as I could.
The province never really got quiet after that and we were still busy pretty much round the clock. When it came time for me to rotate out in April I warned everyone to keep their heads down and stay alert because I felt an attack was imminent. I left Gia Nghia and headed for Cam Rahn for out-processing. I hadn’t been there more than a few hours when I was informed by the guys in the radio room that the airstrip had been over run, several planes had been destroyed, and the compound had come under heavy attack. I cursed the system that put me at Cam Rahn Bay and was desperate to get back to Gia Nghia. But that was impossible. I continued my out-processing with a heavy heart and a longing to go back.
Back in the World
I’ve always said that the worst part of Viet Nam was coming home. I don’t remember much about the flight back. I was wearing my short sleeve khaki uniform(1505s). I do remember just sitting there…numb…not talking to anyone…..and drinking scotch. I was way beyond weary….but I would not sleep, even thought the flight was extremely long. I didn’t know these people around me and I didn’t’ trust them. After quite some time we landed at Seattle Tacoma airport. There were several guys there who had either been on the plane or who had been waiting in the terminal, I’m not sure which. Eventually we were collected and ushered off to a military in-check point. We were greeted by an NCO who said, with absolutely no introduction, “You guys are gonna wanna get out of your uniforms and into civilian clothes. And don’t tell ANYone where you’ve been.” And that was it. And that was what I did. And when I put my uniforms into a closet I went right in there with them and never really came completely out. When I finally got out of McChord AFB I flew to Boston, then took a cab to Worcester. I landed there about 2 AM and woke up an old high school friend of mine to see if he could put me up for the rest of the night. In the morning I took a cab to my parents house and surprised the crap out of them! I stayed with them for 2 weeks, going out with another friend that was actually willing to spend some time with me. After that I went down to Cape Cod for the summer to decompress, most of which involved a lot of drinking and chasing women. I stayed with my cousin and a few other guys. Besides my cousin no one knew I had been in Viet Nam. And I never discussed it with him. After a long, alcohol fueled summer I headed to Boston for school. And except for the administration, and one classmate, Jeff – a Viet Nam vet – I didn’t tell anyone about the past year. Even Jeff and I never talked about it. When I started teaching in Auburn I didn’t tell anyone there. And when I left Auburn to teach in Ware I never told them either. Ware is an extremely patriotic town and is very proud of its veterans and works to take care of them. But it just wasn’t the time for me to share. Even when I quit teaching in 1991 and went back into the military(the 104th Fighter Wing, MA Air National Guard) I never told anyone. So when Congressman John Olver’s office called me to congratulate me and to ask me when they could schedule the presentation you can imagine my confusion and concern. The sudden rush of emotion was overwhelming and paralyzing. Now I had no choice. The large, base-wide ceremony, pre-ceremony reception, the after-party, and all those damn reporters made it pretty much impossible for me to hide anymore. And for all those years I guess I had been hiding from myself as well. If it wasn’t on my mind I would never have to confront the memories and the ghosts. Now I had no choice. They were out there for everyone to hear about and talk about. And all I wanted to do was go back in that closet. Until then, beer had been my crutch, my shield, and it worked just fine most of the time. But after that nothing seemed to dull the memories anymore and the voices of my ghosts were even louder than before. That was in 2003 and now I still have trust issues. I still sit with my back to a wall when I go out. I even do that at home sometimes, in my dining room. I guess I just need to know my back is protected. And I still get startled by loud unexpected noises. And I still get emotional when I hear the words of The Star-Spangled Banner, because there was a time when, for a little while, I watched the flag wave in the rockets red glare and I didn’t know, that morning, if our flag was still there.
In war there are some images you can’t remember…and some you can’t forget. I don’t remember much about the chopper ride out of Bu Prang. I was exhausted and needed rest. I do remember sitting on the floor of the Huey with my back against the door frame and a leg dangling out with my foot on the skid, listening to the sound of the rotors. As we lifted off I noticed several of the SF guys standing on a bunker looking off in the direction of the ground assault. As we gained altitude I could see what they were staring at. The aftermath of that last ground assault and the handiwork of the gunships had left hundreds of Viet Cong dead in the wire, clearly visible now as the chopper rose. I gazed unemotionally, wondering how many times the bodies were those of American soldiers. I leaned back against the door and tried not to think anymore. I watched as the bodies faded into the distance knowing that the image in my brain never would…
© 2015, John Sacco
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