Former Rhinelander vet recounts Vietnam War experience
On Thailand base, runs into ‘hometown icon’
By John Fredrickson
Editor’s note: The author shared with the Star Journal this Vietnam War oral history he drafted for the EAA in Oshkosh. Mr. Fredrickson is a 1969 graduate of Rhinelander High School.
It was 2:30 am local time and I was lap-belted into a taught red-fabric sidewall seat which, like benches, lined both sides of the lumbering Lockheed C-130 transport plane droning through an inky-black tropical sky. Boxes of cargo secured by nets filled the space in between. Like new car smell, the interior of a military aircraft has a unique (but not unpleasant) odor – probably a lingering mix of skydrol (aircraft hydraulic fluid), jet fuel, and human perspiration. Also aboard were an
eclectic mix of drowsy G.I.’s clad in utility uniforms ranging from jungle fatigues to Nomex flight suits.
The nickname “Klong Hopper Airlines” was irreverently stenciled above the main entry door. (“Klong” was the Thai word for drainage ditch.) A grizzled old loadmaster (maybe age 38) presided over boarding. A vertical red line on the inside of the fuselage marks the entry place in the unlikely event of a breakaway propeller blade. Savvy Air Force people accepted the proffered earplugs but shunned those seats. A pair of Army grunts immediately grabbed them and flashed a grin at their good fortune. I winked back.
The logistic flights regularly plied the short routes which tied the seven American air bases in Thailand together. Troops, supplies, and vital spare parts were in constant motion. The 122-mile leg from Don Muang airport in Bangkok should take under thirty minutes; however, we were now orbiting in a holding pattern because big thundering warbirds executing combat missions outrank a lowly transport airplane.
Our destination was U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield, a sprawling base covering 5,000 seaside-acres on the Gulf of Thailand. U-Tapao (sometimes abbreviated U-T) was the most forward operating base of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) during the Vietnam War. A thousand men secured the 17 miles of perimeter. Half were United State Air Force Security Police and the other 500 were either Royal Thai Navy or Thai Marines. Security was tight because of a recent sapper attack in January 1972.
Despite breakdowns suffered in some other parts of the US military, the discipline inculcated within SAC by its founder, World War II bomber general Curtis LeMay, never ebbed during Vietnam hostilities. U-T was temporary home to roughly 55 aging B-52D heavy bombers and a like number of KC-135 aerial refueling tankers. A million gallons of jet fuel flowed daily via underground pipes from the nearby deep-water port of Sattahip to sate the thirsty Pratt & Whitney jet engines.
Steel bombs (mostly type Mk 82 weighing 500 pounds) along with fins and fuses arrived aboard a constant parade of Japanese-built contract trucks. The standard bomb load aboard each departing B-52D was 60,000 pounds and the normal operating rhythm was 33 sorties per day. Strategic carpet bombing was driven by precise timing. The careers of colonels were at risk if important schedule milestones were missed. Even a general could be fired if such malfeasance persisted.
My arrival date was about December 4, 1972. I was traveling solo and without the normal reserved seating because written orders to a base in Vietnam (Da Nang) had been abruptly superseded by a telegram. Everybody knew the war was in its waning days. The exodus from Vietnam was underway. Lacking public support, the troops went about their duties in a workaday fashion. Furthermore, I had lost track of time because the fractured trip across the Pacific included travel aboard a massive C-5A Galaxy from California to the Philippines with stops at Oahu and Wake Islands. After a night in transient quarters at Clark AFB, a chartered Boeing 727 airliner took me and others on its daily sojourn to Bangkok with an intermediate stop at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam. My recollection of suburban Saigon was a pockmarked moonscape where each of the overlapping bomb craters of various diameters was filled with muddy rainwater.
Technical school plus a stateside apprenticeship had well prepared me for assignment as an “aircrew life support specialist.” I was eager to get to work. As the shop’s new guy, I was assigned to the gun room (aircrew weapons armory) where flying helmets and oxygen masks were also cleaned, inspected, and repaired. The shifts were 12-hours, from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm and 7:00 pm to 7:00 am. That schedule matched hours of daylight and darkness in the tropics – which transition quickly and vary little by season. Only after demonstrating competent diligence did I become a trusted member of the team and was thusly rewarded with a flight line job.
While wandering about the base shortly after arrival, I ran into a hometown icon. During the 1960’s Richard Fleury (1945-2012) was known as “Count” when he helped owner Don Bruno preside over a Rhinelander, Wisconsin (population 8,000) teen hangout called the Cue Club. Like Fonzie (Henry Winkler) in the movie Happy Days, several local denizens demonstrated the attributes of “cool” by burnishing their reputations as experts at the billiards table. Some also mastered fastpitch softball.
Meanwhile, Count’s unit was the 554th Red Horse, a heavy construction squadron, freshly arrived from Vietnam in June 1972. Red Horse is the Air Force version of Navy Seabees. It was great to run into a familiar face so far from home. We struck up a conversation and soon enough, decided a night on the town would be a good idea. He wrote down his building number. Red Horse had their own compound — which is like a private enclave within the larger main base.
For an outsider like me, entering a compound was akin to trespassing. Directions from strangers came only after showing the scrap of paper and pointing to the building number. Soon enough, I located the freshly showered and ever-affable Count. He made me feel at ease on his turf. Their barracks were older wood frame structures called “hooches.” Oversized eaves fended off seasonal monsoon rains. The weather forecast never varied much: Daytime high 90 F. Nighttime low 80 F; however, plenty of screened windows allowed cooling onshore ocean breezes to enter.
Unlike the other Southeast Asian countries, Thailand was one of the few third-world nations never colonized by Europeans. A benevolent and long-serving monarch presided over the Texas-sized kingdom. The local people were Buddhist by faith, hospitable, and staunchly anti-communist. For the entire year of 1972-1973, I have no recollection of any American falling victim to a serious crime.
So, off we went on a bar-hopping adventure in this strange and alien land. As a naive 20-year old, it was an honor to be in the company of an older and wiser mentor like 26-year old Fleury. Ten dollars (200 baht, in local money) easily covered the cab ride, a fine dinner consisting of local cuisine, a few drinks, and other distractions. It was a fine and memorable evening; however, our paths separated.
The operating tempo increased to full throttle on December 18, 1972 when President Richard Nixon ordered the heaviest bombing campaign of the war. Aircrews called it “going downtown” (Hanoi and Haiphong). The SAC designation was “Linebacker II.” Some in the press named it the “Christmas Bombings,” while another moniker was “Eleven Day War.” To this day, some crew chiefs boast on Facebook of returning a freshly landed B-52 to launch-ready status within an hour — if the re-arming and refueling teams performed their tasks concurrently.
Another “don’t miss” event was the final Bob Hope tour which performed at U-T the evening of December 22, 1972. In the hubbub, I never saw Count again. Maybe he departed aboard the Klong Hopper to an important construction site. In any case, Richard returned to Rhinelander after 21 years of military service. His passing came at age 67 in 2012. Richard obviously thrived on exotic assignments. Fleury’s resume, as stated in his online obituary, includes an Air Force career with three tours of duty in Thailand plus additional years in the Philippines. Comments from former associates testify to a life well lived.
The bombings persuaded the Vietnamese to release the American prisoners of war in April 1973. My own tour of duty ended exactly a year after arrival. Unlike my bumpy arrival aboard the Klong Hopper, the return trip across the Pacific was quick and direct in the comfort of a reserved seat aboard a chartered airliner. Next came fourteen months with the C-141 unit at McChord AFB followed by 36 wonderful years with the Boeing Company in Seattle. We, too, are now retired and enjoy visits to our second home on a lake east of Rhinelander.
John Fredrickson, a 1969 graduate of Rhinelander High School, was on hand for the final air battle of the Vietnam War in December 1972. After 36 years, he is now retired from the Boeing Company, and lives with his wife near Seattle. Their two grown sons are both engineers working in aerospace. Fredrickson is the author of five published aviation history books.