Jim Shoemaker, Navigator
18th SOS, Phu Cat, Udorn, and Long Bin, 1969-70
My name is Jim Shoemaker. I had a tour in Southeast Asia. I’d like to just back up for one second. I entered active duty in 1956 and I arrived at Navigator Training; I went through Navigator School around Houston, Texas. My first duty assignment was Troop Carrier with the C-123s at Seward AFB, Tennessee. I arrived with my family. The first day that I got there, I put my family in a motel and I had to go out to the base to do some laundry. I was at the BOQ doing some laundry when a grizzled, old colonel came up to me. He must have been at least 40-45 years old. He was very old, and he said, “Son, what are you doing here?” I said, “Sir, I am a second lieutenant. This is my first duty station and I’m just arriving. I understand I’ll be a troop carrier.” He said, “Son, you’re a very lucky man because they’re retiring all those damn C-119s. They’re having a retirement ceremony down at base office this afternoon, and by God you’ll never have to fly in one those junky things.”
Well, in 1966 I was then a major and I was assigned at the headquarters of Shaw Air Force Base and my assignment one night was to look for the ops media messages to report any ops media to the general. I had to take them right over to his house and I figured, well, it’s kind of a rinky-dink fighters’ headquarters anyway, so I decided to read every message. I was pawing through these things and I saw this one that sort of bit me and it said, “Major J.J. Shoemaker is reassigned to the AC-119 Gunship program at Lockbourne Air Force Base.” I thought, oh boy, that old colonel must have lied to me. I didn’t even know what an AC-119K was.
I went through the training; we stalled out there at Lockbourne because we had problems with a FLIR and we had other problems. I believe we got to Lockbourne around 1968; we didn’t leave until November of ’69. I was, I guess, one of the first to go overseas. We flew up through Alaska and then down to Midway and then across.
When we got there, I was lucky enough to be assigned to Phu Cat. It was a nice little fighter base along the beach. We really enjoyed it there. Right outside of our BOQ was a little tennis court. We somehow got ahold of some tennis rackets and the fighter boys came out and they said, “Now, we have a resolution by the base commander that you can’t play tennis unless you have white tennis shorts.” What they were trying to do, the fighter boys, was keep us gunship boys out of their tennis courts, to keep it for themselves; we all wrote home to our wives and mothers and we had white tennis shorts sent to us. We got white tennis shorts and they made up some other rule. We needed a white tennis cap to play, so we had to go back and reconnoiter and get some white tennis caps so we could play tennis. Then they instituted something else, so one evening we went down and we took all the equipment that they had around their swimming pool that they were also not allowing us to use very much, and we threw it all in the pool. I guess we had a little bit too much to drink that night. That’s what we did.
My little detachment there of the 18th SOS was notified that we were to move up to Udorn Air Base in Thailand because that would put us much closer to the action. While we were up there we flew missions attacking the trail and going up and down. One evening Ron Oberender was my FLIR; I was a table navigator; Bill Buris was my pilot. We were flying along and we saw an infra-red return on the trail that looked exactly like a truck. Ron Oberender and I were tracking this and we were trying to define what it was. We agreed that it was a truck. All of a sudden it made a right angle turn into the jungle. We questioned this but we thought, well, we’ll just fire at it anyway. A couple of bursts and we hit this thing. It blew up and it was a tremendous blast. I was a little suspicious about what was going on and so when we landed back at Udorn and we had our debrief, I asked the recce guys to make a dawn recce photos of it. Much to my dismay, and this has bothered me all these years, it was an elephant that we blew up. Of course, we found out that they were using elephants to carry munitions up and down the Ho Chi Min Trail so that was one of my sad things that happened.
We did have a couple of troops in contact. We had one down in the Australian area. I forget exactly where it was but we were told to just spray the entire compound. When we landed, a Stars and Stripes reporter came out and he interviewed me and the next day it was a write-up in the Stars and Stripes. I think I still have that article around here somewhere, but that was quite interesting.
The other thing that really struck me was around February of 1970, when I received a message from Headquarters in Saigon transferring me to Long Binh to the two field force headquarters making me a TALO, Tactical Airlift Liaison Officer. I packed my bags and my grips and I a reluctant farewell to the squadron and made my way to Long Binh where I spent the rest of my tour as a TALO; it was very interesting, so you might say I had two tours in one year. Luckily, I came out with two R&Rs out of it somehow.
I don’t think I mentioned that I was two months shy of 36 years old when I got there, so I was one of the older ones and I know in WWII, I remember my father was 35 or 36 and I don’t want to compare WWII with Vietnam, but I had three children and my father had two children. They were exempt. It didn’t bother me because I took an oath to do whatever they told me and we all gladly went away to the Vietnam War. The only thing that struck me as a little bit odd was I think 99 per cent of us were over there and just did what we were told and we carried on. But I’m from a very small town in New Jersey and when I got back I was shunned. They didn’t want to have anything to do with me because I was in this Vietnam War and I thought that was pretty bad.