Phillips H. Wheatley, Gun Maintenance
71st and 17th SOS, Nha Trang and Tuy Hoa, 1969
I was born in Salisbury, MD in August 1948. I grew up in Seaford, DE and graduated from Seaford High School in 1966 and it is still my hometown. I attended High Point College, High Point NC for one year. I learned about the G.I. Bill and realized the only way to finish four years of college was to join the military. One day my father got a phone call from a friend who was on the county draft board, informing my father that I would be getting my draft notice within a month. The Army, Marines, and Navy were taking anyone as long as they were breathing, while the Air Force had a quota and a waiting list. The Air Force recruiter found me a slot and I was off to Amarillo AFB for Basic Training. I was in the last flight to graduate from Amarillo before Basic was moved to Lackland AFB.
During Basic, I was “encouraged” to be a weapons mechanic. After weapons school in Denver, CO, I was assigned to loading weapons on the B-58s at Little Rock AFB, AR. On Christmas Eve a two-star general walked into our barracks. He noticed the unauthorized beverages, but surprisingly ignored them and instead called my name. I thought something had happened to one of my parents. Instead, he told me he had a flash message containing PCS orders for me. I was expecting orders for a three-year tour to Germany. He informed me that “someone wants you for something else and you have five days to be in Vietnam.” His secretary was already booking me a flight to get me home to see my family because I had only five days to get to Seattle for my Port Call.
I arrived in Nha Trang, Vietnam on 5 January 1969, where I lived in “Tent City” and worked on AC-47 gunships. I was soon sent to Phan Rang where they were expecting the arrival of the AC-119s. Two other weapons mechanics were also sent there, Larry Middleton and Barry Mohan. Larry and I are still good friends (we both went to Misawa, Japan after Vietnam). Larry and I set up a small gun shop. Larry outranked me so he took the day shift (7am-7pm). I got nights (7pm-7am), which was the only time anything exciting happened with the gunships. During the morning and afternoon Larry loaded all of the ammo and flares, while at night I took care of repairing all of the post-flight mechanical breakdowns and reload the mission bird for alert duty.
We did not go off base very much because it was dangerous. I only recall one short trip off base to a clothing store. We were out only an hour and stayed within sight of the gate the entire time and “beat feet” back to the gate. We were not allowed to carry weapons off base. On occasion we went to the so-called beach, which was infested with creatures a bit like jellyfish.
Jerry MacDonald (engine mechanic) and I went on R&R together to Taipei. It seemed like there was nothing to do, so we hopped on a train and went for a ride in the beautiful mountains. The week was uneventful, but it was enjoyable being away from the Vietnam madness.
I was transferred from Phan Rang to Tuy Hoa late in 1969, where I was told to start up a new gun shop to support a few AC-119s and the pending arrival of the new AC-130. As a two-striper it was difficult getting the workspace I needed. I explained that the gunships would be flying CAP over the base, but the only commitment I got was that they would look into it. Finally, I called the GE tech rep in Saigon (GE built the minigun); he made some calls and suddenly I had my gun shop. The tech rep even sent the parts I needed to get the shop started. Money may talk, but so does mortar suppression. The shop was up and running when I left in December 1969.
While in Vietnam I also did some work on helos that were flying in some kind of classified black program. The crews would not talk and had no names or ranks on their tiger striped fatigues. I fixed the guns and asked no questions.
After gunships I bounced around to Japan and Korea for another two years, and was finally sent to Okinawa where I was placed on the Lead Load Crew (F-4s) for 5th Air Force. We certified the crews that traveled around PACAF re- certifying the F-4 load crews.
Vietnam and the whole four-year experience was something I am proud of and will never forget. It was an eye-opening experience and I know I matured greatly in those years. On 5 Jan 1971, with five years of service, I turned down the pay raise and promotion to Tech Sergeant and left the Air Force.