VIETNAM
HOW I BECAME K-9
Biên Hòa AB, Vietnam 1965
"Before I could grab Scott, to pull him down, the grenade went off..."

by: Robert B. Threatt
Biên Hòa AB, 3rd APS; Ubon RTAFB, 8th SPS K-9
© 2005
 
 

I have always been a lover of animals although I grew up in the city. As a child, my friends and I played in the wooded areas of the city and I became quite good at tracking (our way of doing it learned from watching TV movies), sneaking up on the "supposed enemy," and all the other things done in the woods. I had a dog most of my life, but never even thought about training one or that there was even such a thing as training a dog.

In the early sixties there was a draft, therefore, after finishing high school, everyone knew that going into the army was a given. Being very close to an army base and seeing what they were doing, I didn't want any part of them. With my father being retired from the navy, I knew a lot about them and didn't want any part of them or the marines. That only left the air force and, not knowing anything about them; I decided to give them a try to keep from going into the army.

Being a Black man, with jobs in the military being limited for Blacks, I devised a plan to keep from being a cook, truck driver, or mechanic. So, I flunked, on purpose, everything that dealt with jobs of that type and focused on police work.

Basic training ... would I survive? I was doing my best and had a ball marching, etceteras. My squadron, they said, was one of the best they'd seen and we marched all over Lackland AFB doing "monkey drills." Then, one bright sunny day, we marched past the kennel area. I saw those dogs and men out there with them and knew immediately what I wanted, but was told to forget it -- Blacks weren't accepted in K-9 (this was 1964, the Bill of Rights had just been put into law, segregation was supposed to be out, but that is another story entirely). I couldn't get those dogs out of my mind.

My first base was Pease AFB, NH, and I was a "slick sleeve" Airman Third Class (A3C/E2) "ramp rat" [security police, performing security duty for aircraft] humping B-47s and KC-97s. Not my idea of having fun, BUT they accidentally kept my dream alive. K-9 was short of people to man posts and handlers for dogs. At this time K-9 was primarily for Caucasians so I still couldn't get in as a OJT (On the Job Training) handler but I could hump a K-9 post without a dog. So, I would volunteer every time they would let me. I would go to the kennels, be around the guys and dogs, ride to post with them and walk post (at times, I would walk post with a handler and his dog). I was in paradise and vowed that if I could get into K-9, as a trained handler, I would re-enlist when the time came.

Pease AFB had no place for a Black K-9 handler, and I got orders for Biên Hòa AB, Vietnam. I heard about Nemo and that just thrilled me but it still was not in the cards for me. I left "Nam" for Beale AFB, CA, and became a "ramp rat" for the B-52s and KC-135s and later got assigned as a TDY (temporary duty) to the 9th RTS at Beale AFB) as an entry controller for the SR-71s. I would see K-9 all the time and longed to be one but my enlistment was quickly running out and so was my dream of becoming a K-9 handler.

During guardmount one evening, I really wasn't paying attention because I've heard it all before and the great majority of the guardmount was for the regular "ramp rats" and not for the SR-71s. I faintly heard the sergeant call for a volunteer to attend dog school at Lackland AFB with orders to deploy overseas after graduation. My hand was up before I realized that I had done it (I know the saying, "Never Volunteer," but here was my final K-9 chance), by this time I was an Airman First Class (A1C/E4) and the sergeant had to check if they accepted a person of my rank. He did check, and I was accepted and was floating on cloud nine with a big grin on my face.

Sentry Dog School was a blast! I loved it and really excelled. A week before graduation, my orders were cancelled for the deployment and they were going to send me back to my base before graduating. My instructor went to bat for me and I was allowed to graduate and I went back to my base a school-trained sentry dog handler.

It took three weeks to get accepted and into the kennels, because no one wanted me there, and for three weeks I did not have a place to go and the first sergeant had me stay home and call-in each morning to see what my status was. Eventually I had a job, a position at the kennels and my first dog to hump post beside (or behind). But, being a Airman First Class, I was a squad leader and that didn't set too well with the other handlers, especially with me being "new meat" and Black, but I hung in there and made it.

Biên Hòa AB, South Vietnam, 1965: hot, hot, and then some. The Air Police Squadron is large and about a third of us APs were from Pease AFB, NH, which was rumored to be closing. Pease AFB was a pretty good size, and some of the guys that did not go to South Vietnam went to Ramey AB, Puerto Rico or Clarke AB, Philippines, with the rest of us going to Biên Hòa AB, SVN. In other words, from wet to cold to super hot.

Being one of the few Black guys there wasn't a big problem for me. I just had to keep a eye out for potential trouble and watch what I say to whom I said it to. As the White guys would say: "stay in my place" and I was told that often enough. Well, I tried to do that, to some degree, but I was more accepted because I could get all sorts of things through trading or otherwise. What ever was needed -- no problem -- just give me a little time and, in no time, I'd have it. What also helped was the fact that while at Peace AFB we were in two-men rooms and I roomed with a White guy. I had problems from both sides about that, but I and my roommate stuck to our guns, became good friends and did our jobs.

Here we were, in a place that is very foreign to us and very hot. We had made a quick stop at Travis AFB, CA, for a quick training for war and I was surprised at the look of things. You remember the film clips of WWII and how they fought? The name of the films, always shown on Saturdays, were named "The Big Picture" and showed men fighting house to house or going across an open field. That's all I thought of as the plane flew to SVN. Boy, what a surprise I had, there was nothing like those films.

Anyway, here I am getting ready for duty and, as always, I am on midnights. The fact is, almost all the Black Air Policemen are on midnights, although that aren't that many of us. During guardmount I was assigned to a listening post with Scott, luckily a White guy that I got along with. I really don't mind these posts because I walked K-9 posts with a rifle, while at Pease AFB. Scott did not like them because it was dark, lonely, and if anything happened, you were the first one to get it. A living early warning system to the rest of the base.

I gathered my gear and climbed into the jeep for the ride out to the post. I had no idea where it is or how far out it is. All I know is if I don't keep my eyes and ears open, I'm fresh meat for "charley," the Viet Cong. The ride, out to the listening post, was long and dusty, almost to the 173rd Airborne Camp, which we also guarded when they were out in the field.

The sergeant stopped and pointed to a silhouette that was in a field a short distance away and said that was the post. Scott and I got out of the jeep, looked at each other and asked what were our instructions. All the Sarge said was that if we saw anything or heard anything, to let CSC (Central Security Control) know and they would respond to us. I asked how long would it take to get to us and he said about ten minutes or so, depending on where they were at the time and hat they were doing.

The night was moonless and everything was very dark and eerie looking. The listening post was an old Vietnamese water tower or something like it, made of concrete with a large iron door. It was two stories tall with a iron dome, like a turret, on top and the whole thing was as large as a small room, only round. The iron door was about a half foot thick and had to be pushed open with your shoulder and to get to the top floor you had to climb a metal ladder through a hole in the floor. Once on the top floor, we found out that on two sides outside the tower, was a sloping hill with lots of bushes.

I told Scott to get his things out, what ever it was, and I would be right back (all of us carried the so-called comfort stuff to help pass the hours). I went back down the ladder and with my flashlight looked around the inside and outside the tower until I found a small trash pile. In the trash I found an empty C-ration can, which was exactly what I needed. I went back into the tower and closed the iron door to about tow or three inches of being completely closed. I placed the C-ration can on top of the door so that it was leaning onto the door frame. This way, if anyone entered, the can would fall. Being that the tower was concrete and empty, it would make one hell of a racket. My Early Warning System.

Being Black, a person learns to survive, improvise by making do with what you had and to think about the "what if." The darkness did not unsettle me nor being "bait," what did bother me was being with Scott, although a nice person, I thought he just didn't have the survival instincts needed.

Don't get me wrong, I am lacking in some things but I had more going for me than Scott and I was going to take some Cong with me before I went to the "Happy Hunting Ground."

I went back to the top of the tower and made a deal with Scott that we would take an hour on and hour off. That way we both didn't get tired at the same time and could get a little shut eye too. Scott was in agreement and thought it was a good idea. Who would know? we were a long way from anyone and anything and there was no way the Sarge could get to us without us knowing he was coming. It was decided that Scott was to rest first and I was to listen (we couldn't see our hands in front of our faces), then it was my turn.

I stood there, leaning on the wall, looking out over the wall into pitch blackness and hearing only crickets chirping. I was thinking about the snakes that were notorious and the lizards, wondering if any were in the area. I thought, no matter, I'll deal with that if and when they came around. Problem was, I couldn't see them and I didn't want to turn on a light. In this darkness, a light could be seen a very long way off. I also told myself not to think myself into sleep, just listen and listen hard and, maybe, I'll survive this.

Just before it was time to wake Scott, the C-ration can fell. What a noise -- what an echo! It was so loud that it woke Scott. We both froze...listening...wondering what made the can fall. Scott did not know that I put the C-ration can on the door. I told him that I did and suggested he should go down and check it out. With him being the ranking man, he pulled rank and said he wanted me to go down and check it out. I went down and the door was open about a foot. Nothing was in the tower and I looked around the tower, in the bushes, all over and found nothing. I knew that a snake or lizard could not open the door and that it had to be a human, but I found nothing.

I closed the door, like I had it before, and replaced the can. I went back up the ladder and told Scott that nothing was there and it was time for my rest. Scott said it was Okay to rest but things weren't right and he wasn't sure about all of this. He wanted to call CSC but I asked him what he was going to say. We found nothing. He let it go and I settled down for some rest, although I wasn't really resting. Things weren't right to me either but I didn't want Scott to get too upset and get Sarge and SAT (Security Alert Team) to come out.

A guess it was, maybe, half an hour later when the can fell again. I immediately jumped up, quickly reached into my bag and grabbed a grenade. I dropped it, over the side, where the tower door was and, just as quickly, dropped down. Before I could grab Scott, to pull him down, the grenade went off, knocking Scott to the opposite wall. He hollered at me and asked what I was doing, that I could have killed him and what was I doing with a hand grenade. I really didn't have time to answer him and he was okay, so I wasn't that concerned only, what I was going to tell Sarge. How was I going to tell him I had a few illegal hand grenades that I traded with the 173rd for? Survival to the fittest, I say.

Oh well, I went down the ladder and the door was wide open, of course, and I didn't see anything. I cautiously peeped outside and could vaguely see where the grenade landed and not much else. The night was quiet, eerily quiet. I chanced turning on my flashlight and immediately saw two dead VC (Viet Cong) lying near the crater that the grenade made. I turned the light out and immediately fell prone to the ground. I hollered to Scott that there were two dead VC outside and there could be more around. He said that CSC wanted to know what was going on and what that explosion was. I told him to tell CSC that there were two dead VC here and I don't see anything else around.

About ten minutes later, the SAT and Sarge showed up and took defensive positions at the edge of the perimeter road. I walked over to them and they stood up as I approached. The Sarge asked me what happened, I told him and started to jump my case. I told him that it was true that I had things I shouldn't have but, as far as I am concerned, it saved my read end. I couldn't see them nor hear them and if I didn't do what I did, I wouldn't be here now and neither would Scott. Scott wasn't too happy about the situation but he had to agree.

Later I became, at other bases (Thailand, Florida, and Germany), a patrol dog handler (we called them "command dogs" then), a narcotics dog handler, assistant kennel master/trainer-supervisor, then kennel master and, near the end of my career, I became first sergeant at Minor AFB, ND, which finally made me retire ("Why not Minot ...Freezing is The Reason). To this day, I still love K-9 and will always love K-9 and the handlers. "ONCE K-9 ALWAYS K-9."

 

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