In late 1968 I had been in the Air Force for
five years and was finishing up a two and a half year tour at
Kadena Air Base Okinawa. I was an aircraft maintenance officer in the
18th Tac Fighter Wing that flew F-105s.
Kadena was my first overseas assignment that came after my first
time volunteering for SEA Duty in 1966. I had pulled numerous TDYs to
Korea, Taiwan, and a couple to Thailand, but never got to Vietnam.
My younger brother Bill, who wanted nothing to do with the military
or the war, had put himself through college playing cards and earned
a degree in chemistry. But after being hounded by the draft, he went
in for 2 years to get it over and get on with his life. Of course he
quickly ended up on his way to a place called Duc
In early January 1969, I requested leave to visit him. "Take
leave to the combat zone?" The answer was, "Gee, sorry
about that, it's against the rules to go on leave to Vietnam."
I tried several times to do it the right way, going all the way to the
wing commander. But "they" just kept saying, "Rules are
Oh, yeah! Well, how about if I take leave to go to Bangkok?
Sure, they would let me do that. With leave orders in my pocket for
Thailand, I whipped out my trusty weapon of choice: a typewriter, and
created a very official looking set of Temporary Duty Orders assigning
myself to go on an inspection tour of bases in Vietnam.
Then I check out using the TDY leave orders and beat it down the
road to Naha Air Base where there was a C-130 cargo squadron that flew
in country. "How about a ride?" No problem, come on aboard.
Right on! They flew to Cam Ranh Bay and from there I hopped my way to
Duc Pho. When I walked off the airplane at the Americal Division base
the Army terminal guy was more than a little surprised to see an unexpected
Air Force Captain drop in. He asked what I was doing there? "Came
to visit my brother," I said.
"Ahhh ...sir, we don't get many visitors here."
After he recovered he called Bill's unit. The first sergeant came and
to get me. Bill wasn't there, he was in a four-duce mortar section on
a mountain top: LZ Thunder. So they put me up that night, and in the
morning laid on a helicopter that flew to the LZ. The lieutenant colonel
running the place released Bill from duty and we flew back to the base
Bill got a kick out of that. Said it was his first time in a helicopter.
He had always traveled by truck before. They left us alone for a couple
days and we had a great visit. Bill was in good spirits. Seems he hadn't
cashed a pay check since arriving in country, his old talent with numbers
on pasteboard kept him well fixed. So much so that his biggest problem
was finding ways around rules aimed at black marketing and limited how
much money could be sent out of the country. He looked forward to getting
his service over, returning home to get married, and using the GI Bill
to go back to school to get his master's degree.
Photo: Duc Pho Fire Base, January
Left: Tom Utts, Right: Bill Utts.
someone suggested that while they could appreciate my gesture, the Army
did have other things to do. So I said good bye and hopped a airplane
to Saigon. What was strange, during my entire time in Vietnam the war
seemed to be on hold. Wherever I went, peace seemed to break out. After
a few days exploring the capitol city, it was time to move on.
At Tan Son Nhut Air Base, after trashing my phone duty orders, I
showed the Air Force guy at the passenger counter my leave orders, saying,
"Look, I was on a flight to Bangkok yesterday, and I got bumped
off. Can you get me out of here?" For a moment I thought
that poor young airman was going to have a heart attack on the spot,
and he may have had visions of calling the Security Police. "That's
impossible," he whined. "It's illegal for you to be
in Vietnam on leave." I hadn't worried about my bogus TDY orders
passing close scrutiny of Army M.P.s, but Air Force Security Police
can read-and-write and put two-and-two together real quick. I
stuck to my story, pointing out that since I was there, certain realities
had to be faced. Finally, desperate to avoid problems, he decided he
should get me on the very next flight to Bangkok. I said I thought that
was a dandy idea.
After touring the Bangkok temples and museums for a few days, I
returned to Okinawa. When I check in someone asked, "How was Bangkok?"
You wouldn't believe it I told them.
At the end of the month, I returned to the mainland. Three months
later my family received the dreaded news. Bill had been killed in action.
At the time I went to se him I had no idea how much "stretching
the rules" would mean.
In 1971 the Blue Machine sent me to Korea for a year. Tried again
and got the Philippines for two years. Then in 1974 I went to Honolulu
and stayed at Hickam for five years. Yeah, I know, by this point you're
weeping for my hard luck story. I went on to retire in 1981.
I had volunteered two more times for SEA. Still, looking back,
I can't help feeling that in some way my brother had to pay for my sins.
Thomas C. Utts, Captain, USAF Retired
[Captain Utts is an
Associate Member of the local chapter of the
Air Force Security Police Association in San Diego.]