In July 1966, Joe Wierzbinski was 18 years old and working at Universal Grocery Store in Taftville for $1.35 an hour. Although he wanted more, he had no intention of going to college. He felt the military could provide him with training in a skill. A life-long lover of aviation, he enlisted in the Air Force in the recruiter’s office in the basement of the Norwich Post Office.
Joe left for Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas on August 21, 1966. He spent the next six weeks in basic training in a “very hot San Antonio”. Due to his surname, he was nicknamed “Alphabet”, which stuck for the rest of his service. After basic training, Joe travelled to Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois where he spent four months completing jet engine training. He had gone from extreme Texas heat to “suffering through one of the coldest Illinois winters on record”. Chanute celebrated its 50th anniversary while Joe was there.
The men lived in open bay, World War II, “Beetle Bailey” housing with 50 people on two floors, 25 per floor. Joe says, “Conditions at Chanute were primitive, the food was poor, but the training was excellent.” The airmen marched everywhere – to school and back, to the barber shop, to the chow hall. The Chanute expectations for personal appearance were stricter than those of basic training. Airmen wore heavily starched fatigues and spit-shined boots.
Joe graduated from tech school on January 23, 1967. After a two-week leave, he transferred to Homestead Air Force Base in Florida where he worked as crew chief on F4 Phantoms, coordinating all necessary work on the aircraft assigned to him. Joe found Homestead a welcome change from Rantoul. South of Miami, Homestead had lots of sunlight, beaches and a beautiful base. After San Antonio and Rantoul, it was an airman’s dream. Joe spent one year at Homestead working on the flight line, learning the tricks of trade and studying the F4 in depth. In January, 1968 Joe went home on leave with orders to report to Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam afterward.
Joe left for Vietnam from McCord Air Force Base in Seattle. After a 14-hour flight with a refueling stop in Yakota, Japan, he arrived at Cam Ranh Bay Air Force Base on February 4. Joe’s first memory of Vietnam is a wave of oven-like heat that hit him hard as the plane’s door opened. The land around the base was unattractive, nothing more than scrub brush and sand. The base itself was huge, and had the American’s largest in-country hospital.
Joe arrived just after the Tet Offensive, and within days the base was mortared. The men manned posts in bunkers for days until the danger had passed. This attack was unusual, and life at the base was relatively safe, secure and comfortable. The airmen lived in six-man hooches with outdoor showers and fairly good food. However, there was no septic system, so waste was burned, forcing airmen to take alternate routes to their destinations to avoid that malodorous area.
The incredible heat and monsoon rains made working at Cam Ranh Bay grueling and exhausting. The crew chiefs worked twelve-hour shifts, six days a week on a brutally hot flight line, the long hours a result of a crew chief shortage. The work itself was hard and there was the ever-present odor of jet fuel and the constant noise of jets. They had c-ration flight line snacks – cans of lima beans, scrambled eggs, hot dogs and beans, coffee and chewing gum. After his shift, Joe usually slept, too tired to do anything else. The wind and rain of monsoon season made working extremely difficult. Joe and a friend once earned two extra days off for working five hours in a monsoon with 35-mile-per-hour wind to get a job done. “I wonder how we did it as nothing more than twenty-year-old kids”, Joe muses.
Joe spent his one free day at the beach on the base, a 5-minute truck ride. The beautiful beach rivalled any in the U.S. The water was warm and clear, the sand beautiful. Joe lay in the sun and enjoyed swimming in the South China Sea.
Airmen were not allowed off-base, so all activities were provided on-site. There was a hobby center, an audiotape library with recording devices for recording music and an Airmen’s Club with inexpensive beer and drinks. Bob Hope performed there, and Filipino and Australian bands played rock and roll. The Red Cross ran a center with ping pong tables. The Vietnamese ran a massage parlor.
An outdoor theatre with a large screen and wooden benches ran the latest movies. Joe saw The Graduate, Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns and, on Monday nights, episodes of the TV show Star Trek. The projectionist, a mysterious figure who never appeared, manned a booth that looked like an outhouse. The airmen dubbed him “Luther”. During the lull between the first and second reel, the men would chant his name until the movie began again. Poor “Luther” had difficulty during the showing of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Just as Spencer Tracey was to meet Sidney Poitier, the film broke. The audience, having consumed a fair amount of beer, expressed their displeasure by pelting the screen and projection booth with bottles and cans. The commanding officer shut down the theatre for a week, a meaningful consequence for the men who found life on the base tedious. After this, men wore helmets and flak jackets to the movies.
Joe had a fortunate reprieve when he was sent to the Philippines for three weeks to attend technicians’ upgrade school. He spent most of his free time at the swimming pool and eating steak and French fries at the Airman’s Club.
In December 1967, Joe had a week’s R&R in Sidney, Australia. He sampled the wonderful city and spent $100, a lot of money back then, on a “mod” bell-bottom suit that he has to this day. He loved Australia and the friendly people who loved Americans. His favorite memory is of a “wild New Years’ Eve party that only the Aussies can produce” and dancing in a conga line down a street in Sidney “in my baby-blue, double-breasted bell-bottom suit”.
In a time before cell phones and the Internet, letter-writing was incredibly important. A letter from home was a morale booster. There were very few days when Joe didn’t write somebody. Postage was free.
Tours of duty in Vietnam were exactly 365 days. “Anybody could tell you down to the hour how long they had left. When you were down to 99 days in-country you were ‘short’ and had the ‘double-digit fidgets’, “a big deal”, Joe recalls. After that, men gave the number of days they had left followed by “and a wake-up” — the departure day. Joe filled a jar with 365 M&M’s and ate one every day, eating the last one when he was ready to leave, noting that it wasn’t stale.
On February 4, 1968, Joe arrived at McCord AFB in Seattle. He ate his first hamburger and a strawberry milkshake, which were “better than any meal in a 5-star restaurant”. He was home in America, on U.S. soil, and it felt good. He was 6’2” and weighed 157 pounds. He went to 180 within a year.
Joe reported to George Air Force Base in Victorville, California. The joke among experienced airmen was that it was better enlisting for another year in Cam Ranh Bay than in Victorville. “They were right”, Joe says. A bombing range during World War II, Victorville was in the desert and remote. He spent the remainder of his time in the service there, working on F4’s. He received an Honorable Discharge in 1970, with the rank of Staff Sargent.
While in Vietnam, Joe never lost one of his planes. But one was shot down after he left, which he discovered due to an incredible coincidence. A few years ago, I flew to Colorado Springs for a conference. I was seated in the aisle seat of a three-seat row, next to a married couple. As we took off, the husband asked if I would change seats with him. I found this odd, thinking maybe they were having a marital spat. But I agreed. As I settled into the middle seat, the man’s wife thanked me and told me his story.
Her husband suffered from severe claustrophobia, a result of his time in Vietnam. He was an F4 Phantom pilot who was flying over North Vietnamese territory when he was shot down. He and his co-pilot survived the crash but ended up on the opposite sides of a river. He heard the North Vietnamese capture and kill his co-pilot. He hid in the roots of a tree, where he remained for several days until he was rescued. Struck by the story, I shared it with Joe when I got home. He researched it and found the story and a photo of the plane’s tail with its identification number. It was his plane, shot down the year after he left.
After his discharge, Joe spent another 10 years in Air National Guard. He has nothing but good memories of his time in the Air Force and is proud of his service.
In September 2016, Joe attended a ceremony at the Veterans’ Hospital in Rocky Hill honoring Vietnam veterans and presenting them with service medals, a long overdue expression of appreciation for our men and women who served during the Vietnam War.