Air Mekong CRJ-900.jpg

An Air Mekong CRJ-900 like the ones flown by “Tom McIntosh” in Vietnam.

The Interviewee: “If you are recording this, will it be for private use or end up on the air? As I’ve mentioned, anything for public awareness has to operate under my pseudonym, Tom McIntosh. If I was making a presentation to a gathering of Vietnam veterans only, I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Then Tom McIntosh it is.

“What I’m concerned about is my wife’s family in Vietnam. What I’m doing talking about the communist holocaust in Southeast Asia after the fall of Saigon is speaking truth to power. It’s a blood-soaked history. I’m not worried about myself, it’s my wife’s family in Vietnam.”

Understood. No photos?

“We better not. The Vietnamese immigration authorities aren’t using facial recognition yet, but we haven’t gone back for a long time and have plans to revisit Vietnam in six months. They could possibly be using the technology now. We tease about the Vietnamese being the Keystone Cops of Communism when compared to the Chinese, but let’s be safe, just in case. I know they recently detained a Vietnamese man from Southern California when he tried to visit the country. He had fought against the communists as an ARVN, a South Vietnamese soldier, but they detained him for speaking out against the Communist regime while in Southern California.”

They knew about his talks in America?

“Yes.”

That’s a bit spooky.

“Exactly. My wife’s parents were successful, hard-working people, but were impoverished after the fall of Saigon. They were considered part of the Bourgeoisie, too successful in the communists’ opinion. They are on a blacklist and cannot work for any Vietnamese company. Naturally, the communists own all or part of every company and/or corporation in Vietnam.”

OK, let’s start with the basics. Where were you born and raised?

“Dallas County, Iowa. We had a farm but commuted to it, sort of odd for farmers, I suppose. Purebred cattle.”

So, you were a cowboy?

“Kinda, sort of.”

When did you graduate from high school and did you attend college after that?

“In 1975. Then I attended Georgia Tech.”

Georgia Tech?

“Yep, aerospace engineering. I originally enlisted in the Navy as a reservist when I was 17 years old with my parents’ permission. I didn’t go to boot camp right away, but pushed paperwork a few weekends. Then I got orders for the Great Lake training facility. However, I got another letter from the Navy offering me a four-year scholarship, but if I were to become an officer I wanted to be a pilot. I’d already earned my private pilot’s license in high school and had dreams of being a bush pilot in Alaska, but in 1975 and ’76 the economy was terrible, so good jobs were available in Alaska building the pipeline. But bush pilots had to have both a commercial pilot’s license and mechanic license because they often had to work on their own aircraft. So, aircraft mechanic training in the Navy sounded good. But through several contacts I heard about the Air Force program. Well, lo and behold, I applied, got an Air Force scholarship with promised pilot training in writing. I asked the Navy if I could transfer; they weren’t too happy about it, but finally released me to the Air Force. I guess that’s a roundabout way of telling how I ended up at Georgia Tech. To tell you the truth, after growing up in the snow of Iowa winters, the South sounded good.”

And after graduation?

“I had to wait nine months for a slot, so I went to work for a carnival for a while driving a truck, setting up their midways in the summer and repairing equipment over the winter. Anyway, I showed up for pilot training in Del Rio, Texas, at Laughlin AFB in the spring of 1981. I trained on T-37s and T-38s as an introduction to potential fighter pilot training, but my AFROTC detachment commander at Georgia Tech brainwashed me into believing the C-130 Hercules was the best thing going, always something going on with a C-130, in war and peacetime. So, C-130 RTU at Little Rock AFB was my next duty after receiving USAF silver wings.”

How did you like the C-130 Hercules?

“I loved it; however, on a three-day pass I visited friends at Lockheed in Atlanta in May 1982. When I told a buddy that I was training on the C-130s, he said, ‘Better you than me.’ This was the early ’80s and apparently computers had analyzed highly potential wing defects in the C-130. Lockheed had advised the Air Force to ground the whole fleet. Two weeks after going back to Little Rock AFB, the C-130 I was preparing to takeoff suddenly flashed warning lights. I taxied back, turned it over to maintenance, I was done for the evening. The next night I took off in another C-130 for some nighttime formation flying. The C-130 I had flown the day before was in the group. During some maneuvers, the left wing snapped off that C-130, exactly where the Lockheed engineers predicted it would. I saw a big orange flash illuminating the flight deck. I’m asking, ‘What was that?’ My instructor said, ‘Henry just blew up.’ Henry was an instructor, my classmate at Georgia Tech was the copilot. To tell you the truth, that sort of colored the time I spent in the Air Force. I mean, they knew about the defect. Subsequently, several wing cracks were discovered on other C-130s, and I believe there was one more fatal accident.”

I understand your disillusionment. What was your next posting?

“Clark AFB in the Philippines in 1982. There were still several military actions going on in Southeast Asia. The Vietnam War ended in 1975, but there had been communist aggression by Vietnam plus Russia had invaded Afghanistan. Communist aggression was on the march. The state department decided to re-engage on a limited basis in Southeast Asia to confront the communists where we could, including the DMZ in Korea, the Philippine insurgency, Indonesia, all over the whole region where communist insurgency was going on, particularly in Cambodia. We were supporting the Royal Thai Marines confronting Hanoi forces on the Thai eastern frontier, among other places as well. I was not special operations, but combat support under a designation called ‘joint training exercise.’ American Special Forces were there also, providing training but allegedly not engaged in combat. But, they were dodging bullets alongside the Royal Thai Marines; aka, the ‘King’s Cobras.’”

You did all this out of Clark AFB in the Philippines?

“That was my home base, but we flew out of U-Tapao, Thailand, Osan and Pusan in Korea, and a few others, hauling troops, howitzers, supplies, ammo, toilet paper, cigarettes, whatever was needed wherever. I did that for three years. What that allowed me to do was be an eyewitness to the communist holocaust sweeping across that area. I wasn’t in a war, but I guess you could say I was in the ‘shadow’ of a war. But based on what I did experience, I didn’t think I wanted to be in a real war. I was just a young lieutenant, and I couldn’t connect all the dots very much, but after reading about Vietnam and reading articles like yours I started connecting the dots. I was Vietnam era, you guys were in it; so I figured it was my duty to report what took place after you guys went home.”

Tell us about your experiences.

“Well, I left active duty in 1985, but while I was at Clark I also served as the Squadron Community Affairs Officer. I worked with an orphanage in downtown Angeles City where a lot of the orphans were Amerasian, the children of G.I.s via the bargirls. We sort of felt it was our moral obligation to help the Amerasian kids. So I worked with the Santa Maria Children’s Home, which is a Catholic charity. I organized guys from the base to go out and rebuild the place, remodeling, new sanitation, but in the process I managed to make local contacts and decided to work as an independent military contractor. I did that for about a year.

“At the time, my mother was heavily involved in Iowa politics. Mom knew the Iowa congressman from our district and approached him to help me find a way to provide the Philippines with some C-130s. Well, long story short, things got a little dicey in local Filipino politics so I was suddenly playing both sides of the fence. The communist insurgency was gaining ground and the good guys were in danger of possibly losing the struggle. A big reform movement in the Philippines military led to rumors of an impending coup, so I’m thinking this would be a good time to leave.

“I had a lot of contacts at Lockheed and they said, ‘Yeah, come on, we’ll find you a job in flight testing.’ So, I’m on my way back to Atlanta. At that point I’m still in the reserves but working on the C-130 programs as a civilian.”

How did you end up in Vietnam?

“Well, I worked at Lockheed for four years, then in 1989 the Cold War is over, the Berlin Wall came down, and the Georgia Lockheed Plant was on the black list to be shut down. All the Lockheed brass were in Burbank, Calif., so we assumed the plant would shut down. I bailed out and went back to Georgia Tech to study environmental engineering. I started working in environment engineering and hazardous waste, oh, forgot to mention this, Lockheed shut down the Burbank plant, not the Atlanta plant. Wouldn’t ya know it? Anyway, peace was sorta breaking out all over the world, I bought an airplane, started up a flight school, then began my own environment engineering firm. Well, Democrats cut military budgets and built up the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency); Republicans fund the military and cut back on environmental issues, so after 2000 the Republicans are back in office and our work dries up.

“Then 9/11 happened. I tried to re-enlist, but at 44 years of age they basically said I belonged in a pasture somewhere. I did volunteer with the Civil Air Patrol because they got a bunch of money from Congress to assist in terrorist surveillance. New planes, the whole bit. I went to Nigeria to work oil field spills, but that didn’t work out, so in 2007 I looked at my profit and loss portfolio and thought, ‘this ain’t too good.’ I went to work for Atlantic Southeast Airlines in 2007, then the recession of 2008 came along. Commercial pilots were being laid off, I made the cut, but everybody was sliding back in terms of seniority and scheduling, and my Filipino wife at the time met some dude online and ran off to California. Sort of a bad time for me.

“Sky West, which owned us at the time, were Mormons. They are really shrewd business people. They expanded their operations during the recession, but not in America, in Vietnam. September of 2010, I landed in Hanoi, Vietnam. There I was, a 53-year-old American military veteran flying for Air Mekong, a domestic airline flying out of Hanoi and Saigon. Of course, 70% of Air Mekong was owned by the Vietnamese. We flew CRJ-900s, the same plane I flew out of Hartsfield.”

What was it like flying out of Hanoi and tell me about the war residue.

“In Hanoi there are war trophies and wreckages of American warplanes all over the place, including B-52s. Hanoi never lost a battle, according to their own history. The infamous Hanoi Hilton prison was mostly torn down for development, but a small part remains for tourism, including the cell where John McCain was housed. His flight suit is on display in a glass case. We had about two weeks of ground training in Hanoi, then I was stationed in Saigon. There were a lot of ponds where people fished, but I wouldn’t eat any fish caught out of them because the Vietnamese still dump raw sewage into the ponds. And I’m not going to wade in one either.”

What is Vietnam like now?

“Amnesty International rates the communist government in Vietnam as one of the worlds’ most repressive. They are right down there on the bottom with North Korea and Saudi Arabia. But after all the wars and fighting Vietnam was impoverished, so they opened up to capitalism, but they call it ‘market socialism.’ They are basically a fascist regime. As I’ve said before, about 50% of the businesses are private, the other 50% belongs to the communist party. Now, the south around Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) still has a strong western atmosphere. Vietnam has many cultures and different dialects, it’s really a hodgepodge of languages and traditions. War has always raged in Southeast Asia; it’s better now, but the borders are still fluid.”

Especially Cambodia?

(Laughter) “Well, the mass murderer Pol Pot and his bloodthirsty Khmer Rouge started instigating clashes along their border with Vietnam. The regime in Hanoi saw it as a good opportunity to end their long-running disputes with Cambodia and invaded the country in December of 1978. The Vietnamese forces pushed Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge thugs into the jungles of western Cambodia and into refugee camps in Southeast Thailand. Now, it gets sticky. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the man Pol Pot drove out of power with his Khmer Rouge, are now huddled in the same refugee camps in Thailand. They formed an alliance, the old ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ sort of thing. Well, we were flying in supplies to their alliance.”

What?

“Yeah, we were supplying Pol Pot and Sihanouk.”

Unbelievable. But war makes strange bedfellows. How were you treated by the Vietnamese?

“The North Vietnamese were very friendly. We had cash; they needed cash, a marriage of convenience. Same in South Vietnam.”

When did you meet your wife?

“On my first night in Saigon. We had met on the internet, she had her own business plus was an interpreter, so we became internet pen-pals. She agreed to dinner that first night, and we hit it off big time. Her dad had fought with the South Vietnamese and were very pro-American. He was in the Mekong Delta assisting American Special Forces. When she told them I had been an American G.I., they said, ‘Oh, yeah, we want to meet this guy.’ She had real estate friends and helped me find an apartment, so we were together daily. We married in Vietnam, and by that time the exit visas were fairly slack so it wasn’t that difficult to get her out of the country. They basically followed the Chinese lead in that area, they knew they had to open up to foreign investment, but the Vietnamese hate the Chinese as much as they hate the Cambodians.”

How long did you fly for Air Mekong?

“They closed the doors in 2013. Then I started flying for Express Jet in the States. When the recession turned a positive corner, the Mormons closed down their part of Air Mekong and started buying up bankrupt airlines in America. It was like we never left. I just picked up where I left off. I retired when Express Jet sold out to United during the COVID crisis.”

Final thoughts?

“My wife and I go back to Vietnam occasionally. After the war, her dad had to go to a reeducation camp, but down in the Mekong Delta things were a bit different. The Delta is almost like another world, the people can see you coming a mile away, it’s sort of like, ‘You aren’t from these here parts, are ya?’ The Delta people liked the Americans because they would chase away the Viet Cong. The Vietnamese hate the communists and my wife and I are concerned about what’s going on in this country, but the communists are not that strong. Marxist-minded amateurs are stirring the pot, but they are just that, amateurs. I got to know a lot of guys who were POWs in Vietnam. They hated the Cuban interrogators. They were ruthless, enjoyed torturing. So far as Vietnam, my wife and I agree that the southern part is still much more free-wheeling than the north. But as international pressure gains a foothold in the Vietnamese economy, the communist leadership will have to adapt. They have no other choice other than poverty.”

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran. For story consideration, visit his website at veteransarticle.com and click on “contact us.” Mecca is also host of a weekly radio program on veterans. The program airs Wednesdays at 10 a.m. at americaswebradio.com.

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