Remember my article about my dad’s service in Vietnam? Specifically this line: “He told me more than once that what he did was highly classified, that it would never be known or recognized by the US government, that his participation in the Vietnam conflict … would never accrue to him in terms of a rank promotion or medals, because it was all top secret.”
Not long after that, I discovered yet another box of documents I’ve had for more than twenty-five years. (I’ve been busy, yo.) Inside was (among other things) what I’d call his HR file, basically. His personnel file, with all his annual job reviews, recommendations for promotions, and a list of all the jobs he did and where he was stationed and when. It’s a not-insignificant stack of papers stapled together, most of it written in military-ese. Here’s what a civilian version of it might look like.* (I added a couple personal items for historic interest.)
29 Mar. 1948 Jim enlists Missouri National Guard; Detachment A, 231st Air Service Group
1 Jul. 1948 Jim appointed Pfc. from Pvt. (Natl Guard)
1 Sep. 1948 Jim appointed Cpl. from Pfc.
1 Aug. 1949 Jim honorably discharged from Natl Guard; starts college at USC fall 1949
26 Jan. 1950 Jim and Doris marry in Columbia, SC
Spring 1951 Jim completes fourth semester at USC
11 Oct 1951 Jim taking classes at St. Louis University; Fall term
16 Feb. 1952 Jim enlists in USAF and receives orders to report to Lackland AFB, SATX
25 Apr. 1952 Jim is awarded American Spirit medal
8 July 1952 Jim is A/3C at Moody AFB, GA
19 Aug. 1953 Jim is written up as Wing Airman of the Month, Moody**
17 Mar. 1955 Staff Sgt. Jim is honorably discharged from USAF (enlisted side)
18 Mar. 1955 Jim is commissioned 2nd Lt., graduated from OCS.
20 Sep. 1956 Jim completes primary pilot training at Hondo AFB
10 Oct. 1956 Jim is stu. off., pilot training, Vance AFB, OK
12 Apr. 1957 Jim gets his pilot’s certificate
14 May 1957 Jim is student officer, pilot training, Randolph AFB, SATX
17 Jul. 1957 1st Lt. Jim is discharged from Air Force Reserve
1 Sep. 1957 Jim is helicopter pilot, Sewart AFB, TN (TAC)
2 Nov. 1958 Jim is helicopter pilot, Ernest Harmon AFB, Newfoundland (SAC)
25 Aug. 1959 Jim flies Gen. Estes to inaccessible fishing spot***
29 Feb. 1960 1st Lt. Jim recommended for promotion to Captain
12 Jul. 1960 thank-you note from USAF Chief of Staff, Washington DC
18 Oct. 1960 Jim admitted to U of Maryland, distance courses
11 Mar. 1960 Jim accrues 1 class at U of Maryland, Military Law, B-
16 Dec. 1960 Jim accrues 2nd class at U of Maryland, Military History, A
10 Mar. 1961 Jim accrues 3rd class at U of Maryland, Military Logistics, A
11 Jul. 1961 Jim transferred to Hq 5th Bomb Wing, Travis AFB (SAC)
28 Apr. 1962 Jim moves to KC-135, Travis AFB, CA (SAC)
Jan. 1964 Capt. Jim is recommended for promotion
Oct. 1964 Capt. Jim is recommended for promotion
3 Nov. 1964 Jim is in 924th air refueling squad, Castle AFB, CA (SAC)
Feb. 1965 Capt. Jim is recommended for promotion
30 May 1965 Jim is aircraft commander qualified
Jun. 1965 Capt. Jim is recommended for promotion
1 Jul. 1965 Jim becomes KC-135 flight simulator instructor pilot, Castle AFB (SAC)
7 Aug. 1965 Capt. Jim TDY in Southeast Asia, returned 5 Oct 1965
Jun. 1966 Capt. Jim recommended for promotion to major
Jun. 1967 Maj. Jim recommended for promotion to “permanent major”
1 Jul. 1967 Jim is KC-135 instructor pilot, Castle AFB, CA (SAC)
Jun. 1968 Maj. Jim highly recommended for promotion
Mar. 1969 Maj. Jim highly recommended for promotion
1 Apr. 1969 Jim starts requalifying on helicopters at Castle (SAC)
Mar–Jul 1969 helicopter pilot conversion training, Sheppard AFB, TX
Jul. 1969 second TOD in Vietnam at Udorn
2 Aug. 1969 Jim arrives at Udorn, Thailand (PACAF)
15 Sep. 1969 Jim at Udorn, Thailand (PACAF)
16 Dec. 1969 Maj. Jim “highly recommended” for promotion
16 Dec. 1969 Jim awarded the Air Medal for meritorious achievement****
24 Dec. 1969 R&R Hawaii with his family
Feb. 1970 return from Southeast Asia
30 Mar. 1970 Jim is flight simulator instructor Castle AFB (SAC)
18 Apr. 1979 Ceremony for Jim’s Air Medal, Castle AFB
15 Dec. 1970 Maj. Jim specifically recommended for promotion to lt. col.
4 Jan. 1971 Jim is flight simulator instructor Castle AFB (SAC)
10 May 1971 Jim is flight simulator instructor Castle AFB (SAC)
15 Dec. 1971 Maj. Jim recommended for “immediate promotion” to lt. col.
30 May 1972 Jim is flight simulator instructor Castle AFB (SAC)
28 Apr. 1972 Jim is awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal
31 Jul. 1972 discharged (ret.) from USAF, Merced, CA
As you can see, the second tour of duty in Southeast Asia that we discussed in the previous article is confirmed on this list (1969–70) but the first one—the one I remember so vividly—is not. The file just jumps from July 1965 to July 1967. (I have speculated that that tour of duty was late summer or fall 1966 to late spring 1967; he was home by the time I broke my left ankle in late September 1967.) There is one little hint in all those job reviews about a field promotion to major, and then in June 1967 there is a recommendation for promotion to “permanent” major.
There is mention, in August 1965, of a temporary assignment to Southeast Asia, just sixty days long. Daddy went “TDY” all the time, though. (Spain, for example. I remember that trip vividly also—because he talked a lot about it; it’s why I’ve always wanted to visit Spain—and yet it is not on his official records either. Why?) If this temporary duty corresponded with my being thirteen years of age, I would assume that was the first “tour” I’m remembering. But I was only twelve that year. So I am convinced he did a longer assignment the next year.
Why? Because I didn’t just imagine that I got a driver’s license at age thirteen so my father could go to Vietnam. It was an enormous undertaking, the meetings, the letters, the signatures, the learning to drive, for heaven’s sake. It’s one of the founding family legends of my early life. My siblings remember it too. (Now, of course, my reaction is What in the hell were they thinking, turning a thirteen-year-old loose with a car?)
But the bottom line is my family was in a meltdown because they were going to send Daddy to Vietnam and Mom could no longer drive, and I was informed we were working with the state of California to get me an early, “family emergency” driver’s license, and I saluted. Yessir. Of course.
I also didn’t dream up a whole different set of photographs he took himself on that first tour, with different crew members, a different headquarters, a different billet. Those photos (slides, actually) are physically in my possession. And there’s the fact that my father told me the story of his exploits in Southeast Asia would not be in his records.
There are other things I can fill in now that I’ve looked at the file. During the second tour he flew helicopters. I remember it, and I have the photographs. But it’s also on his personnel file: in April ’69 he began requalifying on helicopters at Castle AFB and then more training in Texas. He did none of this requalifying in 1966. No, I believe he may have participated in the bombing of Laos. (Remember at Christmas 1965 President Johnson promised a bombing halt on Vietnam—which turned out to be a redirection of USAF bombing at Laos, instead.) And other highly classified activities I’ve mentioned previously.
Here’s more from the file—this from December 1969, the middle of his second tour—his biannual review:
Major Clarke has developed into a highly skilled, exceptionally proficient helicopter pilot. He has flown over 100 hours on 17 combat missions in the CH-3E helicopter. Many of these missions involved direct contact with hostile enemy troops and were flown deep into enemy held territory. Major Clarke, through calm aggressiveness, outstanding leadership and professional competence has been responsible for an outstanding record of mission completion and personal accomplishments on these important helicopter bat missions, demonstrates his outstanding proficiency and steadfast devotion to duty. In addition to his flying duties, Major Clarke has performed in the additional duty as the Unit Historian. He personally interview crews to gather pertinent data on missions of unusual or historic nature, documenting many pages of classified narrative. This document is continually being used as a source of information for the commander when briefing higher headquarters on the accomplishments of this unit. Major Clarke is a dedicated, sincere, professional officer. His ability to make accurate decisions under extreme stress and pressure is noteworthy and has been reconized by his fellow pilots. Major Clarke is an outstanding officer with a vast growth potential and professional supervisory capability. I highly recommend that he be promoted well ahead of his contemporaries. Major Clarke is presently serving a tour as a combat crew member in Southeast Asia.
16 December 1969
This came right in the middle of his second tour of duty. And it made me remember a photo. It’s a promotion photo or a commendation photo. My son’s in the navy, and I’ve seen plenty of these types of photos in recent months. In fact, I’d sent this commendation folder to him.
“Quick, send me a photo of of that folder I sent you guys,” I texted mywonderful daughter-in-law. “What was I thinking? I need the dates and the occasion.”
So that’s interesting.
The bracelet he’s wearing in the photo is interesting too. His “Vietnam bracelet,” my sister called it. He wore it day and night when he returned; it must have had some talismanic importance to him. Probably only another pilot from that period and place would understand it. But I was shocked to see it in an official photo. Wouldn’t it have been against regulation? I’ve googled around and the answer is: Maybe, maybe not.
Finally, I’ve read every single review recommendation. No one ever had a bad word to say about my father; he was always recommended for promotion “well ahead of his contemporaries” (USAF verbiage). I can understand this: he was a man who never did a half-assed job. He was charming. He was ambitious. So why was he “passed over” for the one thing he wanted, after giving so much of himself (and his family!) to the United States Air Force? I’d honestly like to know.
When my sister and I were discussing our father’s military service, particularly in Vietnam, she asked me about his being passed over for lieutenant colonel and that being the reason he got fed up and decided to retire. I’d forgotten that part of the story but as soon as she said it, I remembered. He was pretty disgusted. And disappointed. And he left.
Upon reflection, it seems to me that we kids, we knew the simple story of what was going on, but there was often a lot more that they were shielding us from. And yet as hard as some parts of it were, I still remember my childhood as happy, and even my current contemplation of what was will not change that.
But what really happened to us during the 1960s? What did my dad really do during his service to the United States of America? And why didn’t the US Air Force promote him?
Looks like a FOIA request is in my future. (sigh) I was hoping to answer all the questions by going through these papers, but they’ve just raised questions—about Daddy and about the stories I’ve been telling myself for years.
* It’s important to note all the enlistments (Missouri National Guard, Air Force Reserve, then, finally, USAF) were to avoid being drafted into the US Army, which was heavily involved in the Korean War at the time (1950–1953). Jim had other plans (law school, for example). But he wanted to fly planes; he told me that many times. He’d watched Mom’s brother do it.
** I have the newspaper.
*** He was a first lieutenant ferrying generals—one of them the Chief of Staff of the US Air Force—up to a fishing spot few humans could reach. In the thank-you note that arrived from Washington DC later, mention is made of Jim giving up his weekend to do this nice thing for them. No mention is made of his bringing his sixty-seven-year-old father-in-law, J.I. Hopkins, along on the trip. J.I. was even then sick with the leukemia that would kill him two years later, but he was visiting us that month and he loved to fish. It’s my understanding that a good time—a quite jolly time, in fact—was had by all.
**** “… while participating in aerial flight in Southeast Asia.” It’s remarkably vague, isn’t it.