Sometimes you don’t know what you know until you start trying to piece your history together, y’know? It started with an email from my sister, Jill. I’m the oldest, and generally remember the most.
I know we went over this already. But I can’t remember our discussion. Easier to ask again. Which two years was Dad in Vietnam? Like 66 and 68 or 67 and 69? Also, what was the name of that group he was in? Jolly Green Giants? My friend’s dad was in Vietnam twice during roughly those years and he was a Green Beret. It’s 11:30 pm your time … hope you’re sleeping good. xoxoxo
I’d been “home” (to California) last summer to visit a dear friend who’d been unwell, and due to manuscript deadlines I’d only scheduled a flying visit to my sister, who lives about two hours from where we grew up. When I arrived, we’d realized we had thirty-six hours, so we started talking a mile a minute. Not sure how we got on the topic of family history, but it was a fabulous conversation. I took notes. (Another blog post for another day.) There are things I know, things I no longer remember, things I don’t know because I wasn’t present, and things that Jill knows because she was present.
Like the story about Daddy leaving for his second tour of duty in Vietnam, which I knew nothing about. Daddy was in the house, no doubt giving last-minute instructions to Mom and me while he waited for his ride from the base. Jill was sitting on the front porch, weeping. And my boyfriend drove up. (This would be Joe, later my husband and father of my only child.) When Joe saw Jill, she says, he sat down beside her and put his arm around her and tried to comfort her. Jill remembers him being so kind to her that day; she told me she’ll always be grateful to him for it. (I say this because, you know, it’s fifty years later and I don’t see Joe through my teenager’s rose-colored glasses anymore. But I’m delighted that she tells me this story and I make a note to call him when I get home and thank him.)
The US Air Force dominated all our lives, really, so we talk a lot about it. Where we lived, what happened there. When my father reached the end of his life in 1992, he had a second wife. So unless we’d taken momentos (stuff, yes, but also papers, photos, things that would help us to piece that history together) from the home—a house he bought when I was in kindergarten—while he was alive, those things were lost to us unless the second wife decided to give them to us. (Which she mostly did not. It is probably best if I don’t think too much about it.)
We have been meaning to ask the government for his records, but that hasn’t happened yet.
But we started piecing the story together today, with my sister’s email asking what years he was in Vietnam. I clicked reply and began to write.
“I don’t know that we know specifically yet,” I said. And then I remembered: I’ve been going through the boxes of ephemera that I do have, and I have this. I was astonished when I found it a few weeks ago.
When you travel to certain foreign countries, you have to acquire vaccinations, and you tuck this little booklet in with your passport.
Never forget to look on the back. Look at that! R&R = rest and recuperation.
“Well, wait,” I wrote. “I can extrapolate one year because on his vaccinations booklet, there’s a stamp that reads R&R Hawaii and the date is 24 Dec 1969. So his second tour of duty would have been ’69–’70. I’m guessing the first would have been ’67–’68 at the latest, but maybe earlier.”
And then—bing! it was like getting a text message in my brain—I remembered one of the biggest events of my life: I got my driver’s license at age thirteen. My mother was sick, you see (this truly is another post for another time), and was no longer able to drive. And yet the US Air Force was implacable: Jim Clarke had to go to Vietnam, no ifs, ands, or buts.
Why? They were running short on helicopter pilots. You see, it’s actually harder to learn to fly a helicopter than it is to fly a plane. The training period is longer. And Daddy was qualified to fly them. So he had to go.
But how would we manage without him? Easy (not): Jamie would get a driver’s license. And so I did. They had to jump through a lot of hoops to make this happen, including get permission from the governor of California (Ronald Reagan). My God, what a pain in the ass all that was.
“I would have turned thirteen in 1966, turned fourteen in May 1967,” I wrote. “I was already thirteen when they were working on the driver’s license thing. So it’s possible he went to Vietnam the fall of 1966 and returned in 1967.” It’s not a fact, yet, but we have somewhere to start.
She was wrong about the name, and I jotted down two other phrases in my notes, since I no longer trust my memory. Jolly Green Giants are helicopters. I looked them up, and continued my email: “I’m guessing he flew the 1959 version in Newfoundland* and the 1967 version in Vietnam. That photo I have of him (you’ve seen it on Facebook) with a rifle on his hip and a helicopter in the background, that’s a Jolly Green Giant.”
This image was not from his slides. Someone else took this photo and gave it to him; it did not come to light until after his death. It is one of my favorite photos. My dad hated guns, wouldn’t have anything to do with them. So in this photo it’s clear he is striking a pose, so to speak. You can tell by the grin on his face, which I know to be a sarcastic one.
I kept writing: “He flew others, of course. He flew the kind that had the bend in the middle and two rotors. And there’s that yellow one he’s climbing into down in Texas (where helicopter school was). Those photos are among the slides that Gerry scanned.”
Randolph AFB, San Antonio, TX
“When I was guessing a name, two came to mind: Flying Tigers and Air America,” I wrote. “But Flying Tigers were fighter planes/pilots, associated with WW2, and they were volunteers. This does not mean some part of that group’s ethic and name didn’t get revived in Vietnam.” I was googling and adding the links to the email, so Jill could look them up too. Flying Tigers are definitely mentioned in association with Vietnam, but I still didn’t think that was it.
In fact, I wasn’t sure that the name of his squadron had ever been told to me. It was classified, and Daddy was a by-the-book kinda guy. “I’ll come back to Air America,” I wrote, and then continued with what I knew:
I know he did different things in Vietnam, and I don’t know what during which. For one, I know he flew into the jungle at night and picked up downed US fighter pilots. (Like that movie BAT-21. Although I think those guys are Army. I could be wrong, however.) I know he was stationed, at least during one tour, in Udorn, Thailand. (And had a girlfriend there.) I know he transported Vietnamese women and children, whole huge helicopters-ful of them. That’s in the slides. 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 (never “war” for him) would never accrue to him in terms of a rank promotion or medals, because it was all top secret. And: HE HAD TO VOLUNTEER FOR IT. (For the missions. That he was in Vietnam wasn’t voluntary. He had to go.)
Still with me?
Next I googled Air America, and there it was, every bit of it, just as I remembered:
OK, Air America. Forget the goofy movie; not pertinent. Look at the Wikipedia intro: “Air America was an American passenger and cargo airline established in 1946 and covertly owned and operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 1950 to 1976. It supplied and supported covert operations in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.”
Now look over on the right-hand side on the Wikipedia page. One of the hubs was Udorn. (Pretty sure you pronounce this “oo-dorn,” not “you-dorn.”)
This hits all the bases: run by the CIA (thus top secret), operating out of Udorn, helicopters, Vietnam, downed pilots, refugees.
Reference this paragraph: “From 1962 to 1975, Air America inserted and extracted US personnel, provided logistical support to the Royal Lao Army, the Hmong Army under command of Royal Lao Army Major General Vang Pao and combatant Thai volunteer forces, transported refugees, and flew photo reconnaissance missions that provided intelligence on Viet Cong activities. Its civilian-marked craft were frequently used, under the control of the Seventh/Thirteenth Air Force, to launch search and rescue missions for US pilots downed throughout Southeast Asia. Air America pilots were the only known private US corporate employees to operate non-Federal Aviation Administration-certified military aircraft in a combat role.”
I would have to study a lot more—and it would probably involve a FOIA request—to even contemplate his status with the USAF during this time. It may still be classified. Lots of unusual things went on during that time in American history, but there wasn’t a breath of it in our home. Just “top secret.” I may have heard “CIA” mentioned. But “that’s all I know,” I wrote to my sister. “And it’s more than I thought I knew when I started writing this. Love you.”
Since I started writing this—and stirring up memories—I took a look through the digital copies of my father’s slides. I kept running across photos that had clues, so I’d set them aside. Twice, buildings with a sign on them: Special Operations Squadron. What did I tell you? This was not a USAF operation. It was … ahem … extracurricular. No US flag anywhere. And look at that uniform with literally no insignia. Rank, yes, very discreet. But nothing else. That’s significant, I think.
The buildings had an unusual sign, an illustration, that seemed vaguely familiar: guy on a horse, clearly a reference to the historical Pony Express. (To us, Pony Express = mail but these pilots were delivering people.) And sure enough, I have a collection of Daddy’s plaques and photos, and there it was on a you’re-leaving-us plaque: “21st Special Operation Squadron, “Pony Express” / Udorn Thailand / July 69 – February 70.” So question answered about the dates of the second tour. There it was in my dining room, for heaven’s sake.
• • •
When he returned that second time, he was a different person for about a year, sitting in the living room, all up in his own head. I was a junior in high school and just really glad he was home, after months of not getting along with my mother and no daddy to run interference, as he did. So I don’t know if he was treated for depression, though it’s clear to me now that he was depressed. We thought of him as being tough, in control, but when Gerry was scanning the slides, he found sad little comments (in Jim Clarke’s handwriting) on the cardboard sleeves of the photos taken in Vietnam. One stopped him cold, and he took a photo and sent it to me: “Sometimes I cry,” it read. Indeed, sometimes he cried in the living room of our house in Merced, which was a bit shocking to us kids.
Daddy and his kids, home after that second tour of duty. It’s all good. He survived. We survived.
* This really should be a Veterans’ Day post, but I’m not willing to wait that long.
** Those three years in Newfoundland are also another story for another time. But he made some of his longest-lasting friendships there, and gained a reputation as a badass, even though to hear him tell it, all they did is “drop hay for hungry moose and rescue pregnant Eskimos.” At his funeral his friends told me he always did the last inspection on the “bird” before they went out, and that he tightened bolts with his bare fingers. Hyperbole, no doubt. I also heard quite a few stories about drinking at the officers’ club, which may or may not have been hyperbole. 🙂
And this is the helicopter he flew in Newfoundland.