“I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.” Newly inaugurated President Lyndon Johnson, November 24, 1963.
It must have been 100 degrees. It was weeping humidity, a steam bath with no turn-off valve upon my return to Bong Son. My butt was chafing, and it was about to get worse with an unexpected ass-chewing, especially surprising since I was naively expecting a welcome back. Good thing I didn’t waste time worrying about someone patting me on my back (where I had been injured).
“I don’t know what kind of shit you pulled in An Khe, but I’m still your boss. Did you get the interview?” Lt. Blankenship greeted me upon my return to Bong Son.
“Yes, but my tape recorded was KIA, sir, though I may have saved somebody’s life,” I answered. He countered, “Yeah, yeah, ok, so you didn’t get the story, and you destroyed government property. Is that about right, Swan?” I didn’t answer.
“Aright, get outta here and get back to work and be sure to take career of your wounds,” he snapped sarcastically.
After my reporting on the Ambush, I noticed that Lt. Blankenship was treating me differently and not in a good way. I could not fathom why. Now it was getting worse (like the condensing greeting above). Understandably, my morale was low.
Little did I know that I had an advocate who would who would help me during this challenging period. I would find it to be none other than the two-star general who happened to run the 1st Cavalry.
I had the occasion to interact with Maj. Gen. John Norton, not long after, my lieutenant had dressed me down. He was giving his last interview as commanding general with a reporter where I was present hosting the newsman.
He remembered me from the field where he presented the Silver Star to Hagemeister shortly after the Ambush (Chapter 17) when I interviewed him. The General seemed sincere when he asked me how everything was going. I stuttered with my response without anything specific. I believed he sensed something was amiss.
Within a couple of weeks, I was promoted to Spc. 4 and called back to Camp Radcliff with a new assignment. I was to be a DJ on the recently reactivated AFVN in An Khe!
I suspect the General had an aide call Major Witters, head of PIO, and ask to speak with him presently or pronto with a return call. The difference in rank from a major to a major general is considerable.
I thrived at AFVN, An Khe. I dedicated songs to choppers pilots, artillery, engineers, infantry, and men like the ones I had met in the field, the soldiers who were doing the real work.
Of course, men who were in the shit would not be listening to AFVN. But in the field, somehow, the troopers found a way to listen to the hits emanating from An Khe.
There were reports from GIs in the field; their transistor radio was second only to their M-16. Chopper and other pilots could pick up my broadcasts on their FM frequencies.
It was good for morale; songs they had listened to with their wives and sweethearts like (You’re) My Soul and Inspiration by the Righteous Brothers, When A Man Loves a Woman by Percy Sledge, and Cherish by the Association. But, most importantly, they were reminded of what awaited them “Back in the World.”
There were no Arbitron ratings in the combat zone. But among the 25,000 or so GIs who had access to my show, it was estimated (tongue in cheek) that I had almost as many listeners as Hanoi Hannah.
As for the over-hyped “Good Morning Vietnam” thing made famous in a movie of the same name by the late Robin Williams, many GIs detested the “greeting.” In some rare cases, grunts after hearing “Goooooo-o-o-o-o-od Morning Vietnam” one too many times, promptly shut down their radios courtesy of an M-16. Obviously, these men found no “Good” in their morning and didn’t need some smug DJ sitting in the comfort of an air-conditioned studio in Saigon telling them it was.
As for our little station in An Khe, my only real friend in Vietnam, John Bagwell (1st Cav PIO), was enthusiastic about our operation and did many things to improve it. He got current hit records and some oldies sent to us from Seattle’s KJR rock station. And unbelievably, by just writing a few letters, he convinced a popular production company (in the U.S.) into recording professional jingles for 1330 AM & FM AFVN, An Khe (valued at $2,000 in 1967 money).
He was a true radio guy and did a lot for the station and made our operation better for the troops we served. Late in his tour, he saved a cameraman’s life working with an NBC reporter he was hosting near Khe Sanh,* and Bagwell almost lost a foot in the engagement and nearly became a POW like three of his fellow AFVN members. (Go figure, the only real friend I had In-Country was almost captured and nearly killed).
He received the Bronze Star for Valor and Purple Heart. “John, I will never forget you and the good you did in Vietnam. You never got the credit you deserved for your deeds in An Khe and other efforts. I hardly made any friends because I traveled so much. But, with so few, thank goodness, I had a friend in you.”
Although I didn’t get to know many of the men — remembering what my 1st Sgt. said about not making too many friends — here are some who were with PIO, An Khe: Maj. Witters, Capt. Coleman and Master Sgt. Bradley. Others whose ranks I don’t remember: are Larsen, Grizzle, Knelly, Basile, Ferrel, McGrath, and Jim Pruitt. (Not sure of all spelling.)
I was proud to be recognized for my efforts at PIO and AFVN, An Khe. Here’s a clipping that ran in the 1st Cav’s official newspaper in 1967, The Cavalier.
Songs that stand out from my time as a DJ in Vietnam are Happy Together by The Turtles, Strawberry Fields Forever by the Beatles, 96 Tears by ? and The Mystreians, and naturally, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place by the Animals.
Although I had an easier job now (and no interference from Blankenship), I was anxious to get home to Marty. Unfortunately, I still had a long eight months remaining. I used to pinch myself—yeah, I’m really in Vietnam.
*I was back in the states when I received a letter from Bagwell, who was still in Vietnam, telling me that my replacement was killed shortly after their move to Khe Sanh (I had missed Khe Sanh and Tet by just a couple of weeks).
One thought on “Chapter 19: AFVN, An Khe”
I particularly like this chapter. Probably due to the insight that you gave with your description of your involvement on the front line, the friends you made during this time and, of course, the photos of you in army fatigues. You look in good physical condition and the rations must have agreed with you. In high school you were often the first in the lunchroom and the last to leave.
I imagined that your role in Vietnam was mostly behind the lines and did not involve much risk but I see that was not the case.