“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.

Good thing I didn’t waste time worrying about someone patting me on my back (where I had been injured) upon my return to Bong Son.

“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 recorder 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.

“Alright, get outta here and get back to work and be sure to take care of your wounds,”  he snapped sarcastically. This is what awaited me upon my return from the scare at the Stream.

I had noticed that Lt. Blankenship, after my reporting on the Ambush, was treating me differently and not in a good way. I could not fathom why. Now I felt it getting worse (like his condescending greeting above). Understandably, my morale was low.

Don Swan 2
Trained Killer: Swan dispatches his M-16 somewhere in the Binh Dinh Province, Vietnam in 1967. (U.S. Army PIO photo)

During this difficult period, little did I know someone was looking out for me. I would come to believe it was 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. He 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!

Don in front of sign
No Shock Jock: PFC Don Swan, standing in front of barricaded studio of AFVN AM & FM, An Khe, in 1967. (U.S. Army PIO photo)

I suspect the General had an aide call Major Witters, head of PIO, ask to speak with him presently or pronto with a return call. The difference in rank from major to a major-general is considerable.

I thrived at AFVN, An Khe. I dedicated songs to choppers pilots, artillery, engineers, infantry, men like the ones I had met in the field, 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, the 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. Most importantly, they were reminded of what awaited them “Back in the World.”

Swan on air at AFVN An Khe, in front of improvised control board in this very dark picture, (Swan archives)
A member of our PIO staff was an artist. (Swan archives)

Occasionally, I got fan mail from women who lived in nearby villages. One in particular asked me to play songs for GIs she’d met, I can only surmise, while they were in the village of An Khe, aka Sin City (probably when they were picking up their laundry). I didn’t dedicate the personal — “From Kim to Larsen and Knelly”— but I did play the songs she requested, doing my part for “Winning the hearts of minds of the people.”

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” and in some rare cases, grunts, after hearing “Goooooo-o-o-o-o-od Morning Vietnam” one too many times, promptly shut down their radio’s 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 US) 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 the life of a cameraman working with an NBC reporter he was hosting near Khe Sanh,* and Bagwell almost lost a foot in the engagement. 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 beyond. I hardly made any friends because I traveled so much. 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, Captain Coleman, and Master Sgt. Bradley. Others whose rank I don’t remember: 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.

Don newspaper article
Note my British Mk V .455 sidearm and skull (representing Guns-A-Go-Go) on soldier’s pocket. (Right) Dustoff attempts landing similar to the one at “Saved by Stream” near Bong Son.  (US Army 1st Cav PIO)

Songs than 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. I still had a long eight months remaining.

*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

  1. 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.


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