Vietnam War Stories

The North Vietnamese Army didn’t give up easily, and they continued pressing attacks against not just ground forces but against the air bases as well. In early March, they tried to attack Tuy Hoa and the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV) about five miles to the north, but the artillery shells fell short and caused only some anxious moments and frayed nerves. However, the next night as Arnold sat on alert, some Viet Cong worked their way into a village about two miles from the end of the runway at Tuy Hoa and the shootout resulted in a spectacular display of firepower that lit up the night sky and easily topped any fireworks show with all the tracers, smoke, explosions, and shrapnel flying around.

Emerald Knights Patch

308 TFS “Emerald Knights” Patch,
Arnold Ebneter Personal Collection

The Emerald Knights flew both the F-100D model and the two-seat F-100F model. Although the F-100F was used primarily for training, it was also used for combat on occasion. Since there were a limited number of pilots, the squadron schedulers would normally put one pilot in the F-100F when it was scheduled for a combat mission, and a non-pilot officer would often fly in the backseat to act as an observer. As observers, they helped spot targets and anti-aircraft artillery. It was good experience for the lawyers, supply officers, and other non-pilots and they could even receive an Air Medal if they flew enough missions. On one mission in early April, Arnold had a lawyer in his backseat for some action near Hue. Right before he rolled in to attack his target, he saw a long orange flame from the ground followed a split-second later by a barrage of sparkling blue tracers of anti-aircraft artillery streaking past the airplane.

A high-pitched squeal came from the back seat: “My God, they’re shooting at us!”

“I think we made them mad,” Arnold said as he dropped his bombs. Unnerved by the scene, the lawyer decided he didn’t covet an Air Medal enough to try flying again.

Despite the heavy ground fire, the F-100s were so speedy that the North Vietnamese rarely hit them. However, when they did get hit, the fragile airplanes often crashed. Fortunately, most pilots were able to eject, and even though Arnold’s squadron lost two airplanes while he was at Tuy Hoa, both pilots survived and were rescued by US forces. One shot-down pilot was flying a mission to support fighting at an air base near the Cambodian border and when he ejected, he landed on the runway below. Bullets and shells flying around him, the dazed pilot scrambled toward what he thought was friendly territory. As he neared a ditch, the outstretched hands of US soldiers pulled him to safety, and then handed him a rifle and told him to start shooting back. He complied.

Hitchhiking to Vietnam

As the Tet Offensive kicked off, the Air Force halted all flights to, from, and inside Vietnam not directly related to combat operations. Arnold was supposed to fly into Cam Rahn Bay once flights resumed, but the first flight available was a bright orange 707 to Tan Son Nut Air Base operated by an airliner on contract with the Air Force, so he took that instead. However, getting to Tan Son Nut was just half the battle. Tuy Hoa was in the middle of the country, and the Air Force had a regularly scheduled shuttle flight from Cam Rahn Bay to Tuy Hoa, but not from Tan Son Nut. When Arnold arrived, it was late afternoon, so he headed to the Visiting Officers Quarters to get some rest before tackling the next leg of his trek.

Anxious to get into the fight, Arnold walked back to Base Operations the next morning. He had no plan, but he figured that, given the small world of the US Air Force, he would work something out. He was right. As soon as he entered the operations building, he bumped into one of his pilot classmates from the Fairchild survival school.

“What the heck are you doing here?” asked the astonished pilot.

“I’m trying to get to Tuy Hoa.”

The other pilot was flying a C-123 “Provider” cargo airplane, but he wasn’t authorized to carry passengers. However, the C-123 pilot wasn’t about to let an ill-thought-out rule stand in the way of practicality, so he invented a reason to fly to Tuy Hoa along with a job for Arnold so he could fly on the airplane as a crewmember.

Arnold disembarked from his hitchhiking steed at Tuy Hoa a few hours later and checked in with his new squadron, the 308th Tactical Fighter Squadron. The squadron, part of the 31st Fighter Wing with motto Return with Honor,” was nicknamed the “Emerald Knights,” complete with bright green scarves and patches.

With the 308th in Vietnam

With the 308th in Vietnam, 1968
(Arnold Ebneter personal collection)

 

Heading Back to Vietnam

The Ebneter family landed in Phoenix in late July, 1967. Besides relearning to fly the F-100, Arnold’s highest priority was finding suitable housing for his family while he was gone. The obvious solution would have been to live at Luke AFB, but in those days families weren’t allowed on-base quarters if the military member was deployed. Luke was on the outskirts of Phoenix, and except for a retirement community, there wasn’t any suitable housing close to the base. Arnold found a three-bedroom rental house 30 minutes from the base in a quiet neighborhood. The house was just a few blocks away from Sajuaro Elementary School. He also took a trip to the local pound to get the family’s first dog, Princess, to act as a first line of defense while he was gone and couldn’t resist picking up a black-and-white kitten the girls dubbed Patrick.

At the end of December, Arnold received his orders to Vietnam. He was to report to Travis AFB in Northern California on January 24 and then head to the Philippines, where he would complete jungle survival school.

During the Christmas holiday, he tried to get his fill of Charlie before he left. He flew the airplane six times, including Christmas and New Year’s Eve. He also took the family for a ride on New Year’s Day, a family tradition. Charlie’s new home was at a tiny airport named Litchfield Park, located just south of Luke. The airport owner had a crop dusting business, and most of the airplanes on the field belonged to him. However, he must have had a soft spot for military pilots, because he allowed Arnold to hangar Charlie at the airport and even conducted a required inspection on the airplane at no cost to Arnold while he was in Vietnam. Although Colleen had her pilot’s license, she had not kept up her flying skills after the arrival of their third daughter, so Charlie was relegated to sit in a hangar for the duration, waiting patiently for his pilot to return.

Despite the flurry of flights in Charlie, the training to deploy to Vietnam was relentless and left little time for saying goodbye. After finishing his F-100 training on January 11, Arnold headed to Homestead AFB near Miami for a one-week sea survival school, which consisted largely of lounging around in a raft and trying not to drown while being dragged behind a boat.

Back in Phoenix, on January 23, Arnold and Colleen took their daughters out of school for a day. The family first headed to Litchfield Park for what would be their last flight together until October, and then to Sky Harbor airport, where Arnold boarded a commercial flight to San Francisco. He arrived at Clark AFB in the Philippines three days later.

On January 30, as he wrapped up his jungle training, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive, a major ground operation that turned the well-tuned Air Force rotation schedule into chaos.

Flight to the Yankees

During the spring of 1966 when we lived in Dayton, I became enchanted with baseball. My father sometimes watched sports on our black-and-white TV, and one afternoon he had tuned in a baseball game. I started paying attention and became transfixed by the action – the game was slow enough and the rules simple enough for a child to follow, but still exciting whenever someone managed to hit the ball. The Yankees were playing that day, so by default they became my favorite team.

The day before my birthday that summer was a Sunday, and the whole family would normally have gone to the airport to fly. However, instead my father took just my older sister and me. We both groused about it and wanted to stay home and play with our friends or watch TV. After flying for about two hours, we landed and my father said we were in Cleveland. My sister and I both protested this apparent change of plans and asked why.

“You’ll see,” my father said, as he hailed a taxi.

Five minutes later, we stood in front of the baseball stadium in Cleveland, and my father said, “We’re going to a baseball game.”

“We are? Who’s playing?”

“The Indians and the Yankees.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A live baseball game, with the Yankees no less. It would be impossible to ever top such a birthday. Our seats were in the nosebleed section but it didn’t matter – I was at a real baseball game.

The Yankees won, and although such stars as Mickey Mantle were on the team, the hero of the day was Clete Boyer, a journeyman third-baseman who hit a home run to drive in the winning runs. I was disappointed that Boyer’s homerun didn’t receive the booming torches set off when Cleveland hit a home run. I still had a lot to learn about baseball.

I flew so much when I was a kid that this is one of the few flights I actually remember!