Catkiller Thomas Alegi Story, 1968:
My journey to Vietnam and the 220th R.A.C. was like many others that traveled before me. The shock of landing in a war zone hits you when you disembark the aircraft and begin your long journey northward to the unexpected. Many of us received our training at Fort Rucker, located in southeast Alabama. For those of us who were trained in the late Spring and Summer in that southern State, it was a prelude to the hot and humid weather we were about to be exposed to in Vietnam. However, when the doors to our aircraft opened and the sudden equalization of humidity and temperature took place, we knew we had arrived. I was eager to begin my new career as an aircraft mechanic—my MOS 67B20—and my credentials, after all, were to fix and repair O-1 Bird Dogs.
However, fate had a different plan for me when I finally arrived at 220 R.A.C. Company Headquarters in April of 1968. It is quite possible the recent Tet Offensive changed the landscape of how the base needed to be managed and protected in this timeframe, which may be why I and a few others were offered perimeter security assignments upon arriving at the 220th. For about 4 months I worked nights as the sergeant of the guard for Foxtrot sector of the perimeter at Phu Bai. Our perk for this assignment was an air conditioned room behind the day room, how good was that? However, first I had to call this bunker home for a few days until those accommodations were available.
I must admit the Company provided us with many of the comforts of home and we had a wonderful EM Club to unwind at after a long days work and we even had great entertainment from time to time. Life was good!!
My time on the perimeter was a great learning period of time for me. Out of all the men assigned to the Foxtrot sector of the perimeter who had higher rank than me, Lt. Long chose me to be the Sergeant of the guard. Lt. Long was a knowledgeable, fair and just officer that everyone respected and he could be funny at times. It’s sad Vietnam movies never portray officers like Lt. Long as the main character in a movie; Hollywood chooses to portray ineffective and nutty officers.
How did I feel at first on the perimeter? Not sure of myself and afraid, but the first time I came under fire on the perimeter as the sergeant of the guard those feelings of insecurity went away very quickly. I held my ground did my job as we all were trained to do in basic training. Fear is a great motivator and teacher, if you don't let it paralyze your thinking. I am not ashamed to say that when the mortar rounds stopped exploding that evening I had to change my underwear.
I learned a lot from all the men that came to the perimeter every night and I use what I learned from those men still in my life today. Harry Hall, Norman Lesser and Lester Lineberry were among the few individuals that played an important role in my Vietnam experience. When someone asks me today what college I went to I answer them by saying, The Vietnam University of War, class of 1968.
However, my stint as the sergeant of the guard for Foxtrot sector of the perimeter at Phu Bai only lasted for four months when Lieutenant Long was shipped home. I came back to the 220th to begin utilizing my maintenance training and was assigned flight line duty. My job was to pre-trip the aircraft and make sure that the pilot had no surprises when he arrived to perform his own inspection prior to a mission. One day, I was standing by my aircraft waiting for the pilot to take my aircraft on a mission. When out of the morning sun this young pilot, dressed as if his image could have been used on recruiting poster, said to me. “Son did you forget to salute me”, I said no sir! That's when he began quoting Army regulations to me. After hearing his words for 5 minutes we both started our inspection of the aircraft, which was mandatory before takeoff. We both pushed the aircraft out and he got into the aircraft and started it. I armed the rockets and waited for a moment before knocking on the door of the cockpit, which he opened, and I informed this young inexperienced pilot, “Sir, you may fly this aircraft, but remember I repair it!”
The next morning this same young inexperienced pilot brought me a 6 pack of Coca- Cola. I have to say after I put things into perspective for this new young inexperienced pilot; I don’t recall the pilot’s last name, it’s been so many years. His first name was James, and he turned out to be an OK person and funny at times and we became good friends. Sorry to say he is no longer with us.
I suppose I was a bit of a free spirit in my youth, which didn’t work out well for me back at Company Headquarters. The Company Commander decided that I needed a new opportunity and had me re-assigned to the 5th Special Forces near Nha Trang. My welcome there was a bit awkward and after a review of my prior experience at Foxtrot I was given three days of training to perfect my knife handling skills prior to being assigned field duty. I probably felt more like a fish out of water; here I am an aircraft mechanic by training, with only basic training fighting skills, and now I'm going to go on patrols with the Special Forces! I spent a lot of time trying to rationalize how my perimeter guard experience was going to prepare me for this new adventure, however, my new friends took me under their wing and made sure that I didn't get too far in over my head. One of the nice aspects of this assignment, as I perceived it at the time, was that we were allowed to wander into town and blow off steam when we wanted.
On one particular day, and after I over indulged in my favorite alcohol of choice, I found myself too inebriated for my own good. Shots rang out and before I knew what had happened a soldier crumpled into a pile next to me and I found myself buckling to the ground as well, having been shot in the knee. The sniper, who shot us, killed the young soldier standing next to me. I was taken to the local Army hospital where the doctors had decided that my knee was so badly damaged that it required my knee to be pinned. I kept thinking that I was too young to be crippled in this way; I refused to have my knee pinned so it would never bend again and I was eventually evacuated to Japan where the prognosis was the same. Not wanting to give in to these recommendations I was eventually returned to the United States and brought to the St. Albans Naval Hospital in New York. That is where I met the most skillful Doctor who advised me that I had in fact made the correct decision and he could save my knee. Nine months, and a thank you bottle of Scotch to the Doctor later, having fully recovered, I went back to work as a carpenter, repairing the docks up and down the Connecticut coast line.
I am married to my wonderful wife Elaine for 42 years; we have three children, my oldest son Thomas past away 14 years ago. Our three grandchildren take up much of our time seeing they live about 10 minutes from my wife and me. I volunteer at the West Haven, CT medical facility by being one of three Veteran Advisers on the Patient Centered Care committee. The majority of people on the PCC committee where not even born when I served in Vietnam, which makes for interesting times.
To all those young men I served with in Vietnam thank you for sharing the worst of times and the best of times with me, you will always have a special place in my heart.