My Life  As A Non-Combatant

Richard Franklin Bishop

© Copyright 2014 by Richard Franklin  Bishop  
My Military Life Series (Without Deadly Force)
Part One - Enjoying Asia
Part Three - My Life As A Non-Combatant
Part Four - A Mysterious Disappearance
Part Five - Controlling An English Disaster
                         (Of American Origin)
Part Six - Well, Major, What Do You Know?
Photo of a beer bottle on a table looking out to a Saigon street.

As I look back on my life, I find that I have been extremely lucky and, while fate certainly has been searching for me, it has never really looked far enough around the corner to "get" me. At the same time, my Military experiences pale in comparison to those Combat troops who were "really there" in America's conflicts. Because of my eyes, I was a non-flying Air Force Officer, and through no choice of my own, I was also a Non-combatant:

Non-combatant n. 1, a person in the armed forces whose duties do not include fighting. 2, a civilian in wartime (The New American Handy College Dictionary, SIGNET Books, 1976).

As I have told my Wife many times, maybe it's good that I was non-flying, as I would probably have been dead long ago from some aircraft accident!

That is not to say that I have had no body-contact. For sure, I've had my share of broken bones:

(1) In High School there was that matter of fending off a Football opponent with my left hand; resulting in a "green-stick fracture of my left wrist.
(2) In college, working nights, there was that matter of an electric hoist and a quarter-ton "I" beam falling from above which broke ½ of the bones in my lower right arm while missing my head and body by 20 or so inches. See my story: “Just Eighteen And The World Comes Crashing Down Around Your Ears.”  

(3) Then there was the stepping off of an 8" high curb in Germany while thinking it was only 3" high and running (while trying to gain back my balance) slam up against a building door and then sliding down onto a steel grating with my left knee. This resulted in a lump on my left temple and a completely broken knee-cap requiring two operations.
(4) Then, there was the unpacking of groceries on a stairs-landing at home, spinning about and falling down 5 steps to the front door. This resulted in a broken right upper arm and the inserting of a metal rod; requiring two operations instead of one.
(5) The latest was a fall in my basement caused by stumbling over an electric cord to the Dehumidifier. I landed full on my left side on the cold concrete floor - result - a dislocated left Shoulder and a broken left Hip (also two operations).

But these are typical "growing-pains" types of events which most everybody experiences in their lifetime, the more with the less.

Whenever I get in the presence of a real Combat Veteran, then I begin to feel really small about my own Military career. I'm not an Apologist, but I feel kind of like the Police Officer who, upon retirement, sheepishly admitted that in all his years of public service, he had never once unholstered and fired his Police Weapon while on Patrol; having solved all of Society's problems of the moment - without deadly force.

During this, the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, the Centennial of WW I and the 70th Anniversary of D-Day, the 6th of June 1944, I always want to shake the hand and thank the living Combat Veterans for their dedication in battle that has kept America free. I always especially want to pay tribute to and memorialize those who made the ultimate sacrifice and died to keep the Combat Veterans and the rest of us safe and sound.

Lucky "breaks" -- I have had many; getting Military assignments mostly out of harm's way. As it turned out, I was too young for WWII; being only 14 ½ years of age at War's end. During the Korean War, I was stationed in Germany. During the Taiwan emergency, I was stationed in Japan. During the Viet Nam War that dragged on and on for years, I was stationed in Thailand for only one year of it (1967/68) supporting the B-52's that were bombing Viet Namese targets. In the Gulf War and later Iraq and Afghanistan, I was long out of the Military.

Harm's way was no stranger to my family. My Father was in the U. S. Army during World War I as an Automatic-Rifleman. He was gassed "over-there," and received "The Purple Heart" for his injuries. As a Combat Veteran, he lived to the ripe old age of 86 and died, on Armistice Day (now called Veteran's Day), in 1984, when his heart just stopped. I have covered his life elsewhere in the story ELMER’S TUNE

In all our Wars, when the perimeter defendants at outposts faced the prospect of being overrun and reached for a weapon to defend themselves, it made no difference if the words “Farrier”, “Quartermaster”, “Cook”, or “Disaster Control” were tattooed on their forehead, the shots “fired-in-anger” at them were just as devastating as if they were real Combat Troops. They were all “at risk.” If the “overrunning” never happened, then well and good. They were “there” and had been ready. If they had never been in a Combat Zone, so much the better . . . . those I talked to who had been in a battle zone in our several Wars (including my Father) all agreed and said: “Just be damned glad if you missed all that !”

Despite my status as a REGULAR Officer, in all my 25 years in the Military, I still always felt like a Civilian dressed differently; a Citizen-Soldier, as it were, between World Wars (WW II and the even now continuing COLD WAR). My Base Commander at RAF Lakenheath in England, a full Colonel, greatly impressed me when he assumed Command of the Air Base Group; he introduced himself to all of us in the Base Theater with his snow-white hair and (with “salt-of-the-earth” understatement) said: “I’m just a Farm-boy from Iowa who made good in the Air Force.” 

My own safe and secure career moved on. Not without affecting other people. One time I was home in Michigan, on furlough, and my Father took me to his favorite Sunday morning hangout, a Drug-Store/Soda-Fountain where he always bought the Sunday paper and passed the time of day with the Owner and other customers, mostly of his own age. That Sunday, a person walked in, age about 45; was greeted as an acquaintance by my Father who instantly introduced me as his Son: "home on leave from the Military." Then, always THE QUESTION: “What rank are you” ? (I should have said: “just why do you wish to know”?) Instead, I said: "Major." He said "Oh, Shit !" and turned around and walked out. As far as I know, my Father never saw him again. The moral to the story: never ask a question if you can't stand the answer! He must have had a really bad experience somewhere in his past. He might have even been in the Military! Sorry, Pop! I didn't mean to drive off your chums. Aversion to Leprosy also comes in many forms.

Not all stressful hazards were avoided. While In Thailand in 1967/1968 at U-Tapao RTNS (Royal Thai Naval Station), my Boss, the Base Comptroller, a Lieutenant Colonel, decided that we should visit the Finance Office of our Headquarters in Saigon, Viet Nam. At the time, I was a newly promoted Major. He was able to convince the Base Commander that we should go and we obtained booking on a returning MATS "Embassy Flight" from Don Muang Airport, Bangkok, to Ton Son Nhut Air Base, Saigon.

While there, we were introduced to the early days of the Viet Nam War in a local way, which for them consisted of the knowledge that they were always surrounded by forces in conflict sashaying back and forth in the countryside, sometimes just outside the gates of the Ton Son Nhut Air Base. The South Viet Namese Forces were tasked to defend the Military facilities against the Viet Cong who were, at times, really close by and more than just a sporadic Terrorist threat. At times you could see the black smoke wafting over the fence at the end of the runway from those local conflicts; oft times close air support was called for and you could see the diving and strafing aircraft from the Base.

At the BAQ (Bachelor Officer's Quarters) we met all sorts of persons besides Air Force. One offered us some Mekong (Rice Wine, guaranteed not to be more than 30 days old), saying that "his nerves couldn't get along without it." I believe he had something to do with the Disaster Control Team which included "Perimeter Defense" of the Saigon Military Post; back in 1968 his biggest personal worry was being over-run at night by the Viet Cong Forces on some incursive salient (a very real threat).

The Finance Office was in a different area of Saigon than our On-Base Quarters and so we “checked-out” a Jeep from the Motor Pool. As Non-combatants, we were without sidearms and we felt that we were quite lucky when we did not experience any untoward events as we drove across town to the Finance Office and conducted our business.

[As an aside, let me digress and say that Accounting & Finance personnel do not always have it easy deciding whether or not to wear a weapon. Enclosed is an image from Wikipedia and it is representative of a concealable weapon that we often carried. It applies also to the previous story: TALLY HO – THE BOXes.  

I am including it here to show both the irony and the contrast of being classified as a Non-combatant during Wartime but still being "armed" for Military duty.  I'm guessing that the Military Police were (and still are) in the same ambiguous spot. When detailed for "Guard Duty" (protecting aircraft on the flight line) or "Outpost Duty" (protecting the stored Bombs in the "Bomb Dump") the Non-combatants were usually given weapons of "somewhat" greater range. This particular handgun is still currently being manufactured:

Photo of a pistol.

Smith & Wesson, Model 36, Small (J) Frame, .38 Special, with a cylinder of 5-rounds. Image: Wikipedia

Our regulations required us to be armed with a sidearm when making a bank deposit -- even when there was very little in our Money-bag. I was assigned to a U.S. Air Force Motion Picture Laboratory as their Accounting & Finance Officer operating a Disbursing Account with the U. S. Treasury Department. The actual Laboratory was located high in the Hollywood hills overlooking Sunset Boulevard. In carrying bank deposits through North Hollywood, California, to where the Bank was located in downtown Hollywood, we were in that predicament. I once asked an Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. who was serving with our unit while "getting-in" his Reserve Time: "I know you happen to be a Police Officer of the Los Angeles Police Department. How much money should we have in our Money-bag before we would pull our .38 Caliber Revolvers out of their holsters for a defense of government property with deadly force?" He said: "I wouldn't pull my gun unless there was at least a hundred thousand Dollars in cash in that bag!" Perhaps this was wise advice born of years of Armored Car deliveries, but it didn't help us much when we were in Uniform, armed, on the way to the bank, threading our way and side-stepping around pedestrian tourists in the crowded streets of Hollywood at Academy Award time with only $ 175.00 in checks in the bag!]

On the way back from the Finance Office in Saigon, it became very hairy. We could hear automatic-arms firing in the near distance and at that very moment, the Clutch went out on our Jeep. As we coasted to a stop at the side of the street, Military vehicles were zipping around us in and amongst the civilian traffic. What to do - call someone from the Motor Pool or what? In 1968, we had no "Handy" telephones. Flag down a Military vehicle to tell the Motor Pool to send out a Wrecker for a tow? We decided that would be just a waiting game with a long delay. So I said, you "blip" the throttle with the accelerator pedal and I'll shift the gears. (I knew from past experience that when the speed of the engine exactly matched the speed in the gearbox, you could change gears, without a Clutch).

And so like a lame duck, we crossed town - turning the heads of all within earshot with a horrendous gritting of gears, repeatedly - but effectively traveling to our destination on Post. Thanks be to God our stressful predicament was something we could cope with on the move and not something like a dead battery or a flat tire without a spare. After dropping the vehicle off at the Base Motor Pool, we were off to the BOQ and the next flight out to Bangkok.

We were just very lucky - we could leave Saigon. It wasn’t until 7 years later that the other 7,000 could get out during Operation Frequent Wind (the evacuation by helicopter of American civilians and ‘at-risk’ Vietnamese from Saigon, on 29–30 April 1975 in the last days of the Viet Nam War).

My Boss was happy to get us back safely. He was the pugilistic type (a feisty ex-boxer) and I'm sure he told his grandchildren: “I was there!” He just took me along for the ride, as the old saying goes: "as his good ole Partner for stealing horses!"

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