Jim Burns Interview 1. Nakhon Phanom Air Base in Thailand – My First Tour in 1964.
Above Photo: Jim Burns at Nahkon Phanom air base, Thailand, 1964. (Jim Burns)
Jim Burns flew search and rescue helicopters with the 20th and 21st SOS Squadrons during the Vietnam War, frequently flying into Laos, North Vietnam and Cambodia under heavy fire to rescue shot-down airmen, or to insert and extract Special Forces units, some of whom were under intense attack by North Vietnamese forces during the “Secret Wars” in Laos and Cambodia.
In this first interview Jim talks about his time in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, in 1964, during the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and explains that North Vietnamese intelligence and propaganda networks were going strong even at such an early stage in the war.
Jim was interviewed by Peter Alan Lloyd as part of his research for BACK (see: http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-2/backpackers-meet-the-vietnam-war-back-screenplay-finally-finished/)
PAL: Your first Vietnam-related tour of duty was in 1964 when you spent a few months at Nakhon Phanom airbase (“NKP”) in Eastern Thailand, just across the Mekong river from Laos. How did you come to be sent there?
JB: I was an Airman First Class assigned to the 31st Air Rescue Squadron, Clark Air Base in the Philippines, as a HH-43B Helicopter Crew Chief/Flight Mechanic. I was called into the squadron commander’s office one day, to be informed of a classified mission which I had been recommended for. I told him I’d be happy to go.
He indicated that it would be approximately four months in length, but that was all he could tell me, except that I should be ready to leave for Saigon the next day where I would received a full briefing about the location and mission I was being sent on.
PAL: Why was the posting so classified?
JB: This was in the very early days of the Vietnam War and the “Secret War” going on in Laos. The United States had signed a treaty making Laos a ‘neutral’ country as had most of the other nations in Indochina. The U.S. had become secretly involved in fighting communist forces that were warring with the governments of Laos and the Republic of Vietnam and themselves using ‘neutral’ Laos as a base of operations, and as a route of access around the DMZ into South Vietnam.
In Saigon I was briefed that the unit I was being sent to, at NKP, was to provide Air Rescue support, if necessary, for the increasing number of reconnaissance flights U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy aircraft were carrying out over Laos and North Vietnam. The enemy forces were developing better air defenses and the U.S. did not want any U.S. aircrews taken prisoner to be used as propaganda about U.S. violations of the neutrality of Laos.
I also strongly suspect the Thai government didn’t want it known they were providing air bases for U.S. aircraft to use on missions in Laos and North Vietnam, at that stage in the war.
PAL: What particular specialist skills did you have at the time that saw you being posted to NKP?
JB: I was a fully qualified HH-43B “Husky” helicopter flight mechanic trained to work on and fly rescue missions. The three helicopters we had at NKP during my tour of duty had come from Air Rescue Detachments in Japan and Korea as had all the other helicopter guys. I was sent to NKP to augment the manning strength of the assigned flight crews with the unit who were qualified to fly air rescue missions.
PAL: When you arrived in NKP in 1964, what was it like on the base?
JB: When I first arrived, I immediately realized NKP was not the type of base I was used to. The runway and parking ramp were made of PSP (porous steel planking) which rattled and clanged as aircraft wheels rolled over it. I saw three HH-43B helicopters, three or four shacks, some fuel bladders scattered around the edge of the ramp, some large diesel generators, three or four trucks, an outhouse and about twenty GI’s – and that was it.
Each afternoon we’d leave the base and the three helicopters there to be guarded by two Thai guards who lived in a small shack near the “front gate”, with their wives and families, as we headed into the town of Nakhon Phanom to stay at a hotel.
We were put on a higher alert status on Aug. 2 (which was the day of the Gulf of Tonkin incident) but we didn’t know the reason for a couple of days. Even after that we’d still head back to the hotel for the evening, just like before, except that some of us now had to stay on the base at night to help guard our birds.
PAL: it’s interesting that NKP itself was so poorly secured at first. At the time was the Thai Communist insurgency in that part of the country not deemed to be a security risk to US assets in Thailand?
JB: I think up until the Gulf Of Tonkin Incident, there was little concern about the Thai Communist insurgency by the group I was with. Then when we were put on a higher security alert status on Aug. 2nd the possibility of insurgent attacks became a much greater concern. However we continued to live in town and commuted back and forth to the base each day, only leaving two or three guys to spend the night on the base.
When the ‘build up’ of the base began in mid August and more and more troops began arriving they all stayed on the base in tents and began to build hooches for more permanent living quarters.
There were also some U.S.A.F Security Police assigned and they took over the security of the base. The entire time I was there (Jun-Oct 1964) the original 20 or so of us helicopter guys stayed at the hotel in town, but I heard that just after I left in October, they were all required to move onto the base.
PAL: Did you meet many other Westerners in the town of Nakhon Phanom during your time there?
JB: Once we met some Dutch and English guys who worked for a Dutch road construction company who were building roads in Laos. The Pathet Lao (Communist insurgents) had got too close to where they were working and they had to be evacuated across the Mekong and into Thailand until things cooled down some in Laos.
Another time we met some Peace Corps American women in the centre of Nakhon Phanom. They were assigned as teachers in one of the schools in the town.
But mostly we didn’t get to meet other groups except military in town back then.
PAL: How was your relationship with the local Thais at the time?
JB: I think our relationship with the locals was great. Every time I had any dealings with Thais they were most helpful in any way they could. We were welcomed any place we went, including being invited to play basketball with local teams at one of the basketball courts in town. The local merchants and restaurants all seemed most welcoming and I’m sure were happy to have the extra business.
My experience living in NKP was one of the highlights of my 23 year old life at the time, and I still have fond memories of my time in NKP in 1964.
PAL: I have often wondered as I look over the fairly narrow stretch of the Mekong River from Thakhek in Laos to Nakhon Phanom, was there any risk or worry of Pathet Lao or Viet Cong sappers crossing the river by boat to attack the base?
JB: As I think back, I’m sure there must have been concern by the Thais as they had armed patrol boats on the river and they had a customs point at the river landing where the commercial boats from Thailand and Laos would shuttle back and forth.
However I don’t remember it being of a big concern to us other than we had been warned not to cross the river ourselves. I think after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, we were more concerned with the Vietnamese refugee groups living north of NKP.
PAL: Had that security situation changed by the time of your second tour in 1969?
JB: Yes, on my 1969-1970 tour at NKP a U.S. Air Force Security Police (SP’s) squadron was stationed there and the area around the perimeter of the base had been completely cleared. It was fenced with barbed wire and there were guard towers at several locations and guards were on duty and patrolled the perimeter 24 hours a day.
Also, one of the missions my squadron flew each night (at random times) was a ‘night rece’ (reconnaissance) flight where we would fly one of our CH-3E’s around the base and the surrounding area for two or three hours.
On board, besides our crew, we carried a couple of SP’s and they used a “Starlight Scope” (night vision scope) to scan for any intruders or suspicious activities going on around the base.
I do remember, while on ‘night rece’ missions, that we would often get reports of possible insurgents approaching the base and be sent to see if we could detect any activity, I don’t remember ever finding anything other than the local Thais living around the base out at night collecting rice bugs.
There had also been reports, at various time, of possible enemy helicopter activity by unlit helicopters crossing the river, and we would be sent to see if we could find any of them. The base radar would pick up some unknown air traffic and would vector us to the locations where they say they saw traffic.
We never found any enemy helicopters, but just in case we had found one, we had armed our helicopter with a large logging chain to use to try and down it with. The plan was to fly over the top of the enemy helicopter and drop the large logging chain down through its main rotor blades. Don’t know if that would have ever worked or not, but GI’s will come up with all sorts of creative ideas in wartime.
PAL: What were your duties? What did you do all day on the base?
JB: We kept two of the HH-43B’s on alert when missions were being flown by the fixed wing birds. These two helicopters had all the flight crews’ gear and all the gear needed to perform a rescue already loaded, along with our Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs) mounted on cords in the rear of the cabin.
The BAR was the only weapon we had other than our personal M-16’s and .38 cal. pistols. We weren’t authorized to have these BARs and when any of the higher ups dropped into NKP we’d remove and hide them, only to re-mount them again after they’d left.
Besides making sure we had the two alert birds ready to go, we would perform any maintenance or inspections needed on the other bird.
Everyone also tried to help make our situation better in any way they could, for example when we had a cook assigned after a few weeks of eating “C “ rations, we all chipped in and built him a ‘shack’ to use as a kitchen and helped him set up a complete field chow hall.
We didn’t have any running water on the base, so at times we’d catch a shower from rain water running off the tin roofs of our shacks during downpours. We eventually built an outdoor shower with raised 55 gal. drums on top of it. This worked well until we needed a bigger water tank, so we bought a large one in town and used the hoist on one of our helicopters to hover over and place it on top of the tower extension we’d built.
When we didn’t have any helicopter duties to perform or task to accomplish around the base we would play cards, write letters, read, nap, play with our tent monkey or whatever we could find to do to pass the time. We usually had a least one or two training flights each day to keep up our crew proficiency and that would occupy a few hours as well.
PAL: Were any other aircraft based at NKP at that time?
JB: There weren’t any other aircraft stationed there while I was on this assignment, but we did have a few aircraft stop by for visits and would also have the “Thuds” (F-105s) buzz us on their way back after missions over North Vietnam or Laos.
We had no control tower, and the “Thuds” liked to come at us without warning, low level, from all directions. They’d check in with the communications guys, but the communications guys wouldn’t tell us, as we worked out on the ramp, that they were coming. All of the sudden there would be “Thuds” coming from all four directions, right on the deck, at what seemed like 500 or 600 miles per hour, and scare the hell out of us.
One day, I was working on the rotor head of my helicopter and they came over and almost scared the pants off of me. Then they made another pass, and I saw them coming this time, with one of them coming up the runway and across the ramp pointed right at my helicopter. He was so low I thought he was going to hit me, causing me to jump off the top of the bird to the ramp.
He had to get some altitude to miss me, and as he “mush’ed” over me, trying to climb for altitude, the tail of the F-105 hit a tree at the south edge of the ramp and knocked a large limb through the roof of the new mess hall that was being constructed. He climbed on out and I guess he made it home o.k.
When the buildup of the base started, in early August, we began to get a lot of C-124, C-130 cargo planes and other aircraft bringing in equipment and more troops.
One C-124 landed long and ran off the runway and across a ditch, getting stuck in the mud and damaging two propellers and the landing gear.
That C-124 was still at NKP, awaiting repairs, when I left in Oct. 1964.
PAL: Who was mostly doing the flying, where, why and in what over Laos and Cambodia back then?
JB: Other than the Air America (CIA) operations, the U.S. Navy was flying reconnaissance, strike and support mission from U.S. Navy carriers in the South China Sea with RF-8’s, RA-5’s, F-4’s, A-1’s, A-3’s, A-4’s, P-2’s and other carrier aircraft and the U.S. Air Force was flying missions out of RVN and Thailand using F-100’s, RF-101’s, F-102’s F-105’s, AT-28’s, B-26’s, B-57’s, C-47’s, C-54’s, C-123’s, C-124’s, KB-50’s, HU-16’s, O-1’s and U-10’s.
PAL: Did you ever fly rescue missions into Laos or Cambodia back in 1964?
JB: No, we didn’t have any actual rescue missions while I was there on my 1964 TDY. I think the first one from NKP occurred 18-19 Nov. 1964, after I had departed for Clark AB.
PAL: I read that your presence in NKP, while being top secret everywhere else, was quite well known by the North Vietnamese in Hanoi at the time?
JB: Hanoi Hannah was an English language-speaking North Vietnamese radio presenter on Radio Hanoi, who broadcast programs aimed at American servicemen.
While I was at NKP, my wife back in Springfield, Missouri, was giving birth to our first baby, a girl, on Aug. 6, 1964.
On the 6th or 7th of August, a few of us were sitting out on the balcony of the hotel having a few beers and listing to Hanoi Hannah’s music (she played American music and broadcast news, although we didn’t consider her propaganda to be reliable news, we just liked her music).
After one of the songs, Hanoi Hannah came on and said, “We want to congratulate Airman First Class James W. Burns, at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, with the U.S. Air Force HH-43B helicopter unit, on the birth of your baby daughter. She was born on Aug. 6th, (she gave the exact weight and length and time of birth). Your wife Ann and the baby are doing fine”.
I nearly fell off the balcony. Of course we didn’t believe she could possibly have known all this and have been correct about all the details.
As it turned out, when I finally got a letter from my wife about two weeks later (all my mail had to be relayed to me from Clark AB), it turned out that Hanoi Hannah had it exactly correct, right down to the ounce and time of birth.
At the time I didn’t know what to think, except that the “Big Secret” that we were at NKP was sure out of the bag.
When and how did your time in NKP end in 1964?
JB: At the end of my assignment, I departed NKP to return to Clark AB in Oct. 1964.
By then, the buildup of NKP had already started with tents, buildings and different kinds of antenna going up around the base.
The next time I set foot on NKP was in February 1969 and what a shock it was to me to see a full sized base with people, buildings and aircraft everywhere in place of the jungle edged ramp and runway with three HH-43B helicopters that had been there when I departed in October 1964.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos during the Vietnam War, see:
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