OF THE AIR FORCE IN THE VIETNAM WAR
15 April 1996, Lydia Fish
following paper, which is very much a work in progress, was read
at the symposium After the Cold War: Reassessing Vietnam
in Lubbock in April 1996. Slightly different versions were read
at the meetings of the American Folklore Society in Pittsburgh in
October 1996 and the Popular Culture Association in San Antonio
in March 1997. I am now in process of revising the paper for publication.
Because of the usual twenty-minute time constraints of a reading paper,
there were several subjects that I was not able to pursue. In the
revised version I plan to:
(A) describe more fully the circumstances under which these songs were composed, performed and collected.
attempt to differentiate between the singer/songwriter material
and "the songs we all sang."
songs of the Air Force in the Vietnam War are part of a long tradition
of military folksong. They are closely linked to the mainstream of
American folksong, to the folksongs of other services, and to the
folksongs of earlier wars. However, they also have some characteristics
that set them off from the songs of civilians and of other military
personnel who served in the Vietnam War.1 Some of these
are related to the temperament of the men who created and sung them;
others probably are related to the nature of the war itself.
The young officers who flew in the Vietnam war had attended college during the folksong revival of the late fifties and early sixties and many had been members of performing groups in college. Some even brought their guitars along to Southeast Asia. Bull Durham, a fine country music performer as well as a career officer, had already recorded an album of SAC songs before his tour. Almost every Air Force pilot owned copies of the Korean War-era recordings of Air Force songs (The Wild Blue Yonder, 1959, and Out of the Blue, n.d.) that Oscar Brand made for Electra Records and these strongly influenced the Vietnam War tradition.
American pilots in World War I sang mostly British and French songs,
just as they flew British and French aircraft. (Getz, 1986: 2) In
World War II, also, there was a strong link between the British and
American traditions of pilots' songs. Robin Olds, who arrived in England
in May of 1944, writes of the RAF pilots:
Many of these songs, suitably updated, survived into the Vietnam War: "Give Me Operations," "Throw a Nickel on the Grass, Save a Fighter Pilot's Ass," "The Co-Pilot's Lament," "There Are No Fighter Pilots Down in Hell," and "The Air Corps Lament" ("The Force is Shot to Hell"). It was during the Korean War, according to Robin Olds, that they were matched by songs of strictly American origin (Getz, 1986: 2), many of which remained popular with Vietnam War aviators: "Call Out the Goddamn Reserves," "Itazuke Tower," and two marvelous variations on the boy-meets-exotic-girl theme, "Lee's Hoochie" and "Cigareets and Sake and Wild, Wild Josans." It was also during the Korean War that a certain element of black humor first became noticeable in Air Force Songs, to a degree, Getz argues, not found in World War I or World War II songs: "the satiric, sometimes bitter, sometimes callous words that tell of the innocents of war." (Getz 1981: 5) "It Was Sad When my Napalm Went Down" and "As We Came Around and Tried to Get Some More" were still sung in the Vietnam War.
are often shared among the services. "I Don't Want to Be a Soldier,"
a World War I parody of a song from The Passing Show of 1914,
a revue at the London Hippodrome, turned up in Army and Marine Aviation
as well as Air Force tradition in the Vietnam War. "Fuck 'Em All,"
the anthem of the British fighting man since World War I, probably
originated in the Royal Naval Air Force. It was current among British,
Commonwealth and American troops in the Pacific Theater in World War
II and was updated to "Tiptanks and Tailpipes: in the Korean War.
(The "cleaned up" version of the song, "Bless 'Em All," copyrighted
in 1940 and made popular by Grace Fields, has only served, in the
words of Ed Cray, to teach civilians the proper tune for the many
improper verses that circulate. (Cray: 389) "Stand to your Glasses"
supposedly originated in the British Army in India during a cholera
attack. "Saigon Warrior," "Saigon Commando," "Here's to Old Da Nang"
and "Here's to Old Udorn" are variants of an Australian and New Zealand
Army song from World War I, "The Lousy Lance Corporal." The song turns
up in Army and Air Force tradition, as well as among Australian troops,
in the Vietnam War. Texts of Air Force songs such as "Throw a Nickel
on the Grass," "Dear Ma'am, Your Son Is Dead," and "Strafe the Town"
are found in the songbooks of Marine aviators. Randy Cunningham reports
that the text of Toby Hughes' "Tchepone" was posted in the ready room
on his ship. (Cunningham: 3)
In 1970 Major John Roberts, who served with the 557th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Cam Ranh Bay in 1969 and later transferred to the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Korat, put together a narrated tape of Air Force songs that he had collected during his tour. In his introduction he states:
According to Les Cleveland:
songs of the Air Force are unusual in military folklore in that they
display little of the concern with the negotiation of power that is
often present in the songs of the other services. Although there is
plenty of grumbling and opposition in Air Force songs, they do not
express the sense of powerlessness that is often found in the songs
of conscripted troops. As one of my fighter pilot friends put it,
"In general we regard our SEA experiences from the perspective of
badly-managed warriors rather than victims." (Letter to LMF, 9 Feburary
1993) Many of the songs of the Air Force in the Vietnam War are sharply
critical of bombing policies, the rules of engagement, and the brass
in general. "Our Leaders," which appears to have originated among
Thud drivers at Takhli in the early years of the war, and expresses
their contempt for Air Force leadership and Secretary of Defense Robert
McNamara, is a fine example. Later in the war Dave Wilson, who was
flying F-100s at Phu Cat with the Sioux City Air National Guard, wrote
a delightfully cynical song about the joys of bombing trees in I Corps.
Air Force songs are typical of occupational folklore in their concern
with technology and their use of esoteric language. Les Cleveland
large number of the Air Force songs from the Vietnam War are about
airplanes: "The Thunder Thud," "If You Fly," "The Inventory," "Give
Me Operations," "My Darling F-4," "Puff, the Magic Dragon," "Republic's
Ultra Hog," "Skoshi Tiger," "Extracamouflagalistic Super Constellation,"
and "Whispering Death." The songs complain about the shortcomings
of planes, describe their idiosyncracies, compare one plane favorably
to all others, or discuss the technique of flying them. Very few Air
Force songs are written from the point of view of the ground personnel,
but there is one song in the Project archives, about an F-4 that never
returned, that was written by Richard M. Tsuda, CMSgt, while he was
working as a dispatcher in Maintenance Control at Tan Son Nhut Air
Base in 1967. He writes:
These songs were sung at formal dinners, at raucous hundred-mission parties, in O-club bars, and in hooches. Thanks to the ubiquitous duplicating machines, songsheets and songbooks could be printed and passed out for group singing. The ambitious collector of Dirty Ditties had his songbook printed professionally by the Dragon Gate Stationery and Printing Company in Taipei. Excellent tape recorders were available on R and R trips to Bangkok and Hongkong, so concerts and informal song sessions could be recorded, copied and passed from one base to another. The Vietnam War produced a number of talented Air Force singers and songwriters, so many new songs were added to ones passed on from earlier wars. The black humor found in some Korean War songs persisted, producing such songs as "Chocolate-Covered Napalm." Other songs reflect the peculiar circumstances of what Bill Getz has described as "the most difficult war that any American soldier, sailor or airman has ever had to fight." But with a few exceptions, he says, "the selections in the Vietnam War songbooks are the same funny, profane and thoughtful songs of past wars." (Getz, 1991: 5) Thanks to an informal tape network, these songs spread fast. Toby Hughes wrote three songs while he was stationed at Cam Ranh Bay in 1968 and made a tape for the members of his squadron before he left. The tape beat him back to the states--when he walked into the casual bar at his first stateside assignment he was greeted by his own voice singing "Tchepone." (Interview with Toby Hughes by Lydia Fish, 1 June 1991)
Joe Tuso has pointed out, a certain atmosphere, a certain kind of
person, and sufficient leisure time were necessary for these songs
to have been written. At some bases, he writes, songs were doubtless
composed and sung in the confines of a lonely room in the early morning
hours after a mission--such songs were probably not meant for the
public and, except for rare instances, will never be sung again. But
at other bases like Phu Cat and Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam and
Korat, Ubon and Udorn in Thailand, songs locally composed and sung
were often central to the flyers' social life and were sung, copied,
and taped over and over again. (Tuso: 15) Dick Jonas, of the 433rd
Tactical Fighter Squadron at Ubon, was the most prolific songwriter
of the war and his songs circulated widely, both in informal recordings
made during his tour and in commercial recordings made after his return
to the United States. Frank Walsh, J. J. Smith, and Irving Levine,
of the 553rd Reconnaissance Wing and 399th Tactical Fighter Wing at
Korat, compiled a wonderful tape of Thud and EC-121R songs recorded
during an informal song session and at Levine's one hundred mission
party. Gene Deatrick recorded the songs of Ron Barker at Bien Hoa.
Draper and Hunt, of the 355th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Tuy Hoa,
wrote six fine songs and sang them in harmony on a tape that turns
up again and again. Dave Wilson, stationed at Phu Cat with the Sioux
City Air National Guard, recorded eight songs, mostly of his own composition,
but including a superb version of "Call Out the Goddamn Reserves."
Tony McPeak, later chief of staff of the Air Force, was also at Phu
Cat and wrote two FAC songs: "VC Blues" and "Phu Cat Star." A third
singer from Tuy Hoa, Pete J. McGaddis, recorded one original song
and a version of "Saigon Girls." Toby Hughes wrote three songs at
Cam Ranh Bay, including "Tchepone," the best-known of all the songs
of the in-country air war. There is a whole series of songs written
from the point of view of the truck drivers on the Ho Chi Minh Trail,
including four by Chip Dockery. Al Tischner, Fred Wozniak, Dave Post
and Dave Biermeyer, members of the 11th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron
at Udorn, recorded six songs and collected them on a narrated tape
after Fred Wozniak was shot down. The Covey FACS produced two excellent
singer-songwriters, Fred Clark and Skip Franklin. An anonymous group
of Air Rescue pilots at Da Nang recorded 21 songs.
These tapes also contain other material: recitations, skits, poems,
and cockpit recordings. The most famous of the skits is "What the
Captain Means," "recorded when a civilian correspondent interviewed
a shy unassuming Air Force Phantom jet fighter pilot. So the correspondent
wouldn't misconstrue the pilot's replies, the Wing Information Officer
was on hand as a monitor to make certain that the real Air Force story
would be told." This classic of the Air War was written by Lt. Col.
Joe Kent, who was at that time serving as the Information Officer
for the Twelfth Tactical Fighter Wing at Cam Ranh Bay. It was recorded
in August or September 1967, with Kent playing the part of the Wing
Information Officer, Colonel Travis McNeil playing the part of the
captain, and "a major from PACAF" playing the part of the correspondent.
(Interview with General Travis McNeil by Lydia Fish, 8 May 1992) "What
the Captain Means circulated among pilots during the remainder of
the war; I have received copies from twenty or more sources. Several
introductions have been added at different times and there is also
a Sandy version, possibly from Da Nang, another A-1 version from the
633rd Special Operations Wing at Pleiku, and a Connie version from
Korat. Another famous skit is "Sharkbait 21," also from Cam Ranh Bay,
a fake cockpit tape about a mission during which the fighters manage
to shoot down their forward air controller. There are two charming
monologs, one about a truck driver on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and one
about a ZPU gunner, by a Misty FAC whom I have not been able to identify.
Two real cockpit tapes which were widely circulated are "Detroit Lead"
and "Strobe Eleven." "Detroit Lead" is usually identified as a tape
of a F-105 shootdown and has even been used in pilot instruction as
an example of the dangers of over-confidence. (Interview with Toby
Hughes by Lydia Fish, 1 June 1991) The episode occurred in December
1966 during a mission by the 333rd Tactical Fighter Squadron from
Takhli. Detroit flight, the third flight into the target area, was
out of position and got strung out. Detroit Lead became separated
from his flight and thought he had extensive battle damage, but landed
unscathed at Udorn. (Bell, 124-130) "Strobe Eleven" is a tape of the
episode in which General Worley, at that time Vice Commander of the
Seventh Air Force, was hit by ground fire while flying a night reconnaissance
mission in an RF-4C. The back seater ejected, but the general did
not. (Letter from Lee Dixon to Lydia Fish, 2 December 1994)
Many of these tapes are simply personal collections--men copied songs or entire tapes from a friend's collection, or recorded a concert or party. Other tapes are carefully edited and narrated and are presented as esoteric oral histories. A copy of the tape that J. J. Smith, Irving Levine and Frank Walsh put together at Korat was sent to General Ryan, Commander of the Seventh Air Force. The tape that Dave Tischner edited and narrated may have been intended as a memorial to Fred Wozniak, who was shot down on 17 January 1967, two nights after recording "Foggy Night, No Moonlight." Mark Berent, the author of Steel Tiger and Rolling Thunder, edited and narrated a tape that included a lot of standard material as well as some fine songs from the 531st Tactical Fighter Squadron and the Mike Force troops at Bien Hoa. A copy of John Roberts' tape, presented as a musical tour of the air war, wound up in the tape library at Udorn, where it was copied by numerous pilots.
consciousness of these songs as an integral part of Air Force history
was best expressed by William Wallrich in the introduction to his
Air Force Airs, an excellent collection of Air Force songs
from World War I through Korea. He writes:
For a discussion of the songs of Americans who served in the military
or as civilians in Southeast Asia see Lydia Fish, "General Edward
G. Lansdale and the Folksongs of Americans in the Vietnam War," Journal
of American Folklore 102, no. 406 (October-December, 1989) 390-411.
2. The songs mentioned in this paper are from the tape and songbook collections in the archives of the Vietnam Veterans Oral History and Folklore Project. The Project is seeking additional material; if you have tapes or songbooks that you are willing to contribute, please contact us at the address below. Open reel and cassette tapes will be copied and your original tapes returned to you along with digitally enhanced studio copies. If you prefer not to send original songbooks, we shall be delighted to reimburse you for copying costs.
of the singers mentioned in this paper--Chip Dockery, Bull Durham,
Toby Hughes, and Dick Jonas--are working closely with the Project.
We are still searching for the others. If you know the whereabouts
of any of the singers mentioned in this paper, or of any other Air
Force singer or songwriter, please contact us!
Kenneth H. 100 Missions North. Washington: Brassey's (US),
Legend, Memory and the Great War in the Air. Published for the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992.
Robbins, Christopher. The Ravens. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1987.
Joseph F. Singing the Vietnam Blues: Songs of the U.S. Air Force
in Vietnam. College Station: Texas A and M Press, 1990.