A fighter jock song
notes on "Tchepone" were written as a handout for Professor
Guilmartin's course on the Vietnam War,
surprising thing is that soldiers have continued to sing, even after
the appearance of portable record players and tape recorders and even
in cultures such as ours where singing has come to be considered the
province of professional entertainers. Not much of the post-medieval
music, of war can be considered great, although Tchaikovsky's incorporation
of folk songs into "1812 Overture" -songs which were no doubt
sung around the campfire and on the march-scores a near miss and you
can make a case for certain of the songs of the Mexican Revolution (In
my opinion La Valentina makes the cut, but I'm biased). Still,
the songs favored by soldiers, sailors and combat aviators provide an
excellent gauge of their hopes and fears, aspirations, value systems
and senses of humor. In short, their music can tell us a great deal
adoption by the French paratroops in Indochina of Edith Piafs Je
ne Regrette Rein [I Don't Regret Anything] as their theme
song makes the point eloquently: a tragic song of remembrance of a lost
love, it captures the emotional essence of the paras'
......The song goes on to explain that the song's protagonist, an OV-10 forward air controller (FAC) met his fate while directing a strike by an entire flight of F-4s... against a single truck!
delivery, of course, was classic, but Piaf lived in Paris, not Indochina,
and here we are concerned mostly with lyrics and mostly with the American
phase of the war. The songs sung in the "hootch bars" and
officers' clubs were many and varied; they ranged from patriotic to
sentimental to salacious. Most were eminently forgettable-short-lived
parodies on thankfully-forgotten current favorites, well-known tunes
crudely shaped to even cruder commentaries on long-forgotten events.
A few, however, captured the mood and feelings of the time and place
with an eloquence that has stood the test of time.
who wrote, sung and listened to these songs were not insensitive or
illeducated. To the contrary, of all aggregations of fighting men since
the beginnings of organized, socially-sanctioned armed conflict, the
Americans who fought in Vietnam were perhaps the best educated. Even
the young "grunts" who took the bulk of the casualties, young
Army and Marine privates and corporals, were significantly better educated
than their forefathers who fought in World War II and Korea. The airmen
who fought the war in the skys over Vietnam and Laos were perhaps the
best educated ever; that was certainly true in terms of college credits
and you could make a case for a broader definition. They were not, on
the whole, particularly introspective though there were exceptions.
They were, however, well equipped to appreciate the irony and bitterness
of their circumstances. They were also attuned to political trends back
home and in Asia, and were well equipped to appreciate the operational
and political ironies of the war in which they fought.
also liked music. A lot of them spent what in those days were small
fortunes to purchase top-of-the-line Japanese stereo systems, and the
relatively junior Air Force and Navy officers who constituted the majority
of them didn't make all that much money. They probably spent more time
between missions listening to Bach, Beethoven and Duke Ellington than
to Chubby Checkers, Petula Clark, Hank Snow or the Beetles, but the
imbalance wasn't great and their musical tastes were catholic. Walking
between the officers' hootches on an Air Force base in Thailand or South
Vietnam of a Sunday afternoon you could catch the strains of Chad Mitchell,
The Easy Riders, Peter Paul and Mary or almost anything else you might
hear back home.
......They also rolled their own. Each squadron invariably had at least one guy who was handy with a guitar, or less commonly with a banjo, and who could be relied on to haul it out on demand. They sang, and they sang about the things that affected their lives in that, the longest and most difficult of American wars; they did so with an immediacy and direct, straight-from-the-shoulder honesty that could be gripping.
......One of the best of their songs was a ballad named Tchepone. It got its name from one of the most notoriously dangerous targets along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the aggregation of roads, waterways and paths by which the North Vietnamese moved men, material and munitions south into South Vietnam. In the beginning, Tchepone was a small and unassuming village in the southern panhandle of Laos, almost due east of Khe Sanh. By 1965, it marked a major complex of road junctions and transshipment points along the communist LOCs (lines of communication) running south from North Vietnam into Laos through Mu Gia Pass. By the 1966-67 dry monsoon, the North Vietnamese engineers had opened Ban Karai pass immediately north of Tchepone to truck traffic and it got worse. "Tchepone" was after the termination of Rolling Thunder, which made the place even more important to the flow of supplies from north to south than it had been before. The inexorable logic of geography and war dictated that American ainnen-and no doubt communist gunners and logisticians-would come to know Tchepone well.
words and tune of "Tchepone" are an unabashed steal from "Strawberry
Roan", a traditional western song about an out of work cowboy who
gets his comeuppance trying to break an unbreakable bronco. Unable to
turn down a challenge and needing the money offered by the horse's owner,
he starts out full of confidence and ends up flat on his back on the
ground after a spectacular trip through the air. Popularized by Marty
Robbins in the 1950s, the song is a classic, reflecting the cowboy's
values and sense of humor as he saw them himself.
the cowboy original, the fighter jock adaptation handles courage lightly
and humorously.. . almost apologetically. At the same time, the song
firmly, if indirectly, lays out the limits of compromise in the protagonist's
value system: if there is a challenge out there, he is prepared take
it... head on and ahead of anyone else, without bluster or braggadocio.
And if he fails? Well; then he failed. No feeble excuses. No limp rationalizations..,
and if there is someone else out there who can do better, bring him
on, and more power to him if he can hack it.
......There are points of departure in the transition from cowboy original to fighter jock adaptation: the cowboy knows he has a serious problem as soon as he sees the horse; the fighter pilot doesn't realize he's in trouble until it's too late. In the original, the bronco's owner plays it straight; in the adaptation, the slick-talking, smooth-operating colonel is either a consummate con-man, a self-aggrandizing ignoramus or a subtle blend of the two. The cowboy gets thrown; the fighter jock gets lucky.
was written by Toby Hughes, an F-4 pilot flying out of Cam Rahn Bay,
in 1968. He will be singing it, albeit many years later, in on the CD
you are about to hear. His rendition is powerful. That having been said,
the best version of "Tchepone" I have heard was cut by an
F-4 back seat pilot named Chip Dockrey at the stag bar at Udorn, Thailand,
in 1969. I got a tape from a friend, and learned Dockery's identity
from a mutual friend who was in his squadron at the time. The recording
was made under less than optimal conditions and it shows, but the original
equipment was good (Sony's or Otaki's best, though the recording conditions
were hardly ideal). The original reel-to-reel recordings, made under
"combat conditions," convey the flavor of the moment in a
way that later, more polished, recordings cannot, but I digress. Here,
you will be listening to a professional recording by the original song
writer/composer and Toby is good. Still, my Dockery cut reflects the
flavor of the air war in a way that later reconstructions, however authentic,
can never capture completely.
......For my own part, I learned about Tchepone as a rescue helicopter pilot flying out of Nakhon Phanom in 1965-66. I knew it for the superb camouflage and fire discipline of the gunners who defended the place. I gave it a wide berth when I could. The song tells it like it was.
......Here are the lyrics: