A "Naked Phanny" (Nakhon Phanom) Memoir

“Cannery Row, Again”
© MK Hemp 1993

David Walton

    The ragged roar of piston engines laboring skyward rattled through the trees: A-1 Skyraiders were Laos-bound again. Their departure, straining to lift several times their own weight in bombs off the end of the runway, made for a distinctive sound signature unique to Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base. The airstrip at NKP, in the northeast corner of Thailand, was only four thousand feet of asphalt hacked out of the tall jungle and couldn’t really be called an “air base.” Jets couldn’t operate from it: it wasn’t long enough for their take offs, although it was occasionally used for them to crash on if damaged over the Ho Chi Minh Trail on their bombing raids. But the searing, sticky asphalt strip was all that the squadrons of curious, pre-jet powered aircraft of Nakhon Phanom’s propeller powered air force needed.
    A squadron of A-26’s, arguably the best “truck killers” ever used against the North Vietnamese Army in Laos, was just being de-commissioned at the end of 1969. Nothing looked more time-warped than a World War II bomber on the pad, or lumbering gracefully into the air over the jungle, with modern Air Force OV-10 Bronco’s bouncing down the tarmac to take their place in the same take-off lineup.
    Three model versions, or “mod’s,” of Korean War vintage A-1 Skyraiders called the concrete and pierced steel planking of the airfield shoulder home. Before the end of the next year, two of NKP’s three A-1 squadrons—and all of the best “7-G” mods—were given to the South Vietnamese Air Force, who is said to have eventually crashed them all. The loss of the two attack squadrons left the remaining squadron of mixed A-1 “Sandys” for search and rescue and escort duty for Special Operations helicopter infil/exfil missions into Laos.
    A couple of ancient C-19 “Flying Boxcar” gunships soon followed the A-26’s. Nakhon Phanom’s rag-tag propellered air force was being sorted down to fewer but more recognizable aircraft, leaving the little “0-2” pusher-puller night FAC and the sleek twin turbo-prop OV-10 sharing the forward air control duties: 0-2’s at night, and OV-10’s primarily by day. The ubiquitous C-123 and C-130 turbo-prop cargo planes came and went around the clock. NKP’s “Jolly Greens,” the CH-3 helicopters used for rescue and special operations raids into Laos, drooped their rotor blades in the heat.
    All the “action” went on about sixty miles away, over the jagged karst mountain range visible above the flat plain to the east, across the broad Mekong River which flows between Thailand and Laos. Between the racket of take-offs, NKP was a sleepy, steaming, sweating, dusty, almost motionless picture of unlikely calm. But everyone on the base was somehow involved in the process of locating and destroying the unseen enemy over the karst mountains of Laos. Ironically, most days NKP simply lie there, almost idle, baking in the oppressive sub-tropical heat. The newly arrived and uninitiated were constantly making the curious adaptation to working through the night. Air supremeacy had never been a contest, so almost nothing moved in the Laotian daylight. But under the cover of darkness, enemy trucks rolled down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Laos from North Viet Nam in a complex shuttle system, and that’s when the base sprang to life and Nakhon Phanom went to work. Loading, arming, fueling, briefing, targeting, flying...and dying.

    Relief from the heat, and boredom, stress and homesickness were to be found at the “O Club” and the “NCO Club,” if you had the good fortune of some rank. If you didn’t, there was the tired old U.S.O. building provided the enlisted airmen and army grunts sentenced to NKP. Some of the morale support activities at the “O Club” in particular, were of the kind prohibited almost everywhere else in Southeast Asia. An attitude of elitism reserved for Special Operations permeated just about everything at NKP, a priveledge that absolved a great deal of conduct that would have resulted in big trouble with the top brass if conducted in Saigon, or other more civilized military installations, had it not been for a mission as “shit hot” as NKP’s. Nightly live entertainment at the O Club consisted of badly played and earnestly but comically mimicked Thai versions of popular “Lock and Loll,” augmented on weekends by an irregular assortment of Thai strippers. An occasional special appearance of a “round-eye” stripper on this less-than-underground circuit would result in a packed house. Cheap booze was also an inducement and bad manners were unfortunately too prevalent. But as the saying went, “What are they going to do, send me to NKP?”
    And then there was the U.S.O. And although as minimal as U.S.O.’s everywhere, something of “home” shown strangely though it. At NKP that was thanks to a tidy, gray haired dynamo by the name of David Walton. He was in fact the chief U.S.O. officer for the whole of Southeast Asia. He came and went on a highly irregular schedule, but he always seemed to show up just as you began to miss him, with a truck or plane load of stuff desparately needed by the homesick worker ants of the jungle war. It was said he had a secret army of “purveyors” all over Asia that managed to help turn up almost anything that was needed, and usually just as the morale situation was going critical. He was universally well liked and genuinely respected and, since he was a civilian, enjoyed the admiration if not outright envy of those on military assignment. He could leave.
    My last recollection of him at NKP is in his starched shirt and bow tie, greeting me on the concrete path between the officer’s hooches and the O Club. He was outbound for Udorn and then U Tapao, then Bangkok before Singapore. My tour ended before I ever saw him there again.

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