John Bollwerk has flown over a good chunk of the globe, but for years, the U.S. Air Force veteran from O’Fallon was never allowed to talk about it. The classified nature of most of his missions forbade it.
But today, 50 years after he returned home from Southeast Asia, the top secret wars — both hot and cold — in which he fought are part of the nation’s acknowledged past, and roles of men like Bollwerk can now occupy their rightful place on the mantel of history.
“Being in the military taught me responsibility, commitment and sense of self in the world,” Bollwerk said.
After graduating from Saint Louis University in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Bollwerk joined the Air Force. He would earn his wings later that year, at age 24.
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Winston Churchill once said something like, ‘The greatest adrenaline rush is to get shot at and missed,’ and he was right.
John Bollwerk of O’Fallon, U.S. Air Force veteran
His first station was in the state of Georgia, where he flew a C-124, nicknamed “Old Shakey” due to its large size.
“They were very big transport planes that made a car look tiny,” Bollwerk recalled.
Bollwerk was part of the 7th Logistical Support Squadron, one of three Air Force units with the same top-secret mission.
“Our primary job was to transport nuclear weapons wherever they were needed... That was our job — to just haul ‘em around. We supported the nuclear testing in the Pacific in the early 1960s, when that was going on. It was a fun job — high stress, but fun.” Bollwerk said.
But due to his cargo, he could not even share the nature of his missions with his wife, Barbara.
“We’d get a call and would be gone anywhere from 10 days to two or three weeks, and I couldn’t tell a soul about it,” he said.
After flying C-124s for four years, Bollwerk was reassigned to Lajes Field in the Azores, the Portuguese-owned islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where he served a two-year stint. Then, like many men of his generation, Bollwerk was called to fight against the Communist incursion in Vietnam.
“The Secret War”
Bollwerk arrived Vietnam in 1967 to serve as a forward air controller (FAC), flying the O-2A Cessna Skymaster, spotting for potential targets.
“FACs had a whole lot of difficult missions and area of operations. The one I was assigned to were primarily Laos, North Vietnam and occasional flights into South Vietnam,” he said. “We specifically had to look for truck convoys moving troops or supplies for the North Vietnamese, who were infiltrating the South, or for the guerrillas in the South.”
But he would soon be back in theater in Southeast Asia — only this time could know about the part of the war he would be waging. He was assigned to the 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron.
“I went to Thailand to fly over Laos and over the North. Not too many people know about the war in Laos that accompanied the Vietnamese conflict, but it was called ‘The Secret War,’ ” he said. “I couldn’t talk about it with anyone — other than those in the unit — because we really weren’t supposed to be there. It was one of those deals. We just didn’t exist.”
His main area of operation, over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, was about a 45-minute flight from the Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai air base, where he was stationed.
“It was all bad-guy territory — Indian country. From the time we crossed the Mekong River that borders Thailand until we returned to base, we were in bad-guy country, and that river was like four minutes after take off. Most of the time I flew solo, but our night missions we flew with two people,” Bollwerk said.
They would hunt for truck convoys and anti-aircraft guns. But those same guns were hunting them, too.
“Especially at night, the trail was heavily armed with AAA. And when they’d be shooting, it actually looked very picturesque, because it would look like a hose spraying water in the air, but it was red tracers,” Bollwerk said.
When Bollwerk or his co-pilot would spot a target, they would signal fighters plane, which would be orbiting nearby. But these were not the modern, missile-packing F-4 Phantom fighter/bombers being used by the regular Air Force in the front-page war. The fighter pilots of the Secret War flew propeller-driven, World War II-vintage aircraft. While far from being state-of-the-art, they got the job done, Bollwerk said.
“We’d pop a flare, and they would bomb ‘em, and do whatever they needed to do. Then, we would go in and count how many they got,” Bollwerk said.
Then, it was the gantlet run back home.
“Winston Churchill once said something like, ‘The greatest adrenaline rush is to get shot at and missed,’ and he was right,” Bollwerk said. “When we were on our way back and we crossed that river, we knew we would be safe for at least the night.”
Bollwerk, who stayed in the Air Force after the war and worked in computer programming, ended up flying 264 combat missions, including 977 hours in the air over Vietnam.
He is happy that he can now share his bird’s eye view of the conflict that once divided the nation. Some of his recollections have been archived as now part of “Cleared Hot: Forward Air Controller Stories from the Vietnam War,” a compilation of stories from Air Force and forward air controller members who served in Southeast Asia from 1961-75.
“Unequivocally, being a FAC was the best flying job I ever had. I really loved it. It meant something, so much I almost signed up for another tour in the war,” Bollwerk said.
Being in the military taught me responsibility, commitment and sense of self in the world.
John Bollwerk of O’Fallon, U.S. Air Force veteran
But those feelings of pride in his own service are not all of the story. Those sentiments are part of a larger web — one that is also tangled with feelings disappointment in both the war’s prosecution and the country’s treatment of its returning veterans of the time.
“Politics took precedence over winning, which is not good, so I have mixed emotions still. All that garbage that was going on about the war back home... I didn’t have any trouble at all, which was very much the opposite of what most guys went through,” Bollwerk said.
But despite all of that, Bollwerk said he would do it all again — “in a heartbeat.” And he is glad the country has changed its tune when it comes to the treatment of veterans.
“I’m really, really happy to see the better reception of today’s soldiers coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq. They deserve it. And more power to them. They do a great job,” he said.
Robyn L. Kirsch: 618-239-2690, @BND_RobynKirsch