It was the war that ended the draft. It was the war of 58,220 casualties. It was a war that most don’t like to discuss. It was a political war. It was the war that divided Americans and brought them together. It was war in every sense of the word, and this is one veteran’s story about the Vietnam War.
“I couldn’t forget it if I tried,” said Wayne Ault, a U.S. Air Force veteran. “It was like I spent a whole year or so holding my breath.”
Now, 72, Ault, who lives in O’Fallon, is an instructor of political science at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville. After his military service, he obtained a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University and a graduate degree and doctorate, all, in political science from Saint Louis University.
A native of Gilmer, Texas, Ault enlisted by choice on June 10, 1963 at the age of 18, Ault said he didn’t really know what he was getting himself into, but felt the urge to serve his country after finishing his first year of college.
“I was impatient. In those days they had the draft, and they didn’t have student loans or financial aid back then, and my dad grew up during the depression and didn’t graduate high school so he wasn’t able to send me off to college,” Ault said.
But that didn’t stop his father from leaving an impression of what it meant to be a hard worker. With money running thin, Ault said he was trying to save money so he could attend college for a second year, but there were many baby boomers looking for work and not enough jobs.
So he visited a local recruitment office.
“I knew I was facing the draft and I didn’t have any money. I had no idea that once you walk into that recruiter’s office, you cannot get out without enlisting. They had me signed up so fast I didn’t know what happened,” Ault said. “These guys could sell aluminum siding to people in brick homes — they were that good with a slick presentation.”
President Lyndon Johnson ordered the first combat troops into Vietnam in March 1965 when Da Nang Air Base was attacked.
I couldn’t forget it if I tried. It was like I spent a whole year or so holding my breath.
Wayne Ault, a U.S. Air Force veteran
Reporting for duty
Ault said he received his orders to report to Vietnam in April 1966. Arriving on June 2, 1966, he served with the 377 Combat Support Group at Tan San Nhut Air Base as a personnel specialist. He did things like manage and update personnel records and assisted with delivering supplies to Marine and Army bases.
“There’s a big difference in the way people were sent to war then compared to now,” he said. “You were sent as an individual and you were assigned to whatever outfit necessary. It didn’t matter where you were — and they’d say, ‘we don’t care if you’ve been here eight or nine months, if you have a year left, you got sent to Vietnam.”
He said he remembers the war was really starting to build up soon after his arrival.
“It was in the news everyday, and you didn’t know what to expect. I was 21 then and I had no clue of what to expect — and it sure isn’t like the movies, I’ll tell you that.”
The Air Force didn’t have enough planes to fly all of the troops over, which led to private airlines being used by the military.
To put that into perspective, Ault said, “I mean by 1968 there were 560,000 or so combat and support troops in Vietnam, and we only had maybe 13,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
According to Ault, 1965-68 were known as “the years of the big build up.” He said Tan San Nhut Air Base was the busiest in the world, formerly a civilian Vietnamese airport taken over by the Air Force.
“There were planes of every size and shape — helicopters, transport planes, fighter jets, and the Australians were there too with twin engines called Canberra. But there was something taking off about every 10 or 15 seconds, 24 hours a day. It was just constant, never ending the entire time I was there, it was unbelievable, and the worst plane to take off in so far as the amount of noise they make was the F-4 Phantom jet, the sound was deafening,” Ault said.
“I remember laying in my bunk in the middle of the night, and that thing would go off and all you could do is cringe, curl up in a ball and think, ‘Jesus, I hope this thing doesn’t crash or get shot down and kill me tonight,’” Ault said.
Because the base was shorthanded, Ault said, he had to put his pen and typewriter to rest to help the Army soldiers guard the perimeter with an M-16.
“The air bases did not have the security to protect itself. So the combat marines conducted search and destroy missions seeking out Vietcong or North Vietnamese troops and kill them without hesitation because our base was right outside of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital and they would sneak up, especially at night and throw grenades or mortars on us because we were a permanent target, which made us that much more vulnerable,” Ault said.
It didn’t become known until after the war was over, many years later that the Vietcong had a huge underground compound not far from Saigon, and during the war nobody ever knew it was there. The enemy would blow up buses, restaurants and theaters too, “so you were always on edge,” Ault said.
The Vietcong were south Vietnamese guerrilla fighters aiding the north Vietnamese forces.
“You go into a village, and you don’t know who the enemy is because they’re not wearing uniforms. They blend in with civilians, so you never know if somebody was going to try and shoot you or be friendly,” he said.
In the evenings Ault found refuge going into Saigon, hitchhiking, getting rides with officers or taking rides from a South Vietnamese motorcyclist. One night Ault and his buddy got into a taxi and told him Tan San Nhut, and he was going down streets they were not familiar with.
“So my buddy pulls out a knife and sticks it up against this guy’s neck and repeats Tan Son Nhut (forcefully), and so he did. It had been rumored that some of the Saigon taxi drivers were Vietcong, so we didn’t know if he was taking us somewhere to be shot. We always had to be on guard, and it’s hard to explain to people that you’re senses are heightened at such a degree that you can’t imagine — your sense of smell and hearing — you’re just ready for anything that could possibly happen,” Ault recalls.
You go into a village, and you don’t know who the enemy is because they’re not wearing uniforms. They blend in with civilians, so you never know if somebody was going to try and shoot you or be friendly.
Wayne Ault, a U.S. Air Force veteran
Fire in the hole
A plane circled the base at night, and if it detected movement flares would be thrown down outside the perimeter, Ault said.
“I don’t remember one night that whole year that there weren’t flares around the base because the VC were probing how to get into the base and blow something up or just launch a mortar attack, and there’s no ‘ready or not here we come’ warning. You could be doing your routine and bam they’d hit,” Ault said.
Explosions were commonplace on the base, according to Ault.
“Now we all worked all day, every day ’round the clock because we were short handed and at some point we were given swing shift rest periods, and I remember I had just got in bed and I started to hear the explosions just after midnight a few hundred yards away, and was in the top bunk in like a hut that didn’t have walls, it had slats and screening all the way around so you could see out,” he said.
The explosions were getting closer and closer.
Ault described it as “so surreal...I’m tired, and I keep thinking I can’t believe this is happening, it’s coming right at me.”
In another instant a mortar blows up outside Ault’s hut.
“The concussion throws me out of the bed and onto this concrete slab, and we were stunned,” Ault said.
There was a mortar shelter just outside the hut, but when Ault said he got there it was already packed with guys standing outside trying to get in.
“I remember yelling at them we need to find some place else to get to cover, and me and my (bunk mate) did the fastest 50-yard dash that could be run in combat boots that you’d ever seen and bee-lined over to the hanger where our steel desks were, which we were told could take a mortar hit, but I didn’t believe it, but we made it through, but so many others died that night,” Ault said.
Periodically, Ault recalls having to deliver supplies to the Army and Marine units in the thick of the Vietnamese jungle in C-123’s, large carrier planes with no seating and pallet tracks to make drops.
In order to avoid being shot down, Ault said it was imperative for the pilot to use alternative landing methods, like nose diving down because landing normally would be too slow and leave them exposed for enemy attacks. Ault worked with a soldier he grew very close to, Bob Ess, of Kincaid, Ill.
“One time just before take off, I pointed out to Ess, ‘look at these bullet holes and sheet metal patches,’” Ault said. “And, Ess would say, ‘whatever happens, happens.’ He had such an interesting insight at such a young age, and he was so perceptive, and we were together there mostly the same time.”
Ess returned stateside a few months before Ault, and he wrote him letters saying, ‘you just can’t believe how good it feels to be back, just wait, you’ll see.’”
“God, time went so slow. Guys had calendars and they’d mark the days off, but that was too slow for me, I would wait for a week and then mark seven days,” Ault said. “Everyday was like a week, and every week was like a month, and every month was like a year, and I remember after I had been there about five months, and thinking when you’re in a different country, a different culture, and it smells different, just like anything you’d every smelled before and because the tension is so high it’s just overwhelming and I began to feel I had been there all my life and one time I had visited the U.S. — that’s the way it felt.”
Bob Hope’s Christmas Show came to Ault’s base on Christmas Eve, and there were thousands who attended with piqued anticipation, he said.
“I got there hours early. It was a respite, and I remember he had Miss America and a famous dancer, singer and movie star Joey Heatherton perform too, and she did this dance in like a sequin top with a pull-away skirt, and so Bob Hope is like, ‘look at this. I just wanted to remind you what you’re fighting for boys,’ which is a line he’d been using since World War II and it was still funny, and it took our minds off the grit,” Ault said.
Everyday was like a week, and every week was like a month, and every month was like a year...
Wayne Ault, a U.S. Air Force veteran
Ault, who has a daughter and a son in Utah, has been teaching at SWIC since shortly after his return stateside in 1971 after being discharged in 1967 and finishing college.
“I was here about a year or two and reached out to Ess with a Christmas card, and I didn’t hear back. Then one day, it was after New Years, I got a call from his dad and he said, ‘we got your card. We know who you are. (long grief-stricken pause) And, he told me Ess got killed in a car accident,” Ault said with tears in his eyes.
He went on to say, “so, he had only been back a short while and was killed. I just couldn’t believe it. I was devastated. Like I say, life’s not fair, but it does strike you — how do you survive a year in Vietnam and come back only to be killed in a car accident?”
Despite the horrors and unspeakable memories, Ault said he’d do it again.
When people ask him why he does a section of foreign policy covering the Vietnam War in his political science course, Ault said, “I have 58,000 reasons why. People need to know, especially younger generations.”
Future generations need to know what happened, why it happened and how we as a people should learn from the mistakes of the past — only then will we be united with a sense of mutual pride, Ault emphasized.
“What good are mistakes if we can’t learn from them to be better,” Ault said.