Thomas C. Utts
Captain, United States Air Force (Retired)
We All Come From Somewhere
The same year WWII started in Europe, I was born. Not sure if those two events
were related, but I was raised on Hollywood's view of military life. My father was
a truck driver who tired to join the Marines when the war stated, but a chronic bad
back made him 4F. For the rest of his life he operated a one-man towing business.
My younger brother was Bill, looking back I guess I was a pretty terrible older
brother. We didn't really resolve our relationship until it was nearly too late. We
were still in elementary school when our mother started working at the biggest
department story in town to help keep the family afloat. At age ten I got a newspaper
delivery route. My station was next to the Omaha World Herald building where I
developed a fascination for print.
When I was growing up, what I
liked most was reading. Fiction mostly.
I also liked
radio, and later TV, and the movies. Even in high school, my interest in reading and
continued to be nearly as strong as my interest in girls. Mostly I read hard boiled
mysteries of the hard boiled kind, Raymond Chandler & Dashiell Hammett. War war
novels, Mitchner's Bridges of Toko Ri, and Sayonara. Of course that included Leon
Uris' Battle Cry. So, when I was 18, I thought I was ready for action. With my best
friend Mac, I joined the Marines.
United States Marine Corps
1957-1959, 29 Palms Marine Corps Base, California
It was the Eisenhower era -- the
world was peaceful, the cold war was
in the deep freeze, Korea was a distant memory no one talked
about -- and no one I knew ever heard of a place called Vietnam.
But I didn't understand any of that at the time.
We joined on a 2-year program,
figuring we can always get more if
we like it. In Boot Camp I talked Mac into volunteering for Tanks.
I wanted to drive a tank and go overseas to be ready when the
Mac wanted to stay in the states, and
I was sent to the California
to the motor pool of a self-propelled 155 mm
Artillery Battery, (left) and got a jeep -- and
sometimes a big truck.
The only interesting part were
the field exercises. We loaded everything on trucks and jeeps,
drove into the desert to "camp out" while the guns took part in live fire exercises.
Those two years turned
out to be among the most
peaceful the world knew
in the 20th Century.
For me, the Marine
Corps turned out to be most mostly hot and dusty with lots
marching, raking sand to tidy up the barracks area, and swabbing floors every morning
and evening, a couple months on mess duty
(photo), living in crowded barracks in strict
regimentation for reasons that were never
explained, and being ordered about by
anyone who outranked me, which was
I felt like a mushroom -- kept in
and fed a lot of -- well, you know. Maybe it
was the time or the place, but the last thing
I expect from the Marines was to be bored
thing is, after two years, I knew
I didn't want anymore.
Back to Omaha
1959-1963, University of Nebraska at Omaha
I majored in journalism
because I wanted to be a writer. I enjoyed
college. When others, who came right from high school to the university,
whined and dropping out, all I had to do to stay motivated was think
about "29 Stumps."
As I neared graduation,
I was sure the war in Vietnam would get
bigger. So I figured if I went back in the military that was my chance
to write the great Vietnam war novel. But not in the military military.
Having visited an Air Force Base when I was a Marine, I figured I
knew a better way.
1963, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, Officers Training School (OTS)
I was accepted for Air Force
Officers Training School. The only
small problem was,
instead of the public affairs career field I requested, the Air Force said I was being
assigned to the aircraft maintenance officer career field.
What?? Don't worry my recruiter told me,
In OTS some of the officer candidates
is way too much regimentation and military BS.
Nothing makes you appreciate about to be an
officer in the Air Force like having been a private
in the Marine Corps.
I was commissioned on December 20, 1993. Now, who
do I see to get my career field changed?
1964, Chanute Air
Force Base, Illinois
Aircraft Maintenance Officer Training
What was it my Air Force recruiter said, "Don't worry,
However, once I got to OTS, they
said the recruiter
was wrong. You're gonna be an aircraft maintenance
officer. "Sorry 'bot that."
Seems nobody comes in the
Air Force with a degree in
Aircraft Maintenance. So along with my journalism degree,
there are guys with majors in History, English, Poly Sci,
etc., all wondering what the hey they're doing there.
The course is eight months long, classes on God only
knows. Mostly it seems we learn bureaucracy -- which
is, I suppose, as legitimate as anything else in a ground-bound officer's life.
Air Force Base, California
"Hey, Ma, look, I fixed that." Well, not
Think about it, two military services,
to go overseas, and I'm still in the California
desert. Come on!
At least I'm
with a fighter outfit, the 8th
Tactical Fighter Wing that flies the
USAF's new F4 Phantom. Here I was
on the flight line, something that made
my NCOs very nervous.
What really galls me is going
to meetings to study how cold weather will affect
our new fighters. That's because the word from on high is that we're going to be
assigned to a forward operating base in Alaska.
COLD WEATHER? ALASKA? MY ASS!
Read the flucking newspaper! I'm just
a new lieutenant, but I know we're
going to the war.
How come no one else seems to know?
The next year, 1966, sure enough,
the wing is ordered to
Ubon Air Base in Thailand to fly combat air support in
Vietnam. Who wants to go? Me -- I'm gonna write the
great American Vietnam war novel -- so SEND ME!
Hey, your orders just came
Huh? That's where I wanted to go when I was a Marine.
Now I want to go to Southeast Asia.
Sorry about that.
PACAF, The Pacific Air Force
1966-1969, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa
Okay, this is not bad, and Okinawa
is one busy, exciting place.
The island is not that big, but a million people live here. And
over a hundred thousand of them are American military. Army,
Navy, Marines, and of course us Air Force guys. Still, I hope to
get transferred to Information (later the name changed to Public
I'm in the 18th
Tactical Fighter Wing, flying the F-105
largest single-seat, single-engine fighter aircraft ever built. They call 'em
Thuds, that's for the sound all that metal makes when it hits the ground.
Now you may wonder what does a
maintenance office do. Does he fix
my job is management, which means signing papers, going to meetings, etc., etc.
That way my senior NCOs, the real maintenance pros, can concentrating on keeping
the Thuds flying. There they are, getting a Thud and the pilot ready to take off.
Kadena is an exciting assignment.
Most of the pilots have already flow combat in
Vietnam. The wing provides planes and people to the F-105 Wing at Korat Air Base
in Thailand. The pace is hectic, and you're close enough to the war to feel the heat.
But it ain't being there.
thing, I volunteer for TDY (temporary
duty) to Korat.
Finally, "Yeah, we got one for you." Thailand? "No." Vietnam? "No." Where? "Korea."
KOREA! That was the last war.
Yes, except America still has 50,000 GIs there to keep that one from starting up again.
And since all the combat aircraft went to Southeast Asia, we have to send some Thuds
to Osan Air Base to support the Army train.
"Oh, yeah. Thanks a lot."
Hey, you'll like it, Korea is the best kept secret in the Air Force.
And it is, but that's another
story. It is in my novel: KOREA
BLUE Click on the link
to find out how to get a copy.
During my tour on Okinawa, I made
numerous TDYs to Taiwan and Japan as well as
Korea. But not to Vietnam or Thailand. I also got to ride in the back seats of both
the Thud and and F-100. Plus, I was promoted to Captain.
Then the biggest event in my maintenance officer life happens in
Here I am (photo)
thinking this time I'm really gonna get some.
I was in the first support group that followed the fighters. At
first we believe we're there to get the ship and crew back. However,
a stalemate developed as the North Koreans torment the crew and
the Americans back home for the next year, and the whole thing
turns into a waiting game.
can go now."
After four months, I returned
to Kadena. Short now, my tour is almost over. But
wanted to go to the war.
So I did it my way. My only brother
Bill never wanted any part of the military
Vietnam. Naturally, despite all his efforts, after college, he was sucked into the Army.
His feet hardly touched the ground before he was in Vietnam as a combat infantry soldier.
I finagled my way to Vietnam to visit him. He was in the Americal Division stationed
in the central highlands. But that's another story, and it doesn't have a happy ending.
A month after seeing Bill, I set
off for a new assignment and a new job. The Air Force
finally figured out why all those airplanes kept falling out of the sky, and decided it was
a wise idea to let go to the Military Public Affairs Officers Training Course.
1969-1970, Luke Air Force Base, Arizona
After three months in PAO school,
I became the Chief of Public Affairs for an
Air Defense Headquarters at Luke. It was a 3-story, reinforced concrete building,
nearly as big as a football field. With no windows.
It's really just a huge computer that monitors military
air traffic for the entire southwestern US. Now this
computer was designed in the 50s, before transistor
chips, so it had millions of vacuum tubes. Which had to
be air conditioned. Therefore that building was just about
the best place to be if you're in Arizona.
Finally, I'm writing stories,
taking pictures and in charge of a monthly unit newsletter.
The work I've alwayswanted to do. Of course the officer-in-charge is supposed to
manage and let the NCOs and airmen do that other stuff. But why should they
have all the fun?
My job takes me to Hamilton Air Force Base in Marin County,
where I discover California wine, to Colorado Springs for a
conference, and to San Diego to cover a new radar at a site on top
of Mt. Laguna. The boss is atwo-star general who likes my work
and treats me like one of his chosen few.
I guess I had it too good. Career
was on an upward track, and I
even got a medal for excellent job performance. So, naturally, I
volunteer the second time for an assignment to Southeast Asia.
Hey, we got your orders.
1970-1971, Suwon Air Base Korea
I can't believe it -- I'm
back in Korea because all
the assignments in Vietnam
and Thailand were filled.
Well, sure I like it. And I'm
the Chief of Public Affairs
for Suwon Air Base. Of
course Suwon is only 500
GIs on a Korean base.
My staff is one sergeant.
The unit has just five F-102
interceptors, that fly air defense missions. My office was in a quonset hut (photo) shared
with other shops. Sounds crowded, but it was all done by me, two sergeants and two airmen.
I improved the newspaper,
better design, better quality printing
process, cut way back on the
command garbage, and put in cartoons and fun features. Soon, instead of most copies ending up
up in the trash a few hours after it comes
At first I was disappointed that I didn't get
assigned to Osan, the big base, an hour
south of Suwon. But I soon realize that
instead of being one of many officers in a
big shop, it is a lot more satisfying to be
the top dog even if it's a small kennel.
Here I have one foot in South
Korea (photo) and one foot in North Korea.
is the building at Panmunjom where the the two sides meet for the never-ending
talks to not end the war. The table
where they sit facing each other
straddles the dividing line between
the two countries. The photo was
taken during a special services tour
when there aren't any meetings going
on. We could walk around inside the
building and cross into North Korea.
But don't step across that line
outside -- or you'll be in deep kimchee.
It is a mostly positive assignment.
The Air Force commander at Osan awards the Air Force
Commendation Medal for my work. However, my personal relationship with the Suwon
commander has gone steadily downhill and I get dinged in the final days for my off-duty lifestyle.
Despite that, I'm still
focused on getting to the war, which any
fool can tell won't last much
longer. So, rather than worry about my career, I volunteered for Southeast Asia for the third time.
Sorry, got all the volunteers
we need for Southeast Asia. But there is this
one job you might be interested in . . .
1971-1973, Clark Air Force Base, Philippines
How does this keep happening?
Now I'm in a place
that makes Korea seem
overpriced convent. Which considering my personal proclivities, is not a good career move.
But it sure is beautiful here. Out beyond the main gate
Mount Arayat towers majestically
over Clark Air Base. No it's not the onethat blew up and closed the place -- that was Pinatubo
on the opposite side of the base.
Clark is like falling through the looking
glass into the arms of the Mad Hatter.
The Vietnam war is a lost cause swirling
down the crapper. That brought reductions
to the U.S. Pacific base with those in
Thailand and Taiwan eventually closing.
My main problem was I really hate my job.
I was a headquarters weenie in the 13th Air
Force Public Affairs Office. All management
mumble peg and paper shuffling ad'nausium.
There were few chances to exercise my
strengths, writing and photography. On the
plus side, there was a conference in Bangkok, followed by visit to the air bases in Thailand.
Participated in a couple of major news events. A record
rainfall in 1972 when More
than 60 inches swamp Clark turning it into an island for several months. The surrounding
countryside was devastated. Clark ran a huge relief effort delivering food to the locals
with helicopters. Still, my headquarters malaise wouldn't go away, and I was totally at
odds with the office higher ups.
Then, in 1973, the most
interesting event of my career took place after America declared
victory in Vietnam and agreed to leave if the North Vietnam would release the U.S. POWs.
In February, Operation Homecoming, the return
got underway. As the closest base, Clark was the
reception point for returnees after they left Hanoi.
Homecoming became the biggest media event in
my career. I spent two months working in a huge
Press Center along with more than a hundred
members of the national and international news
media who covered the story.
When America rallied
to cheer the returnees, it
turned into the most positive news story of the
entire war. I shared in the credit.
Unfortunately, when it is over,
my lack of attention
to career building, my less than desired team-playing
attitude, and habitsthat didn't rate well with USAF
promotions boards, my career was in the dumper.
The Ride Gets Bumpy
1973-1974, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas
My next assignment was to the
base Public Affairs Shop at the Air Training Command
Headquarters. My shop put out the base newspaper and wrote press releases. I made
sure I got to write an occasional story and take a few pictures. It's was a challenging
assignment, and I thought I was doing good work.
But it was too late to save my Air Force bacon.
First, I was
passed over for promotion.
Then, at the beginning of 1974 I got word
I was being RIFed (Reduction in Force).
The military way of saying, you're fired
I was seven years short of retirement.
Damn, am I depressed!
At first I figured life
as I knew it is over. Then I start look for a loophole.
if you don't give up, there's always a loophole.
First off, I knew that since I
had more than 10 years as a commissioned
officer, I could reenlist,
but it would be as an NCO. Once I completed 20 years service, I could retire at the highest grade
held. In my case Captain.
Okay, seven years isn't the end of the world. But I sure don't want to stay in Texas.
Then I trip over a secondloophole.
The personnel people told me I would be separated, but then
I had three months to present myself to the Air Force personnel office at "any" Air Force and
and would automatically be reenlisted as a staff sergeant.
Did they say "ANY"???
Welcome to Paradise, Sergeant
1974-1979, Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii
How can you not love this place?
Without a doubt, especially if you're a Far East
Freak, Honolulu is the BEST assignment in the world. It's like I've come home,
even thought I've never been here before, except to pass through.
They stuck me in the Public Affairs Shop in the Hickam HQ building (left) working on
the base newspaper. Not too shabby. I was taking pictures, writing stories, generally
getting to do whatever the hell I felt like. The work took me out of the office and on
my own quite a bit (photo). As a riffed officer, the higher ups feel sorry for me and the
enlisted guys are a bit wary, and not sure how to treat me. Still, the adjustment to a
the 50 percent pay cut grated a bit.
Nine months later, the North Vietnamesewere
closing in on Saigon and the war was
over. Clark was to be the mainevacuation points for the pullout. And they need PA people to
work in a press center. It's like a mini-rerun of Homecoming.
Just over the horizon, in
time to witness the final agony.
To see the bedraggled press,
disheartened embassy staff, and hordes of Vietnamese refugees slide through. Thirteen years,
in the Air Force duringAmerican's longest war in, and I've always been on the sidelines.
Damn, that's depressing. However
seeing a lot of "old friends" and some new ones back at
Clark was sweet consolation.
After I return to Honolulu, I'm
still in love with paradise, but the job got a bit tiresome. Then
a sergeant, a PA in another unit, came to our office asking, "Anybody here want to trade jobs?"
Seems he's a oneman PA shop for the Pacific
Communications Area (PCA), a headquarters
group for USAF comm and air traffic control
units. He had an officer boss, but the Air Force
cut the officer's slot so now the NCO is on his
own -- and he doesn't like it.
First I say, no thanks, headquarters
is a drag.
Yeah, he says, you're right, "but what I really
hate is all that TDY."
All that TDY!
Seems he's required to make staff
visits to every Air Force base in the
Pacific a couple times
each year. Two weeks later, I'm the new PA Chief at PCA.
In addition to TDY, the other
thing they do in PCA is play
of golf. Every Wednesday
afternoon. Now, I'm not a golfer, but I'm also not the sort who thinks he should be stuck
in the office when all the hob-nobbers and
One reason the job is so good
I'm the only PA guy in the headquarters.
My boss is the personnel officer. He
doesn't bothers me ifno one bothers him
about me. As long as I get an occasional
picture of the general, and a few stories
on the troops doing the work in the newspapers, I get to live in Paradise
and write my own ticket when I feel the need to travel.
And that ticket had numerous stops in Okinawa,
Japan, Korea (below -- left), the Philippines
Guam. I divided my staff assistance visits into two sections. The northern Pacific, which included
Okinawa, Korea and Japan. And the southern Pacific, the Philippines and Guam. No sense
stressing out. I made the runs about three times a year for the next four years. For some
reason it always took longer in Korea and the Philippines than other places.
The most interesting TDY was in my last year, 1979. The big yearly exercise held in Korea
Off duty, at home in my high-rise apartment,
Talk about falling
in a bucket of you-know-
what and coming up with a rosein your teeth.
But even the Air Force demands payback sooner or later.
No One Rides For Free
1979-1981, Scott Air Force Base, Ill.
Eventually you always pay. Five
years in Honolulu in the best job in the world.
Go directlyto a corn field the middle of nowhere for two years.
Well, okay, Bellville, Ill. isn't
really nowhere. Just feels like it.
Only smaller -- a lotsmaller. Another HQ assignment. AFCS is the the higher
headquarters for PCA in Hawaii. But at least there is a command newspaper,
and they make me theassistant editor. Good work, and as much as I hate the
place, I got some great TDY trips.
All right! I take 30-daysleave
and do it. Wonderful time. In addition to the
Weisbaden area, Ivisit Nurnberg, Frankfort, Amsterdam,Paris, Naples and Rome.
And I would of had some great pictures if my camera didn't crap out when I was on
top of the Eiffel Tower. When I got back I had less than a year to go.
So all in all it was a rough two years. But the end was near.
Time For That Sunset Ride
My twenty years of active duty end October 31, 1981. The Air Force is required
to sent me to my place of enlistment (Omaha) or to the location of my choosing.
Aloha!!! Send me back to Paradise.
On the way, I pull one last run
from my bag. With 60-days leave on the books,
after the Air Force sends my stuff to Honolulu, I took terminal leave starting
the last day of August.
So, in a way, I really only served 19 years and 10 months.
travel, I flew back to Europe for a couple weeks and
knocked around a while, then returned to Scott to picked up my almost-new
280 ZX -- my retirement present to myself. Then I'm off to San Francisco, visiting
old friends along the way. In San Francisco, the Air Force shipped my car to Honolulu.
But this run isn't over. I sign up for space-A and fly to Korea. After dallying awhile,
I'm on to Clark, more dallying. And finally, when
The next day I picked up up my car, then went
to get a new (blue) Retired ID card. When it was ready,
the NCO at the counter handed it to me, and said, "Is
there anything else I can do for you, Captain?"
I smiled, and said, "Thanks, sergeant, you just did."
This photo was taken at the 23rd floor of the condo
moved into for the next two years. It had a panoramic
view of Honolulu and Waikiki. The next two years were
bachelor paradise. And when I get bored, with Hawaii,
I space-Aed to my favorite playgrounds. I was also into
jogging 5 miles a day and my weight got down to the
lowest since I was a teenager.
After a while I even went to work, as a copy editor
the Honolulu Advertiser. In 1982, I hooked up with a
former lady friend. A year later I moved to San Diego
and got married, the 3rd time -- but that's another story.
I suppose I might have done it
differently. But for me, if you weren't in the
fighting, to my way of thinking being in the U.S. military should be like one of
those Hollywood movies, the ones they use to call "a wacky service comedy."
And of course it was
also about getting out of Omaha to
see the world.
So I guess I achieved pretty much what I had in mind.
Since coming to San Diego, I eared
an MA in Television and Film at San Diego
State University in 1987. I did finally write my Vietnam war novel. But since I
was never stationed in Vietnam it takes place in my first favorite place, Osan
Air Base in Korea. If you're interested check out KOREA BLUE published
by Signet Books in 1991.
No matter, for a middle class lad from Omaha, it was one hell of a ride!