The War begins for me

John Norvell F4 Backseat

The following excerpts are from  letters that were written to my wife and others during the Vietnam War, while I was stationed in Thailand. Because of the nature of the events, the letters seldom told the entire story to loved ones.  Some things were best left unsaid.  In some instances, I have added to the story to make events clearer than they were in the letters.13th TFS patch

After a year of training in the F4 aircraft, I arrived in the Philippines enroute to SEA.   The story picks up there.

18 May 1973: We don’t start Jungle Survival School until next monday. . . . The Philippines are hot and humid and rather dreary.  It is an unbelievable world, with many shacks right outside the main gate and people always hasseling you to buy things.   A common cry is “hey sarge,” it doesn’t matter what your rank is.  We were in civilian clothes off base as the country is under martial law.   Picked up a set of wings and some other things.  I am told not to buy much here as there will be a ton of things in Thailand when I get to Ubon, especially gold.  Lots of GIs stock up on jewelry.

20 May 1973: The base (Clark) basks in a lazy atmosphere perhaps heightened by the heavy, humid, hot air that seems to overhang everything.  It is an old army post going back to the Spanish American war era with a large green parade field surrounded by officer’s bungalows.  It reminds me of the British presence in India before WWII, very colonial.  The O Club has the same feel, as if Gunga Din were going to wait on you any minute.  If you put down your glass for a second, a waiter swoops in and refills it.  As we got here the Friday before Snake School, we have had a leisurely period to re-adjust to the time change.  We literally were on planes for 24 hours flying from the US to the Philippines, I think we stopped in Guam and Japan enroute.  I am not looking forward to and will be glad to get finished with “Snake School.” The temperature here yesterday was 98 with about equal humidity. 1

Clark Air Base

24 May 1973: I returned from my trek in the jungle to discover that my assignment had been changed from Ubon to U Dorn. . . . The Survival School was tiresome, not very rough, but enough to keep me tired for 2 days. I hope that I never have to land in the jungle. We trekked yesterday and learned what jungle wild life was edible. There are quite a few things you can eat–bananas, including the heart; palm, berries, roots, leaves, ferns, etc. Today we learned escape and evasion techniques if we get shot down. We tried to hide but the natives quickly found us.

(For other survival school information and POW training see

27 May 1973: I finally have time to write–they have been pushing me through quickly since I arrived here. I am assigned to the 13 Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS)–the Panther Pack. It appears that we will be flying bombing missions in Cambodia by the end of the week.  The base is large and the Thais drive on the left side of the road which sort of blows your mind at first. The GIBs (Guys in Back–i.e., WSOs) are really in demand here and I’ll be flying at least everyday 3 to 4 hour missions. We have our survival gear and camouflaged helmets. In addition we carry 38 cal revolvers…. Still, I will be on my guard.

1 June 1973: Yesterday we bombed Cambodia–it’s a funny feeling to be using real bombs. The mission was 3 hours and we had to refuel 3 times. I am drawing combat pay now. It’s been raining up a storm, we are in the S.W. monsoon season. 348 days to go.

6 June 1973: Today is finally a day off–since I’ve been here I flew 5 times in one week so I needed a rest. We have been bombing Cambodia on most of our rides. I am still awaiting orders assigning me here. Without them I can’t get paid. I have been flying early mostly, up at 3:30 a.m. and down by noon or so if I am lucky.

8 June 1973:  Yesterday I had a particularly rough day. We were on Quick Reaction Force (QRF) alert all day–so I had to be there at 4 a.m. About 2 p.m. we scrambled and flew to Cambodia where we blew up a large enemy gun emplacement. They fired at me, but I didn’t see anything.

Today we just bombed, but it was another 3 a.m. day.  Don’t you love early mornings?


1 Clark Air Base in the Phillipines was the major American air base on the island,  located near Angeles City on the Island of Luzon.   It was in operation from 1903-1991, when it closed after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo.  “Snake School” was Jungle Survival School, a three day trek in local jungle to learn the techniques of surviving an ejection over jungle terrain. It also included a SERE experience involving local Negrito people who acted the role of agressors and hunted down the crewmen trying to escape.  They always won.

To be continued:

About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, American History, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, Family History, Fighter Aircraft, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Vietnam War and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The War begins for me

  1. Bob Sihler says:

    Great depiction of the times, John.

  2. james white says:

    John, What an odd coincidence! #1 When the chopper fished me out of Biscayne Bay at the end of sea survival, my orders were on the blue bus back to Homestead changing my assignment from Ubon to Udorn. I had been scheduled for some training at MacDill under “Operation Igloo White”, which near as I can figure would have involved dropping rubber trees on the trail with the 25TFS. Based on their mortality rate, I am happy for my time at Udorn. #2: It took a month to get my pay records from Ubon to Udorn and another month for my 2 month old promotion orders to get posted to my pay folder.

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