Down to the “South 40”

In May 1973,  I checked in, as a new GIB, assigned to the 13 TFS at Udorn RTAFB.   I had come to the war late as a non rated officer who entered Nav School in the fall of 1971. 

Now I was finally in SEA. The first thing I did was drop off all my flight gear: helmet, G suit, etc., to life support. They assigned me a peg for my items and took my helmet which had been bright white in training, but now it would be covered with camouflage tape. Likewise my flight suits would have camo rank and the name tags would be removed for each flight.

I had brought all this gear, my flight suits, and boots with me from the US through Clark to Thailand. This was a good thing as my whole baggage with my civilian clothes had gone to Ubon. The only civies I had were the few I carried with me. These would have to do until my other baggage caught up with me. When I mentioned this to my GIB sponsor, he said don’t worry you won’t need a lot of civilian clothes. And then he laughed as if he knew a joke that I didn’t yet understand. 

I  learned that I would be flying bombing missions in Cambodia immediately. GIBs were in demand and they told me I could expect to fly every day– 3 to 4 hour missions. There was a push on to get me a combat flight before the end of the month, so that I could get my “hazardous duty pay” an additional $65 a month to fly combat. Not a great deal even for those days.

On May 28, I had my first orientation flight in the combat zone, which my Instructor Pilot (IP) referred to as the “South 40,” as we flew across Thailand and entered Cambodian airspace.

After orientation each combat flight would begin like this one.  First check the schedule to get the show time, then catch the Blue shuttle bus to the squadron. There meet my AC and brief with the wingman and his GIB about the mission ahead. Then go to Intel for a quick threat brief. At this point about 2 hours had passed. Then off to Life Support. 

Wing Headquarters

Suiting up, I made sure that I had my Geneva Convention Card. Then got my survival gear and camouflaged helmet and checked my survival radios. I removed my wedding ring, and nametag from my flight suit, and locked them in my locker.

Next I checked out and loaded a 38 cal revolver, which I carried in a holster strapped to my leg, gunslinger style.  Once at our assigned bird, we did the standard pre-flight walk around, which was just like Luke, with one exception: NOW I HAD TO CHECK THE ARMAMENTS.

Our standard load was the Mark 82– 500 pound dumb bomb. We could carry as many as 18 Mark 82s. We also had 2 Aim 9 Sidewinder and 2 Aim 7 Sparrow radar missiles loaded. I checked them also and looked for any leaks under the Phantom. I had to be careful as it was really easy to bang my head and get what we called a “phantom bite.”   

Once in the cockpit I plugged in my G suit and connected a tape recorder into our intercom which recorded our mission. Later we turned the tape over to the folks in intel so that they had a recording of all that had happened in case there were questions. Then it was the standard turn on of the radar, aligning the INS, and checking  all the equipment.  As I sat there, the crew chief helped me with the chute connections and pulled the pins on my ejection seat; now hot and armed to fire.  

I dialed in the frequency for ground control. We got clearance and taxied out. Then we moved down to the arming area adjacent to the active runway. There the munitions crew pulled the pins on the bombs. Then takeoff. The area around Udorn was flooded most of the year and as we climbed out I could see rainstorms in the distance. We now headed for our rendezvous with the tanker and the mission of the day.

It’s funny: To most Americans the idea of combat is remote.   After all, in many people’s minds, war only happens to others. Even during the Vietnam War it was the soldier’s war; not the ordinary American citizen’s war, it was not their experience.   

Now the soldier’s  war was my war. 


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, Air Force lingo, American History, Cambodia bombing 1973, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Fighter pilot lingo, Fighter pilot slang, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Veterans, Vietnam War. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Down to the “South 40”

  1. Tom Marsh says:

    It was much easier for me. We put on the flak jacket (35 pounds) then the web gear. Then down to the arms room and drew our weapons and then the ammo. Some individual with a sense of humor decided I should carry the radio (another 35 pounds) and off we went.

    Such was life in the Infantry in ROK 1967!

    Some of the guys did bring civies with them but we were not allowed to wear them,

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