Written by Ken Smits
Most of the airmen in the squadron are assembled in the orderly room. A handful of the day shift personnel remain at the bomb dump, loading trailers with explosives to be delivered to the flight line. The war goes on. Colonel Farris, the Squadron Commander, can’t halt that for his monthly commander’s call.
Six seats down the row from me, I hear laughter and giggling.
“Rib-it, rib-it, rib-it”
“Shut the hell up, airmen!”
I know they’re making fun of our squadron commander, amusingly called ‘The Frog.’ I’ve been with the 421st for eight weeks without seeing our leader. I’ve been curious how he earned that nickname.
“Room, a-tent-hut!” The first sergeant commands.
We jump to our feet. I watch out of the corner of my eyes as a short, squatty man enters the room. I’m half expecting him to be hopping. He walks with a skip step that almost appears as if he’s bouncing when he moves.
“At ease. Take your seats.” His croaking voice reminds me of that kid Froggie on the TV show ‘Our Gang.’
While taking my seat, my eyes lock on my commander’s legs as he ambles across the front of the room. He must’ve been injured or wounded years back. His right hip looks strange, sticking out further than the left side. The heel and sole of his right combat boot are at least two inches thicker than his left one. The deformity forces him almost to hop as he walks. I look at his face. God played a wicked ruse on him. His eyes are huge, covering a sizeable portion of his face. His irises are a flat-black color with deep, dark black pupils. On the side of his nose is a wart the size of a dime. He has olive-colored skin with a greenish-brown tint. His face is covered with scars, those shiny, scaly-looking burn marks. His hair is dark brown and cut close to the scalp. The right side and most of the top of his head have the same burn blotches.
His body’s pear-shaped; his waist is three or four times bigger than his shoulders. He could be a Disney cartoon creation. Half-human. Half-frog. They were right.
The lights go out, and he seems to disappear into the darkness. If he said anything, I didn’t hear it. We watch newsreels taken by our aircraft during bombing runs. The shorts have been narrated, cut, and spliced for optimum effect by the U.S. Air Force. Some would call it propaganda, others a practical strategy. The films show bridges being blown up, trucks destroyed, and a whole lot of VC jungle exploding in fireballs. After the movie finishes, Colonel Farris, the Frog, gives us a pep talk about how exceptional we’re doing and to remember that without us, munitions personnel, the U.S. Air Force is just another airline. That brings cheers and howls from most of the men in the room.
“Gentlemen,” The Frog starts. “Let me take this time to thank each and every one of you for the great war effort you’ve put in. I know it’s hard to be away from your families and loved ones, but what we’re doing over here is an honorable undertaking. We’re freeing an oppressed people and securing the safety of our own country. Keep up the good work.” After going on for some time, the Frog closes with, “We have a guest speaker with some important information to pass on. Please pay attention to what he has to say.” The Frog turns and waves to someone hidden from view down the hall. “They’re all yours, Sergeant.”
An airman wearing a U.S. Air Force 1505 Khaki uniform marches to the center of the room. His pants are bloused above ladder-laced jungle combat boots. I am trying to remember where the manual allows the uniform to be worn like that. On his head rests a maroon beret—the symbol of a true warrior. Only the elite units are issued berets. Air Commando. My dream duty assignment. The entire reason I entered the Air Force. Around his waist, a new webb belt supports a black holster with a .45 caliber pistol and an ammo pouch.
A metallic clicking noise echoes in the room with each step he takes. No doubt he has one of those small metal devices in the soles of his boots and the insides of his heels. That would explain the clacking sound whenever he walks or snaps to attention. But that’s not part of military footwear. I wonder if the Frog has said anything to him about his abuse of the dress code. I bet no one tells this man what to do. He looks like a modern-day gunfighter. He is hard-core. If I walked around my hometown like that, people would know to listen to what I had to say, too.
Over his left pocket is a Silver Star—a Silver Star for gallantry and a ‘V’ device for valor. Standing before me is why I came to The Nam. This airman should be stationed at a state-side recruiting office. His square shoulders, iron-muscled arms, chiseled chest, ash blond hair, and intense eyes would make a great recruiting poster. I see honor, duty, God and country written all over him. He reminds me of Captain America.
“A silver star, wow!” I whisper to Smitty. “That’s impressive.”
“Afternoon, gentlemen!” he begins in a thick Jersey accent. “I’m Sergeant Billings with the 421st Air Commando Squadron based out of Qui Nhon Air Base, Qui Nhon, The Republic of South Vietnam. I’ve been ordered to come here and seek out a few volunteers to join a new team being formed.” He speaks in a loud, clear, military tone. He paces stiff-legged back and forth in front of us like he’s marching. He’s a warrior, an elite fighting man. “I’ll be leading the team.”
I sit up straighter, intrigued.
“As many of you know, the Air Force Air Crews are equal to the Army’s Special Forces. Their mission is to go where downed U.S. flyers are and retrieve them. However, my team and several others like it will also be trained to locate U.S. ordinances that didn’t detonate and destroy them in place. These men are called Air Commandos.”
This is it! Adrenaline rushes through my body. I want to stand up and cheer Sergeant Billings.
With his slightly slanted cobalt blue eyes scanning his audience, Sergeant Billings resumes speaking after an effective pause. “Gentlemen, I need good men. Men willing to give much more for their country than you’ve already been asked to give. The task I’ve been assigned is very dangerous. But it’ll save the lives of hundreds of good men – American men. It will require working in enemy-controlled jungle and a lot of personal sacrifice and hard work.”
He appears to grow larger than life as he breathes in sharply. He doesn’t speak for another moment or two, then adds, “Those of you who are interested, please stay behind. Thank you, gentlemen, for your time. Dismissed!”
Sergeant Billings’ speech sparked an emotional challenge in young, reckless men eager to do their patriotic duty. When he returns ten minutes later, five volunteers are anxious to follow his lead. Of course, I’m one of them.