Michael Patterson was born in 1936 and grew up in Wayland. His father fought as a pilot in World War I, and like his father Mr. Patterson became interested in aviation and planned to become a pilot. He went to USC and later was trained in the Air Force ROTC. He was an aircraft commander for eight years until he was sent to Vietnam from 1967 to 1969. He flew 313 missions in his Canberra. In his infrequent off-hours, he would ride in C-123s and take pictures. Mr. Patterson has strong opinions about the war, especially on how the media impacted, and in his view misinformed, the citizenry.
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Q: So please state your name.
Mr. Patterson: Michael Patterson
Q: And when were you born?
Mr. Patterson: 1936.
Q: Could you describe when you grew up?
Mr. Patterson: I grew up in Wayland, Massachusetts. Right here.
Q: What was your childhood like?
Mr. Patterson: Well, it was fine. Wayland was a much different town, and it was right during WWII. So things were a little different than they are now, but it was a nice community in which to grow up. The schools were pretty good; they were very small. All the teachers were women of course, there were no men around. I went to the center school. Do you know where that was?
Q: The middle of Wayland?
Q: Oh, that’s where the town center is now?
Mr. Patterson: No.
Q: No, that was built later.
Mr. Patterson: That’s right. It’s now a vacant spot next to the congregational church. And next to it is something that used to be the Odd-Fellows building. Before that it used to be Wayland’s first high school. After the Center School I went to the first junior High school in Wayland. It is where the assessors and the treasurer are now located in the Town Building. That was Wayland junior high.
Q: Was your father in World War II?
Mr. Patterson: No, he was in World War I.
Q: Did you have any siblings?
Mr. Patterson: Yes, but I should mention that my father quit Harvard, because serving in the war and serving your country was important to people in those days; He quit college to join the army flying service, now, the US Air Force. He was a World War I pilot. Also, his brother who for many years lived in Weston, quit Harvard to join the French artillery. He had no connection with France other than the language ability and he became a French artillery officer. Had his horse shot out from under him and lived to tell the story.
Q: So were you inspired by your father to go to war?
Mr. Patterson: No I wasn’t inspired to go to war, although I was certainly willing to fulfill my responsibility when the time came. Also, I was interested in aviation. I learned to fly when I was in high school.
Q: So you preferred the Air Force in comparison to the Navy or the Army?
Mr. Patterson: Yes. I went through Air Force ROTC.
Q: Um…well do you remember anything about the Korean War?
Mr. Patterson: Yes, quite a bit.
Q: And do you have any specific memories about it, or…?
Mr. Patterson: Sure, I was in San Diego at the time. I had just moved to San Diego in 1950. I left Wayland as the Korean War was breaking out and I lived in San Diego for the next several years. As there was a big military presence – the Navy and Marine Corps in San Diego, the Korean War was very visible. And I had an older brother who had just graduated from college. He was serving in the Navy in San Diego and was assigned to Korea. So, I remember quite a bit about it.
Q: When did you first hear about the Cold War?
Mr. Patterson: Well I followed the events of world war two quite closely, and right after the war, I turned on the radio (with the lights out when I was supposed to be asleep) and listened to Winston Churchill give his “iron curtain” speech. You heard about that in…
Mr. Patterson: …in Missouri? He said “An iron curtain is coming down in Europe.” That really was the first official acknowledgement of the Cold War. So I was very aware of it.
Q: Were you aware of, like world news in general?
Mr. Patterson: Yes. Of course during world war two, all the news magazines published maps that showed the war evolving across Europe and Asia, and so forth. That’s the first thing I looked at when Time magazine came.
Q: Did you fear or dislike any Communists?
Mr. Patterson: I didn’t know any Communists. We didn’t fear Communism, but we were very concerned that it was huge threat, and we were very concerned about communist ambitions concerning the United States and the free world. I was certainly very strongly in favor of thwarting Communism. To suggest I personally feared it was not the case. Of course there were certainly communist leaders who would have blown the U.S to kingdom come had they been able to get away with it. Fortunately, we had a strong nuclear deterrence. Also, there were people in this country who would have attacked the Soviet Union if they thought they could get away with it. It was a chancy time.
Q: So did you fear…did the country’s fear of Communism eventually die down?
Mr. Patterson: Well not really until the end of the Cold War, about 1991. With the fall of the Berlin wall and some other events the Cold War came to an end. Back when I was in high school, it was right during the McCarthy period. And, as you know, those were tense times. McCarthy overdid it to say the least. His investigations tore though Hollywood, and they cleaned out everyone real or imagined they thought was a communist. Lots of innocent people were persecuted, and they probably got some Communists too. Who knows?
Q: What were your plans after graduating?
Mr. Patterson: College?
Q: Uh...high school.
Mr. Patterson: Oh, to go on to college. There never was any question about that.
Q: What were your plans in college?
Mr. Patterson: To graduate. As I was in Air Force ROTC, I planned to go into the Air Force and learn to fly. I didn’t plan to stay for many years, but I did want to fly Air Force airplanes. So that was the plan. Then I though I might become a college professor.
Q: And what time was this, when you uh… graduated from college?
Mr. Patterson: 1958.
Q: 1958? So when did you first recall hearing about the conflict in Vietnam?
Mr. Patterson: I suppose right from the beginning; we’d read the newspapers and knew about French Indochina. You know the Japanese had pushed the French out of Indochina.
Mr. Patterson: The French wanted to get their former colony back. The U.S, I feel, made a mistake in supporting that effort. But after looking at what was going on in the world, the U.S. had become very concerned about monolithic Communism. The Russians and Chinese were all one big power. They wanted to take over all of Asia, and then the whole world. So the U.S. supported the French as a bastion against a communist takeover of Southeast Asia. That was when I first heard about it. Later Dien Bien Phu was well publicized. Which, as you know, was the end, or the major downfall of the French. It was in the news quite a bit.
Q: Did you when you planned on joining the Air Force, did you actually plan on joining the Air Force to go to Vietnam or…?
Mr. Patterson: Well Vietnam wasn’t on the agenda at that point, but I wanted to fly airplanes. Actually, I wanted to fly combat airplanes, so I went to pilot training and so forth, and had various assignments. I was a pilot for about eight years before I went to Vietnam.
Q: What were you doing those eight years?
Mr. Patterson: I had several flying assignments. I was an aircraft commander in a plane that was similar to the Boeing 707. It was a lot of responsibility for a kid who was 26 years old or whatever.
Q: That’s young.
Mr. Patterson: And then the Air Force sent me to graduate school for two years. So I had two years in the University of Southern California’s MBA program before I went to Vietnam. Those were two years when I could keep my ear to the ground, do a lot of reading, and really look at what was going on in Vietnam.
Q: So, can you describe what it was like in basic training in the Air Force?
Mr. Patterson: Well we didn’t have basic training because I went through ROTC.
Mr. Patterson: We had a summer camp we attended. That was as close as anything to basic training. And then, after I was commissioned I attended officer pre- flight. It was only a month, and while there we spent a lot of time filling out forms and getting our records right. There was a lot of physical training and testing, and you jumped off towers and swing landing trainers for parachute training. Also, we practiced cockpit ejection by being strapped in a seat that was then shot up a vertical ramp. We experienced the altitude chamber where the air is evacuated to simulate an altitude of 42,000 feet. You, then, did various procedures such as taking your oxygen mask off to experience the symptoms of hypoxia. We also experienced explosive decompression to prepare us for the jet aircraft we would be flying. So that’s what we did in officer pre-flight, and then we went off to primary pilot training.
Q: Did you have any friends in high school who ended up in Vietnam?
Mr. Patterson: I don’t think so, partly because I left high school, went to college and then the Air Force, so I didn’t see my high school friends again until our fiftieth reunion. When I was in graduate school I had several close friends who were also Air Force pilots. One of them, upon graduation, received his assignment to what he called a “cushy desk job” in Saigon. He was a pilot, but his job was going to be administrative, not flying. When he learned that I was to be assigned to a combat squadron, he was very envious and he pulled every string he could to have his assignment changed. Which he did. Unfortunately, he was killed after the first two weeks of flying in Vietnam. Back when we were in Los Angeles he had a premonition this would happen. It was a heart wrenching experience to lose a friend like that. Later, I was to lose many more friends.
Q: That must have been terrible.
Q: What was it like leaving the United States and your family and stuff?
Mr. Patterson: Well it was hard. I was very concerned about my family. I had a sort of convoluted assignment. I graduated from USC, and then went to survival school, where you sleep out in the snow for a month. It was to prepare us to go to Vietnam. But it was good training. Next, I had to check out in the airplane. That training was in Utah. Meanwhile I located my wife and children in San Diego where they would stay. She was well along in her fourth pregnancy. The whole process was difficult. I was initially assigned to a squadron that was part of the 405th Fighter Wing in the Philippines. My squadron and a sister squadron alternated between Vietnam and the Philippines every 60 days. In Vietnam we were assigned to the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing in Phan Rang. Every sixty days we’d flip flop. We were to do that for two years and be credited with a one year Vietnam tour of duty. It didn’t quite work out that way. I might say that flying in the Philippines was enjoyable. Chuck Yeager commanded the 405th Fighter Wing. Have you ever heard of him? He was the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound.
Mr. Patterson: I did that for several months, and eventually, after our fourth baby was born, my family moved to the Philippines. My wife had to travel by herself with a baby and three children all the way to Clark AFB. I was in Vietnam at the time and wasn’t able to be there to meet her. Then, as it turned out they were only able to stay seven months. At that point the remnants of our two squadrons were combined, we were sent permanently to Vietnam, and my family had to move back to San Diego. There was a lot of family separation. That part was hard. It was hard on me, hard on my wife and hard on our children.
Q: So families would go to Vietnam? And actually live with their…?
Mr. Patterson: No, not to Vietnam. The Philippines.
Q: Oh. Um, so did you feel any like difference from when you went like a regular civilian to turning into a soldier?
Mr. Patterson: Turning into a what?
Q: Turning into a soldier?
Mr. Patterson: No. It was something I planned to do after college. Remember the draft was on. Every male had to do something. They’d be drafted if they didn’t come up with some course of action. So, some people went in the Army. I think you could volunteer for the draft for eighteen months, and then stay in the reserves for a number of years. Other people volunteered for one of the services. And if they didn’t do that then they would probably be drafted into the Army. This was particularly the case once Vietnam got going and the Army became short of people. The draft was a very unfair system but that’s another whole story. The way it was orchestrated, some black kid, who was pumping gas in Los Angels, could be drafted. But someone who was in school or had a defense related job was deferred. I knew students in the MBA program who were working for defense contractors. They said their draft deferment was a joke. They were draft exempt because a defense contractor signed an exemption form. So it was ok for them not to be drafted. But some other poor kid would be picked up and shipped to Vietnam.
Q: But it did get better with the whole like random thing. Putting numbers on dates and stuff.
Mr. Patterson: Did it get better?
Q: Yeah the drafting, like the way we drafted?
Mr. Patterson: There was a lottery system. However, a lot of people knew how to avoid it.
Q: Did a lot of them escape it? Did you have some…knew people that would try to get out of it?
Mr. Patterson: I didn’t know anyone personally who evaded the draft. There were individuals who would get married just to avoid the draft. One person, interviewed by a reporter said he hardly knew his wife, but that was better than dying in some jungle. It wasn’t a very commendable attitude. There were lots of ruses people used. In fact the last presidential election highlighted some. Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont had a family doctor attest that Dean had a back injury and should be exempt from the draft even though he was a competitive skier. If you had enough money, and could pull some strings, you could get out of going to Vietnam. It was the wrong thing to do but a lot of people did it.
Q: What did you do in your spare time in Vietnam?
Mr. Patterson: In my spare time? I didn’t have much. We had a lot of losses, so I flew a mission just about every day. I flew 313 missions and there wasn’t much spare time. But when I did get a day off I’d get on the C-123’s, they were called the “trash-haulers.” They were little cargo planes that carried animals, dried fish, Vietnamese civilians, and army rations, to these Montagnard villages in the hills. So I’d take my camera and ride with them just so that I could see what was going on. I felt I had the opportunity to see history developing first hand. I didn’t want to sit… at home, so to speak, when I could go out and see what was going on in the world. It was very educational. (Pause)
Q: So when you, got to uh, Vietnam what was it like? What was your first impression of the place?
Mr. Patterson: It was very hectic, because the combat operation had picked up. But we’d already gone through gunnery training in the Philippines, so the very first day you could start flying missions. Typically you would start by flying day missions until you gained some combat experience. These missions were more routine and less hazardous than the night missions which were usually in Laos or the panhandle of North Vietnam. On my first mission I flew in formation to a point west of Saigon to fly air cover for a truck convoy. We flew overhead so the trucks wouldn’t be ambushed. We no sooner got there when we learned there were American troops in a major fire-fight with the Vietcong. So we were taken off the convoy protection and vectored to a large clearing in the jungle. A lot of U.S troops were wounded, and we could see them lying on the far side of the field, wrapped up in ponchos and so forth. We could also see the “Dust Off” medical evacuation helicopters. They were waiting some distance away as they couldn’t come in and land because the area was still under fire. Our air strikes were always directed by a forward air controller in a small plane. He would mark the target with white smoke to indicate where he wanted us to hit. This time the controller said “They’re eyeball to eyeball down there, so you’ve got to be right on the mark.” And I thought, I’ve never dropped a live bomb in my life, and our guys and the enemy are less than 50 or 100 yards apart. Anyway, we were accurate, and the enemy began fleeing through the woods. I dropped the first bomb, the controller said it was right on target and said to put the next one, fifty meters at two o’ clock from the first. I probably made eight passes with ordinance and guns. The VC were routed, and then the helicopters were able to come in and evacuate our wounded. That was my first mission.
Q: So were you guys optimistic at the beginning of the war? That is was going to end?
Mr. Patterson: Well, guardedly optimistic. You mean about the eventual outcome?
Mr. Patterson: Uh, we weren’t terribly optimistic because there were great constraints, the military could never run a complete operation, or overwhelm the enemy, McNamara and Johnson at the time were afraid that if the North Vietnamese began to lose, the Chinese would be drawn in. The Chinese were drawn in, in Korea, as you may recall. The American and South Korean forces were overwhelming the North Korean forces. Then, the Chinese came in and the whole face of the war changed. And McNamara - - Secretary McNamara and Johnson, were afraid that might happen in Vietnam if the North Vietnamese began to lose. We could have finished that war within a month at any time, but we weren’t allowed to. So it was sort of like fighting a war with one hand tied behind your back. And the war was greatly lengthened for that reason.
Q: Broadly speaking, what did you think you were there for?
Mr. Patterson: The reason for going to Vietnam? We wanted South Vietnam…South Vietnam not to be overrun by North Vietnam. The country was partitioned. Those who wanted to live under Ho Chi Minh’s control and Communism could live in the North. I never heard of anybody moving north, but there might have been some. The rest of the people, those who wanted to live in free enterprise could live in the South. Clearly, South Vietnam did not have a very competent nor honest government, but it was not communistic. A lot of people moved to the South. Eventually the South was in danger of being overrun. And that would have been very bad for U.S interests to let the North Vietnamese take over. After we had agreed to partition the country it would have been wrong just to turn our back. So that’s why we were there - to keep South Vietnam from being overrun by North Vietnam.
Q: How could you distinguish from the VC from the, just normal civilians?
Mr. Patterson: I wasn’t in that particular situation. That was a problem for a lot people. But I was an Air Force pilot, and every time we fired a gun, or rocket or whatever else, a forward air controller directed the strike. He’d mark the spot. The controllers were very, very, careful. Even in Laos, at night when most of our missions were flown, the forward air controllers would mark the target. So we didn’t have to distinguish between NVA, the VC and the local people. That was the forward air controllers’ job. Also, at three or four hundred miles per hour you don’t see individuals very clearly.
Q: Um, did you see the, the NVA/VC as Communists trying to spread their political system or nationalists trying to like get rid of foreign presence?
Mr. Patterson: Well, I think it was both. I think some VC were very nationalistic and they wanted the country to themselves. It never worked out for them, because when Vietnam fell, none of the South Vietnamese Vietcong were put in positions of power. The Politburo in Saigon was, I think, 100% North Vietnamese. The former Vietcong who thought they might participate in running South Vietnam, never had that chance. Did I answer that question? I’m not sure.
Q: um hmm. Um, so how did, how did you pass the time in Vietnam, when you went on leaves, did…like what did you do?
Mr. Patterson: We didn’t get much time off. Most of our missions were night missions. And we all had squadron jobs. You know, desk jobs part time, but the main job was flying combat missions. I did take an R and R to Australia. That’s about it. So we didn’t have much entertainment time.
Q: Did you count the days until you could leave Vietnam?
Mr. Patterson: Oh, you bet. Everybody did. That was extremely important. As an aside, something that is very bad in Iraq, is that they’ve extended those folks for ninety days. That’s devastating. If the troops are there for one year or maybe a shorter time, they’ll try to live through it. They count the days and then, all of a sudden, they and their families learn that they will be there for a much longer period. That’s a very, very hard thing to take.
Q: Did the same thing happen in Vietnam? Like did you have stay there longer?
Mr. Patterson: No. The Air Force, to its credit, had a rule that no one had an involuntary second tour, until every pilot had a first tour. That may have caused problems some times because they dragged some senior people out of desk jobs. But that’s the way to do it. So no, I wasn’t faced with an extension. Thank goodness.
Q: What was the hardest part of combat?
Mr. Patterson: Of combat? Well, staying alive. But the hardest part of the tour was family separation because we had four children. It was hard on my wife, hard on me, and hard on our children.
Q: How did fear play into your state of mind?
Mr. Patterson: How did what?
Q: Fear? How did fear play into your state of mind?
Mr. Patterson: Fear? Well, hopefully it didn’t. It was a high risk business. We were shot at all the time and a lot of people were shot down and crashed. There’s nothing wrong with being fearful, letting it alter how you perform is bad. If you weren’t afraid sometimes, you’d be a moron. But letting it affect you would be a serious mistake.
Q: How did battle change you?
Mr. Patterson: How did battle change me?
Q: Um hmm.
Mr. Patterson: Oh, I don’t know. You’d have to ask my wife. She has a lot to say in that subject.
Q: So you didn’t feel any like emotional change, ‘cause you’re just like shooting down at them right? So you didn’t see any of the people dying?
Mr. Patterson: Shooting at people is a terrible thing, no matter what the circumstances. Even though, in most cases, they were already shooting at you.
Q: Well, like you didn’t kill any… you didn’t see enemies die so it didn’t impact you in anyway?
Mr. Patterson: Certainly it impacted you. When you hit supply trucks at night they would burn. If there was a big green fire, you knew the truck was loaded with rockets bound for Saigon. Certainly there were drivers in some of those trucks and there were gun crews around the anti-aircraft sites that we attacked. Fortunately, I was never in a position where I had an M-16 and I was pointing it at somebody. It was not like that.
Q: How did you feel towards the troops who were fighting on the ground in Vietnam?
Mr. Patterson: I thought very highly of our troops. We supported a lot of them. The ground troops had a very tough time. I remember on one mission we supported a formation of thirteen helicopters who planned to land in a jungle clearing. We prepared the landing zone for them by strafing to clear away booby traps Then we waited overhead while the helicopters came in and dropped off the troops All thirteen helicopters landed in formation, discharged their troops in about three seconds and then off they went. Those poor guys were dropped armpit deep in swamp and it was just awful. Every now and then they’d shoot up a flare to show where they were. In an hour they had probably gone a quarter mile through the jungle, never knowing what they’re going to step on, what kind of bad things were down there. It was a very hard life for them. I had a high regard for what we called the “grunts.” I was glad I could support them.
Q: So what kind of planes did you fly…or aircraft did you fly, in Vietnam?
Mr. Patterson: I flew the Canberra, which no one’s ever heard of. It was a two- engine jet, that had been designed by the English as a light bomber. The U.S bought the plans and made it into a fighter bomber. It had eight guns in the wing, a fighter cockpit and a gun sight. The plane carried a large amount of ordinance. It was the type of plane that you would roll on its back, dive on the target, fire your guns or ordinance, and then pull up as hard as you could.
Q: Um, did you see any one get killed or injured and how did it impact you?
Mr. Patterson: I had several friends who were killed. At night you could see the flash when someone hit the ground. It impacts you very much. There’s no need to get into that. But you know it’s traumatic.
Q: So did you feel it was still worth it to have...to make friends with people that would still die?
Mr. Patterson: Yes, of course. It doesn’t work that way. You don’t come up to someone and say “Well I understand you’re going to die so I’m not going to be your friend.” These were comrades, you lived with them. Some are very close friends. And then there was the fellow who went through USC with me and changed his assignment so that he could fly in combat, he was the one who could have had the “cushy desk job.”
Q: Do you ever regret anything…do you ever maybe regret for that friend who got killed in the first week of his…first week of combat? Do you ever like regret those sort of things?
Mr. Patterson: Regret that he saw my assignment then changed his assignment?
Q: Yeah like that.
Mr. Patterson: Well I regret the fact that he was lost and I never talked to his wife about this even thought they were in the Philippines at the time. She may well have blamed me for the fact that he changed his assignment so he could fly combat airplanes. I am not sure if I answered the question.
Q: You did.
Q: Did you hear about the My Lai massacre in 1968?
Mr. Patterson: Sure
Q: And how did that affect your view on the war?
Mr. Patterson: It didn’t affect my view. My Lai was terrible, although there was plenty of provocation for those guys. But you can’t go shooting civilians regardless of the provocation. We would hear stories of little kids being given hand grenades and told to go to a market area and shove the grenade into somebody’s stomach. The American was killed and the child was killed. It was a pretty vicious war. The interesting thing is that you mention My Lai and when that happened, was it Lt. Cally and Captain Medina, I think. They were court marshaled and their names were in the news for years and yet there wasn’t any real uproar over when the North Vietnamese temporarily captured two cities in the northern part of South Vietnam. They went from house to house and dragged out the parents of Vietnamese soldiers and beat them to death or buried them alive. It was terrible. But this wasn’t done by a bunch of miscreant soldiers, it was public policy of North Vietnam. But there was no outcry in our papers. Just before I went to Vietnam another event occurred in a Montagnard village, I can’t think of the name. In that case the Montagnard men were out on a patrol. It was typical village where the houses were up on posts and so forth. The VC arrived and all the women and children, 220 of them, were cowering underneath these huts. The VC took flamethrowers and killed the entire village, the wives, women and children while the men were off on patrol. It was awful, but there was no public outcry in the United States. When Cally and his troops killed a bunch of people you heard about it for years, but when the Communists did something awful, no one cared. We had very biased reporting by the U.S. media. It was just terrible.
Q: Was it because we wanted to show like more people protesting the war?
Mr. Patterson: Who knows what their motives were? And I guess they thought a story about Lt. Cally and his troops would resonate more then all bad deeds of the North Vietnamese.
Q: How did you receive the media? Did you have a television?
Mr. Patterson: No, we didn’t have television. There was a little newspaper that came out occasionally. I had my wife mail me newspapers. They came a long time after the fact. There was something called Armed Forces Radio Network which you could hear occasionally. That was pretty much it.
Q: So did you hear about the Civil Rights Movement back at home?
Mr. Patterson: Sure. But the Civil Rights Movement began long before I went to Vietnam.
Q: So how did the racial tension differences play out like with the troops?
Mr. Patterson: Well it wasn’t a factor where I was. There were very few African- Americans. In fact, in my unit in Vietnam there were no black pilots. There were very few minorities. It’s interesting though as I traveled around I would see an awful lot of African-American troops that were in the lower ranks of the Army. The number of African-American enlisted men seemed to be out of proportion. They were the guys who got drafted and because they didn’t qualify for electronics school or whatever, they ended up as infantry men - out in the jungle. But afterwards the Pentagon produced statistics showing that African-Americans were killed in a lower proportion of their numbers then whites, so maybe it wasn’t so unfair.
Q: As of 1967 opposition to the war increased reaching its height at 1969/1970. How did you perceive anti-war protests?
Mr. Patterson: I was not in favor of them. They were a very bad thing. I seriously question the motives of the people who did that. Certainly it extended the war significantly. And you don’t want to extend any kind of a war. You don’t want to get in a war to start with, but you certainly don’t want to do anything to make it last longer. And the reason the protests extended the war was they decreased the will of the people in Washington to bring the war to an end. And finally, we just quit. It was the only time America has ever abandoned an enemy in the field which was absolutely disgraceful. If you have about two hours there is a lot more I can say about that.
Q: And how did these protests affect the troops in general? I mean like the people in your unit; did they react strongly to those…?
Mr. Patterson: No, because we were all professional pilots. I had eight years of experience as a pilot before I went over there. All of us had families and so forth and various types of education. We weren’t as vulnerable as the people who had been grabbed off the street, drafted, given basic training and sent to Vietnam without a whole lot of preparation. They could be eighteen or nineteen years old, so they are more easily influenced by stuff like that.
Q: Did you think that the war Vets in New York were like…better fit to protest?
Mr. Patterson: They had more credibility, at least more credibility than someone who knew nothing about it whatsoever. I’ll tell you a story if I may. We generally carried a navigator who was in an ejection seat right behind the pilot’s. My close friend who was my navigator for several months was from this area. He was shot down and listed as MIA a week after I came home. Upon my return to the US, I was assigned to Washington D.C. When I had a chance, I came up here to meet his wife. As I approached her house one of the children looked out the window and said, “Is that man going to bring Daddy home?” I didn’t bring him home. No one did. His wife worked in a hospital; she was a nurse in the Cape Cod area. When her coworkers found out that her husband was missing in action they made life absolutely miserable for her. They harassed her to the point she had to quite her job and move. That was the mindset, particularly in Massachusetts. It was just terrible. They took it out their misguided opinions on this poor women whose husband was missing in action.
Q: How did you feel about Nixon’s “peace with honor”, like turning the war over to the South Vietnamese forces?
Mr. Patterson: We didn’t have peace with honor. We simply abandoned the South Vietnamese. Kissinger and company just up and pulled out. That was not the right thing to do.
Q: Did you see some of the Vietnamese asking to be brought onto the planes?
Mr. Patterson: Well I saw the news clips, sure.
Q: Were you…was it like there?
Mr. Patterson: No, because that was 1973 wasn’t it? Yes about, 1973. I came back in 1969. I was there from ‘67 to early ’69.
Q: Do you wish the United States had kept on fighting the war instead of withdrawing?
Mr. Patterson: Yes, to bring to bring it to a rapid conclusion, which they could have done. It is agonizing and a lot more pain and killing and so forth if you take on a war in a half-hearted manner. It just goes on and on and on. We are doing that now and it’s not the way to do it. Any war is a bad war, but if you have to go to war you have to get in and get out as rapidly as you can. And we have not been doing that.
Q: What did you make of the famous Tet Offensive in 1968?
Mr. Patterson: I was there then and people were surprised, but Tet was a tremendous defeat for the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese. They had huge losses. However, Walter Cronkite, whom I never liked since then, said, “Oh it’s a disaster for the U.S. and we have lost the war,” which was not the case at all. It was very bad reporting and very biased reporting. Walter Cronkite did a lot to set the American mind against the war. He had a defeatist attitude.
Q: Do you feel that the media was not doing its job about informing the people back home about what was really going on?
Mr. Patterson: I don’t think that the media did a good job at all. One problem for the media was that there were no fixed lines. In World War II a reporter could go out to the battle lines and see what was going on. You didn’t have fixed lines in Vietnam. So the general story was that the war was reported from the bar of the Caravel Hotel in Saigon. The Caravel was where the reporters stayed, and as they couldn’t get out to the battle area, they allegedly reported the war from the hotel bar. There was a lot of very biased reporting, and the American public really wasn’t privy to what happened. So the media did not do us justice.
Q: Do you think that caused all the protests?
Mr. Patterson: I think that added to it, absolutely. Because you read the biased reporting and that got people upset. They did not acquit themselves well.
Q: The shootings at Kent State on May 1970 demonstration received a lot of press coverage obviously because four kids died and what did you make of these college kids’ actions?
Mr. Patterson: The whole thing was unfortunate. It’s terrible that they were shot by the National Guard. They were protesting which everyone has a right to do, and the Guard, I guess, apparently felt threatened and went overboard or whatever and shot these kids. There is not much else I can say. It was a very unfortunate circumstance.
Q: Do you feel that it was unfair that they got more coverage then the people who died in Vietnam?
Mr. Patterson: I didn’t think too much about it even though that is true in retrospect. You have that today in the media. Soldiers are lost every day in Iraq and few are very concerned about it. Then you have a disaster such as Virginia Tech and it gets in the press all the time. So reporting is very uneven.
Q: How did it feel being on the jet coming home?
Mr. Patterson: I was very relieved. We counted the days and when I finally took off from Cam Ranh Bay it was a great feeling of relief.
Q: So did you agree that the Vietnam people changed over time?
Mr. Patterson: No, not during my period. I mean what they really wanted was for everyone to leave their country and just be left alone. They paid a terrible price not only in people being killed, but at one time Vietnam was a reasonably wealthy country. It had exports such as rice and grain and so forth and rubber. All that stuff dried up in the war. The economic hardship for the Vietnamese was terrible. I am sure they just wanted to be left alone to go do their thing. That didn’t happen.
Q: Do you feel bad for some of the Vietnamese people?
Mr. Patterson: Yes, because we abandoned them and then the North Vietnamese took a terrible toll. They had re-education programs. People were put into prisons for fifteen years or more and their families endured awful hardships if they survived at all. We betrayed them, the South Vietnamese. Once we got into the conflict we should have seen it through to the end, or else we shouldn’t have gotten into it in the first place.
Q: Did you see any of the Agent Orange that was used?
Mr. Patterson: Did I…?
Q: …see any of the Agent Orange used?
Mr. Patterson: No, I saw the results however. That was a bad mistake. A friend of mine who was later killed was in a spray plane before he joined our outfit. They had absolute faith that it was the right thing to do. To show the Vietnamese there wasn’t any risk the flight crews would open up a big drum of the concentrate, dip their fingers in it and put their finger in their mouth. They would say, “See. It’s perfectly safe.” And they believed it was safe. So the people spraying it were not doing it with any devious motives. Their job was to…you know what Agent Orange was supposed to do? And they did it.
Q: Was it effective? All the Agent Orange that was used…did it really help a lot?
Mr. Patterson: I suppose so, although I’m not sure. It was awfully hard on the crops which I suppose contributed to the agricultural downswing of the country.
Q: Did you see the effects of Agent Orange on the people themselves?
Mr. Patterson: No. If there was any effect, and there probably was, it would have occurred many years later. Of course there have been lots of Vietnamese children with birth defects that were apparently caused by Agent Orange. But I didn’t see that.
Q: Upon your return were you called a “baby killer” like many other soldiers were?
Mr. Patterson: No. I did read about soldiers being spit on at Seattle Airport and things like that. I didn’t encounter it personally. That was absolutely awful. The wife that I told you about, encountered those types of individuals when they harassed her and she had to quit her job and move. A lot of Americans behaved disgracefully.
Q: What was it like seeing your family and friends again after you came back from the war?
Mr. Patterson: It was very nice. When I was separated from my wife and four children for an extended time period my prime concern was that I get home. They lived alone in San Diego and I had to get back safely so I could be a father again. It was extremely important.
Q: Have you been to the Vietnam Memorial Wall?
Mr. Patterson: I went the first time about two months ago.
Q: What was it like?
Mr. Patterson: It was a very emotional thing, and that is why I didn’t go sooner. I waited twenty years or something. It is very well done. You can look up the names of friends so I spent some time there.
Q: How did you react to the role Vietnam played in the presidential election in 2004 with Kerry talking about…?
Mr. Patterson: How did I react to it?
Mr. Patterson: It’s hard to say. I am not an admirer of Senator Kerry for a number of reasons. He did his war protest business. He supposedly threw his medals over the fence. It turned out to be somebody else’s medals. Kerry is a troubling personality. According to the Boston Globe, he had an encounter on the banks of the Me Cong in a village somewhere. The next day he got his men back there along with somebody with a movie camera to stage and reenact the whole thing. According to the Globe he has the film that he watches frequently at home on his television. If that’s true then there is a problem. Of course, it may not be true. It was a newspaper story. So, what was the question? What did I think of how the Vietnam War played in the last election? Well I don’t have a lot to say there.
Q: Do you resent the media now or do you think it has improved since then the coverage in the Vietnam War?
Mr. Patterson: There are now different people with a different mindset. I’d like to think it has improved. When you have embedded newsmen and photographers it can be a problem. In World War II they didn’t have embedded reporters. The news and media were very carefully constrained. It kept the morale up and disasters didn’t get reported. Now you have the reporters right in the thick of things. I suppose that is for the best.
Q: Did any of the reporters or cameramen ever record you guys flying… or videotape you guys flying?
Mr. Patterson: No. I never saw a newsman. We didn’t have a nice hotel where we were stationed. They could have stayed in regular living accommodations, but the newsman never came up there so I never laid eyes on them. I did know friends who were interviewed at other bases. An example is one guy was asked by a newsman, “What do you think about the chance you might hit a civilian?” The pilot said, “I try not the think about it,” but he was quoted as saying, “I couldn’t care less.” That is that sort of thing we had to put up with.
Q: So the reporters are always outside that battle or in the city or something?
Mr. Patterson: Generally, yes. They reportedly spent most of their time in Saigon at the bar in the Caravel Hotel. The Caravel Hotel was the main hotel where reporters lived. It is very hard to be at the front lines because there were no front lines. Surely there were reporters that got out in the field. David Halberstan was one. There are other reporters that did get out into the field. But you couldn’t cover a war that was so sporadic. You couldn’t stay with the troops fifteen feet behind and report what was going on. Thus, there were a lot of inaccuracies.
Q: What do you think the lessons as a nation have learned about the war?
Mr. Patterson: What we learned? We didn’t learn much. What we should have learned is that any war is a bad war; there is no such thing as a good war. If you are going to get in to it have a complete plan of how it is going to be pursued and how you will bring it to an end, and what to do afterwards. The obvious parallel is Iraq. The country was destabilized, a ruthless dictator killed, and then the U.S. thought the various factions in Iraq, after being at each others throats for centuries would all of a sudden love each other. This turned out to be very naïve. The State Department and the Washington planners assumed that we wouldn’t need to have a very detailed plan after the combat part. That was foolish.
Q: Traveling backwards, like way back. Before you went to Vietnam in 1967, do you recall any images of the Buddhists monks and the self immolation?
Mr. Patterson: Sure. It was in the news all the time.
Q: Do you think that it helped spark the media interest in Vietnam and maybe to the biased reports?
Mr. Patterson: I don’t think so. The Buddhists monks made their statement. Even though they were protesting, they weren’t directly involved with either the North Vietnamese coming in or the other things going on. I always thought of them as being on the periphery. It probably did affect public opinion, possibly more so in Vietnam, but I don’t think it was significant dimension of the war.