Songs of the Air Force
in the Vietnam War
The following paper, which is very much a work in progress, was read at the symposium After the Cold War: Reassessing Vietnam in Lubbock in April 1996. Slightly different versions were read at the meetings of the American Folklore Society in Pittsburgh in October 1996 and the Popular Culture Association in San Antonio in March 1997. I am now in process of revising the paper for publication.
Because of the usual twenty-minute time constraints of a reading paper, there were several subjects that I was not able to pursue. In the revised version I plan to:
(A) describe more fully the circumstances under which these songs were composed, performed and collected.
(B) attempt to differentiate between the singer/songwriter material and “the songs we all sang.”
(C) discuss the songbooks, especially as they reflect repertory.
Obviously, I need help! I am sending a copy of this paper to all my friends who sing, write, study, or just enjoy Air Force songs. Please let me know what you think of it–all comments, suggestions, additions, criticisms and corrections are welcome.
The songs of the Air Force in the Vietnam War are part of a long tradition of military folksong. They are closely linked to the mainstream of American folksong, to the folksongs of other services, and to the folksongs of earlier wars. However, they also have some characteristics that set them off from the songs of civilians and of other military personnel who served in the Vietnam War.For a discussion of the songs of Americans who served in the military or as civilians in Southeast Asia see Lydia Fish, “General Edward G. Lansdale and the Folksongs of Americans in the Vietnam … Continue reading Some of these are related to the temperament of the men who created and sung them; others probably are related to the nature of the war itself.
Most of the songs of the Air Force are set to well-known tunes, either those of popular songs or folksongs. Tunes like “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” “The Wabash Cannon Ball,” “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean,” “Down in the Valley,” and “The Strawberry Roan” turn up again and again. One of the best-known of all Air Force songs, sung in World War I as “A Poor Aviator Lay Dying” and in the Vietnam War as “Beside a Laotian Waterfall,” is a variant of a widespread song known in American tradition as “The Dying Hobo” and in British tradition as “Wrap Me Up in my Tarpaulin Jacket.” One of the more popular bawdy songs, “Zoot Suits and Parachutes,” which appears in Navy tradition as “Bell Bottom Trousers,” is a direct descendent of the British song “Rosemary Lane.”
The young officers who flew in the Vietnam war had attended college during the folksong revival of the late fifties and early sixties and many had been members of performing groups in college. Some even brought their guitars along to Southeast Asia. Bull Durham, a fine country music performer as well as a career officer, had already recorded an album of SAC songs before his tour. Almost every Air Force pilot owned copies of the Korean War-era recordings of Air Force songs (The Wild Blue Yonder, 1959, and Out of the Blue, n.d.) that Oscar Brand made for Electra Records and these strongly influenced the Vietnam War tradition.
The American pilots in World War I sang mostly British and French songs, just as they flew British and French aircraft. (Getz, 1986: 2) In World War II, also, there was a strong link between the British and American traditions of pilots’ songs. Robin Olds, who arrived in England in May of 1944, writes of the RAF pilots:
. . . Their songs were down-to-earth, direct and live-for-today. They voiced a warrior’s ritual of defiance: screw you, world, screw what you’re doing to me, and screw the horse you rode in on. And their songs separated them from the reality of another empty chair in the mess. To hell with tomorrow!
Ribald and bawdy, RAF voices rose in exalted deification of man’s bodily functions (or, more particularly and specifically, of woman’s). There were derisive songs about certain aircraft and those who built them, sung mostly by those who had survived flying the things. There were songs about the bumbling asses in higher headquarters who “run and they shout, talking of things they know nothing about,” in contrast to the “boys that fly high in the sky, bosom buddies while boozing.” And sometimes, not often, there were sad songs, late in the evening, when defiance had abated, and a measure of lonely hopelessness crept in:
Stand to your glasses steady
[This world is a world full of lies]
Here’s a toast to the dead already
Hurrah for the next man to die.
. . . In 1942, as America’s young fighting men spread around the globe, these songs percolated into their mess tents in New Guinea by way of Australia. They became a part of squadron life in the desert of North Africa by way of the RAF’s Desert Air Force. They were learned in British pubs and in contact with the men of the RAF. They were a delightful addition to America’s own milder creations, and helped infuse an entirely new gusto in our appreciation of ourselves in the crucible of combat. (Getz, 1986: 1-2)
Many of these songs, suitably updated, survived into the Vietnam War: “Give Me Operations,” “Throw a Nickel on the Grass, Save a Fighter Pilot’s Ass,” “The Co-Pilot’s Lament,” “There Are No Fighter Pilots Down in Hell,” and “The Air Corps Lament” (“The Force is Shot to Hell”). It was during the Korean War, according to Robin Olds, that they were matched by songs of strictly American origin (Getz, 1986: 2), many of which remained popular with Vietnam War aviators: “Call Out the Goddamn Reserves,” “Itazuke Tower,” and two marvelous variations on the boy-meets-exotic-girl theme, “Lee’s Hoochie” and “Cigareets and Sake and Wild, Wild Josans.” It was also during the Korean War that a certain element of black humor first became noticeable in Air Force Songs, to a degree, Getz argues, not found in World War I or World War II songs: “the satiric, sometimes bitter, sometimes callous words that tell of the innocents of war.” (Getz 1981: 5) “It Was Sad When my Napalm Went Down” and “As We Came Around and Tried to Get Some More” were still sung in the Vietnam War.
Songs are often shared among the services. “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier,” a World War I parody of a song from The Passing Show of 1914, a revue at the London Hippodrome, turned up in Army and Marine Aviation as well as Air Force tradition in the Vietnam War. “Fuck ‘Em All,” the anthem of the British fighting man since World War I, probably originated in the Royal Naval Air Force. It was current among British, Commonwealth and American troops in the Pacific Theater in World War II and was updated to “Tiptanks and Tailpipes: in the Korean War. (The “cleaned up” version of the song, “Bless ‘Em All,” copyrighted in 1940 and made popular by Grace Fields, has only served, in the words of Ed Cray, to teach civilians the proper tune for the many improper verses that circulate. (Cray: 389) “Stand to your Glasses” supposedly originated in the British Army in India during a cholera attack. “Saigon Warrior,” “Saigon Commando,” “Here’s to Old Da Nang” and “Here’s to Old Udorn” are variants of an Australian and New Zealand Army song from World War I, “The Lousy Lance Corporal.” The song turns up in Army and Air Force tradition, as well as among Australian troops, in the Vietnam War. Texts of Air Force songs such as “Throw a Nickel on the Grass,” “Dear Ma’am, Your Son Is Dead,” and “Strafe the Town” are found in the songbooks of Marine aviators. Randy Cunningham reports that the text of Toby Hughes’ “Tchepone” was posted in the ready room on his ship. (Cunningham: 3)
The Air Force also shares with the other services a vast body of bawdy song. Some of these, like “Barnacle Bill the Pilot,” “Sammy Small,” and “Zoot Suites and Parachutes” have been adapted to fit their environment, others like “Adeline Schmidt,” “The Ball of Ballynoor,” “Mary Ann Burns, Queen of all the Acrobats,” and “In China They Do It for Chili” could have been heard at almost any fraternity house or college rugby party in the sixties. Ed Cray, the principal contemporary scholar of bawdy song, feels that these songs are less common than they used to be among the general population, but they still appear to be flourishing in the Air Force; the 744th Combat Song Book, printed at Incirlik Air Base during Desert Storm, contains many of the classics. One fine new song, “Shit Hot from Korat,” was written during the Vietnam War, presumably at Korat. It belongs to the great tradition of songs about young women who will take on all comers in various combinations.
The distinctive qualities of Air Force songs reflect the personalities of the men who write and sing them. Most of the songs of the Air Force in the Vietnam War that have survived on tape or in songbooks were written and sung by fighter pilots, who have always been distinguished by a certain independence of spirit. In 1917 Edgar C. Middleton wrote in The Way of the Air: “The air does affect a man to a degree and endows him with the strange malady, flying temperament, that makes him reckless, and, to a certain degree headstrong; [leading him] occasionally to get out of hand and to find rules and discipline chafing and irksome.” (Kennett, 134) Almost sixty years later this opinion was echoed by an assistant to the secretary of defense who wrote after a familiarization visit to the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing at Takhli, “While these men might be of some significant value in the event of all-out conflict, I fear that they might not be susceptible to normal management techniques in any other situation.” (Letter to LMF, 7 January 1994)
Fighter pilots were also very conscious of their status as members of an elite, heirs to a tradition of legendary “knights of the air’ that had emeged during World War I. (Pisano, Dietz, Gernstein, Schneide: 19-41) They were not draftees who had been mass-processed into the infantry, but volunteers who had survived the stringent and competitive processes of pilot training.
The most romantic and adventurous of those who had volunteered to fly were certain that the ultimate manner in which to pursue the war was a fighter pilot, a figure who had emerged from World War II as the most glamorous in the air–the very top of the pilot pecking order. The fighter pilot was viewed as a man with dash, derring-do, and a special edge of courage that singled him out from all others. (Robbins: 8)
Their songs reflected their sense of mission, of honor, and of loyalty to the group, as well as their lack of reverence for authority, scepticism, and rampant individualism.
In 1970 Major John Roberts, who served with the 557th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Cam Ranh Bay in 1969 and later transferred to the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Korat, put together a narrated tape of Air Force songs that he had collected during his tour. In his introduction he states:
As might be expected, the war in Southeast Asia has generated quite a number of songs, written and sung by the participants, and, as much as anything else, they tell it like it is. This is history, and it deserves to be preserved. So on this tape you will hear some fifty songs that I’ve been able to collect from the wings in Vietnam and Thailand. Some of them are happy; some are sad. Some are fresh and enthusiastic; some may seem cynical or disdainful of the way things are. Fighter pilots have never been reluctant to complain a little. Just let’s not forget that we often pretend to deride those things we hold most dear. You’re going to hear genuine courage, and honest understandable doubts about the good sense of doing things which are then done with the fullest enthusiasm. But let’s also not forget that not nationalism, not even patriotism, but only comradeship, the loyalty to the group, is the essence of fighting morale. And that morale is certainly embodied in the songs you are now going to hear.
According to Les Cleveland:
. . . the occupational folklore of the military services contains a wide-ranging expressive repertoire that ranges from compliance with the military system to extreme opposition to it. On the one hand, it contributes to the official values that military organizations promote and feature in their integrative rituals, ceremonies, uniforms, insignia, specialized jargon, narratives, cadence calls and the occupational songs of the happy warrior. On the other hand, it offers large possibilities for indulgence in erotic fantasy as well as protest, opposition and grumbling. (Cleveland: 88)
The songs of the Air Force are unusual in military folklore in that they display little of the concern with the negotiation of power that is often present in the songs of the other services. Although there is plenty of grumbling and opposition in Air Force songs, they do not express the sense of powerlessness that is often found in the songs of conscripted troops. As one of my fighter pilot friends put it, “In general we regard our SEA experiences from the perspective of badly-managed warriors rather than victims.” (Letter to LMF, 9 Feburary 1993) Many of the songs of the Air Force in the Vietnam War are sharply critical of bombing policies, the rules of engagement, and the brass in general. “Our Leaders,” which appears to have originated among Thud drivers at Takhli in the early years of the war, and expresses their contempt for Air Force leadership and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, is a fine example. Later in the war Dave Wilson, who was flying F-100s at Phu Cat with the Sioux City Air National Guard, wrote a delightfully cynical song about the joys of bombing trees in I Corps.
Air Force songs are typical of occupational folklore in their concern with technology and their use of esoteric language. Les Cleveland writes:
The occupational basis of services songs is also evident in their specialized vocabularies, their richly imaginative slang and the great number of compositions that deal with the technicalities of the work process, especially drilling, marching and the management of weaponry and equipment. Such a concern with the maintenance, servicing and operation of weapons and machinery might be expected since twentieth-century warfare is essentially an industrialized, mass production and mass consumption activity that is increasingly dependent on the disciplined performance of the work skills demanded by high technology. A glance at the navigational aids of any modern naval vessel, at the controls of any jet aircraft, at the range-finding equipment of any field artillery unit, of at the signals system used by any modern combat formation indicates the extent to which mechanized warfare is enmeshed with technological resources that demand competent, disciplined performance by its users. (Cleveland: 22)
A large number of the Air Force songs from the Vietnam War are about airplanes: “The Thunder Thud,” “If You Fly,” “The Inventory,” “Give Me Operations,” “My Darling F-4,” “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” “Republic’s Ultra Hog,” “Skoshi Tiger,” “Extracamouflagalistic Super Constellation,” and “Whispering Death.” The songs complain about the shortcomings of planes, describe their idiosyncracies, compare one plane favorably to all others, or discuss the technique of flying them. Very few Air Force songs are written from the point of view of the ground personnel, but there is one song in the Project archives, about an F-4 that never returned, that was written by Richard M. Tsuda, CMSgt, while he was working as a dispatcher in Maintenance Control at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in 1967. He writes:
My job was to dispatch avionics specialists to fix the various aircraft we had assigned so they could meet their missions. The F-4 I wrote about was launched one morning and never returned. I called one of the many shops I had hotline to and told one of the technicians that he could take tail number xxxx off of his status board. When asked why, I sang the song that I had just written. (Letter from Richard M. Tsuda to Lydia Fish, 18 September 1989)
These songs were sung at formal dinners, at raucous hundred-mission parties, in O-club bars, and in hooches. Thanks to the ubiquitous duplicating machines, songsheets and songbooks could be printed and passed out for group singing. The ambitious collector of Dirty Ditties had his songbook printed professionally by the Dragon Gate Stationery and Printing Company in Taipei. Excellent tape recorders were available on R and R trips to Bangkok and Hongkong, so concerts and informal song sessions could be recorded, copied and passed from one base to another. The Vietnam War produced a number of talented Air Force singers and songwriters, so many new songs were added to ones passed on from earlier wars. The black humor found in some Korean War songs persisted, producing such songs as “Chocolate-Covered Napalm.” Other songs reflect the peculiar circumstances of what Bill Getz has described as “the most difficult war that any American soldier, sailor or airman has ever had to fight.” But with a few exceptions, he says, “the selections in the Vietnam War songbooks are the same funny, profane and thoughtful songs of past wars.” (Getz, 1991: 5) Thanks to an informal tape network, these songs spread fast. Toby Hughes wrote three songs while he was stationed at Cam Ranh Bay in 1968 and made a tape for the members of his squadron before he left. The tape beat him back to the states–when he walked into the casual bar at his first stateside assignment he was greeted by his own voice singing “Tchepone.” (Interview with Toby Hughes by Lydia Fish, 1 June 1991)
As Joe Tuso has pointed out, a certain atmosphere, a certain kind of person, and sufficient leisure time were necessary for these songs to have been written. At some bases, he writes, songs were doubtless composed and sung in the confines of a lonely room in the early morning hours after a mission–such songs were probably not meant for the public and, except for rare instances, will never be sung again. But at other bases like Phu Cat and Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam and Korat, Ubon and Udorn in Thailand, songs locally composed and sung were often central to the flyers’ social life and were sung, copied, and taped over and over again. (Tuso: 15) Dick Jonas, of the 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron at Ubon, was the most prolific songwriter of the war and his songs circulated widely, both in informal recordings made during his tour and in commercial recordings made after his return to the United States. Frank Walsh, J. J. Smith, and Irving Levine, of the 553rd Reconnaissance Wing and 399th Tactical Fighter Wing at Korat, compiled a wonderful tape of Thud and EC-121R songs recorded during an informal song session and at Levine’s one hundred mission party. Gene Deatrick recorded the songs of Ron Barker at Bien Hoa. Draper and Hunt, of the 355th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Tuy Hoa, wrote six fine songs and sang them in harmony on a tape that turns up again and again. Dave Wilson, stationed at Phu Cat with the Sioux City Air National Guard, recorded eight songs, mostly of his own composition, but including a superb version of “Call Out the Goddamn Reserves.” Tony McPeak, later chief of staff of the Air Force, was also at Phu Cat and wrote two FAC songs: “VC Blues” and “Phu Cat Star.” A third singer from Tuy Hoa, Pete J. McGaddis, recorded one original song and a version of “Saigon Girls.” Toby Hughes wrote three songs at Cam Ranh Bay, including “Tchepone,” the best-known of all the songs of the in-country air war. There is a whole series of songs written from the point of view of the truck drivers on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, including four by Chip Dockery. Al Tischner, Fred Wozniak, Dave Post and Dave Biermeyer, members of the 11th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron at Udorn, recorded six songs and collected them on a narrated tape after Fred Wozniak was shot down. The Covey FACS produced two excellent singer-songwriters, Fred Clark and Skip Franklin. An anonymous group of Air Rescue pilots at Da Nang recorded 21 songs.
These tapes also contain other material: recitations, skits, poems, and cockpit recordings. The most famous of the skits is “What the Captain Means,” “recorded when a civilian correspondent interviewed a shy unassuming Air Force Phantom jet fighter pilot. So the correspondent wouldn’t misconstrue the pilot’s replies, the Wing Information Officer was on hand as a monitor to make certain that the real Air Force story would be told.” This classic of the Air War was written by Lt. Col. Joe Kent, who was at that time serving as the Information Officer for the Twelfth Tactical Fighter Wing at Cam Ranh Bay. It was recorded in August or September 1967, with Kent playing the part of the Wing Information Officer, Colonel Travis McNeil playing the part of the captain, and “a major from PACAF” playing the part of the correspondent. (Interview with General Travis McNeil by Lydia Fish, 8 May 1992) “What the Captain Means circulated among pilots during the remainder of the war; I have received copies from twenty or more sources. Several introductions have been added at different times and there is also a Sandy version, possibly from Da Nang, another A-1 version from the 633rd Special Operations Wing at Pleiku, and a Connie version from Korat. Another famous skit is “Sharkbait 21,” also from Cam Ranh Bay, a fake cockpit tape about a mission during which the fighters manage to shoot down their forward air controller. There are two charming monologs, one about a truck driver on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and one about a ZPU gunner, by a Misty FAC whom I have not been able to identify.
Two real cockpit tapes which were widely circulated are “Detroit Lead” and “Strobe Eleven.” “Detroit Lead” is usually identified as a tape of a F-105 shootdown and has even been used in pilot instruction as an example of the dangers of over-confidence. (Interview with Toby Hughes by Lydia Fish, 1 June 1991) The episode occurred in December 1966 during a mission by the 333rd Tactical Fighter Squadron from Takhli. Detroit flight, the third flight into the target area, was out of position and got strung out. Detroit Lead became separated from his flight and thought he had extensive battle damage, but landed unscathed at Udorn. (Bell, 124-130) “Strobe Eleven” is a tape of the episode in which General Worley, at that time Vice Commander of the Seventh Air Force, was hit by ground fire while flying a night reconnaissance mission in an RF-4C. The back seater ejected, but the general did not. (Letter from Lee Dixon to Lydia Fish, 2 December 1994)
Many of these tapes are simply personal collections–men copied songs or entire tapes from a friend’s collection, or recorded a concert or party. Other tapes are carefully edited and narrated and are presented as esoteric oral histories. A copy of the tape that J. J. Smith, Irving Levine and Frank Walsh put together at Korat was sent to General Ryan, Commander of the Seventh Air Force. The tape that Dave Tischner edited and narrated may have been intended as a memorial to Fred Wozniak, who was shot down on 17 January 1967, two nights after recording “Foggy Night, No Moonlight.” Mark Berent, the author of Steel Tiger and Rolling Thunder, edited and narrated a tape that included a lot of standard material as well as some fine songs from the 531st Tactical Fighter Squadron and the Mike Force troops at Bien Hoa. A copy of John Roberts’ tape, presented as a musical tour of the air war, wound up in the tape library at Udorn, where it was copied by numerous pilots.
This consciousness of these songs as an integral part of Air Force history was best expressed by William Wallrich in the introduction to his Air Force Airs, an excellent collection of Air Force songs from World War I through Korea. He writes:
Songs such as these are known on every flight line, are sung in airmen’s, NCO, and officers’ messes and clubs throughout the world. They are one element in the voice of the service world–in this case the Air Force. They are the voice of the line mechanic and the supply clerk, the second lieutenant wing man and the “retread” who flew archaic aircraft into battle in an age when today’s latest aircraft design was obsolete just before noon yesterday. The aces, single and double and triple; the bemused and bemedaled characters known by all fighting organizations; the generals whose every thought, action, and verbal statement made stateside headlines–all had their means of expression. Their deeds were constantly recorded by articulate PIO and PRO men as well as by the complicated, mechanical, and “story” seeking and creating American press.
Everyone else, front-line peon to rear-echelon honcho, had to seek his own means of expression–and found it. Their jokes, catch phrases, and, above all, the songs they created and sang and remembered to sing again, all contained the essence of how they felt, what they thought, what they thought about, and, most important, what they thought of themselves and where they were and of what they were doing and why they were doing it. (Wallrich: xviii-xix)The songs mentioned in this paper are from the tape and songbook collections in the archives of the Vietnam Veterans Oral History and Folklore Project. The Project is seeking additional material; if … Continue reading
Bell, Kenneth H. 100 Missions North. Washington: Brassey’s (US), 1993.
Cleveland, Les. Dark Laughter: War in Song and Popular Culture. Westport CT: Praeger Publishers, 1994.
Cray, Ed. The Erotic Muse. Second edition. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
Cunningham, Randy (with Jeff Ethell). Fox Two. Warner Books: New York 1984.
Getz, C. W. The Wild Blue Yonder: Songs of the Air Force. Volume I. Burlingame, CA: Redwood Press, 1981.
——– The Wild Blue Yonder: Songs of the Air Force. Volume II. Stag Bar Edition. Burlingame, CA: Redwood Press, 1986.
Kennett, Lee. The First Air War: 1914-1918. New York: The Free Press, 1991.
Pisano, Dominick A.; Dietz, Thoma J.; Gernstein, Joanne M.; Schneide, Karl S.
Legend, Memory and the Great War in the Air. Published for the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992.
Robbins, Christopher. The Ravens. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1987.
Tuso, Joseph F. Singing the Vietnam Blues: Songs of the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam. College Station: Texas A and M Press, 1990.
Wallrich, William. Air Force Airs. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1957.
© 1996 by Lydia Fish
Page updated 28 July, 1999
|↑1||For a discussion of the songs of Americans who served in the military or as civilians in Southeast Asia see Lydia Fish, “General Edward G. Lansdale and the Folksongs of Americans in the Vietnam War,” Journal of American Folklore 102, no. 406 (October-December, 1989) 390-411.|
|↑2||The songs mentioned in this paper are from the tape and songbook collections in the archives of the Vietnam Veterans Oral History and Folklore Project. The Project is seeking additional material; if you have tapes or songbooks that you are willing to contribute, please contact us at the address below. Open reel and cassette tapes will be copied and your original tapes returned to you along with digitally enhanced studio copies. If you prefer not to send original songbooks, we shall be delighted to reimburse you for copying costs.
Several of the singers mentioned in this paper–Chip Dockery, Bull Durham, Toby Hughes, and Dick Jonas–are working closely with the Project. We are still searching for the others. If you know the whereabouts of any of the singers mentioned in this paper, or of any other Air Force singer or songwriter, please contact us!