Comments on Air Force songs

Joseph F. Tuso

These remarks are taken from the introduction to Tuso’s Singing the Vietnam Blues: Songs of the Air Force in Southeast Asia and are used by permission.

Occupational social song, whether in the barracks or on the march, has long been a feature of military life, from the time of Caesar’s legions to the present. The tradition has also figured prominently in the lives of American military flyers, partly because of the influence of the British Royal Air Force’s strong song tradition during both world wars and the warm relationships between the two fighting forces. U.S. Air Force flyers have proven especially adept at parodying well-known melodies by adding their own creative lyrics. Folk-song melodies such as “Casey Jones,” “Down in the Valley,” “Strawberry Roan,” and “Sweet Betsy from Pike” have all been used in Air Force songs, as have the 1868 hit “The Daring Young Man on the Flying ‘Trapeze,” “Rambling Wreck from Georgia Tech” and hillbilly music like “The Wabash Cannonball.”

Air Force songs of the Vietnam era have also used a number of these melodies, as well as songs like “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Jingle Bells,” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” Many of the songs in this present volume also use melodies popular from the 1940s to the 1960s. Tunes of this era include the Andrews Sisters’ “Along the Navajo Trail” (1945), the Peggy Lee hit “Mañana” (1948), Vaughn Monroe’s “Ghost Riders in the Sky” (1949), and the antiwar song by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (1946), doubtless popular with combat flyers in Vietnam through the 1960s recording by Peter, Paul, and Mary. The most recent borrowed melodies include Petula Clark’s 1965 hit “Downtown.” Barry Sadler’s 1966 “Ballad of the Green Berets,” and “I’ve Been Everywhere,” a song recorded by several pop and country performers in the 1960s and used in the Vietnam air war to list the many strange-sounding places a flyer has attacked.

I had sung and listened to Air Force songs since 1955 and during my 1968–69 combat tour, and I decided to collect as many songs as I could from the Vietnam War. The collection in this book represents only a number of the hundreds of songs composed at the many Air Force bases in Vietnam and Thailand. At some bases 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 or seen 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. In this latter case, each base or squadron usually had its own composer, men like Dave Wilson at Phu Cat, Dick Jonas of the 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron at Ubon, the most prolific and probably the best Air Force songwriter of the war, or Jeff Wilkins, the minstrel of our own 435th.

Jeff was from the South, in his early twenties, and a bachelor. Southern folk ballads flowed through his veins, and many a night I heard him working on arrangements and lyrics through the paper-thin walls of our adjoining rooms. We had both arrived at Ubon at the same time, so I was able to observe Jeff’s musical life move through several stages. At first he busied himself by listening to tapes of country performers. Next he plunked around and played American folk music on a guitar he brought with him from the States. Gradually home faded in his memory, and the war and his flying comrades began to occupy almost all of his waking thoughts. Jeff turned to practicing some of the songs in this collection and then performed them at squadron parties. Eventually he bought a Japanese twelve-string guitar and began composing songs of his own.

Jeff would start with a feeling, a mood, or a theme, and a melody from the past would seem to fit. He’d play and sing, composing orally, and either he would write out the lyrics when he finished, or another pilot would jot them down as Jeff composed. One night Em Roberts and I helped him write a song in this manner, but it was mainly Jeff’s. He flew almost all his missions at night, the most dangerous kind of flying. As he wrote in one of his songs. “A man must have lust for the lure of the night.”

Implicit in what I’ve said so far is the concept that a certain atmosphere, a certain kind of person and sufficient leisure time were necessary for such songs to have been written. Dave Carson and Tony Dater, who were stationed at Da Nang in F-4s while I was at Ubon, told me that little or no original composition went on there. For the fighter pilot, Da Nang was considered an extremely grim base. Rocket attack was common, and when it was not actually happening it was always feared. A man tended to avoid crowded rooms–he liked to know where the nearest shelter was. Things were quite different at other bases, and these bases seemed to produce more songs. At Ubon, for example, we lived a life very similar to that of the cornitatus, or band of Anglo-Saxon warriors in the Old English heroic poem Beowuif. The center of our social life was our great hall or Officers’ Club. We ate all our meals there in an all-male, war-oriented, closed social group. Through our subchiefs, or flight commanders, we warriors were bound in loyalty to our tribe, or squadron, which was physically embodied in our lord, or squadron commander. His word was law–he punished misdeeds and dispensed rings of gold (Silver Stars and Distinguished Flying Crosses) for deeds of valor.

Once each day we would mount our valiant aircraft, which might be named “The Gunner” or, appropriately enough, “Thor’s Hammer,” and go on a mission. After the mission, we would invariably go to the great hall, join our comrades, and drink amid boasts of our exploits. Our hope of immortality was the promise that we could return home after completing 100 missions over North Vietnam or, after the bombing halt of November, 1968, upon completion of a calendar year of service. We were proud warriors, we rarely talked or thought of death–at least in public. No one ever criticized another’s prowess except in jest, and our subchiefs and lord were the bravest, the most accomplished in battle, of us all. Both this dream of immortality and pride coexisted, however, under the looming presence of wyrd. or fate, for the “golden BB,” that one artillery round or solitary missile destined from the beginning of time to shatter us from the sky, might be waiting for us on tomorrow’s mission. In many ways it was not only an Anglo-Saxon but a very Hemingwayesque way of life, And although many of our comrades did die in battle, it was very often a rather antiseptic death–a dramatic fireball on a beautifully pastoral hillside, or sometimes a simple failure to return, Side by side with death existed another kind of immortality–almost every day new warriors arrived and old warriors left. Our number was always constant.

Every month my squadron, the Eagles, had a formal party. We lived and fought in our battle garb–our drab, green-gray flying suits–but once each month we put on very special, highly ornamented bright blue flying suits, richly polished black boots, and crimson scarves and gathered in the great hall at 8:00 P.M. For an hour or so we would stand and talk in small groups. Now and then I would catch a glimpse of our lord, chatting nobly with those around him. There was an aspect of great respect and deference in the faces of his followers, faces flushed with youth and the joy of life that filled the room. The drink was more a ritual than anything else–great amounts of it were consumed, but I rarely saw anyone drunk. The purpose of the feast was to promote fellowship and perpetuate the rebirth cycle by welcoming the newcomers and paying tribute to those who were leaving.

About 9:00 a feast was served by Thai women in native dress. The tables were sumptuously set. The lord and his staff sat at a table perhaps twenty feet long, with the lord at the center. At four tables aligned perpendicularly to the lord’s table sat the warriors of the four flights, with those of highest rank sitting nearest the lord’s table, and those of lower sitting farthest away. Expensive, choice wine was poured and repoured as we toasted the president, the king of Thailand, the Air Force chief of staff, the wing commander, and our own lord, the squadron commander, As we ate, occasionally a warrior would rise and jokingly toast another. The laughter and good spirits would resound. During the meal, a solitary singer or a group of singers would provide entertainment. On some occasions songsheets were provided, and we would all sing. Sometimes we sang ballads: sometimes, humorous songs that poked jests at the foibles of our fellows. The songs were often followed by a humorous dramatic sketch or comedy routine.

After the feast, we would sit and sip after-dinner drinks or smoke rich cigars while the new warriors were introduced by the operations officer. Each would say a few words as we sized him up. These were the untried men with whom we would soon be flying, fighting, and perhaps dying. Then those that were leaving would in turn mount the rostrum. Their talks were usually ten to fifteen minutes long, and thoughtfully, carefully prepared. After all, a man had a year to prepare this talk. Each wanted to sum up an indescribable year, to leave something of himself behind for his comrades before he was swept away to Valhalla by the Valkyrie-like C-130 transport that would leave the next morning. carrying only those who had the proper credentials. Finally the lord himself would speak, the wisdom of many battles behind him. He would welcome and encourage the newcomers and pay tribute to those who had successfully run the course. With this, the feast was over, but perhaps half the company would linger another hour or two, talking, drinking, and singing. On one occasion the great lord himself, the wing commander, stayed long after the feast, and we sang songs of our war and of his.

I hope that what I have said will help clarify the social context, the spirit, in which these songs were written and sung. Fellowship, love, hate, joy, loneliness, even despair–these are all found in the songs in this collection. I do not delude myself that these are great songs, but they are truthful songs. They are historic songs, and they deserve to be preserved. By some people, they will even be cherished.