For veteran, airplane cargo told story of the war



JASPER — David Russell, 72, saw the Vietnam War through the cargo of airplanes.

The Kentucky native and now Jasper man joined the Air Force in 1966 right out of high school and was soon stationed in the Pacific refueling the B-52 bombers and C-141 transport planes that flew men, supplies and bombs to and from the battlefields of Vietnam.

When a B-52 never came back to base, Russell knew at least six Americans had been shot down, and when a C-141 came through, he saw what it took to fight the war. Everything related to the war effort was transported on C-141s: supplies, weapons, tanks, soldiers going to the front, prisoners of war returning home and wounded soldiers.

To this day, he chokes up when he talks about what he saw.

“I saw everything on those things,” he said.

What sticks with him most is how young they all were. He was just out of high school, having been called to Louisville for an Army physical right before enlisting in the Air Force. He knew his draft number was coming up, he said, so he thought he might as well choose what branch of the military he joined. He was a week into basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas when he got his draft notice.

“They were going to make sure they got me,” Russell joked.

He still remembers arriving at Lackland. He flew to Texas on a plane loaded with about 60 other new recruits, and they landed around 2 a.m. Right after landing, they were herded onto a bus and driven to the base. When they got there, the bus parked right next to the grass. There was no way to get off without standing on the grass, Russell recalled, but there was a drill sergeant right there yelling at them, “Get off the grass! Get off the grass! You haven’t earned the right to stand on it yet.”

Russell laughs about it now.

“That’s just one of the things they do to aggravate you,” he said.

After basic training, he was stationed in Oklahoma at Clinton Sherman Air Force Base where he was trained as a fueling specialist. Clinton Sherman was a Strategic Air Command base during the Cold War, so Russell was around B-52 bombers loaded with nuclear weapons. If the Cold War became hot, he and his crew had to get all 13 airplanes on base in the air is 15 minutes or less. Russell remembers playing a lot of war games to be prepared in case that ever happened. Fortunately, it didn’t.

For Russell’s roughly 18 months at Clinton Sherman, the base was mostly a transit base, with various aircraft stopping for refueling on their way to somewhere else.

Russell said he got close with his fellow airmen while at Clinton Sherman, but they all lost contact with each other when they left the base, bound for different islands around the Pacific. Only recently did Russell get back in touch with a few of them through Facebook.

“That’s when we learned what the others had done,” he said. “And we all ended up somewhere in the Pacific.”

Russell ended up in Guam, flying out of Clinton-Sherman Air Force base on a C-141 in January 1968, less than 24 hours after being notified of his temporary duty assignment. The assignment lasted six months and was part of support troops the U.S. sent to the Pacific following the North Koreans’ capture of the crew of the USS Pueblo and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam.

When Russell arrived in Guam, he said, the heat and humidity hit him like a wall. It was winter in Oklahoma, with temperatures in the 20s, so he was dressed in winter clothes. Guam has a tropical climate.

“I said, ‘Oh man, this is stifling,’” Russell recalled.

While in Guam, Russell was stationed on Anderson Air Force Base as part of the mobile refueling unit. He worked the night shift, which afforded some amount of peace. He sat alone in the mobile refueling truck with just a radio to connect him to others, waiting for a refueling assignment.

“I liked that,” he said. “I was out there by myself, just me and the radio.”

One night, he was called out to refuel a Boeing 707, and he remembers thinking it looked like something the president would fly.

It wasn’t the president’s plane, but it did belong to a big name in the Pacific: General William Westmoreland, commander of the armed forces in Vietnam. Several high-ranking officers crowded around the plane, supervising the refueling.

“They were more in the way than anything,” Russell said.

Besides, Westmoreland wasn’t even on the plane. He’d been ushered off to somewhere on base. Russell never did find out where, and he didn’t get to see Westmoreland, but he did get to refuel his plane, which is a highlight of his service.

After six months in Guam, Russell returned to Clinton-Sherman in Oklahoma for a short stay before deploying again, this time to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. There, he spent his last 18 months in the Air Force refueling C-141s and other aircraft flying in and out of Vietnam. They were the first stop out of Vietnam, and the last stop before Vietnam, and it was there that Russell really saw the toll the war was taking. It was also the first time he saw people protesting the war.

A mass of Japanese gathered along the fence around the base in protest of the U.S. using the island for B-52 bombers bound for South Vietnam. Some Marines showed up, lined up some planes facing the fence and turned the engines on about half throttle and blew the people back away from the fence.

“I sat there and watched it happen,” Russell said.

That day wasn’t the only demonstration he remembers seeing on Okinawa, but it was the most serious.

When he returned home to the States in June 1970, he saw more anti-war demonstrations, some of which got pretty violent. He remembers hearing about anti-war protesters burning down ROTC buildings at colleges.

“People think now is rough,” Russell said. “They should have seen back then. Vietnam was a bad time.”

The anti-war protests were a bit of a surprise, he said. Although they were aware of the unrest in the U.S. overseas, especially with regards to race and the Civil Rights Movement, the military guarded them from news of anti-war protests. So, when Russell started attending classes at Eastern Kentucky University, he was surprised to see how strong the anti-war sentiment was.

But he tried to put it out of his mind and live as normal a life as possible. He pursued an education degree from Eastern Kentucky and completed his studies in three years. Then, he earned a master’s degree from Western Kentucky University.

Shortly after being discharged, his sister introduced him to one of her co-workers, Linda, who would become his wife. After Russell finished college, the couple moved to Dubois County where Russell got a job teaching agriculture at Southridge High School, and Linda made her career at Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center. The couple has three daughters — Heather Randolph of Peoria, Illinois; Sarah Weber of Jasper; and Shelly Russell of Jasper — and three grandchildren.

Russell retired from a career in education two years ago at the age of 70. It was time to go, he said. He’s lost much of his hearing, which the Veteran’s Administration hospitals attribute to his time in the service, and he has nerve damage in his legs, also from his time in the service. He’s also on the Agent Orange registry due to his time on Guam, which was a depot for the chemical.

Although not from Dubois County, rural Indiana is home now. His daughters are all proud Raiders, and most of his grandchildren are Jasper Wildcats. He and Linda now live in Jasper, too.

“It’s not been bad,” he said. “We’ve liked it here in Dubois County.”

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