Editor’s note: This year marks the 50th anniversary of troop on troop combat in Vietnam as well as the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. Standard Journal is honoring Vietnam veterans throughout the year, continuing today with an Air Force veteran from Mifflinburg.
MIFFLINBURG — Unless you are a die-hard military historian, or an ardent follower of the U.S. Air Force, you’ve likely not heard of RED HORSE (Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operations Repair Squadron Engineers).
Bill Jarrett, a 1969 graduate of Lewisburg High School, was part of the elite squadron a few short years after it got its start in 1965.
Jarrett enlisted in the Air Force out of school and ended up with the squadron in Vietnam in October 1971.
“I kind of always had it in my mind I wanted to go into the Air Force,” he said. “I got my pre-induction physical and as soon as they needed men I was on the list ready to go.”
After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, where he spent Christmas and New Year’s, he was given direct duty assignment at Lowry Air Force Base, Denver, Colo., with the 34th 15 Civil Engineering Squadron. There he specialized in carpentry.
After two years in Denver, Jarrett volunteered for duty in Vietnam with 554th RED HORSE.
“I wanted to do my patriotic duty,” he said. “I volunteered. I specified RED HORSE. I had talked to guys stateside that had been with RED HORSE. It sounded like something I wanted to do.”
RED HORSE consisted of two, 404-man heavy-repair mobile squadrons. The squadrons provided the Air Force with a highly mobile civil engineering response force to support contingency and special operations worldwide.
“We had electricians, carpenters, masons — anyone you could imagine in the building trade, we had them,” said Jarrett. “If there was a need somewhere, we could pull from our own squadron. We had cooks. We had everything needed to deploy anywhere.”
Jarrett flew into Cam Ranh Bay, then eventually was shipped to Danang, where RED HORSE went to work immediately on steel buildings to house the C-47 reconnaissance planes being used.
“They didn’t have anyone to work on steel buildings when I got over there, so five of us volunteered,” he remembered. “That’s what we did. I basically went there as a carpenter and erected steel buildings for the first six months I was there.”
The work kept the men busy 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week through the first six months, when activity was still escalating.
“They were building up to bring Marine pilots in,” he said. “They wanted to get them in there fast. I don’t know how long we were in country until we had a day off.”
Jarrett never took R&R (rest and recuperation), typically afforded troops during a year-long tour. He did visit China Beach, which was just to the east of Danang. At night, troops enjoyed movies, flashed upon a mesh of four sheets of plywood tacked between two utility poles stuck in the ground.
Air Force personnel were restricted to the base, so there was no traveling during any down time. Movement to and from China Beach was in convoys.
Jarrett did get to see one of Bob Hope’s several visits to Vietnam.
“It literally poured (rain) during the Bob Hope show,” he said. “We snapped our ponchos together and sat there in the rain.”
As with most military installations throughout the country, Danang relied on locals for some of the menial labor. Jarrett routinely saw and worked with Vietnamese on the base.
The base endured occasional attacks from mortars and rockets, likely Viet Cong (VC) attacks. Hangars were reinforced with concrete, designed specifically to withstand such attacks, so efforts were routinely aimed at personnel, Jarrett said.
“There were incidents where there were direct hits from rockets and you wondered if someone was stepping off coordinates (from inside),” he said. “Mostly they were a good group of workers. I wasn’t afraid of them. For them that was, I imagine, a very good paying job.
“There was so much going on in our outfit. There was so much other construction and runway work; you look back and you wish you paid more attention to what was going on in the squadron.”
Jarrett remains proud today of his service with RED HORSE. Among other medals, he earned the Air Force Commendation Medal during his time in Vietnam.
“I’m proud that I served with that unit,” he said. “They are still active today. We could do anything from installing runways to building barracks. Any kind of facility that needed to be done, we had the capability to do it.”
Chris Brady is managing editor at the Standard Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.