By Jason Massad
During his year-long stint in Vietnam in 1969, one of the bloodiest years of the conflict, Hugh Penn learned an important lesson that helped him sleep at night.
The calm, collected Air Force veteran from Sandy Springs wasn’t getting many winks when he arrived at Pleiku, a strategically important U.S. air base in the central highlands of Vietnam. He couldn’t yet distinguish the different sounds made by incoming rockets and outgoing artillery.
The constant, uncertain pounding – and anxiety – kept him awake throughout the night at the beginning of his tour.
One day, he learned the difference first hand. The austere showers were outside the protection of the bunkers that ringed the air base in an outdoor, fenced area.
He made his way out to get cleaned up. A rare daytime rocket attack sent him running for the safety of a bunker where his helmet and flak jacket were, while he was wrapped in a towel.
“After that I could never forget the sound of incoming,” Penn said. “I could sleep through everything else after that.”
Penn, 65, served as a personnel staffer from 1966 to 1969, when he was stationed in the U.S., and served a similar role for his one-year tour in Vietnam – executing the reassignment of U.S. Air Force service members at the air base as the war dictated. He rose to the rank of staff sergeant, or an E-5.
During the course of a recent two-hour conversation, he explained the pride he had in his military service and his political views on arguably America’s most controversial war. He dropped his guard enough to reveal his uncertainty about what it all meant, even 40 years later.
“It’s very complicated. Should we have been there? Should we not have been there?” Penn said. “Did we fill the vacuum of the French?”
Veterans across Sandy Springs, their families and city residents will have the opportunity to reflect on their personal military stories and the collective sacrifices of the nation’s veterans Nov. 11.
Encouraged by Sandy Springs Councilwoman Karen Meinzen McEnerny, the city will host its first Veterans Day event at Morgan Falls Overlook Park. McEnerny, a self described “Army brat,” said her vision for the event came from early childhood memories of crisp uniforms and the parade formations at West Point.
Her father, Walter E. Meinzen, was a West Point graduate, class of 1948, and retired as a colonel after 30 years of service in 1978. He was a decorated infantry officer awarded a Silver Star while serving two tours in Vietnam. He died when he was 57.
“I want to do as much as I can to make the connection between the military and the community – that same feeling I had as a child at West Point watching those valiant cadets marching in unison on the parade grounds,” she said. “That’s the connection I want to make, and Morgan Falls is such an inspirational setting.”
Penn, for his part, is one of a number of vets in the community who regularly meet and quietly raise money for veterans’ needs. He won’t be attending the event in Sandy Springs because he had scheduled an out-of-town vacation for the day.
His home in northeast Sandy Springs, shaded by hardwood trees and tucked back near an offshoot of the Chattahoochee River, is the only one on the block marked by an American flag.
As he talked of his four years of service, he said he wouldn’t talk about the politics of the war. But he couldn’t help himself. “Americans say we shouldn’t have been there, but they elected a president that chose to send us,” he said.
The Tet Offensive, a surprise attack by the North Vietnamese in 1968 on American-held bases across Vietnam, is widely considered to be a military defeat for the aggressors. They didn’t capture bases, the attack didn’t inspire a popular uprising against American troops, and it provoked a counterattack that produced heavy casualties for the North Vietnamese.
But in a deeply divided America, the events of Tet turned public opinion against the war, Penn recalled. “We countered, and we beat the snot out of them, but we lost Walter Cronkite.” Cronkite was the CBS-TV anchorman who famously declared the war unwinnable after Tet. President Lyndon B. Johnson didn’t run for re-election, and Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam,“had the rug pulled out from under him,” Penn said.
Penn, articulate and genteel, was firm as he asserted that America didn’t lose the war. It was successfully handed over to South Vietnam, America’s ally. And he said he believes that America could have defeated North Vietnam militarily. But he acknowledged that the problems he witnessed led him to realize the war was being mishandled from the top.
“You knew while you were in the Air Force that the war was being mismanaged,” he said.
Pleiku air base occupied a strategically important supply corridor for the American war effort. It gave the Air Force access to port facilities to the east and served as a buffer against North Vietnamese strongholds in Cambodia to the west.
For Penn, the days from 1969 to 1970 were marked by working long hours — in an air-conditioned office he pointed out in a photograph — often six days a week. It was also marked by boredom, broken up by games of touch football.
And drinking beer for $1.85 a case. Preferably, at night, perched on top of a bunker, watching the war from a not so-safe distance.
Gooney Birds, the nickname given to a variation of the C-47 Skytrain gunship, could give clues about what was going on in the battles being fought in the central highlands, a jungle landscape that Penn, a long-time resident of Atlanta, compared to the rolling foothills of north Georgia.
The release of a white flare from the gunship meant that they were illuminating the sky, hunting for targets. A red flare was more ominous. It meant contact with an enemy that was sometimes not so far outside the fence enclosing the air base.
Most of the time, service members at the base didn’t carry a rifle, he said.
An old French colonial plantation served as the joint headquarters for American and South Vietnamese forces. One night, small-arms fire started peppering the air base, which was protected by air police, Army, and Special Forces units.
How dangerous was that?
“It means they are close enough to see you,” Penn said.
The firefight lasted most of the night, Penn recalled. The next day, 13 dead North Vietnamese fighters were pulled off the wire near an outpost on the perimeter of the air base that housed the Army and Special Forces units.
Penn has lost a lot of the memorabilia he had from his service in Vietnam. He has some old photos and a reproduction of his service cap. But the war will always be a part of his life. He has reflected on his experience more and more as he’s gotten older, he said.
“At first you just wanted to put it behind you. The public sentiment was sharply divided – you just wanted to put it behind you,” he said. “But I think about it more and more in my later years.”