The following narrative is based on an oral history interview from the Project Archive of the Grand Valley State University Veterans History Project.
Richard Dahlen was born on July 16, 1948 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His father worked in the heating and air conditioning business while his mother stayed home to raise him and his three younger siblings. "My family had a strong military tradition," Dahlen would later recall. "My grandpa served in World War I and my dad was in World War II. As for growing up in south Minneapolis, my childhood was quite normal. We were middle class and I had lots of friends and did a lot of outdoor activities."
After Dahlen graduated from high school, he spent a year at the University of Minnesota and another year at a small bible college in Grand Rapids, Michigan before deciding to take some time off and re-evaluate his situation. "I had gotten married on November 1, 1968," he said. "Around this time, the Vietnam War was in full swing and if you weren't in school, the draft board gave you a good look. It just so happened that I was interested in a career in air traffic control and had even written a paper on the subject in junior high school, and I decided that I'd like to give it a try. Doing so in the Army seemed the best way because I could join for three years and if I didn't like it, I would soon be done. I knew that my number was up and that I'd probably be getting my draft notice in the next month or two, so to circumvent that, I went to a recruiter and enlisted. The Army didn't offer cash bonuses in those days, but you could get in with a training guarantee in the MOS of your choice as long as you qualified. I was one of the first soldiers to go through the Army's air traffic control school. Prior to this, soldiers in ATC were trained by the Air Force. But around this time, Army aviation was expanding and the concept of air mobile troops had been conceptualized but not put into practice, so the Army wanted to see how that would work. Air traffic control was one of the highest-rated jobs in the Army and I had to go to an Air Force base in Detroit to take a flight physical and undergo special eye and hearing exams, but I made it and was inducted in August 1969."
Dahlen and other new recruits were taken down to Fort Knox, Kentucky for eight weeks of basic training. When hey arrived at the base late in the evening a group of not-too-friendly drill sergeants were waiting to give them a proper welcome. One of the drill sergeants came onto Dahlen's bus and told the recruits in a very loud voice that they had exactly fifteen seconds to get off and line up out front. When the scared privates had obeyed their first order, their instructors walked around them and had little powwows amongst themselves. To Dahlen, it seemed as if these stern-looking men were evaluating their new charges. Then the recruits were taken to a barracks where they sacked out for the night. Early the next morning, they exchanged their civilian clothes for Army uniforms, got their heads shaved and were assigned to their training companies. Dahlen was fortunate enough to be placed in an experimental company where everybody had two or more years of college under their belts. His peers came from all over the United States and most of them were in their early twenties, which made these men a bit older than the average recruit. Although the members of this special company still had to pass all of the Army's physical tests in order to graduate from basic training, most of their instruction was done in the classroom as opposed to out in the field. A majority of the recruits in the company were volunteers and the Army even allowed them to go home on leave during certain weekends - an unheard of luxury for new privates. "Boot camp for me was a little different than what other people experienced," Dahlen recalled. "As far as I could tell, the thinking behind the experiment was that if the Army put recruits who had done some college together in one company, the result would be soldiers who were slightly more motivated. But I can tell you that this didn't mean that they treated us any nicer than the other recruits. We still had to undergo all kinds of inspections, do hundreds of push-ups, scrub bathroom floors with a toothbrush and dry shave in the morning if the drill sergeants found a whisker out of place. And we did a lot of marching and close-order drill even though we didn't have as much physical training as the other guys. One thing I remember from basic training is when they came and got a bunch of us from the company and took us to a special meeting where a captain spent about an hour trying to talk some of us into volunteering for explosive ordnance demolition, saying that the Army needed men of our caliber and other BS like that. I think one hundred percent of us were smart enough to say no and walk out. It was interesting that our company got hit pretty hard with these types of things."
After graduating from basic training, Dahlen spent a short time at an Air Force base in Biloxi, Mississippi before shipping to Fort Rucker, Alabama, home of Army aviation. "I went down to Biloxi because the Army was just phasing out there and some of the guys that went in earlier than I did had not had their physicals, so they wanted qualified people to fill up the last couple of classes in case any of these others washed out on their physicals. Then it was off to Fort Rucker to attend their new air traffic control school. When we arrived, we were sent to our company area and had to take the "condemned" signs off the doors of our barracks in order to move in. These barracks had been constructed during World War II and were way on the back side of the post. They had coal furnaces, which meant that some of us didn't get Christmas off. Each building was two stories and the upstairs was so hot you could hardly breathe, while the butt-cans would freeze on the lower floor at night because it was so cold."
Although Dahlen was not too impressed with his living quarters, he felt that the Army had an excellent air traffic control school, which boasted new labs and civilian instructors who were experts in their field. "They did a really great job and when we came out of there, we knew our stuff," Dahlen recalled. Because the school was training many pilots, it had a lot of satellite bases where the air traffic control students could get some hands-on training to hone the skills they learned in the classroom. "Air traffic control in the Army was made up of three separate parts," Dahlen said. "There was the ATC tower, there was what's called the en route portion, which was basically between airports controlling planes, and then there was ground control approach, which is what I was trained in. The GCA portion is actually a type of radar which looks like normal radar when it's in the search mode, but when you put it into the mode of taking an aircraft on an approach, the antenna that usually sweeps simply goes back and forth while the second antenna next to it goes up and down, and they're just wiggling like that. The result is that two lines, or cursors, appear on the radar scope. One of the cursors is the extended runway central line and the other is a glide path that's going from a pre-set angle out of the airport up basically to infinity. So the purpose of GCA is to use heading and vary the rate of descent in order to get an aircraft centered on the course line and the glide path. This way you can bring them right down to the end of the runway and into a safe landing. This, of course, is mostly used when the weather is bad and the pilots aren't able to see the airport."
All of the soldiers attending the school at Fort Rucker were required to pass the Federal Aviation Administration's written exam in order to qualify as air traffic controllers. For Dahlen and other soldiers going into GCA, classroom training lasted eight weeks, followed by two weeks of lab, where they were placed in a simulated radar environment. "There was somebody behind a wall putting in inputs into what were really huge computers and that all came up and they followed our instructions and made it happen on our radar scopes," Dahlen recalled. "Once we passed this phase of the school, we were sent out to airfields all around the Rucker area where the pilots-in-training were out doing their exercises. We could be in a small radar building doing the GCA approaches for student pilots, so both groups were learning the process. This phase lasted six weeks. There were no accidents or close calls because we would only train on days that had good weather. The students would come all throughout the day, but there would only be a few at a time at each little airfield, so there wasn't any congested activity."
When Dahlen and his peers had completed their labwork, they graduated from air traffic control school and were given their duty assignments. Most of them, including Dahlen himself, received orders to go to Vietnam and were given thirty days of leave. After he had said goodbye to his family, Dahlen went to Oakland, California, boarded a commercial airliner and flew to the war in Southeast Asia. He landed at Bien Hoa Air Force base at around one o'clock in the morning. "What I remember most about Vietnam is the odor and heat," Dahlen recalled. "They both just hit you like a hammer when you stepped off the air-conditioned plane. Bien Hoa was close to Saigon and the river that flowed through the city was a dark, dark brown. Piles of garbage flowed from the banks of Saigon into that river, and a lot of the city's human waste was dumped right in there as well. Most of our waste was burned at our bases. The outhouses had split fifty-five-gallon drums in them and every day, a papa-san would drag those out, fill them with diesel fuel and light them."
When Dahlen and other new soldiers arrived in Vietnam, they went inside a large hangar and waited - a common activity in the Army. After what seemed like hours, an officer came and welcomed the greenhorns to Vietnam and then told them to find their stuff, which had been taken off the plane and thrown in a corner of the hangar. Because it was late at night, Dahlen and his peers sacked out for the night in a temporary barracks and were processed the next morning. They waited another day before receiving their statioin orders. Dahlen was assigned to the 1st Aviation Brigade of the 341st Aviation Detachment (Divisional). The unit was stationed at Cu Chi, which was home to the Army's 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam. Cu Chi was a fairly large base camp that was about fifty miles northwest of Saigon and was not very far from the Cambodian border. As Dahlen traveled to his new home on a UH-1 Huey helicopter, he looked out at the Vietnamese countryside for the first time. Cu Chi was located in a one-hundred-and-twenty-square mile area known as the Iron Triangle due to its reputation as a Viet Cong stronghold. The place had been a hot spot during the Tet Offensive and by the time Dahlen came to Vietnam, the countryside in the area had changed drastically as a result of defoliation by U.S. planes. "I was seeing rice paddies and people working in those, and scattered little hamlets," he recalled. "This wasn't my first helicopter ride, but it was the first one where I had a gunner on each side behind me and was concerned about what was happening on the ground. I was not prepared for this. We had had some NCO's at Fort Rucker who'd served in Vietnam, but they never really talked about it."
Cu Chi was in III Corps, where the land was flatter and the weather a lot hotter and wetter than in the mountainous terrain of I Corps. When Dahlen arrived, the place struck him as being fairly civilized. The base camp was surrounded by barbed wire fences, and these had guard towers posted at certain points. There was a good-sized airport with one runway and heliports could be found all over the camp. Dahlen's company area was located right on top of a large berm, with only a small road and the fence separating them from the Vietnamese jungle. "We were a unique company because we not only had the air traffic controllers, but all the refuelers and the rearmament people," Dahlen recalled. "It was unusual for a company to have such a wide variety of people. Most of the POL and rearm guys were troublemakers that other companies had gotten rid of. We all got along and worked well together, but there was a contrast between the two sides of the company area as far as the personnel were concerned. The guys I worked with were a great bunch, and very professional in how they did their jobs. I enjoyed my time with them. So it was a good place to be in from the standpoint of security, although we did get mortar attacks. Also, we now know about the Cu Chi tunnels, some of which were right under the base camp. From time to time, Viet Cong guerrillas would roam around at night and cause trouble, and we used to wonder how they got into the camp in the first place. But we never suffered any mass attacks that earlier soldiers had had to endure in this area. Most of the stuff the enemy threw at us was just little irritating things that caused minimal damage. My faith was a great help to me during my time in Vietnam. I think it gave me a calmness of mind that others didn't have. Also, being married kept me out of trouble."
Cu Chi had one of the two busiest tactical airfields in South Vietnam. Dahlen and his fellow air traffic controllers worked seven days a week and were granted only one day off every two weeks. Both the control tower and GCA were staffed at all hours of the day. Starting out as an air traffic controller in Vietnam was largely a matter of learning about the area. Dahlen had to know what surrounded the base camp and what kind of terrain and weather he was dealing with. He also had to get used to running the approaches into Cu Chi's airport with the different kinds of aircraft the Army had around there. All told, it probably took Dahlen and his peers about a month before they could be signed off to work on their own. After Dahlen had been certified in GCA, he decided to cross-train over to the tower in order to get that work experience and enjoy a bit of diversity. He ended up working in both GCA and the control tower, although he was mostly in the former and did the latter just to stay certified in that area.
"At Cu Chi, we averaged about fifty-eight thousand operations a month, either takeoff or landing," Dahlen said. "As I said before, we had the one runway along with the POL and rearm areas and helipads all over, so you could actually be running simultaneous operations going or coming from different directions and in different locations around the camp. At GCA, all you could run the planes to is the runway because that's where we were set up to get them, but from the tower I remember we walked around a lot and pointed to where pilots were supposed to be going, and as long as you didn't point to two places in a row, you were okay. Everybody kind of worked that way because it was relatively hectic in the daylight hours. During the time of the Cambodian invasion, we had several additional helicopter companies on the base and the number of operations skyrocketed to around eighty thousand a month. Going back to the professionalism, you had guys in their early twenties controlling pilots who were also in their early twenties and in the time the 341st was at Cu Chi, there was never an incident that was attributable to any of the air traffic controllers, and I think that's a pretty good record for a bunch of hotshots doing a job like that."
The vast majority of the aircraft that Dahlen and his comrades worked with were helicopters, and there was a quite a range of them. At Cu Chi, the U.S. Army had companies of OH-6's and OH-58's, which were small observation helicopters, CH-47 Chinooks, and, of course, loads of UH-1 Hueys - the helicopter most associated with the Vietnam War. Every now and then, Dahlen and his peers would also get a few CH-54 Skycranes, which were not stationed at Cu Chi. "I'd say seventy to seventy-five percent of our operations were helicopters," he recalled. "We did have a company of 01 Bird Dogs, which were small tandem two-seater aircraft, as well as a company of Air Force OV-10's, which were twin-engine observation planes. And we got a lot of Army and Air Force C-7's, C-123's and C-130's. Occasionally, just for grins we'd have some fighters that would come in and do low approaches, and I did a few GCA's with them. That really upset the general though because the pilots liked to hit their afterburners and make a loud noise when they went over. Most of the senior staff didn't like that either, so we tried to do a minimum of that."
Because there were artillery companies stationed all around Cu Chi, including one behind Dahlen's barracks that shot its ordnance almost straight out of the approach end of the runway, it was the air traffic controllers' job to keep the aircraft out of the firing lanes so that they were not in danger of being hit. Also, if Dahlen and his peers were aware of any enemy soldiers in the area, they would have to tell the pilots, who in turn would make a very high approach and almost dive at the airfled as they came in for a landing. Fortunately, the Viet Cong did not possess shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles at this time, but they could still get a clear shot at the American planes and helicopters if the latter came in low enough. Because the helicopters had to be at low level much of the time, many of their pilots were killed or severely injured by small arms fire. "I used to do some flying on my days off just because there wasn't much else to do," Dahlen said. "I'd go over to one of the other companies since we knew a lot of the pilots and just give their gunner or crew chief the day off and take his place. You got used to treetop level, and if you got into an open area and the enemy could see you coming, you were a pretty open target. Some of the missions that I went on were the low-level sniffer missions where they actually had a thing in the aircraft that sensed residual heat as well as a collector. It almost looked like there was the end of a vacuum cleaner hanging out the side of the helicopter. And that device had to be at low-level, so you were down where you were very susceptible to small arms."
During his time in Vietnam, Dahlen tried to get off the base as much as possible. Aside from flying missions on his days off, he took a couple of road trips and even went right up to the Cambodian border with a chaplain during one of these excursions. Dahlen also managed to get down to the Saigon area on occasion and take pictures, although the city itself was off-limits to GI's because too many of them had gotten into trouble there. At Cu Chi, his company area had a club of sorts and movies would be shown for the troops. Korean rock groups would make appearances on the base, although they proved to be a mixed bag for Dahlen and his comrades. Many of the GI's also turned to alcohol to relieve their boredom.
There was a strong South Vietnamese presence at Cu Chi during the day. Local men, called papa-sans, worked as barbers and waste-haulers, and local women, called mama-sans, cleaned the hooches, did the GIs' laundry and handled maintenance issues around the base. Although many of these civilian employees were diligent and reliable, some turned out to be working for the enemy. On several occasions, Dahlen and his comrades caught some of the mama-sans pacing off distances between buildings or between buildings and the wire. Also, some of the barbers would sneak back into the base at night and try to slit the throats of GI's with the very razors they had cut hair with just hours earlier. There were also South Vietnamese military personnel stationed at Cu Chi. "As air traffic controllers, we worked with the South Vietnamese Air Force, or VNAF," Dahlen recalled. "That was always a thrill because even though the Vietnamese pilots kind of spoke English where you could almost understand them, I think they didn't understand us most of the time, so whenever they came into the airfield, they just did whatever was expedient for them no matter what we told them to do. There were several times where you had an American aircraft coming in from one side and all of a sudden a VNAF pilot would decide that he's going to come in the other way, and as a result, the planes were landing head-on or they would take off into one coming in. So that made some real interesting times working with the Vietnamese."
Dahlen believes that, contrary to popular belief, the South Vietnamese military was in solid shape for the most part, even in the final years of American involvement. "The morale of our Vietnamese allies was good," he said. "By 1970 and even when we pulled out, things were going well in Vietnam. The ARVN was doing okay because of our support. I think they felt pretty good about themselves and we felt fairly good about them. And I think our promise to them was that we would provide the South Vietnamese with the stuff as long as they did the business at hand. I'd like to have had some Vietnamese air traffic controllers with us to deal with the issues we had with the Vietnamese pilots. We didn't have that luxury, so we just dealt with the pilots ourselves as best we could. But I think overall in working with them, the South Vietnamese seemed committed to what they were doing. And they seemed to be fairly well-trained and I felt that they were doing a good job."
In December 1970, during which time the American withdrawal phase was in full swing, the 25th Infantry Division left Cu Chi and the base was closed. Dahlen was transferred down to Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base - a move that seemed to him like a re-entry into civilization. But after a few weeks, the Army decided to reopen the airfield at Cu Chi, so he and another soldier who had been an air traffic controller at the base were sent back there to perform this duty and train new replacements in their craft. On Christmas Day, the two men magnanimously allowed the greenhorns to go to Saigon and watch Bob Hope perform a USO show while they stayed behind and got everything working. "We both had only two months left to go in our tours, so we figured the new guys deserved it because they had a year," Dahlen recalled. "Once in a while, the Army tried to do something for the troops. For example, they had a big turkey dinner on for Thanksgiving and tried to make the meal as special as they could, although it was unique because I think Vietnam was the only place I'd ever been where the cooks could take bread hot out of the oven and it would already be stale. So when they called the meal 'special,' that was really kind of a relative thing."
Although Dahlen and his comrades performed their duties with skill, professionalism and commitment, they often wondered why they were fighting this war in Southeast Asia. "The questions amongst us troops was 'Why are we here?' and 'What difference is it going to make to these people, who seem to be living in very little civilization as we would consider it?'" Dahlen recalled. "At least for me, these questions were not answered sufficiently until the last few years, what with being able to look back at the whole thing in hindsight and read the writings of some of the people involved in the war. I think we realized that it did make a big difference after South Vietnam fell, but the reasons for us being there weren't satisfactorily explained for us to even answer them while we were there. All we knew at the time was that we were there to do a job and I think we did it honorably. I think today I understand that basically it boiled down to us drawing a line in the sand and warning the communists not to expand any further. But I don't think that was adequately explained to the soldiers or the country at large."
Although the standard tour for American troops in Vietnam usually lasted at least twelve months, the Nixon Administration's drawdown made it possible for Dahlen to leave two weeks earlier than scheduled - a development that seemed to the young soldier like a nice gift down sent from Heaven. When he arrived back at the States, Dahlen experienced the cold indifference that greeted many returning Vietnam veterans. "After my plane landed at a base in California, I turned in my jungle gear and got stateside utilities," he recalled. "Then I flew to Detroit while wearing my uniform and carrying a duffle bag. My wife had stayed with her parents while I was in Vietnam, and when I got to the airport in Detroit, I took a limousine out near to where she was living and went into a little restaurant and called her. I told my wife to come and pick me up and then I waited outside of that restaurant. During this whole time, I can remember only two people talking to me, the person that sold me my airline ticket and the person that sold me the ticket for the limo. Nobody in the limo, plane or outside of the restaurant said a word to me. I didn't realize the significane of this at the time, but as I looked back, I thought that was kind of strange. Friends who hadn't been in the service weren't antagonistic, but it was like they didn't know how to treat you. So there was a bit of a wall between us. I didn't know if they were dealing with 'Is the stuff we hear about these guys true?' question or because I had been through something that caused that wall to be there. Most of the people you talk to kind of treat you with indifference, even today. I always make it a point to walk up to a guy wearing a veteran's cap and say 'Thanks.' If the cap says "Vietnam Veteran,' I say, 'Welcome home.' For the general public, I think there's still something about Vietnam that they don't know how to deal with. It's hard to understand because Vietnam was the first conflict we were involved in that was not a frontal kind of war. It was all around you. Unfortunately, a lot of the news that came into people's homes was inaccurate and that goes for a lot of the information that's been out there for the last thirty-plus years. And the Vietnam vets haven't done a good job of changing it. We haven't communicated well and so a lot of people don't know the difference. I think the country realizes that they treated us wrong and are trying to make it up with the current soldiers, but it still doesn't know what to do with us. For a long time, I really didn't let other people know that I'd been to Vietnam. It was just one of those things you didn't talk about. It's only been in the last three years that I've said to myself, 'You know something? I can be proud of this and what I did.'"
When Dahlen came home, he still had eighteen months left to serve in the Army, so after enjoying a thirty-day leave, he was assigned to Fort Ord, California to do the same job that he had performed in Southeast Asia. His wife came with him and the couple lived on the base. After his three years were finally up, Dahlen spent six weeks working at the control tower of an airport in Monterrey under the auspices of a program the Army had set up for soldiers who were making the transition from the military to civilian life. When this was done, he moved to Minneapolis and worked the same job until he was fired eight years later for his participation in the Air Traffic Controllers' Strike of 1981. Fortunately, Dahlen was able to land a job as a radio station manager in Alabama. He stayed in this profession for awhile before moving up to West Michigan, where he now works as a mortgage consultant.
As Dahlen looks back on his time in the service, he credits the military with giving him a long-lasting appreciation of the United States. "When you get over to some of those places, you realize how blessed we are in this country," he said. "We can complain a lot, but, my goodness, we've got stuff those people don't even dream of. So it's just given me a huge appreciation for all of the wonderful thing we have here as well as for the people of America. That's not to say I didn't appreciate the South Vietnamese, but life is so different for them, and they're struggling for every little thing. It makes you look at life with a whole new eye."
"Politically, my time in the Army has made me more conservative because as I look at the signs around now that say 'War is not the answer,' I think to myself, 'The answer to what?' Sometimes it's necessary and needs to be done. There's no two ways about it. One of the neat quotes that I've read recently was when Colin Powell was asked if the war in Iraq wasn't just American expansionism again, and he replied that America has sent thousands of men and women all around the world for the cause of freedom and the only ground we've ever asked for was to bury those who didn't come home. I think that's true. War for us has never been for expansionism, it's always been for principled reasons, and I think we felt this in Vietnam. As for the government's handling of that war, I think the politicians and bureaucrats had their nose too far up into the military side of things. Instead of letting us fight the war, they were dictating how it was to be fought, which also created some issues that hurt the military and its relationship with the public. With regard to the rotation system, there was a disconnect between the troops. The new guys were outsiders for a period of time, and there was a constant outflow of expertise and influx of inexperience taking place at all levels. I don't know how it affected the outcome, but I do know that it certainly created tension."
Author: Mark Couturier, Project Intern, GVSU Veterans History Project
Interviewer: Dr. James Smither, Director, GVSU Veterans History Project
To view the full interview, visit the project website, www.gvsu.edu/vethistory, and click on the Project Archive link.