By Dave Rabbit – ATS Press Corp.
Phan Rang Air Base, South Vietnam
. It is Memorial Day week-end 1970. Americans are getting ready for great food, beer and good times. But for
those of us in Vietnam, there were no long week-ends of relaxation like our friends and families back home. Memorial week-end was like every other, 12
hour day minimums, death, destruction, fear, loneliness, anger and despair. Another day in the Nam. For me, it is my last physical day in Phan Rang as
I prepare to go home for a 30 day leave before returning for my last assignment in Saigon, arranged by my great friend Pete Sadler in personnel.
I’ll never forget the day I first met Jim Brookshire back in 1969. I was stationed in Headquarters squadron. My previous roommate of three weeks,
had just left for the world, the USA. His year long tour finished. I’m sitting in my hooch listening to Jimi Hendrix and in he walks. Thick black
glasses, squeaky clean appearance.... he could have passed for Clark Kent at the Daily Planet. I immediately thought to myself that this was God’s
way to punish me for all the hell raising I did in high school back in Dallas, Texas. Polar opposites was an understatement.
We introduced ourselves to each other and after a few awkward moments, I began helping Jim get squared away. In the course of our conversation, Jim
told me that he was assigned to the base media relations office. I told him, I was working for the Wing Commander’s office as a MSL, Maintenance
Supply Liaison. I tell Jim to leave his stuff and we will finish up later. We walk outside and jump into my jeep which I had access to as part of my
job communicating between the flight line personnel, supply and the brass. One could say that my office was that jeep. Jim asked me where we were
going, I told him Dalat.
After going through the checkpoint on the perimeter of the base, we drive about a mile to the shanty town of Dalat. Bars and whorehouses lined the
streets and was the primary source of income for the locals there. Although Jim is hesitant at first, I finally convince him that we are fine during
the daylight hours up until 16:30 hours (4:30 p.m.) because the town is secure with MP’s, AP’s and QC, which were the Vietnamese Military Police,
also called “mice”. Although I had only been in country for less than a month myself, the bar owners and ladies knew me and welcomed us in. There
was always loud American rock and roll blasting from the speakers and the beer was always ice cold. A couple of the dancers, whom I had met before,
came to our table and joined us. I could tell immediately that Jim was uncomfortable. The Vietnamese women who worked the bars and whorehouses were,
shall we say, aggressive in their approach to GI’s. After about 15 minutes Jim asked if I would take him back to base, that he had to report in to
his new boss. Of course, I knew that was BS and that he was like a fish out of water in my world.... but I said sure. We downed the last bit of beer,
climbed back into the jeep and headed back to Phan Rang. That was the first and last time Jim ever went to Dalat.
A few months pass. Even though Jim and I were different as day and night, there was just something about the guy that I truly respected. We are at the
Airman’s Club one night, watching another would be Asian band trying to emulate American rock and roll when fate lends a hand and I first meet Pete
Sadler. Pete too, was from Headquarters Squadron. From that point on, we became the “Three Musketeers”. Jim, the “Choirboy”, Pete. the
“Frequent Flyer“ and myself, “The Rebel”.
I’ll never forget the day Jim walked into our hooch with the news. Instead of doing the mundane interviews with the troops to perpetuate the lies of
us winning the war in Vietnam and sending it back to the mainstream media back home, Jim’s boss, the Major, had told Jim that AFVN, Armed Forces
Vietnam Network Saigon, had sent a communique down to all of the Air Bases that they wanted to encourage local programming throughout Vietnam. So Phan
Rang was going to have it’s own local radio show for 3 hours each night which was going to cover Phan Rang news, base activities and, of course,
propaganda. Since it was considered an after hours assignment, Jim was given a free hand to do whatever he wanted and got permission from the Major to
ask me to be his studio engineer. I remember asking him what credentials he thought I possessed other than 3 years as a rock singer in my high school
band, but he assured me that my knowledge of music would be a tremendous asset to him, even though the programming was not going to be rock and
It is sometime in January 1970 that we get the studio up and running. With a lot of assistance from the Radio Relay guys at the base, the powerful 50
Watt “Radio Phan Rang” was going to be on the air live every night from 2000 Hours (8 p.m.) until 2300 Hours (11 p.m.). As Studio Engineer, the
Major gives me a list of programming that he wants for each show and it is my responsibility to go and retrieve the music from the archives.
Once retrieved, Jim and I lay out the nights schedule and then I copy the music in the proper sequence on reel to reel. Any interviews with the Donut
Dollies, American Red Cross women, or the Base Commander, etc., are done, recorded and then put on cassette tape for play at the appropriate time.
Since the show is live, it is my responsibility to be sure that everything is played on cue at the proper time and the proper levels. The first night
was a total disaster. Anything that could go wrong, did. The Major was absolutely furious with me and wanted to fire me on the spot. But Jim stood his
ground, told the Major that he had faith in me and assured the Major that it was simply first night jitters. Of course, once the Major left, Jim told
me if I screwed up again I was gone because there was no way he could save me a second time. Fortunately for Jim, and myself too, I was a fast
The show became extremely popular. Although the “Fifth Dimension”, “Dionne Warwick”, “Glen Campbell” and similar artists were not what the
troops really wanted to hear, they enjoyed the banter that eventually grew between Jim and myself as well as the occasional comedy bit that the Major
allowed me to do under his constant censorship. As each show passed, my comfort level, confidence and love of being “On Air” increased also.
It is May 1970. Because I didn’t really want to go back to the states, I had convinced Pete Sadler to get both he and I an assignment to Tan Son
Nhut, Saigon, for another tour of duty. I had already served one tour at Cam Ranh Bay from 1968-69 prior to arriving at Phan Rang. Saigon would be my
third tour in Vietnam and Pete’s second. Serving multiple tours in Vietnam was a walk in the park as the military put a priority on experienced war
zone personnel staying in Vietnam.
If memory serves, Pete left for home for his leave a week before me and the last few days of my Phan Rang days were just Jim and myself. You get real
close to fellow soldiers that you serve with. It’s hard to put into words really. There is a common bond, an invisible connection that goes above
and beyond those made in the real world back home. Maybe it is because you share a peril of life and death on a daily basis, I don’t know. I think
although there are similarities amongst all soldiers, there are numerous unique situations and friendships too.
Even as I approach my 39th Memorial Day in 2009 from that time in Vietnam, I can still remember that one in Phan Rang in 1970. It is as vivid and
clear in my mind and memories as if it was yesterday. This day, like all others preceding it, was normal for Jim and I. We had breakfast at the chow
hall, he went to his office, I climbed into my jeep and went to mine. We normally met at the chow hall around 7 p.m. for dinner, where we would go
over last minute things for the show. As it was going to be my last one before catching a hop the next morning to Cam Ranh Bay for the freedom bird
back to Dallas for my 30 day leave, Jim and I wanted this to be a very special show. Even the Major, who was scheduled to leave himself a day or two
after me, had become somewhat nostalgic about what we had accomplished in the 5 months of “Radio Phan Rang”. I always got pumped up for a show. My
adrenalin would surge and I was bouncing off the walls, ready to get to it.
It seemed like forever before the show started. Three, two, one...... “Good evening Phan Rang, this is Airman Jim Brookshire, along with my studio
engineer Sgt. Dave Rabbit, guiding you through another night of Aquarius...”. It was the same opening, other than my rank which had changed in the
five months, as the very first time we went on air. Jim proceeds to inform folks, as he had already been doing the previous week, that I was
“short”, less than 1 week left in “The Nam”. The Major, who very rarely was in studio, was even there and allowed me to do one of my favorite
bits “Charlie’s Request Line” as a thank you for my dedication and hard work on the show. Even though the music sucked, as always, it was a
great show. Afterwards, the Major tells me goodbye, then Jim and I head off to the Airman’s Club for some beers and nostalgia one last time.
Jim and I arrive back at the barracks around midnight. It appears to be a calm night with no rocket or mortars from the VC. The year I was there, we
had over 160 different nightly attacks. The VC normally tried to hit the flight line, but sometimes they would get lucky and hit an area of personnel.
Jim and I both had lost a few friends that year. We decided to drink a couple more beers, listen to music and remember those who would return in a
box. Maybe it was the beer, maybe it was the pent up emotions of what we were going through, but it was an emotional time for both of us. Jim finally
said goodnight and climbed up on the top bunk and crashed immediately. Although I was feeling no pain, the adrenalin in me and the excitement and
anticipation of going home for 30 days to see my parents and friends made me extremely restless. I had already packed my duffel bag and even though my
hop wasn’t until 9 a.m., around 6 a.m. I had another friend of mine pick me up and go down to the flight line with me to wait. Besides, I really
didn’t want another goodbye scene with Jim.
About 7 a.m., the base siren goes off indicating that we are under an attack. Even though we had been attacked during the daylight hours before, it is
unusual as the majority of attacks are at night. My friend and I joke that they probably hit the garbage dump since they are normally poor shots.
Maybe 15 minutes pass and an airman goes racing past us. We ask him what’s going on and he tells us that the barracks area was hit in the attack. I
yell at him to be more specific, he says he doesn’t know. I tell my friend that we have plenty of time before my hop so I wanted to go see what had
happened. We jump into the jeep and head up the hill towards the barracks area. As we approach closer, there is smoke coming out of the
Headquarters’ Squadron area. We both jump out and start running towards the chaos. As we turn the corner I see that one of the two barracks that has
been hit is mine. There is a huge gaping hole in the side and as I get closer, see that it is about where Jim’s and my hooch was. The perimeter is
blocked off with security police but we manage to get around them and get even closer. The medics are bringing people out on stretchers and I ask one
of them if everyone is alright. He tell me that there were three people killed. I said who? He says, he doesn’t know. This is driving me absolutely
crazy. Is Jim alright? Was he at breakfast? I didn’t know. We finally make our way around to the opposite entrance to my barracks and go in. As we
make our way down the hallway through a light haze of smoke, I can see a couple of medics down where my hooch was. As I approach they put their hands
up in a manner to keep me away. I push their hands out of my way and turn the corner. There on the floor of my old hooch is the lifeless body of Jim
Brookshire, my roommate and friend. A medic is hovering over him and adjusting him on the stretcher. I remember screaming at seeing him. I remember my
friend holding me back until I calmed down. I asked the medic for a moment with Jim. As I knelt down next to him I began to cry. Tears were streaming
down my face and I felt like my heart had been pulled out of my chest. I had a sterling silver peace medallion that I wore around my neck. I pulled it
over my head and placed it around Jim’s neck. The medics told me they had to go, they picked Jim up and carried him out, with my friend and I
following close behind them. As they put Jim and the two others in the ambulance the tears started flowing again. Even as I write this now, it is hard
to see the words. It is an image that is permanently burned into my memory and brain and will be that way until I die. As the ambulance pulled away
and we stand there still in disbelief, my friend says to me “Damn Dave, it’s a good thing you left early. That could be you.” It was at that
precise moment that a cold chill went down my spine as my friend’s words hit me with such a force of reality that it became crystal clear to me.....
I should be dead.
In late June 1970, after a 30 day leave back home in Dallas, I arrive at Tan Son Nhut, Saigon. I’m full of anger, emotions and questions about the
stupidity of the war and the thousands of senseless deaths. Because I wanted to do something that would give significance and meaning to what Jim
Brookshire meant to me personally, Pete Sadler and I hook up, we meet Nguyen and on January 1, 1971, Radio First Termer is born and for 21 nights
pound the airwaves of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos with rock and roll, reality and truth. If I had never met Jim Brookshire, if we had never been
roommates, if we had never become friends, if he had never died..... who knows. I do know this, I owe everything to Jim Brookshire.
When you celebrate Memorial Day
this year and for the many years that will follow.... take a moment from stuffing yourself with food and drink
with your family & friends and realize that the freedom and lifestyle you are enjoying came at a high price from those that served and died for you
and your country. Remember those who are away from home, family and friends..... who man a post and say that nothing is going to happen to you on
For Jim & All The Soldiers
(click to open player in new window)
[edit on 5/20/2009 by Dave Rabbit]