Skip Venard is an Air Force and an Army veteran. He served a support role in Vietnam, and was an Army chaplain in the first Iraq War. He joined the Air Force in 1966. He graduated from South Kitsap High in Port Orchard, Wash. He completed his first year in junior college with a student deferment. For the complete interview, go to billingsgazette.com/Vietnam
Venard: “I didn’t want to get drafted. I liked pinochle and bridge so well that I ended up having to drop classes to keep from flunking them, so I lost my student deferment. Once that happened, I said, ‘I think I better do something.’ So, I went down to the local recruiting station and I joined up for the Air Force.”
He enlisted in the Air Force in March 1966. He got his draft notice while he was in basic training.
Venard: “I had made just the right move.”
Gazette: So it was a legitimate fear that you have that you could see combat or action?
Venard: “I wasn’t so worried about seeing action. I really didn’t want to go into the Army. I had two brothers that had been in the Army, and they didn’t like it all that well. Bremerton was a Navy town, and I grew up around a bunch of Navy guys, and I don’t want to be one of those. So I thought, ‘You know, the Air Force sounds really good to me.’ I know they had better chow and that sort of thing.
“We ate a lot better than most of the Army guys did, most of the time. There was one time that I can remember that once in awhile we ate rations that are called C rations. One time I got caught in a typhoon in Okinawa. They handed out C rations because no one could get to a dining hall in a typhoon. I remember opening it. The C rations came in a small cardboard box. On top of the box was the date they were actually packaged and put into service. I looked at the top of the box, and the box was packaged on my birthday — not my birthday, but the day I was born.
Gazette: How old were you at the time?
Venard: “20 years old. It was packaged March 8, 1946.”
Venard completed basic training at Lackland Air Force Base. He went to Chanute Air Force Base for technical school in electronics. He learned how to work on generators and small engines — air compressors, heaters, air conditioners and aircraft start carts. After spending time in Great Falls, Venard was sent to Guam to support B-52s, which were saturation-bombing North Vietnam, especially targeting underground tunnels.
Venard: “In addition to the other things like generators and stuff like that, we also worked on bomb-loading equipment. We worked on trailers that had preloaded bombs on them. You would put the whole apparatus up into the aircraft and then hook it into the aircraft. The trailers were all hydraulically operated.”
“I had kind of an interesting experience with one of those. I was working in the shop one day. There were different crews that loaded the aircraft, but we worked on the equipment. They came into the shop one day and said, ‘Hey, we got a preloaded A bay,’ which is nine 500-pound bombs. ‘We got it stuck in an aircraft out here.’ Because a hydraulic line broke on a trailer, and it missed a safety catch when it started coming down, it’s jammed in the bay of an aircraft. They said, ‘We need a volunteer to go out and do that. And would you like to volunteer?’ I kind of looked around, and most of the other guys were married guys, and I told them at that time I was still single. ‘I’m single. I can do that.’ If one of them falls one me, oh well.
“I went out and replaced the hydraulic line, and then I called in and told them I had replaced the line. They said, ‘Do you feel up to straightening it up in the aircraft.’ And I said, ‘I guess I can.” And they told me the things to watch out for. So I straightened it up and let it down to the ground so that it was ready for transport. I called back and said, ‘You can come back and get it.’ They came and towed it away to the bomb dump and reinspected all the bombs and made sure everything was OK. I assume they used them.”
Gazette: Were you nervous when you were working with it?
Venard: “Not really. It’s one of those things where they call you and say they’ve got a situation and you’re the guy to do the job and you go out and look it over. I looked and thought, ‘It doesn’t look too bad. I think I can handle this.’ It’s a matter-of-fact thing to do. I didn’t get nervous about it until it was over with. ... You get back to the barracks at night and you think, ‘Oh my goodness. If one of those bombs fell out of there, that could have gotten dramatic.’”
Gazette: Give us a sense of how much they’re putting on B-52s.
Venard: “About 40,000 pounds of armament. ... What they did was put all the bombs on and they put just enough fuel to get them out over the Gulf of Tonkin because if they completely filled them with fuel, they couldn’t fly. It’d be too heavy to get them off the ground. So that’s why they had the KC-135s to refuel them with. For every B-52 going out ... there had to be 15 KC-135s to go with them. They get out and that gave them enough fuel to make a bomb run and return to base. It was all midair refueling. ... It was interesting to watch some of that stuff happen. As long as everything worked alright, there was never a problem.
Gazette: You supported the bombers — you knew where they were going and what they were doing. Is that stressful?
Venard: “The thing that most of us felt is that we were supporting the soldiers on the ground. We knew that without what we were doing, that they were going to have a tremendous uphill struggle. If we were successful at what we did, we would make their life a whole lot better. We were far enough removed from it so that it wasn’t that stressful most of the time. I didn’t think about it being stressful until I got back to the states afterwards. After I got back, I found myself being very irritable.
“(Once) I had a noncommissioned officer, and we were talking about a job issue and I jumped right square in the middle of him one day, and you don’t do that in the military. The guy who is your boss in the military and you treat him with respect. I went to him and said, ‘Hey Sarge, I don’t know what’s going on here, but I am having trouble.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you go down to the hospital and talk to the pysch shop?’ And I said, ‘OK,’ and made an appointment and sat down with the psychiatrist at the time. He said, ‘It’s something we call a near-miss syndrome.’ I guess today, they’d probably call it (post-traumatic stress disorder) or something. But he said when you have these kind of things, where have you been? You go along, do business as usual every day and don’t pay a lot of attention to it, but it kind of gets to you after awhile. It’s like when you’re driving down the road and you almost have an accident and you don’t quite have one but manage to avoid it. Then you get a half mile down the road, and you start getting nervous — you got to pull off on the side of the road and gather your wits before you can keep going. That’s what you’re going through right now. He said, ‘As long as you recognize it, you’ll be able to deal with it.’ And, I did. It wasn’t a problem once I understood what was going on emotionally, I was able to deal without any trouble.
“...You get so used to working in that stress level that you don’t pay attention to it. You see things that just kind of make you stop and think about life when you’re in a place like that.”
Gazette: What were some of those things that would make you pause?
Venard: “I remember sitting on the barracks with a guy I lived with and I watched them unload a whole line of coffins with flags draped on them. And as I sat there, I realized that in some of those coffins could be one of my friends. And that was one of those moments that is forever etched in my memory. You don’t forget things like that. Seeing someone stand at attention alongside of those coffins. Knowing that there’s a guard on them, every inch of the way back to the United States. Those kinds of things impact you. But life goes on in a general kind of way. Things that you do every day, you do every day.”