Rose Kilroy served in the U.S. Air Force from 1972 through 1981. During Vietnam, she served as an intelligence officer. Because intelligence officers had a high value for the enemy during the Vietnam War and because she was a woman, she was not allowed into Vietnam. Instead, her job was to brief pilots and commanders about the sorties and missions they'd be flying into Vietnam. This is part of her story. For the complete interview, go to billingsgazette.com/Vietam.
Gazette: What were you doing before 1972?
Kilroy: "I was a small-town high school Spanish and French teacher. I taught in an even smaller town. I had to commute. I wanted to go see Spain. I thought, 'On this miserable salary, $6,000 per year, I am never going to get to Spain.' Meanwhile, my brother, who is two years older than I am, was in the Air Force making pretty good money, seeing the world. I thought, 'Hmm, maybe I should try that.' So I went to see the recruiter in Warrensburg, Mo., my hometown. He said, 'Well, we really want nurses. We're not taking too many women right now.' He said he couldn't guarantee me anything, and so I was a little disappointed and started to walk out and I guess he felt sorry for me. So he said, 'If you want to take the qualifying test, you can.' So I said, 'OK.' So I took it and left. Two weeks later, I got a phone call. 'Guess what? We have a place for you in the Air Force and could you come in and talk to me?' Before I knew it, I was getting my induction."
Gazette: What kind of place did they have for you?
Kilroy: "It was a strange thing and I was a foreign language major and I found out later that most foreign language majors in college end up in intelligence. You may as well get the oxymoron jokes out of the way, Air Force does have intelligence, largely made up of language majors, but I have no idea why. I was Spanish and French and I spent most of my time in Asia. You go where the military needs you."
Gazette: When you told family and friends that you'd joined the military, what was their reaction?
Kilroy: "The friends were kind of incredulous — why would I want to do that? I said, 'Because I want to see the world and it makes better money that I am teaching.' My family was a military family — my father is a World War II veteran and he was in the Navy for 20 years — he was a little disturbed. I remember him wagging his finger at me when I left for officer training school, 'Don't let them mistreat you.' I said, 'I won't, Dad. I'll be fine.' My mother was just hysterical, her daughter going off overseas, probably. She didn't know where I'd end up. That was really hard for her."
Gazette: What did your brother in the Air Force think?
Kilroy: "You know, he didn't say a lot. I think he was thinking, 'Well, good luck,' as he was sitting in Turkey, not his choice of places to go either."
Gazette: What was training, boot camp and officer candidate school like?
Kilroy: "It was officer training school at San Antonio Texas, at a little annex of the base called 'Medina.' It was really a culture shock. ... I was never really athletic, suddenly I had to be. Women had their own barracks, so to speak. We were separated from the men, but during the day, we would form up and make a squadron and a flight. We would go through training together. In my particular instance, there were two of us — two women, and the rest were men. We were taught or led by a captain in the Air Force. It was very rigorous physically, and you didn't get much sleep at all because they — the upper class — were the ones who inspected your rooms daily and they expected you to get everything shipshape, so to speak. ... Your bed had to be made so tight that you could bounce a quarter off of it."
Gazette: Do you think or know that you were treated any different than your male counterparts?
Kilroy: "In officer training school, I was not. I was just another student."
Gazette: What was officer training like for you?
Kilroy: "It's 90 days. We were called '90-day wonders' back then. ... It was a miracle. I did so much transforming, personally in those 90 days. I became really gung ho. I really loved it. I liked marching. I didn't like the sleep deprivation. I liked the pride in the appearance and uniform — all of that. It wasn't really the real world, but it was very motivating."
After Officer Training School, Kilroy went to intelligence school at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver for six months of classes.
Kilroy: "The classes there were pretty intense. We had to learn a lot about aircraft recognition, again, some military history. We had to learn about photo interpretation; things I had never imagined before."
Gazette: Are you worried about Vietnam when you went into the military?
Kilroy: "I didn't think about Vietnam that much at the time. It was only later that I really thought about it in depth. When I was in college, in 1968, there was the Tet Offensive, which was really a horrible operation in Vietnam. It got a whole lot of bad press because of the lives lost. But I remember sitting in my language classes, by then I was a sophomore in college, and the war was so unpopular and all these liberal thinkers were saying, 'Why are we there? We need to get out of Vietnam.' A lot of lives had been lost. Even the professors would talk against the war. That bothered me. Being a military child, brought up in the military all my life, surrounded by it, I thought, 'Wait a minute, there must be a reason we're there.' That was in the back of my mind. But when I was actually going through training, I wasn't really sure where I'd end up."
Kilroy went to Langley Air Force Base as part of the technical reconnaissance wing.
Kilroy: "It was extremely boring. Here I had come out of officer training school and officer intelligence school, and this job required me to sit at a desk and put data on punchcards that would go into this humongous computer that encompassed a room and we fed into a system. If you can imagine punchcards all day long, day in, day out, I thought, 'This is not the Air Force I wanted. It's not working.'"
Gazette: How do you get out of that?
Kilroy: "If you're me, you get on your soapbox and call your assignments people and say, 'I don't want to do this anymore. I'll do anything. Where can I go? What can I do?' That was after 18 months of that job. They said, 'Well, we could send you to Thailand, but we really want nurses that can go into Vietnam. We'll look into it and get back to you. I heard nothing and nothing, so I got back on the phone with my career people and said, 'Any news about Thailand?' They said, 'We could probably send you to Ubon.' Well, I didn't know where the heck Ubon was, and I said, 'OK, and when would that be?' They said, 'It would take a few months, but we'll keep in touch.' Finally, after a few months I got orders to Air Base Thailand. About a month later, they were changed to Korat."
Gazette: Explain why Thailand is significant in the context of Vietnam.
Kilroy: "We were strategically located, 150 miles north of Bangkok, and the 388th tactical wing in Thailand. It encompassed a lot of different aircraft that supported the war effort. We had F4s, A7s, the F105 was leaving shortly after I got there. ... We also had the F111. ... These aircraft had different roles in supporting the war."
Gazette: Fighting and reconnaissance?
Kilroy: "Fighting, reconnaissance and there was a lot of air cover from the A7s and the F4s. They worked with conjunction with each other. I think the thing that strikes me about working in Thailand and working the base there was that everything was so coordinated. It was really a well-oiled machine."
Gazette: What is your role when you get to Thailand?
Kilroy: "I got taken to our office and introduced and I was a first lieutenant at the time and he was a captain. And he said, 'Oh good, we have our new briefer.' I said, 'Briefer?' He said, 'Yeah, you're going to be our aircrew briefer.' I said, 'I don't know how to brief air crews. I have never done that.' He said, 'That's what we do here.' So, I had no choice so I was going to be an aircrew briefer."
Gazette: So what does an aircrew briefer do?
Kilroy: "There is a lot of studying beforehand. You have to gather information from teletype that has been sent in from all over the world. Some of it is even as mundane as Stars and Stripes or other newspaper. Most the briefing was military intelligence reports. There were reports that came in about where 'Triple A' or anti-aircraft artillery sites were seen, where clusters of people were seen; where convoys were seen moving. This was the type of information that you would brief the air crews on what they were flying into. Another thing was the enemy aircraft that would be in the area, which weren't a huge amount, but that's where the intelligence school training came into play. When we were over there in Thailand, we called the United States 'the real world,' but as I think back, that was the real world. It was a real operation. Lives were put on the line. You were responsible for getting correct information out as much as possible."
"When the air crews came back, we would debrief them, and if it was different than what we had briefed, then that was disseminated so that people would be aware that things had changed."
Gazette: Were you the only female?
Kilroy: "I was not the only female. There was another female who was an Air Force captain. There was — I believe — another officer who was a lieutenant like I was. But as far, as the air crew briefing, I was it."
Gazette: Was that intimidating?
Kilroy: "Yes. Because, No. 1: I didn't want to do that. No. 2: Not to be bragging, but I was fairly attractive back then, not married and to be thrown up in front in a whole auditorium of air crews was intimidating."
"I remember a briefing where I was teaching aircraft recognition, and this was after I had been there a little while. There was a full auditorium because we also had a gunship, C-130 crews, and there was a lot of them. One of my dear comrades in the intelligence briefing team slipped in a slide of a woman with large breasts right about the time I was saying this aircraft has twin engines and there was this huge laugh coming from the audience, and I turned around to see this slide and I was like, 'Oh no.' I was humiliated."
Gazette: Did they treat you differently, do you feel, than they did when a male did a briefing?
Kilroy: "I think so. When I would come out on the stage to brief, there were wolf whistles and typical things that go on between guys and gals."