Even 50 years later, one of Pat O’Dell’s strongest memories of Vietnam is the smell.
“It had its own smell,” he says. “To this day, every once in a while I get a whiff of it. … When I came home I just threw all my fatigues away. It is not a pleasant smell.”
Enlisting in the Air Force
O’Dell was just one month past his twenty-first birthday when he arrived in Vietnam in early 1966. He had enlisted in the Air Force in 1964 while in the midst of studying drafting in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“I enlisted, but I knew they were going to draft me, so I went ahead and enlisted,” he said.
O’Dell traveled to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas for basic training and then went to his first station assignment at James Connally Air Force Base in Waco, Texas, in November 1964. During his time at both locations, he was trained in law enforcement and security. A year and a half later, he went to Vietnam.
“I volunteered for Vietnam,” he said. “Not that I was always that patriotic, but I felt if I was in the service, that is what I was supposed to do.”
Welcome to Vietnam
He was flown to Tan Son Nhut Air Base in February 1966 and remembers his first thought upon arrival: “What did I get into!”
“I think the heat was what really got to me the most,” he said. “It took me a good two weeks to get where I wasn’t that thirsty all the time. You just couldn’t get enough liquid in you.”
After several days of orientation, O’Dell was flown to Cam Ranh Bay northeast of Saigon on the South China Sea, where he would spend the next year working security with the Air Police.
“Cam Ranh Bay is a great big long peninsula,” O’Dell explained. “The airstrips go from one end of the bay out to the ocean on the other side. When I first got there, they just finished up the first airstrip and they were starting the second. It was a busy place. After they got the second airstrip in is when they really got busy. There were aircraft taking off and landing just about every 10 minutes.”
“We were on a peninsula and it was hard to get to,” he continued. “The Navy had a station at one end, and we also had Korean soldiers staging about three quarters of a mile to a mile off the other end of the peninsula. We had that base pretty well secure.”
Vital part of the operation
O’Dell’s daily duties included providing security around the perimeter of the base to make sure no one got in, as well as patrolling the flight line or revetments to make sure only authorized personnel were in the area. Security was vital to protect the Air Force’s F-4C Phantom aircraft which were involved with regular bombing missions. And though the aircraft were well protected on base, there were close calls.
“There was one day I had duty that was right at the end of the runway,” he said. “I can’t remember what time of year it was, but it was getting close to the monsoon. And we saw one of those F-4s come in, and he was all messed up and he couldn’t land. He made a swing out over the ocean and came back over the bay, and he tried it again but couldn’t quite do it. And the second time he swung out, he came over the bay. I saw a canopy come off. I saw a pilot and a copilot eject. I saw them separate from their chairs. I saw their parachutes open up, and they landed in the drink. And that aircraft, when it made its last sputter, it didn’t glide, it just dropped.”
Security personnel were supposed to work nine days and then have three days off, but in reality, downtime was rare. Instead, O’Dell spent time filling sandbags and building bunkers on base, when he wasn’t doing his regular security patrols. And trips off the base were nearly nonexistent. He remembers leaving the base just twice, once to travel in a convoy to Nha Trang and once for his “R and R” time when he chose to travel to Malaysia for a week.
Reaction to capture of USS Pueblo
O’Dell left Vietnam one year later in February 1967. He was assigned to Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana, where he was a Flight Security Controller. But in late January 1968, the Navy’s ship, USS Pueblo, was captured by North Korea. The ship’s crew was imprisoned and tortured over the next 11 months, creating a major Cold War crisis. (The ship remains a commissioned Navy ship, but is still held by North Korea and is now is a tourist attraction in Pyongyang.)
The incident resulted in a build-up of American troops in the area, and O’Dell volunteered. Within a couple days, he had received his immunizations and was on a plane back to eastern Asia, arriving to his new duty station at Osan Air Base in South Korea. Though his initial security assignment was to last 90 days, he ended up serving there for nine months.
O’Dell finished his military service in October 1968. He returned to Sheridan and worked various jobs before starting his own construction business. He married and had two daughters and a son, all of whom reside in Sheridan. Though he later was divorced from his first wife, O’Dell had a fortuitous encounter in a Sheridan neighborhood 16 years ago.
While driving down a street one day in 1999, he came across Karen White Thompson, who was at the curb checking her mail. O’Dell and Thompson had dated in high school, but lost contact in the time since then. They reacquainted and have been together ever since.
O’Dell says he did not receive negative treatment from the public upon his return from Vietnam like other soldiers did, but he was angered seeing protestors in California on a return flight one time.
“If your viewpoint wasn’t the same as mine, I could live with that,” he said. “I guess what really irritates me is the people who didn’t serve their country when they should have. They went to Canada and then turn around and get pardoned for it. If I was bitter about anything, I guess that is the one thing I would be bitter about.”
“I think a guy always figures that when he got out of the service that somehow he was always going to have to catch up,” he continued. “There were guys that weren’t in the service that were making good money and living a good life. I didn’t think that was right. I didn’t think that was fair. But if I had to do it over again, I would do it again. I think I got one heck of an education in that one year that I was over there.”