On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and two other American astronauts landed on the moon. That same day, recent college graduate and Indiana native George Bryce landed in Saigon, Vietnam, to begin a yearlong tour of duty with the Army’s First Aviation Brigade. Though it was only on the other side of Earth, it might as well have been another planet.
“Dealing with the Army culture after four years of a mid-60s education was a bit of a shock,” said Bryce. “My philosophy had always been if I ended up going in the service, I would have a job to do. I was a bit of a patriot to begin with, but I just never dreamed wearing a uniform and having a rifle would be part of my life.”
Fit to serve
Bryce had graduated college in 1967 and taken a job at Lincoln National Life Insurance in Fort Wayne. He was drafted later that year, but due to his poor eyesight and resulting need for “Coke-bottle” glasses, he assumed he would be rejected for service. His twin brother and other friends had already been rejected for service for ailments such as asthma.
Instead, as he waited at the desk after his physical examination at the induction center, a sergeant walked by and announced that they “were not getting enough today.” The processing clerk then picked up the “accepted” stamp, marked his paperwork, and Bryce was in the Army.
“I said, ‘Is my eye test there?’” remembered Bryce. “The sergeant said, ‘Can you see me?’ And I said, ‘Yes sergeant,’ and he said, ‘You are a soldier!’”
Bryce decided to enlist in the Signal Corps. He attended basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning when the Signal Corps OCS closed. He next headed to Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, to for avionics training, even though an aptitude test noted that he shouldn’t be allowed to do any mechanically technical work.
“That was where you learned all the communication and electronic gear on various aircraft from helicopters to fixed-wing aircraft,” explained Bryce. “The most technical one was called the OV-1 Mohawk, which is an airplane with three tails and twin turbine engines. It seats two people, and it exists mainly for reconnaissance. And that was the type of unit I eventually got assigned to. So we were doing the most technical reconnaissance work on one of the Army’s most fascinating planes.”
Fixing and flying
Upon arrival in Vietnam, Bryce was assigned to the 131st Aviation Company in Phu Bai, the furthest outpost from Saigon, where he and the 320 other men in his unit were either supporting or participating in daily reconnaissance missions.
“All of our data and information went to the U.S. Air Force to help them decide what they needed to do,” said Bryce. “It was mostly about what was coming from North Vietnam to South Vietnam in the form of supplies and troops, what route are they coming in and where are they likely to show up and fight us.”
The Mohawk held just two crew, so Bryce was the only other person aboard the plane with the pilot during reconnaissance missions. During his year in Vietnam, he flew in 45 missions off the North Vietnam coast, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.
On flights, his job was to operate the various communications and surveillance equipment on the plane. On the ground, he was responsible for keeping the same instruments in working order, which included radar necessary for flying, radar needed for reconnaissance, radio for communications and tracking, and both visual and infrared cameras, which allowed the planes to gather information on enemy movement even at night.
“They could tell how many bodies were walking down the Ho Chi Minh Trail out of North Vietnam into South Vietnam,” said Bryce of the equipment’s capability.
“Our guys fixed the infrared equipment, we fixed the radar, the radar reconnaissance, we fixed the radar for flying purposes, and we did all the radio for flying and tracking and to communicate with Air Force,” he continued. “Then we had this crypto lab where we would download all the information we had into a form that the Air Force could use. There were only four of us in the company that could go in and do that stuff. So it was a very, very high tech mission that 320 people pulled off with incredible success.”
“We did not miss one mission because of avionics (failure) the whole time I was there, which is a rather prideful thing to have happen by a group of 72 soldiers whose job was to keep the airplanes flying from an avionics standpoint,” he added, noting that supply parts were often difficult to acquire, increasing the challenge of the job.
Despite the perfect record of avionics maintenance on the planes, three pilots and reconnaissance specialists were lost during Bryce’s year in Vietnam – two were killed in Laos, and one was killed during landing after a mission, just one mile from the company’s headquarters.
“He was our company commander, and he was supposed to go home in three days,” said Bryce. “We told him that we didn’t want him to take the mission. He had done his share of missions. He said, ‘I am going to do one more.’ He missed the runway on the way back and was killed. I ended up being company commander for 48 hours, which was more time than I was prepared to be company commander for, I’ll tell you that! I had been in country for nine months at that point. But you learn by doing.”
Changed for good
Bryce returned home to Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1970 and resumed his job with Lincoln National Group, offering insurance and retirement planning advice. He had also offered insurance classes to his compatriots in Vietnam, teaching a two-hour class one night a week for nine weeks.
In 1971, the company assigned him to Denver, where he made a trip to Wyoming and fell in love with the state. He and his wife have made Casper their home ever since. After 45 years of service, he remains employed with Lincoln National and was inducted into the Wyoming Business Hall of Fame in 2015.
“There are actually two questions there,” said Bryce, when asked how his Vietnam experience impacted him. “How did the Army change you, and how did the war change you. The Army taught me how to work with people from any part of our country, any race, any color, any socioeconomic level. In basic training we were all equals.
“On the war side, the camaraderie with a bunch of people that count on you to do your job to make their planes run right, and the almost 300 people who are doing everything to make the planes run and avionics run and cook the meals; it was just an incredible experience.”
“Pilots are very unified and loyal,” he continued. “The camaraderie was just indescribable. Every night, we stayed up until the last mission returned – drinking, singing, talking and dreaming. My fellow officers and our men believed in the mission, in each other and in the jobs we had to do.
“We did those jobs well, came home and have not talked about it much. The Vietnam Welcome Home celebration in 2015 was an eye-opener. I ran into twelve or fifteen guys I have known well in various roles in Wyoming and we never shared the fact that we served. My thanks to those who organized the reunion.”