COLFAX — When Colfax resident Carl VanZee looks back on his time as an Air Force mechanic, he does so with a big smile.
“When we were in Mt. Home (Air Force Base in Idaho), we had a whole squadron of F4’s come in,” he recalled. “They were on their way to Vietnam. They landed there one afternoon. We refueled them, got them all ready to go to Vietnam. That was quite the experience.”
The 69-year-old bus driver for Colfax-Mingo Schools served a 12-month tour in Vietnam beginning in Oct. 1966. Surrounded by the F4 Phantom II fighter jets was a surreal event for VanZee, and is just one of a whole host of memories he keeps from his service during the Vietnam War.
After graduating from Lynnville-Sully High School in 1964, VanZee worked with his father on their family farm.
“I really didn’t want to go into the Army, so I was talking to the Air Force recruiter all the time,” VanZee said. “He said ‘if you ever get your draft papers, just let me know.’”
VanZee married his wife Gloria in July 1965, the day before receiving his Army draft papers. After the letter came in the mail, he was in the Air Force recruiter’s office that very afternoon. “In 10 days I was gone,” VanZee said.
Ranked E4 at the time of his discharge in 1969, VanZee began his enlistment with basic training at Shepard Air Force Base near Wichita Falls, Texas. He then traveled to Mt. Home Airbase in Idaho where VanZee was part of the first class of airmen to train at the compound. He was a generalist, working on singe and duel-engine jets. At first, his training was more conceptual than hands-on.
“When we got there we didn’t have any RF4C’s, they took the B-52’s out of there, so there were no planes in there. We went to school with no planes to practice on,” VanZee laughed.
His group was then shipped to California for six weeks to work on “actual planes,” he said, although they were only given one.
When VanZee arrived in Vietnam, he had his own unique experience. He lived in a guarded compound off Ton Son Nhut Air Force Base in Saigon. Part of a phase inspection team, the airman would work 12-hour days removing panels to examine aircraft making sure they were fit to fly. Finding consistency between night and daytime shifts was difficult, but VanZee and his teammates would use billiards to keep them energized.
“When we’d get off early during the day, we’d hitchhike with a mail truck. That was a little different. We were out there just thumbing a ride,” he laughed. “When we were working nights, we’d play pool all night. We had a group of about 10 guys, divide up into two teams and play all night.”
Off-base, VanZee said that his unit saw live music, could go into town and eat at clubs, had its own cook and there were no C-rations.
“I wasn’t down in the jungle. I read books and remember that they had quite a time,” he said.
But reminders of the war nearby lit up the night sky. Flares and tracer fire were easily seen from VanZee’s off-base compound.
“That was just a normal site to see,” he said. “We come on base one night there in Vietnam, came through the main gate and everything looked normal. But we had to stay inside.They wouldn’t let us come out and work. They had some problems out there at the end of the runway.”
At times, VanZee and his outfit had to fix aircraft under wet conditions, making a patch of dry concrete difficult to find.
“I remember there would be times where that monsoon would come up, and you’d be working under that plane trying to stay dry,” he said. “Pretty soon, your spot would just get smaller and smaller.”
During his year tour, VanZee spent 40 days in the Philippines when the Air Force decided to fit Sparrow Missles to F4 Fighter Jets.
“In the Philippines it was just like being on R&R or vacation,” he said. “We would have six planes at a time to fit, and once they all tested out, they’d go back to Nam and bring some more in.”
Eventually the Air Force brought state-side personnel into the Philippines to replace VanZee’s group of mechanics, and he had to return to Vietnam.
Since his time in the Air Force, VanZee left eastern Jasper County for a home in the country outside of Colfax with his wife, Gloria. Before becoming a bus driver for C-M students, VanZee worked for the Iowa Department of Transportation, Maytag Dairy Farms and Wyckoffs in Des Moines. In 2011, VanZee joined other Jasper County veterans on the Freedom Flight to Washington, D.C.