Today continues The Times and Democrat's print and online series, “Vietnam: They Served With Honor.” The stories based on interviews with local veterans of the Vietnam War will continue on Sundays and Wednesdays through Nov. 11, Veterans Day. For more photos and video, and earlier stories in the series, visit TheTandD.com. A related editorial is on B6.
A couple of naturally occurring chemicals, putrescine and cadaverine, are responsible for the characteristic smell of a decaying corpse, and Sidney Livingston is very familiar with them both.
He flies through the picturesque countryside of the Philippines, Guam and Bangkok with supplies of food and ammunition for U.S. soldiers, all of whom depend on him to supply their needs while in the throes of the Vietnam War.
The scenic views are marred by the loss of life. It is one of the cold hard facts of war. While he does not mind hauling cows, jeeps and vegetables aboard his sturdy C7A cargo plane, bodies are a different story.
The smell of dead bodies permeates his plane, and he is reminded of the ugliness of war. It is one of the parts of the Woodford resident’s tour of duty that he would prefer not to remember.
Livingston, 69, served in the 457th Tactical Air Command of the U.S. Air Force as an E-4 Senior Airman. After landing in Vietnam in October of 1967, he stayed a year while stationed at the air base in Cam Ranh Bay in the province of Khanh Hoa, Vietnam.
With pride and sadness, he recalled his duties, including hauling the bodies of soldiers killed in action, or KIAs.
“We hauled anything you could think of, but the only thing I didn’t really like to haul was the KIAs, or bodies. We hauled a good many body bags. That was the only bad thing I didn’t like about the tour over there,” Livingston said.
“You might have a body bag that wasn’t in too good of a shape, and it would smell up the airplane something terrible. I never did find one, but I’ve heard of people finding an arm up in the airplane a day or two after they had a mission. I reckon they had to get them out of the country somehow or another,” he said.
Livingston conducted his basic training at Lackland and Sheppard Air Force bases in Texas before going further south to Eglin Field in Florida.
“We worked on these old A-1E Skyraiders. It was a Navy hand-me-down plane, and we trained Vietnamese pilots. Then instead of going to Vietnam on something I knew something about it, the Air Force sends me over on a C7A cargo plane,” the former airman said.
He soon got in the swing of hauling everything from weapons to Slim Jims for soldiers.
“We mostly flew for the Army. We’d leave our base and go down 20 or 30 miles to another seaport town and load vegetables and cows. We’d put the cows live on the plane and tie them down. That little old plane could land in about 400 feet and take off in about 500 or 600 feet. You could land on just about anything.
“We supplied the Army with food and ammunition. During Christmas of ’67, all we did was haul beer and Slim Jims. I ate so many Slim Jims that I didn’t want one for years after I got home,” Livingston said, laughing.
Wood carvings and bronze wear are among the souvenirs he brought back home from some of the places in which he landed in the region.
“I had two TDY tours to Pleiku up in the Red Hills of Vietnam. I went to Bangkok, Thailand, twice. I went to the Philippines one time to get work done on an airplane. I met my wife in Hawaii for a week. That was a nice trip,” said Livingston, who married his wife Frances in 1966.
He and his wife are the parents of two daughters and the grandparents of two granddaughters.
Livingston was part of the Blue Tail Fly Squadron of C7As stationed at Cam Ranh Bay.
“There were three squadrons: a Red Tail, White Tail and a Blue Tail. There was one at Vung Tau and another one was at Phu Cat. I think it was in ’68 that my airplane was on the front page of National Geographic. It had landed somewhere in northern Vietnam, just taking stuff into the Army,” he said.
Some of Livingston’s best memories stem from the beautiful countryside in the many places he landed, and he was also close to the people he worked with.
“I had some good friends over there. I still get in touch with one every now and then. I had a picture of an old boy from Tennessee. He lived right next to the Jack Daniels distillery. He got out. He didn’t like the military, and I wasn’t too fond of it either,” said Livingston, who said his friend, however, re-enlisted after three months out and eventually retired out of the military.
Some of his worst memories include having to leave the people he worked closely with during the war.
“I reckon they were coming home, but you work with people day in and day out for years and then have to leave. But I was married at the time, so I was anxious to get home. I was getting discharged when I got back to the States, and nobody knew that but my wife,” Livingston said.
He added, “I signed up for four years. I would have been lucky to get out with three years and a month, but they gave me 11 months early out. That was a good deal for me because I wasn’t that fond of it. But I did what I was supposed to do and made pretty good rank while I was in there.”
Livingston said his job and that of other airmen was needed.
“I flew a good bit. We had to have somebody on flying status to go out and pick up downed planes and stuff like that. I kept enough hours in that I could kind of select a trip if I wanted to. I had a good bit of time built up,” said Livingston, who recalled how he once cheated death by missing one particular mission.
“I was supposed to fly out one morning to go up north. I had had my name on the manifest. I never did call and if you weren’t there, they just left you. The plane I was supposed to have been on flew into a mountain. They were hauling cows that day, and you took two loadmasters to move the cargo around.
“The pilot flew into a mountain and killed both the loadmasters in the back, and that’s where I would have been. I didn’t take no more trips after that unless I had to. I didn’t volunteer much,” Livingston said.
He served during the brutal Tet Offensive, which some 70,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched on Jan. 31, 1968.
“That’s when they had the big push down South. We were supposed to be the safest base over there, but they blew up the fuel depot over there on Cam Ranh Bay. We had an Army base, Navy base and an Air Force base right there. It was a big sprawled out place, but I think they got into every place during that Tet Offensive in February of ’68,” Livingston said.
He is thankful for never having to use his gun during the war.
“We had to take one with us when we flew, but I never shot one. Unless you had to use it, it was your choice if you wanted to or not. But I was not going to pick no fight with nobody. I didn’t want to shoot nothing and don’t care nothing about hunting now.
“I never did really lose a friend over there that I knew. All the boys that I went over there with made it back. But, of course, we weren’t in no fierce combat and all that. I don’t believe I could have gotten used to that,” Livingston said.
His assessment of the war is varied, but blunt.
“In my opinion, it was a waste of time because a mountain goat couldn’t live where they would drop bombs. Then they’d go down and spray the valleys and all that stuff that killed a bunch of people. You then had to go through it to get them out of the holes and everything else.
“I’ve been tested for Agent Orange, but they said it didn’t bother me none. I don’t know. I just got stiff elbows and stiff knees, but I reckon that comes from old age too,” Livingston said.
His current assessment of the war has not changed much from his initial one.
“It was a lot of money wasted and a lot of lives lost for nothing. You take Hamburger Hill, in particular. We flew in support and then when they finally got possession of it, they up and left and gave it back. It was just a political war. I don’t know who made the decisions of what to do over there, but I think there was a lot of them made that weren’t necessary.
“There were a lot of lives lost and money spent, but we couldn’t give the Communists everything they wanted. If we hadn’t been over there, they would have taken the whole country over. At least they was ready to make a deal when we was ready to make a deal because they was tired of fighting too,” he said.