Boeing Tech Rep

CivSEA Project

Boeing Tech Rep
Selected experiences of John Dullighan

        ...I arrived in the United States in 1967 to work for Boeing, and during that first summer I visited Valley Forge.  One of the guides there was a very old man, but extremely spry.  He was talking to a bunch of school kids, telling them that it wasn't really all that long ago, that when he was their age (10-12) he had shaken the hand of a man who had shaken the hand of George Washington! 

        ...My engineering field was 'fly-by-wire' flight controls.  I was working on a version of the H-46 that did not go into production, that was completely f-b-w.  F-b-w is old hat today, but it was cutting edge back then.  It is the way to go.  When the notice came round the engineering department asking for volunteers to go to Vietnam, I jumped at the chance.  The other guys thought I was crazy, all except an older guy (he was certainly younger than I am now) who told me I'd learn more in 2 years in the field than I'd learn in a lifetime in the plant.  He had been a Field Engineer during WW2.  I did it for nearly 4 years by which time the war was winding down and I knew it wouldn't be the same job in peacetime.  Boeing had no problem with me extending my tour.

        ...My time as a Tech Rep was the most interesting and intense period of my life and I wouldn't have missed it for anything.  Boeing changed their policy about Field Engineers when I was in Engineering.  Until then, they had used mostly retired military, which is fine in peacetime.  They know their way around the system and have lots of contacts.  Besides, when in doubt, you can ground the airplane and call the factory.  But in Vietnam you couldn't call the factory, the guys wanted an answer now and they wanted to fly the airplane if they possibly could.  Boeing decided to recruit engineers.  They offered a two year tour, with at least 6 months in Vietnam. They were looking for guys about 30, old enough to know their trade but young enough to do what was needed and willing to make decisions.  I was 31 when I went to Vietnam.

        ...I don't think I've ever seen a job description for a Tech Rep.  I used to define my job as "Whatever kept the CO and the guys happy and kept them from killing themselves."  It was a 24/7 job and it helped to be passionate about it.

        ...I was the Boeing Tech Rep with HMM-165 at MMAF from Jan 1969 through August and then at Futenma Okinawa until December.  I arrived back in 'the world' on Dec 24.  When I got off the plane in Philadelphia, still in tropical uniform, the temperature was -1F.  I didn't think I'd ever get warm again.

        ...Then I was with HMM-261 at New River, although I spent most of my time on a Caribbean cruise.  Tough duty but someone has to do it.  From August 1970 I was with the Navy, HC-3, in San Diego.  But the wife of one of the other guys was diagnosed with inoperable cancer.  I was single so I volunteered to take his tour in 7th Fleet.  We made many runs ashore (into Vietnam) and I usually went because I knew my way around and if we were scrounging for parts my USMC contacts came in very handy.  The funny thing was I was considered a department head; I was the entire department.  But the great thing was as a department head I could rent three cars when we were in port.  The ship's company of 656 could rent only three cars.  So I rented the three, kept one for the aviators and gave the others to the ship.  I went from being a limey civilian outsider to a valued member of the ship's company in 5 milliseconds.  I stayed with HC-3 until September 1971 when I resigned from Boeing and went to Grad. School.  But that's a whole other story.

        ...I don't feel that I did anything that special.  I was a civilian and I could always say to Boeing, "I want out" and I would have been on my way in days.  It happened. I knew several Tech Reps who went home early.  It never occurred to me to ask, but I always could if I wanted to.

        ...I defer to the 19 year old rifleman in the bush, walking with 80 lb. on his back, with the most dangerous job in the service and with the least comforts.  He didn't ask to be there, but did his duty when he was asked to, and was called a baby killer when he came home.  I am pleased to see that attitude is changing.  The local Public TV station did a quite sympathetic story on Edison High School in Philadelphia.  More of Edison's graduates were killed in Vietnam than any high school in the country, something like 63.  It's in a working class area and most of the graduates were riflemen.  Their fathers were almost all WW2 veterans and one of them pointed out that unlike more affluent Americans, none of their sons ran to Canada or tried to dodge the draft. 

        ...I learned a ton in the field, professionally and personally.  I learned that I had no problems making decisions and living with them.  I relearned that you lead by example, that you have to put your money where your mouth is, especially with the Marine Corps.  I learned that your reputation precedes you, especially in a small organization like Marine Aviation.  You only get one chance to screw up, so be sure that you don't.

        ...What I loved about being in the Field was the freedom.  If you tried to do a good job the guys appreciated it and you felt that you were achieving something worthwhile.  Besides there was a war on.  I'm Irish descent, even though I'm thoroughly English.  As they say about the Irish, they are officially neutral but each Irishman has to decide which side is he going to be neutral on.  It's a family tradition, when my Great Aunt Rose found out from my sister that I was in Vietnam, she blew up and said "He's just like his damned grandfather and he'll end up dead just like him."  He was killed in 1916 in WW1.  My sister tried to get her to explain but she wouldn't.

        ...Actually, I had it pretty easy.  I could fly or not, with whoever I wished.  But I flew a lot, I didn't see how I could do my job if I didn't.  But when Billy Pierce was killed, Tom Raines, HMM-165 CO, grounded me.  He said if I got killed as well, he'd spend the rest of his Marine Corps career filling out paperwork.  But I complained a lot, telling him I couldn't do my job if I didn't fly.   He said other Tech Reps didn't fly and I retorted, "Ask their squadron pilots what sort of a job they think they are doing."  He finally relented and let me fly but "No more missions, John.  Do you hear me."  He was a lovely guy, I was sorry when I heard he had died, and only 62.  (Billy Pierce was a Boeing Tech Rep.  Nine Marines assigned to HMM-165 also were killed during the first half of 1969)  

        ...By the time I went back to grad school, I could walk into the officer's club in most aviation units and almost always meet someone I knew.  But best of all, I met some great people.

        ...The USS Valley Forge took HMM-165 from Vietnam to Okinawa in August 1969.  The ship's company left the wardroom to the squadron the first evening and someone said "Let's remember the guys who have been killed and more important, the guys who are going to spend the rest of their life in a VA Hospital.  The thought, "No matter how bad it seems, that guy in the VA hospital is much worse off than you are," has got me through some rough times.

        ...When we were on Okinawa, I achieved the dubious distinction of holding the squadron record for the most speeding tickets in one day (3).  The Air Force ran the island and they had a speed limit of 30 mph, everywhere.  Tickets got sent to your CO.  I guess the Air Force takes such things seriously.  The RAF considers it normal for pilots to get speeding tickets.  Tom Raines brought up my tickets at an all officer's meeting where I became the subject of a great deal of teasing.  Tom said to me "I know you are a civilian but remember you are subject to UCMJ.  If you get another ticket I'll find a way to make you regret it."  I believed him.

        ...On Okinawa we were engaged in training, the usual stuff.  HMM-165 was unusual; we were pulled out of Vietnam as a unit.  We went wild on Okinawa, culminating in being banned from every Army club on the Island.  "And that includes you Mr. Dullighan." said Tom Raines, the squadron CO.

        ...The way I came to run the flight deck and the Vert. Rep on the USS Camden was a step by step process.  At the start of the cruise, I was a NFG to the Detachment and the ship's company.  And a limey on top of it.  So to say that I was treated politely but kept at a distance wouldn't be stretching things too far.  I would always station myself in the tower during flight ops, because I knew that if anything happened, I was right there.  The pilot not flying would run flight ops.  They got used to me being there.  Then one day I was asked if I could cover while the pilot running ops went to the head.  He had the runs or something.  By the time he got back, vert rep was in full swing and rather than cause any confusion, I continued until we refueled.  That evening at dinner I suggested that since I was there anyway, why didn't I do it on a regular basis.  The Det. CO discussed it with the Captain right then, it was a small wardroom, and since they were starting to know me by then and they were desperately short of junior officers, he said OK.  Next I was asked by the Det. CO if I could represent him at the Department Heads Evening Meeting whenever he was not aboard.  He'd cleared it with the Captain.  I guess I was older than his pilots (I think I was a few months older than he was) so he felt comfortable with my taking his place and I was used to meetings from my civilian life.  I got some funny looks the first time from the other Dept. Heads but after the first meeting it was just taken for granted.  Then the Captain came up with the bright idea of having me stand bridge watches and qualifying as an underway junior watchkeeping officer.  I balked at that. One, I didn't want to stand watch.  It struck me as being pretty boring most of the time and Two, if anything went wrong, all you can do is stand and watch it happen.  I could probably talk my way out of any trouble if the company discovered I was running flight ops but watch keeping, I think they would have strung me up by my thumbs. 

        ...That cruise saw some very intense flying.  It was the time of the "incursion" into Laos, (as though we hadn't been doing that all along) and the carriers were flying round the clock, which means that that they would run out of everything in about 3 days.  The idea of the AOE was it was fast enough at 32 knots to keep up with a carrier task force and it was big enough and carried enough beans, bullets and black oil (and bombs, including nukes and aviation fuel) to resupply the carriers.  On Yankee station we didn't need speed to keep up but we could run out at 30 knots to meet ships coming out from the Philippines at 15 knots, resupply from them and then go back and resupply the carriers.  That meant we were running flight ops two-thirds of the time, day and night.  Flying at night, from the bright lights on the carrier deck into pitch blackness astern of the ships and then into the bright lights on the Camden was truly disorienting.  A previous cruise had lost an airplane and crew exactly that way, by flying into the water.  There was a real concern about pilot fatigue, especially since they were not getting a continuous stretch of time off.  I agreed that I would run the tower as long as I could, so that one pilot in rotation could get a good 7 - 8 hours sleep.  I only left to go to the head.  When there was a lull I didn't waste time heading for my rack but put my head down right where I was.  I kept going for more than 4 days until I started hallucinating at 3 am on the fifth day.  I was dreaming with my eyes open, the damnedest thing you ever saw.  I slept for 18 hours.  My uniform was so stained I just tossed it.  After that I really was considered part of the group.

        ...It was interesting and frustrating dealing with the carrier air bosses.  They naturally considered the airspace around the carrier as belonging to them and I knew it really belonged to me.  Not many air bosses know much about the intricacies of helicopters.  Aren't they just like fixed wing but they can't stall?  Yes, and No, and it's the no that counts.  Besides, the purpose of the lift was to transfer stores, some of which could melt.  I was in contact with the material handlers on the Camden, so I knew where everything was.  And we had only two hours of fuel so it was vital that Camden's flight deck be clear when we needed to refuel.  All this would be explained to the air boss but we usually got a "Listen son, I've been flying for years, I know that stuff."  Well, they must have forgotten it then.  You can imagine what the temperatures in the South China Sea did to ice cream.  We would carefully brief the carrier that we would transfer the ice cream first when their deck was clear so they could get it below and into refrigerated space quickly.  Tell us exactly ten minutes before you will be ready to receive stores and we will launch, then bring the ice cream up on deck.  This will take 10 minutes or a little more but the ice cream will be exposed to 105 degree temps for as short a time as possible.  One carrier, whose air boss wasn't listening when we briefed him, told us ready in ten minutes, so we launched and started the process.  Ten minutes went by, fifteen, twenty.  I asked when will you be ready to receive.  No answer, twenty-five, thirty.  I asked again.  A very snappy reply from the air boss to the effect that he would tell us when he was ready, stay off the frequency.  I remember exactly what I said in reply because it was all over the ship in minutes.

        "Commander, I really don't give a shit but your ice cream is 
        running out of my scuppers and its all the ice cream you're 
        getting this rep."

        He went ballistic on the bridge to bridge phone, demanding to know my name, rank and serial number.  That's when the Captain came up with his famous remark, "He outranks you Commander, he's a civilian."  I met him later in Cubi Point, in The Cat House, and by then he could see the humor in it and we got along fine, especially when I paid for his beer.  He was Irish too and that helped.  I was fed up with tangling with air bosses who would try to run operations and leave me with a foul deck and a bird with 10 minutes fuel left.  I guess it showed.

        ...I knew that cruise was my last.  I had been accepted at Wharton for the fall term, 1971, so I was in a perfect position.  I knew my job, I was pretty well fireproof and the Captain on my ship loved it.  He could always say, "Well he's English, let me talk to him."  Then he would die laughing.  I had no career to worry about and I would go outside the chain of command if I thought it would get me what I wanted.  The Captain was an F 8 driver, Pax River grad and great guy.  He had dinner with a group of the officers each week and he tried very hard to include the black shoes and not talk shop with the aviators.  Eventually he said "To hell with it" and invited all the aviators to dinner and showed the movies, "The Blue Max" and "Battle of Britain."  We talked shop until the small hours.

        ...We had the most reliable helicopters in 7th Fleet, a fact I attribute to the Det COs leadership and the best Senior Petty Officer I ever met.  The young enlisted men really put themselves out for those 2 guys.  I covered the whole of 7th Fleet and I saw plenty of less than sterling leadership.  I used to get calls for help from Detachments on other ships and one of Camden's birds would usually fly me over.  But to get back to Camden I had to wend my way from ship to ship by any means possible.  One time, I got as far as the Hancock.  She was new on the line and did not know me. I asked for a ride to Camden which was about 50 miles away and was told all their helicopters were down.  When I asked that they signal Camden to come and get me I was treated with a great lack of enthusiasm.  They couldn't even arrange quarters for me so I just crashed on their couch.  A short time later I was shaken awake by a Lt. calling me "Sir."  The Camden was sending an H46 to get me.  My stock was rising.  Then they told me that their helos had been down for days and they hadn't been able to distribute the mail to the other ships.  Could the Camden H46 possibly do it for them, they would provide the fuel?  I said I would ask.  Of course they did it.  All those brownie points, showing the Admiral we could keep our birds flying.  The next time I arrived on the Hancock it was "Hey John, how're you doing, good to see you."

        ...Visiting "The Wall" is still an intense experience for me.  I wasn't sure I liked the idea of the monument when it was first proposed, especially when I read how young the architect was.  But she was right, it does hit your emotions.  It certainly makes you realize how many guys were killed.  I saw it for the first time with some friends from England.  They told me if I didn't want to go, they would understand but I said that I wanted to see it and anyway, it was all a long time ago.  But as I walked down into the 'V', I burst into tears.  A psychiatrist friend said that was not uncommon, that to function, guys whose friends were killed suppressed the normal grief they would have felt.  It was a way to cope.  But it's still there, waiting to be triggered.  On a commercial flight a few years ago I got chatting with a young Air Force 2nd Lt., just out of the Academy and on his way to his first duty assignment.  His father had flown Thuds and you know what a terrible casualty rate they had, almost as bad as the Navy and Marine Corps attack pilots flying off the carriers.  He said that his father burst into tears in exactly the same way.  It shocked him, he had never seen his father show much emotion before but he said it brought them closer, his father had to talk to him about it.

        ...It is now  fashionable to have served in Vietnam after many years of being vilified for having gone.  Some people will thank me for having served.  I used to say "Don't thank me, I volunteered and Boeing paid me very well for being there.  Thank the guys in the VA hospitals."  I genuinely felt that way but my wife told me I was being churlish and so now I just say "Thank-you."   I have no time for guys who now say they are sorry they dodged the draft and want me to forgive them.  No way.  As for the people who, even today want to criticize, they risk a punch in the mouth.  As for the phony 'wanabees', don't get me started.  By the way, I was and still am, a British citizen.  There were at least 3 of us who were Boeing reps and I'm sure there were others.

        ...The interesting thing is the change in the attitude of the general public towards that f....d up war.  It was not something that one went around shouting about although I never tried to hide what I'd done.  I remember in Grad School, a young female undergrad accused me of being a mercenary.  What really made her mad was I agreed with her and added that it was an honorable profession and if she wanted a country overthrown I'd get her a quote.

        ...The time I spent with the Corps and with the Navy was the defining period of my life.  If I could repeat any time of my life that would be it.  I was old enough to know my trade and young (stupid?) enough to think I was immortal and not worry about the risks I was taking.  It worked anyway.

        ...I'm now retired and working as a freelance press photographer.  Retiring makes one a little retrospective and looking back over my career, a successful one, I would say, the part I would like to repeat is my 4 years as a tech rep.

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(page last revised 08/10/2003 09:01 AM -0400 )