First published in the Nov. 5 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
Veterans Day is Thursday, meaning it is a day of commemorating all Americans who have served in the armed forces.
I talked to Al Kinser the other day and “honor” was a word he used at least six times to describe how he felt to serve in the U.S. Air Force from 1964-94, when he retired as a “full bird” colonel. Kinser is someone who piloted World War II-era Douglas DC-3s behind enemy lines during the Vietnam War to help his crew gather intelligence.
He flew F-14 jets and was prepared to be one of America’s first responders in F-15 jets — flying 900 hours in the plane and being on constant alert in case he was needed. He trained pilots and later he trained the aircraft’s future instructors.
Veterans Day is all about thanking the Al Kinsers of this country.
And here he was telling me how honored he felt.
I met Kinser a few weeks ago when he came back for the reunion of the South Pasadena High School Class of 1961. He went to schools in this community from the time he was in elementary through high school.
He loved to fly and enlisted in the Air Force in the midst of the Vietnam War. He had always wanted to fly, but his first time in an airplane, as it happens, was when he went from California to officer training school.
Later, Kinser was in command of planes that flew not only over Vietnam, but also Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. An intelligence team in the back of the plane locked onto radio signals on the ground and translators could sometimes pick up enemy conversations, which were later relayed to headquarters or to Washington, D.C. Information extracted from those messages could then be directed to fighter planes on the ground.
Kinser remembered that the fighter jets drew the heaviest fire, although his plane might come back with a bullet hole or two. The crews flew six or seven hours at a time in what Kinser described as “really old planes — World War II vintage.” They’d fly every other day, and he flew 750-800 hours in total.
That’s more than 100 missions in a year.
“It was kind of fun flying at night,” Kinser recalled. “There weren’t many airplanes up and we had the skies pretty much to ourselves. You could see the campfires in the jungles, but there were very few lights from where we were flying at 8-10,000 feet.”
Meanwhile, in the United States, the war — which had been escalating since the early 1960s — had become more unpopular as death counts rose and more people were affected by the draft. That popularity fallout contributed to President Lyndon B. Johnson dropping his reelection campaign. Later in the election, there were demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention, with the police beatings of anti-war protestors captured on live TV. Eventually, Republican Richard Nixon was elected president, and after he announced an invasion of Cambodia in 1970, the Ohio National Guard killed four students and wounded nine others during a large protest at Kent State University on May 4.
In some circles, it was not a good time to be in the military.
Kinser recalled that morale was good among the people he flew with, but they all knew what was going on back home.
“We got news about the demonstrations. We knew that people hated what we were doing and called us ‘baby killers,’” Kinser said. “It made us feel terrible.”
But, the news from home did not make it less of an honor for Kinser.
“We thought we were saving the world, but they didn’t let us do the job that we wanted,” Kinser said.
He and others knew they were frustrated, but admitted they didn’t really know with whom until they had the benefit of hindsight.
“If the enemy went into China, you couldn’t pursue them. There were rules which prevented fighters from going after the enemy. We couldn’t bomb a building with a red cross, so the Viet Cong” — a South Vietnamese communist insurgency supported by North Vietnam and China — “put red crosses on all sorts of buildings,” he said. “It was crazy looking back. Back then, there was this thing called the ‘domino theory’ that if South Vietnam fell, all Southeast Asia would fall. It was all hyped up. But it never really happened.
“It was the politicians who ran the war who were the problem,” Kinser continued, “but we didn’t know that stuff at the time. But, it was an honor to be with those I flew with, very much so.”
On the way back to Hawaii after a year in Vietnam, Kinser said soldiers were told to immediately change out of their uniforms because of the hostile reception they might be getting.
“Our morale was low when we got back to the States, especially considering the kind of atmosphere we faced and the kind of things people were calling us,” Kinser said.
Kinser said he could empathize with the military members who fought in Afghanistan and that they fought with honor, while being handicapped by a continual change of strategy and eventually a pullout from the country.
“I know some of them felt like they were not able to finish the job,” Kinser added.
After Vietnam, Kinser got to fly F-15 jets in a tour of duty which called for him and his fellow pilots to be prepared to be a first line of defense from a base near Alamogordo, New Mexico — in the vicinity of the historic Trinity atomic bomb test.
“We had to be on constant alert,” Kinser recalled. “We always had to be near a phone and remember, those were the days before cellphones.”
Kinser went on to serve in South Korea, where he was first a planning officer and then an assistant director of operations, both for the 7th Air Force. He even flew the F-16 fighter jet.
“It was an honor to do that,” he said.
He went to the Pentagon, where his job often took him overseas before retiring in 1994 and going into the defense industry. So, I was especially honored to be able to say, “thank you for your service.”
And do you know what he said?
He picked up during our conversation that I had been in the U.S. Army Reserve and he answered my statement with a “thank you for yours.”
That really floored me.
It shows that no matter what you do in the military — and no matter when you did it — you deserve our thanks on Veterans Day and throughout the year.
Columnist’s note: In my story on the 1961 reunion, I wrote that Kinser lived in Claremont, the city on the eastern end of Los Angeles County. He actually lives in Claremont, Florida. Additionally, in the photo package about the class reunion, it should be Richard Whitman, not Wilson.