Spotlight on Veteran John Dennis Thomson

As the nation celebrates Veterans Day, the State Bar of Texaswould like to honor some of those who served our country by spotlighting interviews from The Veterans’ History Project, a joint project between the Texas Court Reporters Association and the State Bar of Texas. The following post is an excerpt from an interview with John Dennis Thomson who served in the United States Air Force from 1958-1978.

MS. LONG: Do you remember arriving in Vietnam?

MR. THOMSON: Oh, yes.

MS. LONG: What was that like?

MR. THOMSON: Well, it was on Da Nang Air Base. And it was a huge base with a Marine establishment across the road from the Air Force establishment, so – but I actually – while I was assigned to 6924th Security Squadron that was down on Main Base Da Nang, I was actually assigned on top of Monkey Mountain at the Tactical Air Control Center North Sector, and provided special intelligence information to the commander and his staff that ran the control of all the aircraft in the north end of Vietnam.

MS. LONG: Wow. What was it like being in Vietnam?

MR. THOMSON: Well, actually, I had probably as soft a duty as anybody had because we were out of rocket range, and so when we could hear combat things going on we'd grab cameras and binoculars to look and see what we could see. But we were basically in a very, very safe location.

We traveled up the side of the mountain, and down at the end of the duty day every day. It seems like we were about 700 feet off the ground there.

MS. LONG: Did you see any combat in Vietnam?

MR. THOMSON: Well, there was -- I was assigned to this base that was down at Main Base Da Nang and there were regular rocket attacks, but fortunately we were out of rocket range where we were, so we grabbed cameras and binoculars and took pictures from up above.

MS. LONG: Tell me about a couple of your most memorable experiences while you were in Vietnam.

MR. THOMSON: Well, unequivocally the most memorable was the raid on the Sontay Prison Camp. That's S-O-N-T-A-Y.

I – the commander of Tactical Air Control Center North Sector was a full colonel who had, I can't remember how many years service, and I was there to support him with information that was above top secret information. And, so, my office was a little vault that was next to the tactical air control center. Because a top secret clearance didn't get you into the vault that was my space.

And we basically got the special intelligence information and passed it to the people that were authorized to have that out on the control center floor that was right next to us. And our -- our office space was probably not as big as this apartment, but it took a special intelligence clearance to get into that particular area.

And when the raid on the Sontay Prison Camp was being planned, I got called in to the colonel's office, and there were three colonels in his office, and we talked for maybe 10 minutes. And he had been a Doolittle Raider, so he was not a low-key individual, and they excused him and told him they'd be done with his office – we'd be done with his office in about 45 minutes, and they excused this colonel.

MS. LONG: What is a Doolittle Raider?

MR. THOMSON: Oh, that was a raid in World War II –

MS. LONG: Okay.

MR. THOMSON: – that was a significant thing. And, you know, I wasn't there for World War II.

MS. LONG: Sure.

MR. THOMSON: But he was one of the pilots that had flown in Europe on that particular raid.

And, so, anyway, one of the things that they told me was that they needed me to run a extension cord on the special intelligence telephone, out of our special intelligence area that was about the size of this, out onto the operations floor where the individuals were controlling the aircraft that were flying over northern South Vietnam and North Vietnam. And I was supposed to run an extension cord out there to one of the radar places.

And during the raid I sat next to General Manor that ran the raid, and fed him information that wasn't supposed to be out in that particular area so that he had the latest information on what was going on at the time.

MS. LONG: How long did – did the raid last?

MR. THOMSON: Oh, probably – probably – from the time we set up till it was completely over it was probably somewhere between three and five hours.

MS. LONG: Wow.

MR. THOMSON: And when we got north – the raid was unsuccessful because the POWs had been moved from that site to another location, so we didn't pick up anybody at all in that raid.

The other interesting thing to me about that is that I went to – I don't even remember what school it was – after I was back here in San Antonio. And I went to – a terrorism school. And at the terrorism school – this was two or three years after the Vietnam War situation. And the colonel that was running the terrorism school was introduced as one of the raiders who would have been picked up had Sontay Raid been successful.

MS. LONG: Wow.

MR. THOMSON: So I – when we had our first break – I was a captain at the time – went up and introduced myself and explained to him that – what had – how I had been involved in that. And he said, "Captain, I don't know what your plans were, but we're having dinner tonight so we can talk."

And they had actually been moved – apparently unrelated to the raid, but they were – had been moved to a camp that was close enough that they could hear and figured out what was going on. And he said, "It didn't make any difference that you didn't get us, because we knew you tried." But it still impacts on me. Read the full interview.

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