Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series.
In March and April, St. Helenans Tom and Beverly Rinaldi traveled from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Although it was springtime in the Napa Valley, Rinaldi called it “damn hot down there. It was probably in the low 90s; after we left, it was 95, which is hot and humid.”
It was not Tom Rinaldi’s first trip to Vietnam. The trip marked the 50th anniversary of Rinaldi’s first deployment.
“I was a 17-year-old kid when I signed up in the Navy. They had me go back to high school to get my diploma – to grow up, if you will – and I had 90 days to get myself in good shape, get rid of my beard and long hair and study up for the (military) test. I’m glad they told me about that, because they were tricky tests and I aced them,” he said.
After two years of training in avionics, Rinaldi was sent to Vietnam.
On April 1, 1969, Rinaldi’s EC-121 landed at Chu Lai airbase, which was then controlled by the Americans and later overrun by the North Vietnamese. Their task was to take the black boxes out of the plane and take them into the base to be updated and maintained.
“Each of us had a couple of black boxes on our shoulders, we’re heading off the plane, heading to the base and a mortar round hits. We pick up the pace a little bit and the next one is a little closer. Bang, the next one is really close, and we throw down the black boxes and just start running like hell,” Rinaldi said. “The next one hits and we go tumbling, rolling around on the ground, we get up and start running and there’s this round circle of sandboxes, a foxhole, and we dive in. The whole top lights up on fire. This is my first day in Vietnam and it would’ve been Memorial Day, because I would’ve died.”
In a panic, he calls on the radio and says, “We’re taking fire.”
“We’ve got you covered,” came the reply. “It was a calm voice, telling me to relax, that it’s OK, we’ve got some company coming your way.
“We look out of the foxhole and these two (Douglas) A-4 attack planes drop napalm and they light up the whole hillside, which erupts in orange and black. We feel the heat and the next thing you know, those guys are toast.”
The mortar rounds had been coming from a hillside adjacent to the airbase. “Those guys blew it,” Rinaldi said. “They should have gone after that plane, which was so much more valuable than either of us by far. That was the target of the day, that was the opportunity of a lifetime.”
If you can’t tell, Rinaldi is a storyteller as well as a famed Napa Valley winemaker. The tale he had to tell was chilling … and it was from 50 years ago, when Richard Nixon was U.S. president, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. and American troops were serving, fighting and dying in Vietnam. To Rinaldi, the details are as clear today as if those events happened yesterday.
About the Vietnam War
In February 1969, just two months after President Richard Nixon took office, North Vietnamese assault teams and artillery attack American bases all over South Vietnam, killing 1,140 Americans. The heaviest fighting is around Saigon, but fights rage all over South Vietnam.
In April, the same month Rinaldi was deployed to Vietnam, U.S. combat deaths in Vietnam exceed the 33,629 men killed in the Korean War.
On June 8, 1969, Nixon meets with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu on Midway Island in the Pacific, and announces that 25,000 U.S. troops will be withdrawn immediately.
In March 1973, the last American combat soldiers leave South Vietnam, though military advisers and Marines, who are protecting U.S. installations, remain. For the United States, the war is officially over. Of the more than 3 million Americans who have served in the war, almost 58,000 are dead, and more than 1,000 are missing in action. Some 150,000 Americans were seriously wounded.
Rinaldi was born and raised in San Francisco and his dad was “absolutely OK” with him signing up to serve in the military. But since he needed both parents’ signatures, it took a bit of doing to convince his mom. Today, he’s not sure why he signed up to serve in the Navy, but 50 years ago, his motivation was much the same as those who served in the military during World War II – “to beat the Japs, get rid of the Nazis, and get rid of the (Vietnam) war.”
It was only much later that Rinaldi realized Vietnam “was not a winnable war. Hell, we’re not even on the right side.”
A ‘flyboy’ in Memphis
After boot camp, Rinaldi was in San Diego, where he was training to be a Navy SEAL. He got a foot infection, though, and washed out. He ended up in Memphis at the Naval Air and Technical Training Command, where he learned avionics. “I was going to be a flyboy,” he said.
Rinaldi was in Memphis for eight months, including on April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He lived in an apartment complex off the base.
“The brothers banged on my door, knocked it in and told me to get my ass out of here,” Rinaldi said. When he asked what was going on, they told him to leave NOW.
“They didn’t tell me what was going on and they didn’t kill me, because I got along great with them (the blacks who lived in the apartment complex.) I got on my motorcycle and headed to the base,” he said, which is when he learned about the assassination.
He went back to the complex four or five days later and “the place was burned to the ground. All my stuff was gone,” he said. “That was heavy.”
Early in 1969, he went to Guam and received more training. He was flying in an EC-121 “Super Constellation,” which was a four turbo-prop airplane with twin tip tanks on the wings, and three ailerons in the back. “It was a very distinctive plane,” he said.
The missions were 18 hours long, with two crews, each working two four-and-a-half hour shifts per mission. Their job was electronic surveillance, using sophisticated radar. They would stare at screens, sweeping 300 miles, spotting boat traffic and air traffic, including surface-to-air missiles. “We’d be able to pinpoint where they were and we flew between Haiphong, Vietnam and Hainan, China,” he said.
If there was a problem with the plane, crews were told to crash land in Haiphong, in North Vietnam. “You did not want to land in China, because if you didn’t make it, you disappeared in China. You could be there forever,” Rinaldi said.
He tells other war stories:
— of fighting a gunner in a helicopter because he was killing water buffalo down below;
— of his favorite job — disposing of old ordnance, including 30-caliber rounds and hand grenades;
— surfing on the Mekong River;
— a Bob Hope USO show with an actor singing a weird version of “MacArthur Park,” a song he never heard when it was released in April 1968;
— a trip up Two Lovers Point in Guam with a concussion grenade being thrown into the Pacific Ocean.