ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) operated 10 major air bases in South Vietnam.
Throughout the war, subordinate USAF commands there operated under the jurisdiction of U.S. Pacific Air Forces in Hawaii.
This is the story of a former Airman, APG civilian and Harford County native who served two tours in the region during the later years of the war.
John Gostomski was a wide-eyed 19-year-old when he first set foot on South Vietnam’s Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Though he knew the country was at war, he hadn’t paid much attention to the headlines. He just knew the military was hiring and offering all kinds of benefits.
Gostomski joined the Air Force in 1968 and attended aircraft mechanic training before heading to Vietnam in 1969. He ultimately served two tours –1969 to 1970 and 1971 to 1972 – at the same air base. An aircraft mechanic just out of school, Gostomski was assigned to the 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing (TRW) within the 377th Air Base Wing. The period was approaching the height of the national outcry against the unpopular war but Gostomski said he had no qualms about enlisting, though his family had concerns.
“My dad was in the battle of the Philippines so he kind of understood but mom didn’t take it well; especially during my second tour,” he said.
Just seven months after entering aircraft mechanic school, Gostomski deployed overseas.
“The first thing I remember is getting off that plane in that hot, humid air,” he said. “It was pretty warm.”
He said Tan Son Nhut was a large base, and most of his days were spent maintaining the base’s many aircraft and repairing hydraulics and other components. Occasionally, mechanics were required to venture “up country” to help retrieve downed aircraft or conduct on-site repairs of planes damaged by gunfire, he said.
“We stayed really, really busy,” he said. “There was always a lot of activity, a lot of repairs needed, especially with the fighter-bombers.”
“They had so many different kinds of planes back then,” he added. “Whenever one had something like a leaky brake line or if something wasn’t working with the hydraulics we’d take care of it. It was a very big base and there was always something to do.”
The loading and unloading of aircraft was a typical activity on the busy airfield and Gostomski said he saw all kinds of cargo – including troops – coming and going. Most loads were unremarkable, but those containing coffins always gave one pause, he said.
“As far as actually being in combat itself, I didn’t see any action,” he said. “It was our job to support the guys in the air and the guys on the ground.”
During off-duty time, Airmen usually wound down in local clubs in nearby Saigon. Force protection and security wasn’t the issue it is today, he said.
“Our security was pretty good; plus we had the Vietnamese military police too.”
“During my first tour I was homesick, but as time went by, I got more into my job and my friends,” he said. “It seems like in a war zone you get closer to people who share the same experience.”
Among his keepsake photos is a shot of him in front of a C-102 transport plane, considered the “workhorse” for short-distance travel.
Gostomski left the service after his second tour, having served just under four years. It was then that he witnessed “a lot of negativity” that wasn’t there during his first tour. He arrived back in the U.S. to anything but a hero’s welcome.
“We flew back in uniform and saw demonstrators at Travis Air Force Base,” he said. “In the airport, someone had painted a baby doll red and they flipped it at us inside the terminal.”
He went into construction and eventually used his GI Bill to obtain a basic automotive mechanics certification. Eleven years after he left the service he became a government civilian as a carpenter with the APG Directorate of Public Works.
Gostomski married four years later and had four children, who are now in their 20s and 30s. He retired from the DPW in 2013 after a 30-year career.
Today, he volunteers with American Legion Post 39 in Bel Air, and has helped wash the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. and placed carnations on the 9-11 Memorial at the Pentagon.
Gostomski said he doesn’t mind being called ‘patriotic’ one bit.
“I love this country. It’s a good country. It still touches me when they raise the flag and play the national anthem,” he said. “But I don’t think the military gets all the recognition it deserves. I’d like to see more support for them. We want to make sure it never goes back to the way it was after Nam.”
He added that he likes to think his father would be proud of him and his two brothers.
“My father was infantry and he always talked about his service. He was drafted right after Pearl Harbor,” he said. “I wasn’t drafted. I signed up my senior year. Serving in the military taught me the meaning of patriotism and I’m proud of my service.
“Like my father, I just tried to be a good role model for my kids.”
Like any other war, Vietnam produced an array of veterans. When the conflict ended, some veterans opted to continue service in the military while others returned to civilian life. Some returned with life altering wounds – physical and psychological – while too many others, who never came home at all, remain among the Missing in Action.
On the surface, the veterans of the Vietnam War faced the same challenges as veterans of other wars, except for one glaring difference: they were vilified by American society like no other generation before or since.
Today, nearly 50 years after the war’s end, the veterans of Vietnam are in their 60s and 70s. The passage of time has cooled the tempest of indignation that shrouded their homecoming and an ambiance of repentant thanks thrives in its wake. Many still do what they can to serve this nation.
This article originally appeared in the “APG News” as part of an ongoing, multi-year series hailing the service members and civilians who served the nation during the war in Vietnam. Giving a voice to local Vietnam veterans, it is through their stories that we honor their service and sacrifice, and offer a long-overdue “Welcome Home.”
For more information about the series or the veterans featured, contact “APG News” Editor Amanda Rominiecki at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story by Yvonne Johnson, APG News