ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – He served proudly. He was even awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. But 50 years later, U.S. Air Force veteran John Farmer has had trouble proving he served at all.
Born at Fort Knox, Kentucky, Farmer moved to Havre de Grace, Maryland in the third grade. He graduated from Havre de Grace High School and attended Harford Community College. He said with the current state of the war in ‘Nam and the political climate, everyone was trying to get into college.
“I was trying to transfer to Towson [University] but I was a day late and a dollar short,” he said. “They had no room.”
Farmer said due to his high draft status, for him, military service was inevitable.
“I was [category] 1-A so I knew I was going anyway,” he said. “I tested pretty well and was offered the Air Force so I took it.”
He entered the USAF Aug. 15, 1969. He attended basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas and arrived for training as an Aircraft Radio Technician at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi in August 1969, just after Hurricane Camille. He eventually took additional radio technical courses in 1971 at the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, South Carolina and at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.
Farmer was sent overseas, but to Thailand in November 1971 and was assigned to Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, a front-line facility of the USAF during the Vietnam War. Fighter squadrons at Ubon typically flew combat missions to North Vietnam.
Operation Igloo White
Assigned to a Sensor Shop Security mission, Farmer said it was his job to assemble and load classified motion sensors as part of the secret Operation Igloo White program. According to Wikipedia, the operation “utilized electronic sensors, computers and communications relay aircraft in an attempt to automate intelligence collections. The system signals picked up by other strike aircraft would then assist in the direction to their targets.”
At Ubon, Farmer said they “built” about 75 sensors a day.
“They’d drop them along the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the day and AC-130s would pull them up at night,” he said.
The Airmen worked 12-hour shifts assembling the mechanisms, Farmer said.
Though the majority of his duty was “pretty cut and dry, it had its moments,” he recalled.
The two incidents that defined his tour involved single-handedly “taking out” a Viet Cong mortar team and flying a helicopter with no formal training.
The first incident occurred during his first two months in country. While on guard duty, he and a fellow Airman sighted four Viet Cong soldiers in a truck filled with mortars along their perimeter. Farmer said they low-crawled through brush that had been leveled by Agent Orange to surprise the combatants.
“We jumped up and started shooting and my partner’s gun jammed.” He said. His partner was shot but Farmer said he just “kept shooting and took out all four with nine bullets.”
“Thirty seconds later an APC [armored personnel carrier with reinforcements] rolled up.”
He said that the base commander congratulated him after the incident and informed him that 75 other combatants were spotted on the other side of the perimeter awaiting the mortar signal to attack.
“I never shot anyone else the rest of the time I was there,” he said.
Taking control of a UH-1
Farmer earned an award normally bestowed on aviators when he had to take control of a UH-1 helicopter after the pilot was shot and killed in flight.
He said it happened during a 137 mile journey into the jungle to retrieve sensors.
“We got an Army Huey and two 77-gallon fuel pods and took off at dawn. War only happens at night but we still had F-14 and other gun support.”
On the way in, Farmer said he received about four minutes of flight training from the pilot who showed him how to maneuver and keep the aircraft level. They arrived safely, retrieved the sensors and were on the return trip when he said the pilot again offered him the controls.
“He had just given me the stick when an AK-47 round came up and hit him right below the nose,” Farmer said.
With the pilot dead, there was nothing to do but try to maintain control of the aircraft. Farmer said with the help of the door gunner they made it back to Ubon.
“It was real scary. We were running low on fuel. I knew to head south-southwest because we had flown north-northeast on the way up. We had to work hard to maintain control of the Huey while looking for landmarks and trying to keep from getting shot down,” he said. “It seemed like it took us forever to get back.”
When they “got close enough,” he said, they finally spotted Ubon and “just headed for it.”
“We almost took out a guard tower,” he chuckled. “The rough landing was really a nine-foot drop and we ripped out a chain link fence in the process.”
The crowd that gathered around the aircraft included the base commander who again commended him for “bringing the bird back.”
“It was pretty exciting but sad too because the pilot was dead,” he said.
Before he left Thailand, in November 1972, Farmer said he was instructed not to talk about his mission or to even explain his award. He said it was then that he realized that Sensor Shop Security officially did not exist.
“They told me ‘you can talk about it when the Berlin Wall comes down,’” he said.
He said that even when his brother, who worked for the National Security Agency at the time, picked him up at Friendship Airport (now BWI) he wouldn’t tell him how he got the award. Farmer spent his final six months in uniform at Loring Air Force Base in Maine.
After the military he worked in electrical manufacturing for more than 14 years and spent time in the equipment testing industry and in sales.
Farmer still has the slide projector he bought in Thailand in 1972 along with dozens of slides showing the villages and country side. From flower gardens to distinctive architecture to elephant labor, his collection completely captures the aura of everyday life in Thailand during that tumultuous period.
Fortuitously, he also maintained copies of most of his records, including awards, assignments and training materials. It was several years later, when he was seeking treatment for his exposure to Agent Orange, that he learned a significant part of his personnel files were missing.
“The only thing it shows is when I entered the Air Force and that I was honorably discharged,” he said. “Nothing in between.”
It took a notarized letter from a fellow former Airman he served with from Bowie, Maryland, who vouched that Farmer served in him in Thailand to secure his medical benefits from the Veterans Administration in 2013.
Farmer, who also battles post-traumatic stress disorder, said he’s proud of his service, though he feels victimized and ignored by the government. He said the changes ‘Nam wrought live on in him today.
“Sometimes I don’t even try to get along with people and I don’t take crap off of anybody,” he said. “But I love my family and I love my country and that will never change.”
Farmer and his wife, Carolyn, live quietly in Havre de Grace.
Editor’s Note: According to publicly released documents at www.dtic.mil, Operation Igloo White was downgraded to “secret” in 1978 and declassified by the Air Force Declassification Office and approved for public release Aug. 15, 2006.
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.
As a senior airman stationed at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand, Farmer assembles a sensor used in the secret Operation Igloo White program.
A young Air Force recruit, John Farmer smiles for his basic training photos.
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