Vet saw world during service

Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series published each Monday between Memorial Day and Veterans Day honoring local veterans.

WARREN – Alan Burgon graduated from Newton Falls High School in 1961 and was thinking about a future in education or business.

Instead, Burgon saw a lot of the world as a member of the armed services for most of the 1960s as he had to permanently shelf his education plans.

At the end of 1963, shortly after the death of President John F. Kennedy, Burgon was struggling with grades during his sophomore year at Kent State University. Then came signals that a call would be coming from Uncle Sam.

“My mother got notice that I would be drafted,” he said. “So instead of getting drafted, I headed them off and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.”

At the time, Burgon said, he wasn’t concerned about the reasons to be wary of the draft: war clouds were looming in Southeast Asia and the new president, Lyndon Johnson, seemed to have an itchy trigger finger.

“I left for Amarillo (basic training) on the day my mother received my draft notice. She had to send it back saying ‘you are too late,'” Burgon said.

After basic training, Burgon was ordered to attend technical training in Wichita Falls.

“In May 1964, I got my orders for the Far East,” Burgon said about his new duties as a freight specialist stationed out of Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa.

The Japan Times reported Kadena Air Base served as the Pentagon’s key transport hub during the Vietnam War, racking up 1 million flights, making it one of the busiest airports on the planet. Starting in 1968, B-52 bombers also took off from the base to bomb targets in Southeast Asia.

At the time of Burgon’s arrival, however, the Gulf of Tonkin incident had just occurred. This bombing of a U.S. ship heightened tensions and sparked Congressional action to increase involvement in Vietnam. At the time, Burgon said, he became aware that he could be headed for a trouble spot in the world.

“It could have been a lot worse for me, but I had it good all the way through (my service time),” he said about his tours of duty.

Burgon worked on the C-130 cargo planes that carried supplies, troops, “and everything else” to the war front in Vietnam.

“My duties involved loading and unloading the airplane. Most of it was cargo but sometimes there would be troops coming aboard,” Burgon said.

His most distasteful task, Burgon said, was helping the mortuary officer identify the bodies of fallen servicemen that were coming back in caskets from Vietnam. Sometimes to get a positive ID, Burgon said he had to open the casket and inspect the body.

The C-130s in which he worked were the same type of airplane that is found today at the Youngstown Air Station in Vienna. They have not changed much since the 1960s, he said, but Burgon praised their reliability and performance.

“It is the best airplane the Air Force has ever made that flew with just one engine,” he said about C-130 flying many trips over war zones and always bringing him back safely. Sometimes, Burgon noted, they used C-133s, a longer version of the cargo plane.

There were many times the enemy shot at the C-130s as they were flying over Vietnam, but Burgon said, they rarely ran into any trouble other than minor engine problems.

“We always made it back safely,” he said.

He said when he was finished with his work in Okinawa he was told on the flight home to San Francisco to change from his uniform to civilian clothes if he didn’t want to be hassled in public.

“That was the first time I ever saw a long-haired hippie,” Burgon laughed as he talked about his few days in 1966 in the town that made Haight-Asbury famous. “I guess the war protests were just beginning out there.”

Burgon said he was never a person to show off about his military services. In fact, he said he never even wore his Air Force dress uniform.

“I wasn’t for showing off the medals and ribbons. I think I just wore my dress blues just once to see if they fit. I was always working so I just wore the work clothes we were issued,” he said.

Burgon said he also ran into anti-American sentiment in France, while he was stationed in England and Spain after his tour of duty in the Far East.

“It was just the normal nonsense,” he said about his European tour. “That’s the Air Force for you. I think I spent about only a few months in the states. The rest of my time was spent overseas.”

Burgon said he would like to return to England and Spain but would never go back to France.

“The people there were just unfriendly,” he said.

In late 1969, Burgon decided he had had enough of the Air Force and refused any re-enlistment offers.

“I would have certainly been ordered back to the war zone, and I just didn’t want that,” he said. “I don’t have any regrets about enlisting. It would have been nice to finish school, but after I got back home, life sort of took over. I got married and found a good job at Republic Steel.”

Burgon stayed at the Warren steel mill for 38 1/2 years through the various takeovers and name changes.

Today, the Air Force veteran is retired, living in Leavittsburg and staying active through his Newton Falls Masonic Lodge and his duties as a reserve Trumbull County sheriff’s deputy and reserve Warren police officer.

On Monday mornings, Burgon can be found manning the security scanners at the entrance to the Trumbull County Courthouse.

“I can’t complain,” he said. “I’ve had a good life. I guess I have been lucky all the way through.”

gvogrin@tribtoday.com