Richard Robert Southon
United StatesAir Force
Staff Sergeant in the 8th Air Force 99th Bombardment Wing
Served From 1966-1970
Richard Robert Southon was born in Chicago, Illinois on March 5th, 1943. Southon lived in Chicago throughout his childhood as well. His uncles had served in the military before him, one of which had been chief of chaplains. Southon had had two years of college. Prior to him being drafted he worked at United Airlines as a ramp service man. Shortly before he was drafted he got married.
The reason Southon enlisted was because he was drafted. After the advice from one uncle to not serve in the Army and he found out the Navy was full he decided to enlist in the Air Force. His family’s response was all positive. At entrance Southon took a test and did very well, which allowed him go into any area of the Air Force.
Southon attended boot camp in San Antonio, Texas on the Lackland Air Force base for one month. There he learned things from military rules, to how to fire an M-16. There were also a lot of classroom sessions in this boot camp. This boot camp only lasted one month and at the end he was classified as an Airman 3rd Class. Southon then went on to Amarillo Air Force Base in Amarillo, Texas for Tech School Training. He was here for four months where he learned specifically about aircraft maintenance. After Tech School he became a 43151E which meant he would be dealing with multi-engine aircraft. After boot camp he went back home to Chicago where he prepared for his assignment.
He was assignment to Westover Air Force base in Westover, MA. At first Southon felt lost but soon fit right in with the rest of the service men. Shortly after his arrival he was promoted to Airman 2nd Class. During the four year he was there, there were 2 TDY (Temporary Duty Assignment) which meant the whole base picked up and headed over to the Vietnam area. From October of 1966 to September of 1967 Southon was in Westover. Then from September of 1967 until March of 1968 his wing moved to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. While in Guam the whole wing was promoted to Airman 1st Class. Then in March of 1968 to September of 1968 his wing came back to Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts. Then in September of 1968 until March of 1969 his wing moved to Kadena Air Force in Okinawa. At the end of this TDY he was a Staff Sergeant. Finally in March of 1969 until the day he got out in May of 1970 he was back in the sates at Westover Air Force Base. Southon was assigned to the aero repair shop, which was responsible for landing gears and flight control. The morale of the unit was “excellent…until [they] came back to the States.” Southon’s job was aircraft maintenance. He worked on windshields, brakes, rigging the planes, spoilers, tires and throttles. His job was basically to fix the larger items on the plane.
Southon had a lot of time off while on TDYs. One time he went on a three day vacation to the Island of Sipan. He also visited the island of Oshima from Okinawa. He loved going on different tours on the island of Okinawa on his days that he got off. Southon also rented a car once and drove around the whole island of Guam in two hours. He would go to the beach sometimes. He was able to communicate with his family through air mail and there were also hand radio operators, which was much more complicated than the mail service.
Southon received multiple medals and ribbons. One was the Vietnam service award; he got a Torii gate when he left Okinawa.
He has kept in contact with the first person he met in Westover and they are still good friends to this day.
After his release his reception home was horrible. Southon himself experienced hate from his fellow Americans. He was disappointed and upset because they were getting mad at him after he had been working hard in the service for four years.
After his release he got a job as a Lincoln service manager in Massachusetts. Then shortly after getting the job at the Lincoln service center he went back to Chicago to work for United Airlines. In 1972 he moved to his current house in San Rafael, California. He was a ramp serviceman until 1975 when he then became a mechanic for United Airlines. In 1982 he got his proper licenses for the mechanic job due to a change in the law. Then in October of 2001 he retired due to 9-11.
Southon has since joined the Vietnam Veterans of America along with the Aerican Legion. He tries to attend the regional gatherings for the groups during the year.
He says the toughest part was being far from home, but he says it was not all that bad because he saw the light at the end of the tunnel (which for him was being released and living in his normal life again.)
The scariest moment of Southon’s service was while he was in Okinawa a B-52 lost an engine on takeoff and the co-pilot was flying the plane at the time and decided to abort the takeoff, but it was too late. The plane hit the end of the runway after the entire crew had managed to escape. The plane blew up with 250,000 lbs. of fuel and 500,000 lbs. of bombs and the entire sky lit up with red fire. Southon had come out of a hanger where he was working at the time and was nearly a mile away and at the time of the explosion and amazingly got thrown 20ft. on to his back.
He is very grateful for his time in the Air Force because it gave him a career. Before the Air Force he was a baggage handler and after his time in the military he was a mechanic.
Southon says that we need to remember the sacrifice that so many Americans gave to this country. We also need to think about why we were in Vietnam in the first place.
Southon strongly recommends service (especially the Air Force with all of the new technology) because it will help make a career if you do not know what you are going to do after college. He got a lot of skills from the Air Force and then made a career outside of the military, but he says that making the military your career would also work well.
Southon has been very positive about the four years he served because it gave him a better opportunity for the rest of his life.
Interview conducted by Stanton Leavitt on July 11, 2011