Ronald Nappi was born on August 30th, 1941 in Derby, Connecticut. He
grew up as the typical American kid, who spent a great deal of time in the Boy Scouts. After he graduated from high school and college, he decided to join the Air
Force with a few of his classmates. He trained in Michigan and became
a navigator bombardier on the B-52 before heading to Southeast Asia, where he flew dozens of bombing missions over Vietnam. He was stationed
in many different bases in Thailand and Cambodia, but never set foot in Vietnam. He's careful to say that he flew over but was never in Nam itself.
Mr. Nappi’s experiences show us that by volunteering in the Air
Force he wanted to support his country and help in the struggle in Southeast
Asia. He shows how young men were risking their lives for their country
and how hard it was hard it was for them to be conflicting and changing
views of the war back in United States.
Q: When were you born?
Mr. Nappi: August 30th, 1941.
Q: Could you describe where you grew up?
Mr. Nappi: I grew up in a little town of Derby, Connecticut, and so
I was born just before World War II started (which was December of ‘41).
And the little town I grew up in was a factory town, and it was primarily
the first generation of immigrant families.
Q: Did your father fight in World War II?
Mr. Nappi: No, my father was about 30 when the war started, so he was
considered to be an old-timer. He had two kids, so he joined what was
called the state park. They didn’t have the National Guard they
had the state park. And so he went to be trained and they were supposed
to help the civilians in case we were attacked. Because around that
time the war had been going on and there was a real fear we were going
to be invaded on the east coast. There were U2 boats off the coast of
Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey there had been sinking ships
that were transporting supplies so there was a real fear they were going
to invade so the State Guard was going to defend us - We had toy rifles.
Q: When were you in high school?
Mr. Nappi: I graduated in 1958. The town I came from, to give you a
feel for the town, was a pretty patriotic town. The town had been established
by Commodore Isaakhaul- was born and raised in Derby and he was the
commodore of the USS constitution so we always had a sense of history
in the Town Green and it was populated by English settlers, then later
on by Irish, Scotch, and German immigrants. Then when my parents, uncles
and aunts and my grandparents came over, they were Italian, polish some
Jewish folks. These were the primary ethnic groups, so we lived ethnically.
If you went to the Nappi house, you smelled sauce and pasta. If you
went to the polish house, you smelled kielbasa and cabbage. Corn beef
and cabbage in the Gorman house and so we all knew who we were ethnically
and yet we were all friends. My father was an Italian barber. He sang
Q: As a teenager, were you aware of world events?
Mr. Nappi: Yes. I brought some old stuff. Yes. World events were important
to us because my uncle was a republican in a town that was 90% democrats,
kind of like being in Massachusetts. He ran for Mayor. He was chairman
of the town committee. I was in the boy scouts. There is a guy you may
recognize fifty years ago carrying the flag you see the churches and
the towns. It was a town that was very much aware of world affairs and
state affairs; (at least those of us who had families involved in politics).
I would carry signs on the street corner like we did for the recent
vote here in town. You know those people standing there with signs.
The signs I would carry were for Senator Prescott Bush who was the Grandfather
of our President. He was a senator from Connecticut at that time. So,
John Lodge was the Governor. He married an Italian woman, so we were
proud to have the Italian wife of a governor and we were involved in
as much as we could.
Q: How did you feel about Communism and the Cold War?
Mr. Nappi: That was a real threat. It was during the McCarthy era so
there was an exaggerated fear that communists were infiltrating every
place. Particularly, in the East, in the Universities. So, my daughter
graduated from NYU two years ago and it was supposed to be a hot bed
of communists in New York City back then. I had a classmate in college,
Frank Dolan. He was in school with me I think three years I remember
him. The day we graduated, he had an Army uniform on. He had been undercover
agent looking for some of the professors that were suspected of being
communist supporters. We said to him, “Wow”, what are you
doing in that uniform? You just graduated. So it was a big fear…of
the Red Mennace.
Q: Did you fear or dislike communists or did you have an opinion of
Mr Nappi: I would say Yes. It was from a distance because I never met
a communist but on the news and on television and in schools McCarthy
was investigating. They were having hearings in Washington to look for
and find out communists in industry and in government and in education.
And, that was also around the time of the Korean War. So, I was nine
when the Korean War started. I had some older cousins who had to go
to Korea, and at that time China (Red China) and Russia were the two
cold war enemy, and when we went to the aid of the South Koreans we
pushed the North Koreans north of the 38th parallel. One million Red
Chinese Soldiers invaded and pushed the U.S. forces down below the 38th
parallel with a lot of heavy losses. So the fear was that Red China
later on was also going to do the same thing to China. So, in the meantime
I played little league baseball, played high school baseball, belonged
to the boy scouts. We had fun fishing, hiking, camping. So we did have,
life was fun.
Q: So you said you were nine when the Korean War started, do you remember
anything about President Eisenhower?
Mr. Nappi: I like Ike. Again, because my family (I’m an independent
voter) at the time were republicans. And so the expression was “I
like Ike.” And the signs were I like Ike. Ike was running for
President. I liked him because he seemed to know what he was talking
about. He was a war hero. He seemed to be moderate in his thinking,
and it was nice to have refreshing after World War II was done.
Q: How did you view John F. Kennedy?
Mr. Nappi: Kennedy was… I was raised Catholic so at that time
it was important for Catholics to have a catholic president- wow, because,
there was a lot of prejudice against Catholics back then. The fear of
being, if we get a Catholic as President, he is going to have a direct
pipeline to Rome and the Pope was going to tell him what to do so this
was a part of the campaign to not have Rome take over. So, when he came….
it was refreshing – he was young. He wasn’t Harry Truman,
he wasn’t Roosevelt in a wheelchair, he wasn’t Eisenhower
quite now hunched over, - he was young and he had a young wife, wow!
Jackie! So this is exciting- and I liked his ideas. Beautiful ideas-
social justice- so it was exciting.
Q: What were your plans upon graduating from high school?
Mr. Nappi: Ah, gee. I wanted to go to college and the town I came from,
again, was pretty much immigrant families. First generation of factories
were brewing so people worked in the mills with heavy machinery and
textiles. People went to work in the mills. My mother was a seamstress.
And there was 76 of us who graduated from high school, a small high
school. 6 of us went to college, so to go to college was a pretty good
step up, and a lot of the guys joined the service right after high school.
12 marines or joined the navy. Some went to construction work in factories,
later on a couple more kids went out of high school, it might be 10
that went to the service. –So I wanted to go away to college-
University of Connecticut –wow-20 or 40 miles away. I got accepted
couldn’t afford that couldn’t afford Fairfield, so my brother
who was a big influence on me (three years older), said “why don’t
you go to school where I’m going.” So he went to New Haven
state teachers college. “We can commute, we can afford it, don’t
you want to be a teacher? - Come and try it for a year.” -To make
a long story short I ended up graduating from southern catholic state
college. And then I didn’t I still… I was going to join
the service out of high school because I didn’t want to commute
to a teachers college, but my brother said “stay for a while,
after you graduate maybe.” So that’s the long story about
how I got to college and student taught a couple years had teaching
contracts. And literally in august- or was it end of July- we just finished
playing softball, my buddies and I. They had graduated from other schools.
“What are you going to do when you graduate?” –“Oh
I don’t know. I don’t want to hang around here. I don’t
want to hang around here- you know.” So one of the guys said,
I heard about this program. It’s called officer’s training
school. You join the service you and you go to basic training for 12
weeks, get through that, and get commissioned as a second lieutenant.
For 4 years, after that you can have benefits, after that to go to college.
To go to graduate school – wow- you travel, so this group of guys
6 of us ended up going; they weren’t the same 6 guys, three of
them made a career and 3 of us ended up going. So that’s how I
got into the service.
Q: When did you first hear about the conflict in Vietnam?
Mr. Nappi: Well I was a social studies and history major in college
so I was following events in Southeast Asia, Laos was the big place
in the early sixties. That was where the activity was going on. So,
I followed Indo China as part of my studies and then when I went into
the service I went to Texas on my commission and while I was there,
the Cuban Missile Crisis and Kennedy was President then and it was pretty
hairy. The base we were at turned out to have Nuclear weapons, weapons
stored there. We were working shipping these things off on flat beds.
So, my first assignment after that was Denver. I was an administrative
officer in the training squadron. People were trained for weapons, missiles
and explosives and some of the sergeants had come back as advisors in
Laos and told me their experiences. So, I got more interested. I was
an administrative officer and that wasn’t too exciting. I applied
for Navigator training and I was accepted. Off to
navigator’s school after that.
Q: The Gulf of Tonkin Incident led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,
which gave Lyndon B. Johnson war powers to dramatically escalate troop
levels. When did you learn about the controversy regarding the truthful
nature of the attack on the USS Maddox? How did this impact you?
Mr. Nappi: It wasn’t until, so I cant exactly remember, when
some time after, maybe it was a couple of years after the Maddox Incident
that I remember the information coming out that maybe it was a set up.
Maybe in fact the torpedo boats had never attacked the Maddox. It was
hard to know what was true then, because there were people that were
supporting the war, there were people not supporting the war, people
argued here and argued there, supporting their arguments whether or
not it was accurate. It was hard to figure out. My friend Danny who
was here last week was in the Gulf of Tonkin picking up flyers in that
area. - So I wasn’t clear but, later on when I got out, it became
Q: What as your experience like in joining the armed forces?
Mr. Nappi: It was mixed I was excited I was excited. I had to go down
and take this test.
I had never flown in my life I had never been west of Washington DC.
I had been south once, where the girls were in Fort Lauderdale for Spring
weekend when I was a Junior at college. So, it was exciting. It was
kind of scary. My father drove me to New Haven and what became a pattern,
my mother, Mrs. Nappi, her name is Caramilinda Magherita Megano Nappi,
- was called Molly. She was called Molly all of her life. Molly would
pull the curtain aside and wave and cry.
So, that was my first going away other than a couple of weeks at camp.
From New Haven we raised our hands, that meant we were officially in
and we said what was a bunch of words- “I do” (or is that
when you get married) and then we took the bus from there to Newark
Airport in New Jersey and they put us on a Turbo Prop plane. I had never
flown before. I looked out the window. We flew all the way from there
until Nashville, and then we changed planes, and then we landed in Austin
Texas. I was sorry that I had applied for flight training. I was homesick.
I was in Texas and people talked funny. There wasn’t a lot of
space. You are thrown in with a bunch of guys from all over the country,
different backgrounds, different histories, with different languages.
- Remember when I had shaved at home, my father was a barber, so I would
put lather on and have a cup. I had a can of shaving cream, my first
can and we are lined up at the sinks ready to shave and I pressed the
top of the can but my hand was too close and it went poof. This guy
next to me I never knew and he was standing there with stuff all over
his face. This guy over here, it’s hanging off him, and we had
these mirrors. So that was my introduction. So, it was scary. It was
because I was always an athlete, working out. It was challenging to
have people yell in your face and to not blink. We began early to learn
discipline and because I had been in scouting all my life, things were
familiar. The uniforms, the marching and those kinds of things. So,
it was scary. I went home probably once a year on leave. I was able
to travel and see some of the world. So, that was good.
Q: Was it difficult your transformation from a civilian to a soldier/an
Mr. Nappi: It was …the basic training, Officer’s training
school, was a challenge and then as a brand new second Lieutenant I
went to a base in Denver and there were two officers and a thousand
airmen and I was number two in command. Even though I had been in leadership
positions, these were guys that were twice my age. Yes sir, No sir.
They got to listen to me. So getting used to a regiment took a while
but scouting helped because you have regiments/earn badges and that.
I was fortunate enough to be able to live off of the base when I was
in Denver with three other guys. We had civilian life but also life
on the base. Having to do certain things, taking responsibility as a
twenty one year old second lieutenant and a thousand airmen there was
a lot of responsibility, but I liked it.
Q: What was it like saying goodbye to friends and loved ones since you
did not see them for such a long time?
Mr. Nappi: That was always hard because Molly was at the window, my
brothers were staying in Connecticut and you felt a pattern when you
left on the way back from Connecticut to wherever I was going there
was sadness because of missing the people, we had such a close family
and then there was the excitement for going wherever we were going to
go. It was good to go home, but then it was good to leave to go.
Q: Describe what it was like leaving the United States; where did you
Mr. Nappi: I was based at that time I was based in Michigan and by
that time I had been trained in Texas on base navigation and then I
went to California for advanced training on B52s as a navigator bombardier
and I was assigned to Michigan, 300 miles north of Detroit. I was based
there for about three years. I had been volunteering all along to try
to go to South East Asia. The Air Force decided to give me the assignment
to a B52 at that time and sorry, here are your choice of bases: Minot,
North Dakota, Montana, Kinchlo in Michigan in the boon docks, they were
all boon dock bases. I was north of Detroit so I got to the base and
I put my request in for an assignment and they said I was frozen for
a year. In that year I had been promoted and evaluated. So they said,
sorry you are frozen here to be evaluated. In the mean time, crews were
going over and in the three years I traveled and they wouldn’t
let me go and they wouldn’t let me go to Pilot’s school.
So, I put in my time and then I was told that a crew needed a navigator
and they asked me. It had been five years and they told me I would have
to be extended for three/four months. In the mean time I had lost some
friends that had been shot down, killed or captured. One of my younger
brother’s best friends came back as a Marine. He was only nineteen
and he was shot up pretty badly so, it gave me more for this personally
to want to go. So, I was interested in going, volunteering. I wanted
to get into the faster Jets. So, my first assignment then that we were
approved went from Michigan to some missions out of Guam, some missions
out of Okinawa, some missions out of Thailand, into Vietnam. Sixty-
Q: How many flight hours did that turn out to be?
Mr. Nappi: I think the actually flying time was somewhere like 1400-1500
hours. The actual combat time, the time you are actually over there
with people shooting at you and stuff was about 500 hours.
Q: What was it like when you arrived in Vietnam?
Mr. Nappi: I never set foot in Vietnam. I was in Thailand, in the gulf
of Thailand, right where Thailand extends into Cambodia so I was based
right here, see (pointing to a map) where that yellow mark it. I was
in Thailand there near Cambodia and I was in Okinawa which is right
here (pointing to a map). Okinowa is part of Japan which is out here
from the mainland. So, our missions were across Thailand across Cambodia.
Q: What did you think you were fighting for?
Mr. Nappi: Again I had been volunteering for a number of years so I
thought I was helping to defend Indo china which had become Laos, Cambodia,
and Thailand against communism. And, again, at that point, with my history,
the communist Chinese had invaded and come into Korea and the fear then
was that they would do the same, that they were going to take over Vietnam.
I was key in helping to keep South Vietnam “free” even though
they had some rulers in their military that weren’t good. And,
in Laos, the prince, was supposed to be neutral except that all these
trucks and supplies kept coming down the Ho Chi Min Trail and so it
was frustrating for a B52 navigator bombardier flying with sixty thousand
pounds of arms each mission to say you can’t repair what we did
over there. It became frustrating to understand that time in 1968 that
we were losing one hundred guys a week. And, so it was frustrating.
Q: Did you believe in the “domino theory”, that once one
nation falls to communism the neighboring ones will as well?
Mr. Nappi: yea I did but it was gooey because it stuck that way and
that way and it got confusing because I wasn’t in country and
in ’69 protests had started pretty actively in the states and
formal protests like at the University of Michigan, Boston University,
Boston was a hot bed, and in California. So, I used to stop and talk
to the soldiers and the Marines before coming back when I was in Okinawa
and I was in Guam. When we were going back states – side and we
would go through the terminals. It was making a difference in flying
all of these missions knocking trees down and so it was helpful to hear
all these guys it was making a difference. We were under fire, the B52s,
and so for me it was helping me to hear this. The politics that were
going on and the General that they had had at that time Gen Kin Yu,
had been assassinated, and another in, so pick your general of the month.
Q: The North Vietnamese army and the VC fought hard against the Us forces.
Did you see them primarily as communists seeking to spread their political
system or nationalists seeking to get rid of a foreign presence?
Mr. Nappi: The latter. - the second one. I saw them as North Vietnam
was a communist country with the standard of living was poor. It was
a country dominated by the government, controlled by the government
and the military. So, my original sense was that we were going to maintain
freedom for South Vietnam. The intent of Ho Chi Min and the leaders
of North Vietnam was to take over the south and put in a formal government
that I was opposed to, like the Soviet Union and others. The average
soldier on the ground I never met him but I did meet Cambodians and
Thais and Vietnamese where some of the bases had been hit. It was hard
to distinguish. I spent time in Thailand, loved the Thai people, wonderful,
sensitive people. They weren’t too much different than people
a hundred thousand miles over there. I began to wonder about what we
were doing while I was flying. I also wondered about the protesters
which upset me because I knew what was happening on the ground to my
friends. Jane Fonda was photographed sitting in the aircraft and I’ve
never forgiven her although she apologized a couple of years ago. That
was tremendous propaganda for the communists and for those people who
wanted it to work differently.
Q: What were responsibilities and the jobs you had to do in Southeast
Mr. Nappi: I was a navigator bombardier. On a B-52 you have six crewmen,
a pilot, co-pilot, reader, control officer who has jamming equipment
to keep the enemy radars from locking onto us and shooting us down which
we didn’t really want to have happen too much. And then we had
a gunner who controlled, he sat way back in the tail of the B-52 as
a gunner and off to my left was the radar navigator who was the primary
bombardier and I was the navigator, certified and qualified in both
positions. So my job was to get the aircraft from the point we took
off to target, on target on time within so many seconds, so navigated
from [Guam] around [Turquoise], it was eleven hours, eleven and half
hours to [Whokinow] it was about eight and a half and it was two hours
round trip from Cambodia, anytime you had to refuel in certain places
like that. So my job was to check the bomb settings on the bombs that
were on the wings before we took off, make sure we had a number of other
pieces of radar equipment that were stuff on some checklists and then
hold on while we took off, it was bumpy you know. And the B-52 which
was 150 feet from tip to tail and 182 feet from wingtip to wingtip,
and we lived up here, we were down on the second deck below the pilots,
in back a little bit, there are no windows so you’re buried in
air and the gunner was back here except on the later models where the
gunner would be up here. One of the hairiest things was taking off because
we had 60,000 pounds of bombs and we were fully loaded with fuel, and
fully loaded with fuel and bombs and the aircraft weighed about 400,000
pounds and if one of the engines failed you may not get off the ground.
So each of the take-offs was pretty hairy and so take-offs and landings
for us and then ground flier were usually below us at that point in
time, later on B-52’s got shot down over the North we lost a bunch
of planes, a couple of my friends got shot down.
Q: What kind of targets did you usually have?
Mr. Nappi: In South Vietnam we mainly hit troop concentrations, weapons
depots and storage areas and transportation lines, you looked at the
maps you saw the Ho Chi Minh Trail come down here and once it got here
it branched out into these lines that came out and that’s sort
of their ultimate supply routes. The…were pretty deep and the
Ho Chi Minh Trail actually brought trucks underneath the canopies, so
we hit those targets two or three times in a row and each of our missions
there were three of us so we had two other ships so every mission there
were 180,000 pounds of bombs dropped on one mission so we knocked down
a lot of trees. You wouldn’t find out until some time later you
know our mission number and try to find out maybe in a week, two weeks
later if you went and found that it might tell you if you hit anything,
ammunition or KIA’s killed in action and soldiers so I started
asking the guys coming back they’d tell stories about how it was
helpful to them.
Q: Did you have any close calls?
Mr. Nappi: We had more close calls in the takeoffs and landings; and
the ground flier was at that time well below us, so the pilots would
say “you could see the bursts down below us so they weren’t
high enough to hit us.” We did have, it was pretty wild at times
on take-off, so they had a scramble, You had a particular aircraft assigned
to you, went into the aircraft, started the engines and had to check
all the different systems and if there’s something wrong with
the aircraft, it couldn’t takeoff mechanically, you had to scramble
from that aircraft to a standby and if it was too late to scramble to
get there to try to get to that spare aircraft; if you couldn’t
then they had another crew go up in the aircraft, and when that happened
the aircraft took off and crashed in front of us, so all the guys were
killed; so we were fortunate that we could have been in that aircraft
that had mechanical problems. So those were the tough times when we
lost engines and hit weather or couldn’t get refueled. For me
at that time, ’69 those were the kinds of missions we were flying
later on when we started to go north we bombed some of the cities we
had much more intensive flying, we lost a number of B-52’s and
my former roommate got shot down.
Q: How long were you on missions? Were they in varying length?
Mr. Nappi: Yeah, when you flew out of Guam it was, I think roughly
about eleven hours, eleven and a half hours round trip, flew out of
Okinawa it was about ten hours round trip, and flew out of Thailand
it was one and a half to two hours; and then we were there for six months
and we rotated to different bases and at the end of six months our tour
was up and we came back.
Q: How was the morale of the troops when you were there?
Mr. Nappi: I think it varied. There were some of us who initially were
very eager to help and do our part and a number of folks continued to
do that. Some of us began to wonder what are we doing, what’s
going on? And some folks just didn’t want to leave their families.
They’d rather stay in Michigan. So, it was pretty diverse although
overall the mood for most of the folks was you do your mission, support
the guys on the ground because we were in the middle of it, we were
considered, we were safer.
Q: During Lyndon B. Johnson’s term he escalated American troop
levels to 520,00 by 1967. Do you think we were doing enough to win the
Mr. Nappi: No. There’s this place called the Ho Chi Minh Trail,
you know. It starts up in North Vietnam, comes down along through Laos,
parts of Cambodia into South Vietnam and you know, I’ll be darned
if that’s not where they’re bringing supplies down. Supplies
don’t mean just food; I mean bombs, weapons, bullets, troops and
yet, we were not allowed to strike that area and so we’d say once
the supplies got down there the guys who were on the ground were at
risk by the new supplies that were coming in. So no, I felt that we
were not doing enough and I felt again at that point in time, ’68,
’69 we should have been bombing the North.
Q: Do you think if we got rid of the Ho Chi Minh Trail we would have
been able to win the war?
Mr. Nappi: I think we might have been militarily able to. I think we
see a similar situation here in who’s the government; you know
who’s going to be in charge? And so we had Tee and Chou and Diem,
a couple other guys, one guy was very short lived, so we had this series
of generals who were in power either assassinated, or kicked out, or
went out, so who’s in charge and what do the people want? It didn’t
seem to matter, so the short answer is if we had helped to form some
kind of political stool it would have been comforting and opportunity
might have come had we been able to stop that whole flow of weapons
and munitions coming in to then be able to help develop a school, some
things that are trying to be done in Iraq, so this controversy would
go on forever.
Q: So you said you could see the news a lot when you were there, the
Civil Rights Movement was taking place, how did racial differences play
out among the troops?
Mr. Nappi: It wasn’t significant in the air force from my experience.
Again, on the ground there were a lot more tensions and by the time
the war had been declared to be winding down the attitude shifted for
most of the ground troops as I remember it because they knew they had
one year and the goal was to get home safely, so something called flagging
started on the ground, and that is if you had a Lieutenant or an officer
who was trying to get his troops to go out and patrol and some other
things; if you put people at risk too much he might get fragged. Fragging
is when somebody leaves a grenade near his [the officer]tent, and that
happened a number of times later on in the war, so it had shifted when
the feeling was that this war is not won, it’s useless and I was
drafted, don’t want to be here and I don’t want this guy
to get me killed. Again, I was in the air so I didn’t experience
it on the ground, but again, I was always talking to folks and reading
and I was a history and political science interest and major and I have
some things later on to show you about Vietnam Veterans.
Q: Did anti-war protests impact how you were fighting?
Mr. Nappi: Yeah, and I told you Jane Fonda’s still not a friend
of mine, so I was pretty aggravated when she was putting the helmet
on …and to rally lots of young people and you know I had mixed
feelings. I later on worked with Vietnam Veterans against the war, but
see, there wasn’t much noise when there was an all volunteer army,
it was nice. My buddies were working class guys who joined before they
got drafted. If you were a college student you got an exemption with
only three courses so college kids didn’t have to go. When they
started the lottery system the war was intensifying they needed more
bodies there was a motion of this is not fair it also got noisy it may
have been coincidence, these other folks are going to be at risk. Lots
were personalizing it and also added to the antiwar movement. My younger
brother who was six years younger than me and his buddy and other guys,
one went in and they were scared when he came back this fellow, he was
19, got shot up five different wounds, still walks with canes. They
saw him, said “wow, they were scared, they were that age to be
drafted.” Later on there were conservative republicans; they supported
that war, said “how could you change?” Well, because he
was exempt. So you know you personalize it, it changes. For me it was
personal because I felt what we were doing was right initially, and
I knew that the guys on the ground were certainly risking more than
I was, although we had our casualties, we had our risks. You know, 61
missions was enough to scare me so that was while I was in, I came back,
got out of the service the last day of July 1969, I came back, got a
chance to see Hawaii twice going over for six hours coming back I was
going to have 24 hours, but one of our engines went out, we ended up
spending 24 hours on Wake Island, a piece of the coral got discharged,
drove to Boston, found an apartment and started graduate school 3 weeks
later in 1969. So it was pretty traumatic because at that time, 1969,
it had become a very active place of antiwar protest; Boston October
15th 1969, I drove around with my lights on. If you’re against
the war you march, if you’re for the war I drove around with my
lights on, quite the protestors. So I was still trying to adjust, 3
Q: What were Native people like in Southeast Asia?
Mr. Nappi: The people in Thailand I had the most contact with I really
liked. I tried some of the Buddhist meditations, it’s kind of
weird, you know. I’d come back from a mission, cleaned up, got
something to eat and you may not fly for a day or two you go into a
house and have some tea with this relaxing music and saffron robes around,
how do you make sense of it? So the people were very nice. I liked the
Cambodian people and Thai people.
Q: What did you make of the Tet Offensive in 1968?
Mr. Nappi: I was surprised as lots of people were by the size of the
attacks, the battalion size, troops movements, large, organized army,
they weren’t any longer just guerillas or Vietnamese raiders.
At that point in time it was kind of a shock because the theory was
that we winning the war or making progress, so I was surprised. We started
to wonder what we were being told. And, I flew some missions at that
point in time as we were getting near the end of my tour in 1969 where
you fly at 600 miles per hour, now every second you’re moving
about 600 feet, so if you’re off the target by a second you miss
it or you shoot over it. So I knew when a drop time was down to seconds
cause you have a timer counting down before the bombs released and we’re
told to wait and drop on response of the ground radar controller, and
I knew when you held this from dropping the bombs in Cambodia where
they weren’t supposed to be and then we were told to flood the
scopes that the radar scopes would be looking at the pictures, because
we had cameras mounted on pictures to take pictures of where you released.
Flood the scopes and you couldn’t be traced. And you’re
obligated under your court martial to not say anything. They said, you
bomb over Cambodia? No, no, we did yeah. So, I forget the question.
Q: The Mai Lai massacre in 1968 is often seen as the classic example
of the problems with the American presence and tactics. How did you
learn of this and what impact did it have on your views of the war?
Mr. Nappi: I was based in Michigan and strategic air command, B-52’s
and stateside, the same aircraft we flew were part of the nuclear deterrent,
so we didn’t fly combat missions, but we flew up over the polar
regions, and certain tracks in case there was a threat of nuclear war
with the Soviet Union. We were given messages to go on certain preassigned
targets, so I was involved in that, but following the war because I
had friends who were there, friends who were killed in action I was
surprised and it was wrong.
Q: When Nixon was elected in 1968 he promised “peace with honor”
and to gradually turn the war over to the South Vietnamese and Army
Republic of Vietnam forces. Did this seem like a good strategy to you?
What were your views on his plans?
Mr. Nappi: There are probably some analogies to Iraq. Sounds good on
paper, but the South Vietnamese didn’t have much of a ground force,
so theoretically you needed time to build up enough troops for the Vietnamese
to defend themselves except that a number of the South Vietnamese were
leaving and taking their equipment with them and going over to the other
side, so it was a sound philosophy except that all the enemy had to
do was wait. They already had all the routes worked out. We went packing,
so I thought it was kind of bogus myself.
Q: The shootings of Kent State students at a May 1970 demonstration
received a great deal of press coverage. What did you make of these
college kids’ actions?
Mr. Nappi: I thought it was terrible. The National Guard lost control
and panicked and fired into kids. It was a very sad day. Protestors
were getting out of hand, that’s probably before we had things
like pepper spray, so I was upset about that, but I also felt for the
guard because most of the Guard even at that time again were non-college
guys. There was an animosity built up for years between guys who were
doing grunt work and the kids, these are all ideals, stereotypes. The
kids who are going to college have everything and so the Guard and the
college kids are counting down stress with the weapons involved.
Q: Upon their return many vets described being labeled ‘baby killers’
and were generally disrespected for serving in Vietnam. Did this ever
happen to you?
Mr. Nappi: Yeah. It was difficult in Boston because Boston was one
of the hotbeds of antiwar protests. October 15th, 1969 was the biggest
antiwar demonstration for the war. So I was in graduate school, getting
my masters at BU and got accepted to the doctorate program and in 1969,
70. Most of the people in my graduate program had never been in the
service; if they did nobody there knew about it. You didn’t go
around talking about it and sometimes when people found out they would
make comments. “How many babies did you kill today? You were on
B52s? Oh, so you were blowing away civilians.” There was a lot
of that. It was also happening at Boston University that the faculty
by and large were antiwar, and one of the problems that I saw was that
people were not separating out a person who served in the service in
the war from the politics. Now in this particular war although I don’t
approve of it, but I do want to support the guy who’s in the field
risking his life that’s why you see the ribbons so people can
differentiate them. At that point in time ’69, ’70 Vietnam
most people were not, so the faculty contributed to the atmosphere.
Boston University, at that time we had about 20,000 students and I went
to the VA office (I was a VA) to find out how many veterans were on
campus. At that point we had approximately 1,000, somewhere between
800 and 1,000 vets in undergraduate, graduate. So I went to the counseling
center (I was majoring in counseling, psychology), wow, let’s
go see if we can get these vets a group. I went to the counseling center,
I said ‘you know how many vets are serving here?’ They don’t
know how many vets, well how come? So it took me a lot of work and I
got my department chairman behind me and pressured BU, and they allowed
me to start a group for Vietnam veterans at BU and I ran that for a
year and when I left, they let it drop.
[These are some of the targets we struck with the B-52, this is some
of the leaflets that were given out and it gives you some sense of the
politics and these are comic strips from the ‘70’s. I was
a part of the winter soldier investigation, 1971 Fanuel Hall with John
Kerry, Ted Kennedy and for the first time they had veterans. Well, this
is how we looked in the ‘50’s. Because I grew up with the
boy scouts, I showed you a picture of our parade. We were a very patriotic
town so we used to wear uniforms, I still contribute to the boy scouts
every year. Just more of the background sense of where we came from,
my best friend throwing the winning touchdown, like the Weston Wayland
game. It was the Derby Shelton, the first time we beat Shelton in eleven
years, my buddy scored the winning touchdown. And the last piece to
give you a sense again, we had a minstrel show every year; this was
in 1959. I was an N man, look at the cover and when we were in this,
you probably know what I’m talking about with the minstrel show,
I was an N man which meant I had a black face on you and you had jokes
that were minstrel, black history. You think about that was acceptable
Q: Have you been to the Vietnam War Memorial Wall? What was that experience
Mr. Nappi: Yes, twice. It was very moving. It was overwhelming, but
the artist did a terrific job with how she captured the mood just on
black stone with names and so, I went and found my friends who were
killed in Southeast Asia and so it was moving, still is.
Q: How did you react to the role that Vietnam played in the presidential
campaign in 2004 with Kerry and Bush?
Mr. Nappi: Unfortunately John Kerry didn’t do a good job with
running in my opinion. He let the national guardsmen outmaneuver him,
you know President Bush and actually earned more points with the voting
population than John Kerry because with what percent wasn’t throwing
his medals that he’d gotten onto the ground in Washington. So
he did a lousy job. President Bush got away with being a National Guard
pilot and not showing up for his required hours, and he’s the
guy that’s now running a war. So yeah, it aggravates me, and President
Bush, he was social security and all those other words he can’t
say is a bright guy, anybody that can fly a fighter jet, believe me,
it is a very complicated piece of equipment, you have to be smart to
be able to fly it. It’s not just hand-eye coordination there’s
a lot that goes into the engineer so he’s a smart guy, so smart
that he didn’t have to go to the National Guard and fly his missions;
how’d he do that? Lots of guys don’t like him, especially
those who also volunteered.
Q: As you’ve reflected on the war over the years, how do you view
it differently than when you were a young man?
Mr. Nappi: I think there are a number of mistakes made in how the war
was fought at the time; I think it was a mistake. We were afraid of
the Chinese moving down and that played an important role at that time
in the thinking of the military people and officers at the time. So
I think you need to have some sort of a legitimate government that people
can support, and in that situation, we created that in conjunction with
combat, mission wouldn’t work. This thing now that’s going
on in Iraq has a lot of similarities to me, in that in Vietnam the troops
would go into certain areas and pursue some of the enemy and come back
out, go back into the same territory, they were fired on if they pulled
back up, they might go back in two, three, ten, twenty times, they’re
gone. This is urban warfare, same thing happens if you’re down
alleyways, and these guys are at risk and probably get blown up, so,
some similarities. Theoretically you transform a government this time
so maybe a combination eventually will work. Although, I think the whole
thing was a mess.
Q: So you think the war with Vietnam and our current war with Iraq are
Mr. Nappi: I see a lot of similarities. What was thought to be strategic
in Southeast Asia at the time is now, we’re talking about Iraq,
strategic because of oil and the importance of it to our supplies. I
also hear the politics of distortion, so the reasons that we went to
Vietnam and what we were doing there were given one way and then they
found out we were actually bombing Cambodia and at the time it never
happened, those kinds of things. And we’re hearing now, gee, [Al
Queda], those are Afghani’s, how does that relate to Iraq? Well
now it does because they’re on a feeder system from volunteers,
back then and the whole idea of nuclear fuel coming from Africa we found
out was incorrect, was wrong. So they leaked the information and they
out the undercover CIA, well this is dirty politics.
Q: What are the lessons you learned in Southeast Asia?
Mr. Nappi: One, you have to have support of the American people for
a type of war that we’re not familiar with, particularly World
War Two, which was a world wide war where there were good guys and bad
guys, the guerilla warfare is very different. I think you have to build
on all the things I said before, politics, be able to set up schools,
get people on your side, safety, education, health, all the things we
try to do we need to do that anyplace. So I feel that my role was important
in retrospect. I changed as the war changed and I saw that eventually
we were doing the wrong thing as I said and probably will be this way
for the rest of my life and most Vietnam veterans have mixed feelings.
Q: Do you feel the nation should have learned any more lessons from
Mr. Nappi: It’s good we have the free press, but it’s too
bad that the president thinks he has the freedom to take steps to keep
the press out and take powers that he shouldn’t have in this kind
of situation i.e. [Guantanomo]. How come we couldn’t go and see
what’s going on there? If there’s no abuse going on why
not have attorneys go down there, why not Unitarians? I’m Unitarian,
Unitarian’s there a bunch of good people see what’s going
on, if it’s clean that’s great, can’t go there, why
not? How is it that you can now check my telephone, can check my credit
cards, see I mentioned the McCarthy era that’s when there was
a communist on every doorstep and they were looking for communists under
the rug and so they were taking extraordinary steps. Why should the
president do this now? When somebody says ‘trust me’ I don’t
know about that. How come you didn’t do your time in the National
Guard? How can I trust you? You didn’t do it then, what’d
you do, grow up now? Oh by the way you’re an oil man, son of a
gun, this had nothing to do with the prices. I’ll be darned in
Iraq, no connection, trust me. So I’m skeptical and I think the
power’s being assumed and now being supported by the Supreme Court,
it’s kind of scary. Whether it’s the right to take all the
private property for the quote ‘economic good of the community”.
You want to take my property because you want to put a condo over there
and make more money? You can do it? Something’s wrong. So those
kinds of things kind of scare me. The more power you give to the central
government the closer we are to what we were fighting, a central government
which is called communism; it’s way over here, but if you chip
away at my individual rights, I don't like it.