In 1969, Udon Air Force Base, Thailand. Captain Harold Archibald was on duty in support of the air war over North Vietnam in a secure building just north of the capital in Bangkok. As a junior officer with four years in service, he’d volunteered for Southeast Asia to enhance his career as a weapons controller.
Below him were a bank of perhaps 10 radar screens manned by a crew of 29 officers and enlisted men. His position was up a flight of stairs above them, on a dais where he could monitor an intricate array of bombers, cargo planes, fighters, and tankers carrying the war westward into North Vietnam.
His duties included overseeing bombing runs against strategic targets in the north, the refueling of airplanes on extended missions, the occasional sortie in the air on the AWACS (Airborne Warming And Control System) Boeing 707 airplane, and most importantly, coordinating search and rescue operations to retrieve air crews shot down in enemy territory.
Archibald and his crew typically worked seven to 12 hour days, but once settling into the routine the time passed quickly. On this particular day however, the regular regimen was interrupted by news that a F-4 Phantom II fighter-bomber had been hit, possibly by a Russian made S-75 “SAM” (surface-to-air missile) air defense system. More compellingly, it was piloted by a man he knew personally, Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) William Earl Brown, who along with his co-pilot ejected into the tropical forest below.
The two men had just socialized in the Officer’s Club the previous evening, as Archibald absorbed career advice from the senior serviceman over drinks. Now as the duty officer he was in a vexing predicament: The senior Black man on post, someone he looked upon as a mentor, was in harm’s way deep in enemy territory after 5 p.m.. Military protocol dictated that combat search and rescue (CSAR) operations could not be executed until the following day. That meant Brown and his crewman would spend the night in hostile jungle vegetation with the likely prospect of being killed or captured.
Birmingham, Ala. native Harold Archibald never entertained attending college until he followed the example of his friends and applied to Tuskegee College, which mandated students engaged in two years of ROTC. Turned off by the idea of drilling with rifles as required in the army component, he opted for the Air Force. By his junior year and excelling in math and science, he became amused by the inability of his pals to pass the exam in order to continue the third and fourth year of the curriculum.
“Y’all can’t pass that little ole test?” he teased.
“You can’t either,” came the retort.
His youthful cockiness stimulated, he bet 10 classmates $10 each that he could achieve this difficulty, thus in hock for $100 he didn’t have.
He succeeded, and along with this windfall, earned the princely sum of $27.30 a month as an apprentice to defend the skies for Uncle Sam. The next year, President Lyndon Johnson upped the ante to $50, and young Archibald was flush financially and gainfully employed as he approached graduation (presided over by a charismatic young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr.) and commissioning as a second lieutenant via presidential authority in 1965.
Deficit vision excluded entry into the elite ranks of the pilot corps, and so he settled for a vocation that peaked his interest: Weapons controller.
He soon displayed proficiency in this new endeavor and set about establishing himself in the profession of arms. Bouncing around the country with a stopover in Panama City, Fla., he took up a colleague’s advice and put in for duty in Southeast Asia, specifically Thailand.
Timing is not always fortuitous, however. A scant two weeks later he met and was smitten with a schoolteacher, one Ethel Carrington. Decades later, he immodestly says he was a “catch” in those days as a bachelor (now) captain.
Orders are orders, however, and after a whirlwind courtship, marriage, and honeymoon, he was flying over the Pacific to stem the flow of communism in a place called Vietnam.
The Air Force had at least eight bases in those days in support of the ground war in Vietnam. During that conflict America lost hundreds of aircraft to antiaircraft artillery (AAA), SAMs, and enemy aircraft. Men like Archibald were tasked with providing support for those engaged in the more glamorous pursuit of becoming moving targets for the Red Menace.
Along with this sizable military presence, Udon hosted a covert National Chinese airline called Civilian Air Transport (CAT). It would later become better known as Air America when it was acquired by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Life for American servicemen was comparatively peaceful compared to other posts in that theater of operations. Extended work shifts were balanced by leisure time to explore and enjoy the hospitality of the natives. Airmen usually traveled in groups as a concession to the country’s status as a war zone.
Security concerns included the presence of Thai Cong, the local equivalent of the Viet Cong guerrillas that menaced American forces to the west. Another concern was the import of Yankee racism into the foreign milieu.
A fateful decision of protocol
By the spring of 1970, for Captain Archibald things were running smoothly professionally. He’d assembled a cadre of lieutenants he molded to suit his purposes and earned recognition from his higher ups for his efforts.
On the night of LTC Brown’s plane crash however, he was in a bind.
As anyone familiar with military culture knows, protocol is a bedrock of survival, especially among the officer corps. Stuck with the choice of following procedures or the possibility of suffering casualties, he went against the grain.
“I went through my own procedures,” he said.
He quickly dispatched a CSAR in the form of a Sikorsky S-61R “Jolly Green Giant” helicopter into the area and retrieved the air crew. Both men survived.
For his trouble the young Captain received a tongue lashing common to those in uniform.
“I got chewed out about it, but I didn’t care,” he remembers. “Everybody got mad at us.”
He took the reprimand stoically, but in the back of his mind he thought “y’all can be mad all you want, but I went and got ‘em.”
Archibald enjoyed a successful career. His status as a non-pilot precluded his ascension to flag officer ranking and the coveted position of general, but he topped out at full colonel.
As for William Earl Brown, the man he violated protocol for to save his life, he moved on to bigger and better things. Brown went on to wear the three stars of a lieutenant general, retiring in 1984.