The following article was printed in the Redstone Rocket on January 25, 2017. The Rocket is a weekly publication distributed to Redstone Arsenal personnel and interested parties.
With a draft notice in hand, Bill Alcorn decided to join the Air Force in 1963 because he grew up near an Air Force base in middle Tennessee.
Five years later the Murfreesboro native was in Vietnam for the first of two yearlong tours. The air bases over there weren’t like the one he remembered from his childhood on the farm.
“What you remember most of the two years was the return (home),” Alcorn, a program manager employed by ERC Inc. in support of the Redstone Test Center, said. “You try to forget everything in country.”
His first tour was March 1968 until March 1969 at Phu Cat Air Base in a munitions and maintenance squadron for a tactical fighter wing as a 25-year-old staff sergeant. He worked on F-100 fighter aircraft and AC-47 gunships.
“Phu Cat was Ho Chi Minh’s birthplace,” he said. “There was a lot of rocket, mortar attacks and satchel charges. Saboteurs would come up to the fence and set satchel charges on the perimeter.
“Some of the duties involved perimeter security in the evening or night. And after attacks, duties would involve search and rescue type operations. That would be immediately after attacks. And then after a day, they’d become search and recovery operations.”
The attacks were sporadic but enough to remind him to avoid getting close friends because they may become the ones whose bodies you’re searching to recover.
Alcorn’s second tour went from December 1969 to December 1970 at Bien Hoa Air Base, doing munitions and maintenance work with a special operations unit. This time the attacks happened more frequently.
“The Bien Hoa attacks resulted in a lot of aircraft destroyed which is what they (the Viet Cong) wanted to do. And that brought several injuries and deaths,” Alcorn said. The attacks at Bien Hoa in November 1970 have been described as the worst on any air base during the war.
Alcorn worked on F-5 and A-37 fighter aircraft, A-1E older propeller-driven fighters, B-57 bombers, F-4 fighters and U-2 reconnaissance aircraft. He also did a lot of loading and handling of Agent Orange for the C-123 spray aircraft. Veterans Affairs considers his diabetes type 2 as service-connected.
“It was very uncomfortable, difficulty sleeping at night,” he said of his Vietnam tours. “You could say every day is different.”
The Air Force awarded him Meritorious Service Medals and Achievement Medals. But when he returned to the states in March 1969, he was called “murderer” and other insulting names by small groups of college-age protesters in the streets of Los Angeles. He wasn’t wearing a uniform but they recognized him as military from his haircut and clean shave.
Alcorn was an Air Force staff sergeant in May 1977 when he transferred to the Army and became a warrant officer. He retired from the Army at Redstone in January 1989 as a chief warrant officer 3. His 26 years of military service included 14 with the Air Force and 12 with the Army. Last year he returned to Murfreesboro for the 55th reunion of Central High School’s class of 1961, which included a handful of Vietnam veterans.
Alcorn, 73, and his wife of 10 years, Jennifer, reside in Grant and have a farm in south central Tennessee. His first wife, Barbara, died in March 2005 from cancer. They had been married 34 years. His son, Scott, and daughter, Kara Werndli, both work at Redstone Arsenal. He has five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He also has four stepchildren and five step-grandchildren.
He belongs to the Warrant Officers Association, the Association of the U.S. Army, Disabled American Veterans, Vietnam Veterans of America, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“I think it’s great that they finally recognize us for what we did,” he said of this nation’s commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War. “We finally got our welcome home. And we’re no longer insulted or criticized for our service.”
Editor’s note: This is the 103rd in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.