Veterans Voice: John Meikle
John Meikle of Cameron joined the U.S. Air Force in January of 1964. He took basic training at Lackland AFB in Texas. He commented that many “runs” in Basic were cancelled due to heat, and that there were no complaints from recruits.
Following basic, John remained at Lackland for advanced technical training in Cryptographic Maintenance. He says this was a long and involved training and kept him at Lackland for quite a while.
Eventually he was sent to Mountain Home, Idaho with the Communications Wing under the Strategic Air Command. At the time, the air force was decommissioning missile sites, and the site eventually became TAC (Tactical Air Command). The base was involved with bombers and fighter jets.
John’s day-to-day job was maintenance of cryptographic equipment (encoding and decoding) devices. Working in this area required a top secret clearance. Interestingly, their OIC (Officer in Charge) lacked top secret clearance and was not allowed into their facility.
“Preventative Maintenance” required keeping communications equipment constantly available and operating, as well as constant training on “what if’s” and developing an action plan if something unexpected occurred. They were responsible for making everything “online” if needed, including missiles and knowing where every plane was (in the air, on the ground, in repairs, and available for response). The equipment emitted a lot of heat and required regular filter replacement to prevent dust or any particle which could damage communications.
John often returned to Lackland for updated training, particularly during the period when the Air Force was updating from tube electronics to Solid State, and keeping all communications in operation. John commented that the technical school building was three stories tall with no windows and only 1 door. The facility was fenced and patrolled. Study was during the day, no access to the building after hours.
John left for Vietnam in October of 1965, assigned to the 619th Tactical Control Squadron. They were responsible for air traffic control and radar units at multiple sites. They did not have a location for John when he arrived so he was assigned to the postal squadron temporarily. Christmas was approaching and there was a temporary need for increased mail handling. However, he continued to be housed with the 619th.
Eventually John was assigned to the radar station at Hon Tre Island. The radar tower was atop a very tall hill and it was a dangerous ride to the top on rough, slick and bumpy roads and the constant fear of a rollover.
The site was not fully operational when he arrived. Army personnel provided a perimeter on the island. Air Force personnel made the site fully operational and controlled all air traffic in that sector of Vietnam. There were 6 such radar sites in the South Vietnam area.
Men worked in 12 hour shifts for five days, then rotated shifts. There were two missile batteries located near the radar tower and both Army and Air Force personnel were responsible for night guard duties. John said they called themselves the “expendable alarm system”. There were Viet Cong personnel on the island at times, and the radar tower was always the objective. They also had large fuel bladders which also needed protection. They were advised to go nowhere alone or at night.
John said the biggest inconvenience for the entire 12 month was the lack of a “mess hall”. They ate C-rations the entire year. John was regularly sent to other communication sites for maintenance duties. He was to find his own transportation and traveled on C-130’s, helicopters, Australian cargo planes, whatever he could locate, and rarely went anywhere by a direct route.
John’s worst experience in Vietnam was being housed near a morgue, and seeing the many coffins stacked for eventual use. He commented “it was such a waste of young lives”. He also twice witnessed the self-immolation of Buddhist monks. He also commented that like most returning soldiers, he quickly changed to civilian clothing due to the many war protestors.
His best experience was the camaraderie among military personnel, and the exposure to different cultures including contract workers.
Following military service, John went to the Central Louisiana Electric Company for three years. His dad, who worked for TWA and operated a combination feed/tack store advised him that “working for someone else will only provide a living”, and advised him to go into business for himself. John learned of a meat locker for sale in Kidder and bought it, sight unseen, He operated there for several years before eventually moving the business to Cameron where he operated John’s Meat Market (located behind Sweet Al’s). He retired in 2016. He loved what he did for a living, and invested in rental properties which now constitutes most of his retirement income. He commented that “life is a trade-off, getting something usually requires giving up something”. He has no regrets.
John and his wife Diane have been married for 38 years. They have three children, 11 grandchildren, and three great grandchildren, “with more on the way”. He feels blessed to have his family nearby and seeing them almost every day.