Daniel Cromer spent his enlistment in Thailand, never crossing into Vietnam himself. Still, he had a good view of the airborne conflict via dots on the radar scope to which he was assigned. Those dots were men flying bombing runs into North Vietnam. He says he was fortunate to have never lost anyone on a mission while he was at the scope. Cromer returned and began a career as a computer programmer in Gainesville, coming later to the conclusion that the South Vietnamese government may not have been one worth fighting for with American lives. Sadly, Cromer lost most of his affects and photographs from his service time while they were in Air Force storage following the conclusion of his active duty. Our conversation took place Aug. 8, 2017, at the University of Florida’s Innovation News Center.
Where were you born and when?
I was born in Jasper, Texas, and my dad was in the Air Force before me, and we moved all around, so I was a military brat.
How long have you lived in Gainesville?
I came here the last time in 1979. I went to school here 1961 to 1964.
What is your educational background?
I have a bachelor’s in broadcasting from the University of Florida. The military has a program for getting advanced degrees, and I got a master’s from University of Southern California over several years.
Was there a specific moment you first remember hearing about the conflict in Vietnam?
I don’t remembering hearing anything specific about it. Since I was commissioned and in the military at the time, that would have been 1965 when I heard about it going on at that time — just through regular news. Because I was interested in military affairs, I would pay attention to what’s going on as far as that’s concerned.
Which branches of the military did you serve and did you volunteer or enlist?
I was commissioned. I went through ROTC at UF. The system there in 1961, and I don’t know how long it lasted, the first two years ROTC was required of all freshman and sophomores. Then, if you volunteered for advanced ROTC, the last two years led to a commission. I was commissioned in the Air Force.
Where did you serve and for what years?
My first assignment was to a tactical radar unit. My specialty is what the Air Force calls weapons control. That comes from the fact they call a fighter bomber a weapons system. Essentially, my duties were to sit at a radar scope and as the sweep goes around, watch the traffic and talk to the airplanes on the radio and tell them where to do various things, whether they’re going to join up with a tanker or navigate to a location. Essentially, for air defense, the idea was that if the United States were ever attacked, or our unit ever attacked, we would have fighters who would defend against attacking aircraft. That was January 1965. I had to go to Tindal Air Force Base in Panama City for a six week course to learn how to be a weapons controller. My first unit was in Goldsboro, North Carolina, at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. That was 1965 to 1966. While I was there 18 months, I volunteered to go to Vietnam because of the conflict there. I got my orders and was assigned to Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base in the northeast section of Thailand in a remote radar unit. Got there in August of 1966 and left in August of 1967. From that point, I went back to Florida and assigned as a weapons control instructor at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. From there, I was assigned overseas for four years to Fuchū, Japan, near Tokyo and after that a year in Seoul, South Korea. I came back to Tindal Air Force Base again at the automated radar unit and then transferred to the reserves after serving 11 years total… I was on the reserves until 1987 and retired as a lieutenant colonel.
Did you know of anyone while you were at UF who purposefully did not serve?
No. At that time — this is 1961 through 1964 — all of my colleagues were much more supportive of the military and much more supportive of the government, so we looked down on the protesters. There weren’t as many at that time as later on in 1966 and after that.
What were your typical responsibilities or operations?
We worked in 12-hour shifts, from 6 a.m. to 6 in the evening, or we’d have three days off, then three days on. In our typical time on the scope, we had noncommissioned officers or airmen who performed the duties of identification and tracking of blips on the screen of all the airplanes, so we had a picture of everything in the air. My job: We called it “breaking frag.” The fragmentary orders, where every night we would get top-secret orders about what the missions were for the next day. We would make little sheets about what was going on. Every time they were scheduled, they would call us on the radio and we would track them on the radar as they went across. I was right on the border of Thailand to Laos, so we would track the fighter-bombers that came out of Takhli or Korat (Air Force bases). We would make contact with a KC-135 tanker. They would orbit in an elliptical orbit, and we would direct the fighters right in front of the tanker. They would join up, refuel, and take off heavily loaded for North Vietnam. On the way back, they would also need more fuel, so we would put them back on the tanker. I had more than 1,000 sorties of aircraft joined on the tankers.
Another one was just flight following. We’d sit at the scope and monitor the airplanes as they flew around to see they were going to be OK. They have an emergency squawk — the transponder — and it makes a big flash on the screen. We follow up to find out what’s going on with that.
How long were these shifts?
We would normally be on for an hour, then maybe an hour break. It depends on the manning, how many people were there.
How many men were in your unit?
In my unit, 8 or 10 would be a shift. We’d have eight scopes going — two of them monitoring airplanes, one of them doing surveillance.
What kind of planes were these and what type of bombs?
These were a variety — mostly F-105 fighter-bombers and F-4 fighter-bombers. They would carry mostly 500-pound bombs to go drop on North Vietnam. There was another mission that we had to flight follow B-52’s. We would track them, try to make a line exactly where they’re going to go, and they would drop their bombs from a higher altitude on suspected Vietnam structures or bridges or whatever.
We also had reconnaissance flights using RF-4C’s that would fly around and take pictures to see what the situation was, basically.
How far were these bombing runs?
About a couple hundred miles. It was 120 miles from the Thai air base to the Laotian border, and we didn’t take the tankers. We had a rule of engagement that said we could not take the tankers across into Laos. About 150 or 200 miles from there to go up to North Vietnam. I had never thought about it, frankly.
When you left Thailand and came back to the United States, what was the nature of the conflict? How was it going from your vantage point?
I thought it was working. I didn’t have an opinion about it, just a matter of trying to do my job.
I didn’t really have an opinion about whether it was being successful or not. I saw the North Vietnamese and Vietcong were having success in the south, but I thought at the same time we were doing a good job of destroying the logistics of the North Vietnamese. I thought it was working. I didn’t have an opinion about it, just a matter of trying to do my job.
Do you recall anything from the flight home? What was it like coming back from Thailand?
Later on, some of the Navy and Army people had very bad experiences, but as far as I was concerned, I was coming back to an Air Force base where people were very supportive of the mission, so I didn’t have to deal with some of the ugly situations (with) some of the protesters. I know of a Navy guy who was in his white uniform, and a woman came and spread dog manure on his uniform, but I didn’t have any of those experiences myself. I was fortunate.
Did you get a sense of what life was like for people who were going off of the base and off of active duty?
I read about the experiences people had, but I didn’t ever have any personally. We had some discussion among my cohort in Japan between 1970 and 1974 and whether it really was a good thing and whether we were doing the right thing, and yet our sense of duty is we’re doing what our government has asked us to do. There were people who did consider it the wrong thing, but we still have a job to do. We’re still supporting our government.
Did your perception of the war change over time?
I have a real strong sense of duty that I inherited from my dad, so I don’t think I ever thought it was the wrong thing.
I have a real strong sense of duty that I inherited from my dad, so I don’t think I ever thought it was the wrong thing. I thought the mission of trying to contain communism was a good mission. I saw the change in the attitude in the government, of President Johnson, but it saddened me to see us leaving and basically losing the situation there. Retrospective now, I don’t know that we should have been there, frankly.
At what point did you come to that realization?
When I got out of active duty.
Was any of it shaped by popular culture — books, movies, etc?
No, it’s really just realizing it was kind of a lost cause and the government at the time was corrupt and not really someone that we should have lost U.S. military people to support. But at the same time, I have mixed feelings because I recognize if we hadn’t gone in there, I don’t know what would have happened if North Vietnam had come in and taken over the place. I don’t know if it would be any different than what it is today, but at the same time, whether Laos and Cambodia would have followed and whether that would have been a problem for Thailand, so from that standpoint, it’s probably good that we did something to stop the communism there.
When you came back to Gainesville in 1979, what did you do personally and professionally?
After I went from active duty to civilian life, I got a job working as a management consultant for the Navy Coastal System Center there in Panama City. One of my first jobs as management was to support a computer program that built charts for Navy projects. Using the computer really was fascinating for me, so even though I had my masters, I went back to Gulf Coast Community College and took all the computer courses they had. I came back to Gainesville looking for a computer job. On February 29, 1980, that’s when I started working for UF/IFAS. I got a job at the Alachua County School Board working as a systems programmer and later chief technology officer and stayed there for 19 years. I’ve been at UF/IFAS since 2001.
What haven’t I asked about Vietnam that you want to share?
I felt proud. It was my duty. I won the bronze star for meritorious service in support of combat operations for my time there. There was one episode when I saw one blip of an emergency squawk and transponder return. I didn’t see it anymore. I marked the spot on my radar map and followed up. It turns out that RF-4C edging flight had been shot down, so they scrambled from Nakhon Phanom on the northeast corner of Thailand the jolly green giant rescue helicopters and A1-E sandies and went out and actually rescued the two pilots. I felt really good about that particular episode of helping saving some people.
Did you lose anyone on any of these missions?
No. Well, I shouldn’t say that. There were, time and time again, people would be shot down. After they would get refueled, they would go to combat control frequency and go drop bombs and everything. There were times when they came back to us desperate for getting fuel. We would direct them, and they would say, ‘I’m going to have to eject if I don’t get fuel immediately.’ There were certainly stressful situations like that, but none of the airplanes were on my frequency whenever they were shot down.
This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.