Just In Time For Tet

Urban Tinckham graduated from Southern Illinois University with an Associates Degree in technology. He said, “The draft board had been waiting on me to graduate.” And, sure enough, the very next day after graduation, his draft notice came to his father’s house. Urb said, “I don’t want to read that!” So, to avoid the draft, he and a friend joined the United States Air Force. “As it turned out,” he said, “I went to Viet Nam anyway, but I was on an air base and not in the jungle.”

As he left his first duty station at Stewart Air Base, Urb arrived at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, just outside of Saigon, South Viet Nam on December 18, 1967. The next month, January 30, 1968 the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive. This was a major turning point in the Viet Nam war and the largest military operation of the war up until that time. Even though it was a severe military defeat for the North Vietnamese, resulting in heavy casualties, their mission was accomplished, as it seriously weakened America’s public support for the war.

Urb remembers that things changed drastically after that two-month long siege. When he arrived at Tan Son there were no curfews and military personnel were allowed to visit Saigon wearing civilian clothes. But afterwards, strict curfews were enforced, and all military personnel were to be in uniform when in Saigon.

Urb’s technical prowess was recognized and he was assigned to the Graphics Division in the Air Force. Those that have a military background will understand his statement, “They had ways of assigning you to a detail that didn’t have anything to do with what you were supposed to be doing.” There were times that he was assigned to a convoy and volunteered to be a spotter. This meant positioning himself on top of a 2 ½ ton truck and keeping an eye out for “anything that looked strange in the road.” He says, “I.E.D.’s (improvised explosive devices) are nothing new. We had them in Viet Nam.”

The Graphics Division personnel were considered non-combatants, so their weapons were stored at distribution points in the barracks and at the facility where their offices were. Weapons would be issued from one of these two depots and checked back in upon return.

Urb tells of some very intense days when the Viet Cong penetrated the perimeter on the sparsely populated side of the runway, killing four Air Police. He says, “We were in sad shape for a while.” The small squadron of Air Police engaged the enemy across the road from Urb’s office in a graveyard. Two C-130 aircraft were destroyed on the runways, but the Viet Cong were kept away from the main terminal and the air base remained operational. Several infiltrated the base and were found before they could ignite their satchel charges. The Air Police fought bravely until the Army arrived and was successful in rooting them out and clearing the base of the bad guys.

While in downtown Saigon, Urb met a local man that worked for an American company as an interpreter. He spoke very good English and interpreted for him and his friends as they shopped. He taught the Americans the necessity of price haggling. You were not expected to pay the original price, but to haggle for a bit over the item. He and Urb became good friends and Urb would visit his home where his wife, three children and the grandmother lived.

Urb would ride the military bus to the end of the line and then his friend would pick him up on his motorcycle and carry him the rest of the way to his house. The first time that a meal was prepared for Urb, the family thought that a good American meal of steak, potatoes and beef tips was in order. But Urb replied, “I didn’t come here to eat American food. I want to eat Vietnamese food!” So, from then on, it was local cuisine for this airman.

Urban Tinckham’s 26-year career in the Air Force saw him promote through the ranks to eventually retire as a Senior Master Sergeant. He was assigned to Headquarters in the 1st Air Force Graphics Division as an illustrator at his first duty station, which was at Stewart Air Force Base in New York. Here he originated and prepared art work, viewgraphs, posters and charts for visual aid requirements.

At Tan Son Nhut Airbase in South Viet Nam, his duties included designing and drawing illustrations, sketches and layouts used for publications, training aids, posters, cartoons and other display purposes as well as preparing transparencies, film and flip charts used for Command and VIP briefings made by the General or Commanding Officer. Briefings would include weather, operations and intelligence.

Urb’s team would be behind the presentation screen and responsible for keeping the slides on track with the briefing presenter. I suppose you could call him an early version of Power Point.

At Scott Air Force Base (1970-1973) Urb was assigned to HQ MAC (Military Airlift Command), Director of Command and Control and Communications. His duty as illustrator for MAJCOM (Major Command) Reports and Briefings Branch was for designing and preparing slides for daily Commander MAC briefings. This would require a Top-Secret security clearance, which he would carry for the remainder of his career.

While at Scott AFB, Urb fell in love with Debbie and her three wonderful children. They were married and nine months later he received orders for Stuttgart, Germany. He shipped out alone, leaving the family in base housing at Scott. Urb found housing off base in Germany and sent for His family. Their trip to Germany would be an adventure to remember (or forget).

They were flown to Philadelphia and while awaiting ground transportation to McGuire AFB, she met two other women traveling with their kids to Germany, and they helped each other with the kids. They were bused to the McGuire Dependent Processing Center where they sat all day waiting for an overnight flight to Rhein Mein AB.  They all went through dependent processing all the while corralling the restless kids, and by the time Urb picked Debbie and the kids up at Rhein Mein, she was emotionally spent and was about at the end of her rope.

Urb thought he would lighten her day with a little practical joke. “After a 1 ½ hour drive to her new home, as a joke, I pulled up in front of a smelly barnyard and said, ‘this is it!’ She wasn’t amused. By the time I took her across the small village to her ‘real’ home, she was ready to go back to the airport. But after 24 hours of sleep, things looked much better.” Urb’s prank was funny later, but not at that moment.

At Lindsay Air Station, Wiesbaden, Germany (1979-1981) Urb’s Special Activities Squadron was responsible for supporting the collection of signal and electronic intelligence along the Berlin Wall and the East German border. They observed much of the cat and mouse espionage “games” between the east and west during the days before the wall came down.

Urb’s last re-enlistment was at Offutt Air Base in Nebraska. Here he was promoted to Senior Master Sergeant and was responsible for the operation, management and supervision of the Visual Presentations Branch. His staff of 22 provided graphic services to the Commander in Chief of the Strategic Air Command, Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff and HQ SAC DCS/Intelligence.

This was a very special duty station that had the advantage of state-of-the-art photo lab equipment. Their duty was to process film that had been downloaded from a satellite. These came from field locations around the world and helped the brass determine “hot spots” for briefings. Some of the team that reported to Urb were combat photographers. He sent three to the Desert Storm conflict. They would take their pictures in the field and download them via satellite back to the lab at headquarters and the rest of the team would process them.

Urb Tinckham had a wonderful career in the United States Air Force. He was able to learn things, experience things and visit places that most people will never be able to do. “My wife and I enjoyed the Air Force,” Urb is proud to say. “But It was tough. A guy that’s an E5 and suddenly has three kids overnight…I woke up Monday morning and had four dependents. It was tough!”

Making it through tough times is not a bad place to find yourself. Our country needs more men and women like Urb and Debbie who fought through the tough times because it was the right thing to do. They set an example of hard work and dedication for their children that would last them for their lifetimes. They are also examples for al of us. Thank you Urban and Debbie Tinckham for your service to our country and dedication to your family.