Life changing experience
John Traffanstedt joins Air Force on buddy system; gets a journey he never expected
By Traci Chapman
When he joined the Air Force in 1966, John Traffanstedt never dreamed the importance his service would have on his life.
“I lived way out in the country in Arkansas and me and my friend were trying to figure out what to do,” Traffanstedt said. “We had just graduated high school, we knew we would be drafted.”
Neither Traffanstedt nor his friend, Don Moreland, wanted to go in the Army or Marines and they “didn’t like the water,” so the Navy was out, he said. That left only the Air Force, which had something that really appealed to them – the “buddy system.”
“The recruiter said we could join together and so we really liked that,” Traffanstedt said.
The pair signed up in September 1966 and headed to San Antonio for basic training. After completion came a surprise – Moreland went to Greenland, while Traffanstedt was transferred to Illinois for six weeks of aircraft maintenance training.
“So much for the buddy system,” he said.
While in Illinois, Traffanstedt and his comrades were given choices of where they wanted to serve next. The Arkansas boy picked two bases in his home state with Midway Island as a third because he’d heard about it from World War II.
“Of course I got Midway Island,” Traffanstedt said.
One mile wide and 1.5 miles long, there’s not much to do or see on Midway Island. The base was run by the Navy with an Air Force detachment that took care of the cargo planes that traveled back and forth between Hawaii and the Philippines or Vietnam, he said.
“The first month was OK,” he said. “After that – well, it had nice beaches – all there were were GIs and goony birds.”
After a year, Traffanstedt said he was relieved to be able to rotate off Midway; then the Air Force began to extend mens’ services by 30 days because they couldn’t find replacements for the duty station, he said. The only way to get off the island was to accept “remote duty.”
“That only meant one thing – Vietnam,” he said.
He took it. Today, he laughs at that decision. Timing is a funny thing, he said. Thinking going to a secured airbase in Vietnam would be the safest place he could be, Traffanstedt arrived on base right before the Tet Offensive.
Considered by many historians as the turning point in the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive was a series of surprise attacks by the Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces on cities, towns and military installations throughout South Vietnam. Traffanstedt, it would turn out, would be smack in the middle of that offensive.
“I’d been there about 30 days and it started, the attacks on Saigon,” he said. “They asked for augmentees – basically you’d go in and help on another assignment.
“I was the new guy so I got to go,” Traffanstedt said.
Assigned to an Air Force military police unit, the men were assigned to a section of the perimeter fence. While that area was quiet, that wasn’t the case not too far away, Traffanstedt said.
“We could hear a lot of shooting in downtown Saigon, and we got the call that they needed reinforcements,” he said. “It’s funny now, but I thought to myself, ‘Man, I’m going to be in the war now.”
Off they went, the driver, a gunner on a 30 caliber machine gun and Traffanstedt, speeding down a dirt road to the unknown, he said.
“The closer we got, the louder it got and the gunner was blazing away with that big machine gun,” Traffanstedt said. “My ears were ringing, I couldn’t believe the noise.
“Then we saw the tracer rounds, it was night and you could see the tracers going back and forth,” he said.
Before long an American plane took out the opposing forces with a “big red streak of the sky,” Traffanstedt said.
“Then it was nothing but quiet,” he said.
After that, much of the Mustang man’s duty was relatively quiet. Although there were close calls and mortar attacks, he was not involved in front line skirmishes or actions, something he said he was always thankful for.
After a year and a half, Traffanstedt headed home. He married “an Okie” – Brenda Joyce, who was his wife for more than 30 years, until her death in 2001, and he enjoys his children and grandchildren, whose pictures adorn all of his walls. He worked at General Motors’ Oklahoma City plant until it closed and he served in the Oklahoma Air National Guard from 1970 until 2001. After he left the service, he joined the American Legion, serving in Mustang for a few years until he moved to Ada in 2006; he returned to Mustang in 2012 and has been active in Mustang’s Post 353 since his return.
A full and happy life full of service and good works didn’t stop the survivor’s guilt, which remained long after he left Vietnam, Traffanstedt said.
“They’d bring in those bright shiny caskets, I’d watch them load them up at the air base,” Traffanstedt said. “You knew there was a man in each one of those, someone who had given up their life for our country.”
That was what Traffanstedt took away from his service, he said – the sacrifice and honor shown by the men he served with.
“I tell my grandchildren that they’re here today because of men you didn’t know and anything can happen at any time,” he said. “I didn’t think much about it when I joined but it’s an honor now for me being in the military and knowing the people I know and who I’ve known through the years.”