ALTA VISTA — Engineering skills came in handy for a 1957 Osage High School graduate while he was stationed in Vietnam.
Chuck Machin, Alta Vista, enlisted and first served in the Air Force from 1958 to 1962, later working as a foreman in an Osage body shop for a few years.
“I didn’t have no money to buy the place, so that’s when I decided to go back to the Air Force,” said Machin, 77, who re-enlisted and served from 1965 to 1969.
While in the Air Force, Machin attended six different schools, learning to repair aircraft with sheet metal and to X-ray planes to find internal cracks.
He had no combat training when he was deployed to Vietnam in 1965 at age 26.
Although Marines could fix aircraft in a neighboring hangar with an M16 slung across their back, Machin said he wasn’t allowed to have a weapon due to his lack of training.
“When I got there, they took our rifles away,” he said. “I didn’t have a rifle or pistol the whole year there, no protection.”
Machin worked on planes within a guarded perimeter in Da Nang, the central part of the country. Since he had to “start over” when he re-enlisted, he often worked on big jobs, which meant a number of second shifts.
While their compound was supposed to be guarded, Machin said they were overrun by the enemy one time.
“I had bullets flying by me,” he said.
He was often in downtown Da Nang riding around in trucks, something he said wouldn’t have been safe near the end of war. “They would have shot you in a minute,” he said.
Skilled in plumbing and carpentry, Machin transformed his tent into deluxe accommodations, making a screened-in porch, floor, sidewalls and picnic table. He also had electricity, but since the wattage was different the light from bulbs was dim.
“I was kind of an engineer,” he said.
A handmade sign on the entrance read, “Home sweet home.”
But sometimes it wasn’t so sweet, sleeping close to the flight line.
“The young lieutenants would take off straight up, causing a sonic boom,” Machin said. “It was terribly noisy.”
He was also responsible for installing plumbing in a building that went up and he made a couple of inventions — a motor-operated sled ejection system and an apparatus to keep hands from getting burned while using flares at night.
Machin, who was married at the time with a family, was paid $3,000 — about $23,000 in today’s dollars — for his year in Vietnam. He fixed bicycles as a side job and used some of his earnings to buy equipment to shoot photos and video.
He also got to see a couple of celebrities — Roy Rogers and Dale Evans — in a USO show while in Vietnam, and was able to see Bob Hope from a distance.
He laments the fact that he missed an opportunity to talk with John Wayne by just a couple of minutes.
As he repaired bullet holes on aircraft, Machin was exposed to Agent Orange, which he said was stored in huge tanks inside the planes.
“It soaked into my shoes,” he said. “They didn’t wash the aircraft, so you had to watch your step because it was slippery.”
Machin has since had health problems he believes are related to Agent Orange exposure. He also struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, which he says “comes and goes.”
“My opinion of PTSD, it is real and it will get you,” he said.
After he returned home from Vietnam — to “not one person shaking your hand, no party, no parades” — he built an auto body shop in Topeka, Kansas.
Machin, who says he struggled in school and had trouble reading, has since owned five businesses and has been a plumber for 58 years. He is also a classic car enthusiast.
Proud to wear his newly-acquired Vietnam veteran cap, Machin has kept track of everyone who’s thanked him for his service — 30 people to date, he says.
We honor you, Chuck Machin.