Gerald Summerlin is a good example of how soldiers have to depend on ground teams to fight a war. Though he never saw a day of battle, Summerlin was in Vietnam for a tour of duty at the height of the war and he heard it going on around him, but his mission was to make sure the planes were safe and ready to go into battle.
Summerlin was born in December 1931, in Gore, Oklahoma. He went into the Air Force on November 27, 1951, and served in the Korean War, French Morocco and the Vietnam War for 22 years as a mechanic and a loader. “I believe it was 1953 when I first went over to the Far East,” Summerlin said. “Of course I didn’t know where I was going, they just lined us up and said ‘fall in over here,’ and when they were through they told us to get on this truck over here, and we still didn’t know where we were going. The truck I was on was going to Yokota, which is a base there in Japan not too far from where we had unloaded off the ship.”
Though he never shot his gun, Summerlin said it was war all the way. “We had to carry our M16s to work everyday and we kept it on our shoulder or in the room. We had to carry it everywhere we went, whether it was the PX or work, or wherever we went. We didn’t know what was going to happen. I was in the ground crew and a lot of the work was in the parts department. With the planes you might have B29s lined up ten deep, that’s forty engines running, four per plane. If a gauge went out or something went wrong with the plane we had to fix them as fast as they came in.”
Summerlin was stationed in French Morocco in 1958 as the French were winding down their mission. “Everything was peaceful, the French were there, but they were in the process of shutting everything down and moving out. You know France had dreams of ruling the world for many years but they never won a war, though they have been involved with several. They just dropped everything and left the country just like they did in Vietnam. I spent two years there.”
Summerlin got to Vietnam on Christmas day 1966 for a one-year tour, and he left on Christmas Eve 1967. “I was mostly handling aircrafts as part of the load crew. Though we were back behind the front, it was still a war zone we had to sleep with a rifle under our pillows, and once again, we had to have a damn M16 on our shoulder wherever we went. Of course, we didn’t have any places to sleep. I bunked on top of a bunker for awhile because they had sandbags up there and I thought that was a pretty good place to sleep.”
Summerlin sees his work in Vietnam as just another job he had to do. “I wasn’t the nervous type; it didn’t bother me at all. I had a job to do regardless of what the situation was. You could hear the war going on; the bullets were flying all night. You could lie in your bunk and hear gunfire all night. Of course, you didn’t know if they are really shooting at someone or just firing in the air. A lot of it was just harassment, just to keep everybody on edge, but you just go on with a day’s work like it’s a beach party in Florida.”
“I was stationed in Hawaii and that’s where I met my wife. Then I was stationed in Spokane, Washington and I called her and said ‘Why don’t you come up here and we’ll get married?’ So she came up to Spokane and we tied the knot. Then a year later, they were going to send me back to Korea. I said ‘No. you’re not!’ I had my time in, so they said ‘you’re either going to Korea or you’re retiring,’ and I said ‘Then I’ll retire.’ That was 1973.”
He wound up in Little Rock, Arkansas and went to refrigeration school on the G.I. Bill. He eventually opened his own refrigeration business, Cabot Commercial Equipment, and covered five states. Summerlin raised four children, two doctors, a highway patrol man who now works in Arkansas, and a daughter who has her own business in Oklahoma City. He is retired now and he lives on his family farm with his wife of 37 years. “I just hang around the farm here, but I don’t do much farming,” he laughed.