The Transylvania Times -

Vietnam Veterans: Duke Woodhull: Flying High Over Vietnam


January 15, 2018

Courtesy photo

Duke Woodhull in the Vietnam Room of the WNC Military History Museum.

Piloting a plane over North Vietnam well above 70,000 feet was a surreal experience for U.S. Air Force Captain Richard "Duke" Woodhull. Woodhull spent two 60-day tours in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969, piloting high-altitude reconnaissance missions in the Lockheed U-2 aircraft out of Bien Hoa ("ben wah"), a Vietnamese air force installation 40 miles North of Saigon. His was a war of sharp contrasts: the unearthly experience of high altitude surveillance vs. the reality of daily life on a rough military base in a war zone.

Flying High

Selection to the U-2 program was the realization of a dream for Woodhull. Screening and training for this spy plane, called Dragon Lady, were rigorous. The U-2 pilots in Vietnam flew on 7 ½ hour, long distance missions in a hazardous physiological environment, sealed in a pressurized suit, with the threat of enemy missiles locking on to them.

"Once I was at altitude, I was in another world, completely removed from the experiences of my fellow veterans who flew airplanes low, slow and under fire," he said. "There was always the chance, of course, that I'd have to bail out and then I'd be in very bad shape. We were carrying sensitive classified information on the airplane, defensive systems that had to be protected. We didn't have cyanide needles; but there were switches in the cockpit which would enable us to destroy sensitive electronics in the airplane before we bailed out, assuming we had the time."

Life On The Ground

Most residents of the Bien Hoa air base lived in primitive hooches – wooden structures with screened and jalousied walls designed to capture a breeze in the hot, humid environment. U-2 pilots, due to the physical demands of their assignments and the need to wear pressurized "spacesuits," lived in air-conditioned trailers.

"You can believe that at the bar all the non-U-2 people ragged us about that. I always felt guilty," he said.

At night, the Viet Cong would occasionally lob mortars at the base from an area across the river. To suppress that activity, gunships and friendly artillery would routinely attack the enemy.

"You'd be sound asleep," he said "and all of a sudden you had the sensation of somebody slamming his hand on the side of the trailer. It was only the friendly artillery fire, reminding us of the possibility of a mortar attack that would send us scrambling into the bunker next to the trailer."

Woodhull vividly remembers one particularly violent incident. Besides American planes, the base at Bien Hoa housed Vietnamese A1E fighter planes which carried loads of bombs similar to the B-17s in WWII. Three-ship formations would go out and bomb the Viet Cong. On one occasion three Vietnamese planes took off. Soon two returned and landed, one close behind the other.

"Both pilots got out of their planes," Woodhull said. "The first pilot got to the ground and walked over to the other plane. When the second pilot got down to the ground, the first pilot pulled out a pistol and shot the pilot. He killed him on the spot."

Woodhull later learned that the Vietnamese flight had been led by the squadron commander. The pilot who had been shot had been suspected of being "insufficiently motivated" because during the flight he had reported that his engine was running rough and he wanted to abort the mission. They had to dump the bombs in the river and return to base.

"Apparently that was the last straw for the squadron commander," said Woodhull. "He wasn't going to put up with it anymore. Life on base could be violent, and deadly."

Life At Home

Many Vietnam veterans were met with hostility and indifference upon their return home. Woodhull notes that the families of veterans suffered indignities as well.

"My wife, Ann, experienced some really uncomfortable circumstances on the home front," he said. "When I was in Bien Hoa, there were times when she received hostile treatment."

Later during the war, when Woodhull was in Thailand, Ann joined a "Waiting Wives" group of women whose husbands were overseas, some of whom were POWs and MIA.

"Unfortunately, those women were often treated shabbily," Woodhull said. "It was a far cry from today. Today there is a greater appreciation for the sacrifices of the armed forces."

Living In Brevard

Duke Woodhull retired as a colonel in 1985 after 30 years in the Air Force and immediately went to work for Boeing, assisting them in Brazil on the space station. Today he consults with a local firm, Smith Systems, in their Brazilian operations. He enjoys volunteering at St. Philip's Episcopal Church, and serving on the Board of Trustees of Blue Ridge Community College. His wife, Ann, imports high-scale jewelry from Brazil. The couple appreciates living in Brevard and being part of a community that recognizes and honors the service of our country's veterans.

(In collaboration with the WNC Military History Museum and writer Michel Robertson, The Transylvania Times will publish an article once every two weeks on a local veteran who served in Vietnam.)


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