(WTRF) – John Puch said he knew he’d have to join the military at some point, so he chose the Air Force.
He started with ROTC while enrolled at Kent State University and finished his career as a captain years later after serving during the Vietnam War.
The first time I was there I had about 35 missions. And all told I had about 180 missions counting the ones I flew out of Thailand, North Vietnam and Laos.John Puch, U.S. Air Force Veteran
Even though he knew he was headed to the Air Force, Puch said in college he never thought he would be a pilot, but he ended up testing as one his Sophomore year. He didn’t fly in college, but after graduation went to Webb Air Force Base in Texas for training on the T-37 and T-38 aircraft.
After that, he had his sights set on becoming a fighter pilot and learning the newest plane, the F-4 Phantom.
It turned out the assignment was for the back seat of the F-4, so I thought ‘oh man I don’t like that idea’ and start phone calls to the base where they have the F-4s. They said ‘well they expect that you have to be in the back seat for about a year’. Well, that’s better than going in a bomber, a tanker or a cargo plane. I’d still be in a fighter.John Puch, U.S. Air Force Veteran
Puch went through about a year of the necessary training at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida before moving to the front seat.
Then he was assigned to open a base in Vietnam.
We were going to Cam Rahn Bay and they were preparing temporary runways. They were aluminum runways. We didn’t know it at the time that we were going to be living in tents, outdoor showers.John Puch, U.S. Air Force Veteran
He explained he was there until the end of 1956, and then went to Thailand to finish his tour.
Many of Puch’s missions were to support troops on the ground, often at key moments during the war.
We don’t really know a lot of times who we’re supporting on the ground. We don’t know whether it’s the Marines, or Army, or who we’re supporting, but for some reason we knew that was the 1st Cav (Cavalry) and that was the first time they met the North Vietnamese regulars. I happen to be on a mission and that was my first mission. First time I ever had live bombs and a live gun on the airplane so it was a real adrenaline pumping first mission.John Puch, U.S. Air Force Veteran
Puch explained that the 1st Cavalry was the inspiration behind the movie “We Were Soldiers”, which focused on ground combat set in the Vietnam War.
When Puch wasn’t flying missions, he spent a lot of time studying combat reports and gathering as much intelligence as he could. He said he felt a great responsibility to do his job, and do it well.
I always thought about that, supporting those guys. If I can’t find a target I haven’t done my job. You feel bad when you work for an hour and a half along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and you can’t find any worthy targets and you just feel like you’re not doing your job.John Puch, U.S. Air Force Veteran
Puch explained how he would find those targets. Simply put, he was given a position to fly the plane to and then troops on the ground would put smoke signals up to help.
That jungle is so thick that you can’t see the smoke sometimes. They ahve to put smoke out two or three times. Our reference to their smoke as where you want us to hit. A lot of times we don’t really know where they are in reference to the smoke. That’s a real disturbing thought that you’re dropping these bombs and firing these 20mm and they’re calling it in close. You don’t know exactly where they are, but you have to rely on the fact that they’re giving you the right position to hit.John Puch, U.S. Air Force Veteran
Between tours stationed in Vietnam and surrounding countries, he returned to Florida where he was asked to teach classes and work as an instructor pilot. Puch said it wasn’t his favorite duty assignment, but he did it.
Puch retired from the Air Force in 1970, but he wasn’t done flying yet. He then spent a few years with the Ohio National Guard in Columbus.
When I got out, I thought well, they gave me all this training I’ll, I may as well see if I can help out if we have an emergency. At least I’ll be on call.John Puch, U.S. Air Force Veteran
Puch was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses and 13 Air Medals for his service.