Chess May Have Saved My Life

by Bill Wall


Chess may have saved my life once.†

I was TDY (temporary duty) to U-Tapao Air Base, Thailand from Beale AFB, California, and just missed the Bob Hope USO show by one day, arriving on December 21, 1971 (Hope and his show performed on Dec 20).† When I could, I played chess at the USO club or on the flightline or while flying long missions.† I was a Sergeant and a crew chief on KC-135 tanker aircraft.† I normally worked on KC-135Q models that refueled SR-71 Blackbird aircraft with special JP-7 fuel instead of the normal JP-4 fuel for B-52 bombers and fighters.† I was assigned to the 307 OMS (Organizational Maintenance Squadron).

On January 10, 1972 I was working the normal midnight to 12 noon shift (they were always 12 hour shifts, 6 days a week) on the flightline at U Tapao doing pre-flight work.† I had just refueled my KC-135 tanker and was topping off with water tank (the engines were water-injected for more thrust).† When I finished, the water truck left and I called in to get picked up.† A maintenance truck would be by in about a half hour to take me to the USO club on base or another aircraft that needed work.†

It was a little after 2 a.m., and the next flightline maintenance truck to pick me up would be by at 2:30 am.† I was a crew chief on KC-135s, and qualified to work on B-52 bombers, but stayed on the tanker side that night.† I was on the bombers side earlier for midnight chow.† So rather than wait outside by my plane near the nose wheel like I normally do, waiting to get picked up, I went up and inside the cockpit where I had some light.† I had my pocket chess set and decided to look at some openings and chess games.† I was always playing chess at the USO or on the flightline when I had a break.† My aircraft, tail number 555 (triple nickel), was the last one on the parking ramp, across the field from the B-52s.†

It so happened that three Vietnamese sappers in camouflaged fatiques (I also heard that it could have been as many as 10) were sneaking past my airplane at about this time.† They had cut a hole in the fence and crawled on the flightline past my aircraft.† I did not see them, and if they had seen me, I am sure they would have found a way to get me and silence me for good.† The sappers all had satchel charges with the idea of throwing them in the aircraft and blowing them up.† Instead of throwing a satchel in my fully-refueled aircraft, they continued on across the field and ended up throwing the satchels in the B-52 engines or in a couple of B-52 revetments in the attempt to blow them up.† I could hear three explosions from where I was sitting inside the cockpit (the cockpit windows were faced opposite of the B-52 aircraft).† Once I heard that, thinking a KC-135 blew up, the chess set was thrown down, I was off that aircraft in a second, thinking I was next.†

I could see that there was a fire on the B-52 side and I could hear gunshots.† Within a minute, a Security Police truck came by with guard dogs, checked me out, and told me there was a fire fight on the other side of the base.† They were also worried about a mortar attack and the bad guys attacking and sabotaging the KC-135 tankers.† That was comforting.† But rather than evacuate me out of there, they needed someone to defend this part of the flightline and the plane.† I was offered an M-16 from the armory to stand guard , but said I had my own weapon, a 45 pistol, inside the aircraft locked up and sealed in our utility box.† The M-16 had a tendency to rust and misfire in Thailand.† I was busy powering down the aircraft, turning off all lights and power, buttoning it up and sealing the doors and engine intakes.† I was given a Thai guard to help me out.

Pretty soon, the night sky was lit up by flares.† I did not know what path the sappers took to get to the B-52s, but it was much later that I discovered they went right past my aircraft, within a few yards, just at the time I was inside the aircraft playing chess.† There were some reports of mortar attacks, but I did not hear or see any mortar attack.

A few hours later, a maintenance truck finally came by, but not to relieve me, but to prepare for a pre-flight takeoff.†† A crew had come out and we were the first to take off.† I was left inspecting the rest of the KC-135s on the ground, looking for live ammunition left over the attack.† Dozens of charges and detonators were discovered, but none of them went off and they were all on the B-52 side of the base.†

I flew out of there before dawn and landed in Kadena Air Base, Okinawa 6 hours later.† I played chess with another crew member on the flight back and no refueling duties.† I later learned that the sappers had thrown a grenade and four satchel charges into 3 B-52 revetments and the engine intake, but did not blow up the plane.† They would have had better luck on my tanker aircraft, full of JP-4 fuel.† One sapper was killed and one captured that I know of.† Another escaped over the fence and into the jungle outside the base.† An earlier sapper died from a poisonous snake bite, crawling in the jungle, before getting on the flightline.† If I hadnít been playing chess inside my plane, I would have been an easy target outside the aircraft, the only person between the sappers and the rest of the aircraft.† They would have seen me before I would have seen them, stabbing or shooting me (they did try to shoot a B-52 maintenance NCO, but their gun mis-fired or jammed).† Playing chess in the cockpit on a pocket chess set got me out of being exposed to the attack and probably saved my life.