Vietnam vet at McChord preserves history

By Senior Airman Jacob Jimenez on August 25, 2016

Hidden away in the 62nd Airlift Wing history office, works a Vietnam veteran and retired lieutenant colonel. While working daily to preserve McChord and Air Force history, Dr. Robert Allen, 62nd AW historian, holds a rich history of his own.

Allen grew up as an Army brat in the 1950s. His father was a signal officer in the Army and was stationed at various overseas bases including Stuttgart and Mannheim, Germany, throughout his childhood.

Living in Germany following World War II, as a child, Allen witnessed the consequences of war up close.

"There was still much rubble in the city from the war," said Allen. "My friends were living in bombed-out basements with their families. This really spoke to me about the effects of history."

Experiencing the effect of WWII, Allen also experienced living through the Cold War.

"The conversation around the dinner table was often about evacuation options in the case of an emergency," said Allen. "We wondered if we were going to have a Red Army tank crashing through our front door. It was a scary time"

Growing up in this environment, Allen decided to pursue a career in the military and was accepted into the U.S. Air Force Academy.

"The Academy gave me an excellent education especially in technical matters," said Allen. "It taught me good habits and exposed me to many aspects of the Air Force that I wouldn't have experienced in a civilian university."

He majored in history at the academy and graduated in 1969. Upon graduation, he was accepted into the Air Force Academy's Corporative Master's program and went to the University of Indiana to work on his Master's degree in history.

After graduating from the University of Indiana, Allen went to navigator school and then was assigned to Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, to navigate in C-130s. While at Little Rock, Allen requested to go on his first tour to Vietnam.

Stationed in Ubon, Thailand, for a year, Allen flew numerous combat and patrol flights as a navigator in the Lockheed AC-130 Spectres over Vietnam.

"It was a very interesting mission and I felt like I was doing something worthwhile," said Allen. "It was sometimes very dangerous. When we flew into the combat zone from Thailand it was called ‘crossing the fence'."  

To prevent being easily targeted by enemy fire, all Allen's missions were flown at night. While flying over Vietnam, they would take fire from small arms, shoulder-mounted missiles and anti-aircraft guns.

"They threw everything but the kitchen sink at us," said Allen. "It was an exciting mission and you had to learn fast if you wanted to survive."

On one of these missions, Allen and his crew destroyed 10 trucks while having more than 2,000 rounds shot at them. For this accomplishment Allen was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.    

"I got to fly with a majority of crew members I trained with, which was unusual, but it was a very good thing we all got along and were competent," said Allen. "Most of us were in our twenties, young and immortal and had a job to do, so we just went back out and did the job."

Despite many successful missions in Vietnam, Allen remembers those he lost.

"I lost twelve airmen; I was the duty officer that launched their AC-130 that was shot down," said Allen. "Really small things can affect the rest of your life. Today their names are on the Vietnam wall (District of Columbia)."

Following his time in Thailand and the loss he experienced, Allen said his next assignment at McChord was one of the best.

Allen came to McChord in 1973 and was assigned to the 4th Airlift Squadron flying C-141A aircraft where here he flew cargo missions throughout the Pacific.  

"I traveled a lot and saw much more of the world that I hadn't seen before," said Allen. "I decided that Air Force aircrew were as close to citizens of the world as you can get, because we traveled to so many places around the globe and interacted with many different cultures."

Allen was assigned to McChord for three years.

He then returned to Tacoma as an Air Force ROTC instructor at the University of Puget Sound in 1983.

"The timing on the assignment was incredible," said Allen. "I never had the same mission twice even though I have forty-eight hundred total flying hours."

In 1993, Allen retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel. He then followed his wife to England where he pursued his doctorate in history at the University of London.       

He returned to Washington in 1998 and taught history at Pierce College in Lakewood. He also volunteered regularly at McChord's retiree affairs office and air museum.

In 2010 Allen, became the 62nd Airlift Wing historian.

"Family, climate and past missions makes this base significant to me," said Allen. "This is my adopted home. I have been to a lot of bases but this is the one I like best overall."

It is important that McChord and Air Force history is preserved, said Allen.

"Our triumphs and perspectives are built on the many achievements and few mistakes made by our predecessors," said Allen. "We must remember both, lest we reinvent or break the proverbial wheel again and again as new personnel arrive at McChord."

Having served more than 20 years in the Air Force and being stationed at McChord, Allen has a unique perspective of McChord's history and his own.

"The Air Force has broadened my horizons by allowing me to try and succeed at many things, meet many people and places," said Allen. "I hope that my legacy at McChord will be a standard of excellence in the history office, as well as helping leaders at all levels find historical foundations which will give them confidence to make future improvements."

Besides being awarded the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross, Allen has received the Meritorious Service Medal, 11 Air Medals, a Joint Service Commendation Medal and four Air Force Commendation Medals.   

"I have been blessed with many positive attributes and attitudes given to me by family, faith and experience over many years," said Allen. "Along the way, I learned and practiced perseverance, humility and sense of humor."