Shep Johnson and another former Montana smoke jumper alternated in running the rigging shed off the ramp at Long Tieng, Laos.
For most of my time, Shep ran things.
Often went to work at dawn, I don’t remember a single time that Shep wasn’t already on the ramp working. He put in 12-16 hour days. From sun up, to well past sundown sometimes… mostly at the rigging shed, but all over the ramp, getting in supplies to fight our war, and then broking things down and out to the individual guerrilla units in the field.
The Long Tieng Ramp. At the top of the picture are the 8 sheds in the ammo dump. The long building that borders the top of the ramp is Shep’s Rigging Shed. Air Ops running the airfield/ramp are the concrete buildings in the center of the picture to the left of the ramp. The buildings at the bottom of the picture make up the CIA compound.
Shep didn’t talk much In the rigging shed he always seemed to me to be bent over, doing things knee high. Tying on parachutes for loads to be dropped or maybe fixing the rigging for items to be slung out to positions by helicopters.
There was a time early in the program when supplies were not flowing through the rigging shed… and the men in the field were complaining about lack of food and water and ammo… so Shep stopped what he was doing in the middle of one day, walked to house of the mountain warlord Vang Pao and said he needed Hmong hills tribe help.
By nightfall a small army of Hmong descended on Shep's place of business, and for the rest of the time in Long Tieng, Shep was never without twenty or thirty Hmong workers, who did the heavy lifting. No matter the weight, enough Hmong men grabbing ahold could move anything.
There were no roads into the valley from the south so supplies were brought in by C-123s and C-130s.
C-130 delivering men and supplies. These planes always kept their props going when they were on the ground, adding to the noise and sense of bedlam on the ramp.
Part of Shep’s job – with his army of Hmong logs guys sometimes driving fork lifts, sometimes lifting/carrying things by hand – was to get those supplies off loaded in a timely manner, so the planes could skedaddle back to Udorn or where ever they were picking up the stuff, to get another load.
Requests from the field as to supplies that were needed went directly either to Shep’s clipboard – if the field guy could speak English – or to one of his native staff – or to Air Ops…. Whatever, there was no middle man in this part of the logs system. Orders steadily came in from the field, Shep steadily worked to get the requested supplies prioritized, palletted and ready for delivery… each delivery packaged depending on where it was goin’. If it was a forward patrol, meant parachutes, if it was in a forward position within range of enemy AA guns – or if there were steep mountains all around – it meant parachutes to be dropped from some distance up. If the area was safe, it meant parachutes for a low drop.
If the unit was in a fixed position, it would identified by a two letter designation, like CC, or DE, or TW, etc. These were called “sites” and accessible by Air America helicopters… the question then for Shep, was the material to be slung out to the position or put inside the helicopter for the trip? How much could the helicopters carry, if the position was on top of one the mountains where helicopters had less lift?
Each request there on Shep’s clipboard took special individual consideration. Different situations and different problems every hour.
And there was always the question on the availability of aircraft, which changed by the hour. Shep might start preparing a drop of ammo to the TW site near Ban Na, to find weather had just moved in, and the stuff had to go out as a sling-load by a heavy duty helicopter, like a Twin Pack.
Shep never got exasperated that I ever heard of, and sometimes he had to make two and three changes to the way stuff was to be delivered to the field.
No matter the delivery air craft - fixed wing or rotary wing – some member of Shep’s Hmong logs staff would run out in front of the delivery air craft with its intended destination written by black magic marker on a piece of cardboard torn off the side of some packing box. If that destination was what the pilot had been told by radio from air ops, he gave the Hmong a thumbs up and went out and delivered the mail.
There was the son of a DOD guy in Vientiane who kept up with things in the ammo dump, but Shep pretty much kept up with all the other stock-piled material and would get word to logs people down south when more stuff was needed. And constantly he was getting orders from the field directly or from air ops.
I remind you again, there was this one man, Shep Johnson, who made this work.
An Army guy once told me that it would take a full US Army quartermaster company to do the same job.
This wasn’t a perfect operation, though… there were mistake every once in a while, I mean it took a lot of work – there were a lot of moving pieces – to keep up a 4 or 5 thousand man army scattered way the hell and gone out there in the mountains, with requests going through two and three languages, in the middle of a war. You got weather to deal with, enemy, units on the move, sometime fierce combat that used up ammo resources quickly, and left troops scattered.
There was the incident of Red Coat’s duce and a half miss-dropped on top of his hutch up at Bouam Long, and there were constant problems in getting 105 mm ammo at 105 mm gun sites… not 155 gun sites… and for reasons known only to God, there was always problems with fuses for the artillery shells.
One of the conspicuous reasons for the success of the CIA army in the mountains of NE Laos far, far from any ground supply depot, was Air America and CAS pilots and planes. No question. But Shep Johnson made the resupply process work. One individual.
And we loved Shep.
Part of the reason is that he worked so hard, and did such a great job, but also we loved him because after work Shep’s personality was just a grand piece of work.
He was a home spun, slow talking, down to earth ex-smoke jumper, ex-cowboy from Montana, who often would be the last in to the bar there at Long Tieng at night and tired, would get drunk on three beers.
He’d be mostly quiet while he drank that first beer, then on his second beer, he’d talk about Hog’s not being a pretty sight, and that Junkyard was starting to smell rank… and then on his third beer, he’s say, “Mule you asshole sumbitch, you ain’t done shit since you been here. Stand around smirking, that’s all you are, a worthless smirker. Don’t smirk at me, smirker. Can’t get good help no more, can you Burr? Ain’t they no more beer in this place? Where’s the beer?”
Maybe five beers he’d stumble out of the bar, not to be seen again until early the next morning, out working in the rigging shed by flashlight.
This was a fact: in his free time, Shep Johnson was goin’ make you laugh. He wasn’t trying either… he was just funny-funny in a down home, cowboy way.
For the first part of my tour up in Long Tieng, Brenda and the kids remained in Udorn, Thailand. That’s where Shep’s wife, Jan, and their daughter lived.
Jan and Brenda became good friends and Brenda was invited to join her bridge group. Every week or so, Brenda’d drive over to the Johnson residence and play with the girls.
Well one week, both Shep and I were down spending time with the family, and bridge night came up.
Jan asked if I’d take Shep out for a beer or two while the ladies played. Despite the fact that he’d rip my shirt at every turn, Shep and I were pretty good friends, and I said sure, I’ll pick him up when I drop Brenda off and maybe in a couple/three hours I’ll bring him back when I pick up my wife. Shep said it sounded like a plan that’s work.
It’s fair to tell you maybe at this point, that Jan had a stout built and a glass eye, and she took no shit off Shep. And when she was in a Take No Shit Off Shep frame of mind, she was a fearsome thing to behold… more on this when I tell some more Shep stories in the weeks ahead.
Anyway, I come by, Brenda goes in the Johnson house, Shep comes out and we head downtown Udorn, Thailand.
The famous Shep Johnson
While we were settling in the first bar there on that dirt main street, back at the Johnson house the air conditioner suddenly went out downstairs… although the one on the landing up the stairs was still perking along… so Jan and the girls moved the card table up to the landing, got chairs at the four sides, and squeezed in to play some bridge.
Shep and I went to one bar, then another and another, and soon we were way beyond Shep’s normal 5 beer limit. His chin began to bounce off his chest and I said it was time to go home… a little earlier than planned.
On the way back, maybe because of the breeze in his face, he came around some and insisted that he’d walk in his own house his own self, so I told him to tell my wife that I was waiting for her. Maybe I didn’t go in out of fear Jan would focus that good eye of hers on me and turn me to stone for bring Shep home drunk.
Anyway Shep walks in and doesn’t see the girls playing in the dining room, where they usually played.
He was staring in the empty dining room, when Jan said from the landing, “You drunk sumbitch, I don’t know what you’re doing home, but go out on the porch or lay down on the sofa or something, don’t come up here, you can’t get by. You hear me? We ain’t finished yet.”
Shep jerked around and looked up at the girls playing on the landing, and just couldn’t understand what they were doing up there. Didn’t say anything, just stared with a perplexed drunken scowl on his face.
He apparently wasn’t listening to Jan, because he finally shook off his puzzled expression and started walking towards the stairs, obviously intent on getting up to his bed.
“Don’t you come up here, you sumbitch. You hear me? You can’t get by, go away. GO AWAY, you sumbitch.” Jan said.
Shep got half way up the stairs to the landing and then climbed on top of the bannister, reached up and grabbed the banister on the second set of stairs and climbed up, and over. On his knees now on the second set of stairs, he crawled up to the top, got to his feet and went into the bedroom.
Jan’s saying, “OK you sumbitch you go into that bedroom and you die, I don’t care, don’t you dare, don’t you dare think about coming back out. You hear me Shep Johnson”
Brenda is figuring I’m outside, maybe more drunk than Shep, maybe dying from gunshot wounds, she isn’t sure, but she is sure she wants to finish playing this one particular good hand she’s got. Her back is to the second set of stairs so she turns back around from watching Shep and asked “Who’s lead?… Shep’s gone.”
But no, Shep’s not gone. He comes right back out of the bedroom and he’s wearing a Thai sarong, wrapped around his stomach. That’s all. Drunk Shep and the Thai sarong.
“You go back in that bed room, you sumbitch… don’t you come down and mess up my bridge game. Don’t you come down those stairs… Shep, so help me, don’t you come down the stairs.”
Well Shep does, but like before he only goes half way and starts to jump over the bannister in a reverse of his route coming up… only he didn’t plan for the sarong, which gets caught mid-jump on the bannister, and there he lay… for a second… before he starts to slip down the bannister… towards Brenda, who is still looking at her cards to be played… and as he slides the sarong comes up to arm pits, and he’s as naked as a jaybird underneath.
The girls are screaming, “Brenda, don’t turn around, don’t, oh, don’t turn around.” But she does whip her head around… and she’s 12 inches from the crack of Shep’s butt.
Jan is yelling, “You, you, you… asshole.”
Everyone else at the table said, “Yeap!!!”