Roy Bates and his wife are beginning a new chapter in their storied lives by building a retirement home in the Bitterroot Valley on land that’s been in his family for generations.
“I’ve been retired almost as long as I was on active duty in the Air Force,” he said.
After three tours in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War and 24 years as an Air Force pilot, Bates then served as a commercial airline captain for another 12 years, but he doesn’t fly much anymore.
“Flying is like surgery,” he said. “You’ve got to do it all the time to do it correctly. It’s a repetitive business. I would dearly love to have an airplane to fly to Phoenix to take care of business … but I know I would mistreat that privilege and that wouldn’t be right. Pilots need to fly at least once a week to stay proficient or they shouldn’t fly at all.”
Q: Tell me about your three military tours.
A: I spent one year in Vietnam from 1965 to 1966 prior to the build-up of forces. Then, I was in Thailand for six months flying B-52s and one year flying F-4s in Ubon, Thailand, on the north-central side. During the first six months of my first tour, I was at Nha Trang on the east coast of central Vietnam. It was a huge resort area with long, white sandy beaches. The second six months, I was in an Army special forces camp in the middle of nowhere. We lived in the hills with pretty primitive living conditions.
Q: How did you spend your time at the camp?
A: I flew a lot, which was good. But I kept some books on hand, studying math trying to improve my math capabilities. I’m terrible at math, still am, but it kept my mind going. We had 12 guys from the Air Force and 12 guys from the Army – an A Team that lived off the land. Near our camp was a paved runway built by the French in the 1940s for the president’s hunting lodge. He’d fly in to hunt elephants and such. We owned the airstrip in the daytime and the bad guys owned it at night, which was interesting. We became well-versed in the ways of Army weaponry.
Q: Where did you fly during the day?
A: I was a forward air controller in an O1 – we’d fly low to the ground at 75 miles per hour over the same areas, so we’d know the land like the back of our hand. We’d make two trips – right after sunrise and right before sundown. We didn’t have any night-vision goggles and such in those days, so all of our work was done during daylight. By the end of every day, the roads were all cratered, the bridges bombed out. I’d come back first thing in the morning and the bridges were rebuilt and looked like 1,000 trucks had already driven over them. They had a lot of manpower and worked all night with picks and shovels to rebuild. One thing I learned, Asian mentality at the time was very different than yours and mine. Life was cheap and so was labor, and they exploited both.
Q: What else did you learn?
A: As a young kid coming from Missoula, Montana, you don’t understand what the heat and humidity was like. When we arrived in Vietnam and that plane’s charter door first opened, the heat hit me in the face like a fist. I’ll never forget that. I also became well acquainted with the abject poverty of the people. It was a completely different way of life from Montana. It was all new.
Q: Were you ever injured?
A: No Purple Hearts for me. I never got hurt, never got hit, although I was shot at a lot. I also didn’t come home with the mental anguish that many experienced. The Air Force was different because we weren’t out crawling in the swamps with people shooting at us from the bushes. All the landmines and snakes and poor living conditions and sleeping in your clothes for a month – it was tough on them. In the special forces camp, we had some deprivation as far as food goes. We lived off the land and C-rations and rice, so not much meat. For 20 years after I got home, you couldn’t get me to eat a grain of rice if my life depended on it.