Most of you know that Pattaya was a sleepy fishing village until the 1960s when, during the Vietnam War, American servicemen began arriving for some rest and relaxation. During the war, the Thai Government allowed the U.S. Air Force to station approximately 7,000 men and women at U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield, located about 30 miles southeast of Pattaya, near Sattahip.
PCEC member Pat Koester lived and worked there from 1970-1973 as assistant director and then director of the U-Tapao USO (United Service Organizations) Club. The USO is a private, non-profit, non-partisan organization whose mission is to support and lift the spirits of American troops and their families by providing recreational programs, services and live entertainment. Founded in 1941 during World War II, the USO is still active today. It has over 160 locations in 14 countries. In 2011, USO centers served eight million visitors. (See www.uso.org.)
At the Sunday, January 4, meeting of the Pattaya City Expats Club, Pat showed photos and shared her experiences at U-Tapao. Prior to working at U-Tapao, Pat served for two years in Thailand as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), teaching English at a high school in Ayuthaya. After the 2004 tsunami that devastated Thailand’s western coast, Pat returned to Thailand, again as a PCV. She spent six months living in what was left of a small, isolated fishing village in the province of Ranong, working on a USAID project that included establishing a microfinance revolving fund for the survivors. She has been in Thailand ever since, and has lived in Pattaya for eight years. Pat is PCEC’s past chairman and a current PCEC board member.
Pat explained that U-Tapao was one of seven bases in Thailand where the Thai Government allowed U.S. troops to be stationed during the Vietnam War. It was the only one with B-52 bombers. There were more than 50 B-52s on the base at any one time. The B-52 has a wing span the size of today’s Boeing 747 aircraft, and each one can carry a load of bombs weighing about 40,000 pounds. There were also about 50 KC-135 Stratotankers on the base. These were used to refuel the B-52s and fighter aircraft in mid-air. The tankers were also used to ferry personnel to other bases in Asia. Some U-2 spy planes were also stationed at the base. The U-2 is basically a big glider with an engine. The wings have to be propped up by pogo sticks when the plane is on the ground.
The USO Club at U-Tapao was open 24 hours a day to everyone on the base, from the airman to the general. It had the best food, comfortable chairs, and ping pong, pool and card tables. It did not have alcohol. It was also one of the few places on the base that was air conditioned. Pat said the staff of four American directors and approximately 80 Thais worked hard to make the troops feel at home. They conducted numerous tournaments and other activities at the club.
One Christmas, some of the troops decided to make snowballs and snowflakes from Styrofoam that the bomb parts came packed in. Pat said a helicopter dropped the “snowflakes” above the USO Club, but unfortunately some gusts of wind blew the snowflakes off course. The Bob Hope USO Christmas Tour also brought many well-known celebrities, including Bob Hope, to entertain the troops.
Pat said the USO Club also conducted some activities outside the base, including tours around Thailand for the troops and visits to U.S. Navy ships that came into port at Sattahip.
Pat told the story of “Newland,” an area about 15 miles off the base where a series of bars was set up. The bar girls were tested regularly for STDs. Each bar girl had to wear a number, and the numbers of the girls who tested positive were announced on the base’s radio station. This became known as “U-Tapao Bingo.”
The base at U-Tapao also supplied another base that was in the beginning stages of construction at Diego Garcia, an atoll located in the Indian Ocean. Pat and another USO Club director visited Diego Garcia to conduct a “casino night” program for the troops.
Today, most people think of U-Tapao International Airport as the place where you can get direct flights to Phuket and Koh Samui. Many of them don’t know that the airport is in reality just a small portion of the U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield.
MC Richard Silverberg brought everyone up to date on upcoming events and called on Roy Albiston to conduct the Open Forum, where questions are asked and answered about Expat living in Thailand, especially Pattaya.
For more information on the PCEC’s many activities, visit their website at www.pcecclub.org.