By Ben Olson
Author’s Note: This is the fourth in a five-part series highlighting the stories of Vietnam Veterans living in Sandpoint. In this week’s installment, I sat down with Barney Ballard, a combat pilot who flew over 90 missions in Vietnam. I grew up with Barney’s daughters and have known him and his wife Carol for years while working as employee at their restaurant Dock of the Bay. We thank everyone who has given service to their country in any form.
Born in Colorado, Barney Ballard spent his formative years in Los Angeles, graduating high school in 1965, several years after year the U.S. entered the Vietnam War.
Most important to Ballard was education, so he enrolled in Occidental College in Eagle Rock, Calif. and started out as a philosophy major.
“My freshman year I received word that the head of the philosophy department had committed suicide and he had always been living with his mother,” said Ballard. “So I thought, ‘I don’t really want to explore philosophy in that department,’ so I switched to anthropology and it was a mind-opening experience to other peoples and cultures.”
Ballard took part in sports during his college years, playing for the football and rugby teams. An encounter with the famous football coach Jim Mora, Sr. helped put Ballard on an affordable path for college.
“I told him I didn’t have the funds to go to Occidental, and asked if there was any way he could help out,” said Ballard. “But he said they didn’t allow athletic scholarships, but he could get me a room underneath the bleachers.”
The room, known as the TQ, or Training Quarters, was a 16-by-nine-foot cell with no heat. But it was free, and Ballard lived there with a roommate throughout the remainder of college.
Along with his studies and sports, Ballard had been following the building conflict in Vietnam and felt an obligation to serve. He joined the ROTC program and began preparing to enter the military.
“I thought if I believed in any of these altruistic principles as stated by our country, then I felt I needed to serve,” he said. “Especially because I also knew that given my socio-economic position, I could get out of a lot of things with deferments, or just have a doctor write a note and say you have a bone spur on your heel, like a guy we know.”
Ballard was influenced by a man he met in ROTC named Cpt. Conran who was a pilot.
“I wanted to fly,” he said. “I thought that it would be really a challenging thing to do.”
His senior year, Ballard took and failed the physical for flight school five times. One eye did not have perfect 20/20 vision; a prerequisite for flight school. It was suggested to him to apply to be a personnel officer; a position that would almost guarantee he would stay stateside during the war.
“I didn’t really want to do anything but fly,” he said. “Not that I wanted to go to Vietnam, but I wanted to fly.”
Ballard met another person who left a lasting impact on him. Tech. Sgt. Robert Albert knew of Ballard’s predicament and told Ballard he would look into the situation to see if there was any way to help. It was when a letter came from Sgt. Albert that Ballard first knew he was going to get his wings.
“He wrote me a letter, which I still have today,” said Ballard. “He said ‘This is a special deferment that I have obtained for you. You’re allowed to enter pilot training wearing glasses and you’re to report to Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Okla. on Dec. 8, 1969.”
Sgt. Albert wrote the reason that he had helped was because he respected how Ballard had gotten through school, that he was a working class person like himself.
“He wanted to give me a hand,” said Ballard. “He just said to pay it forward. He said I’d meet some of his guys someday and even though I’ll be an officer, reach out and give them a hand if they ever needed it.”
Ballard took to flight training as he did most things in life: with gusto.
“I loved it,” he said. “I was competitive from my background in college sports. You’re just totally consumed by what you’re doing.”
Always a man who aimed high, Ballard set his sights on the tip of the spear in aviation: fighter jets.
“It was the hardest thing to get to, so I wanted to do it,” said Ballard.
During his training, Ballard remembered living and breathing flight school. He would fly acrobat maneuvers blind under a hood, relying on instrumentation alone. He took difficult positions inside intricate formations, working out flying routines in his head to music.
“When you’re flying instrument approaches you enter a holding pattern, then you’re cleared to come down,” said Ballard. “That’s called ‘penetration.’ When I was flying those maneuvers, I had Three Dog Night in my mind, going, ‘Penetrate, penetrate, flyyy to the music.’”
Over 53 weeks, Ballard flew everything from prop-driven Cessna T-41s, T-37s, then to the T-38s. The class started with 96 people and only 62 made it to the end.
Upon graduation from flight school, there were 260 men in a pool with only five spots in fighters available. Ballard applied to fly the A-1, a prop-driven radial engine relic built in the WWII era.
“I wanted to be in close air support and support helicopter rescues,” he said. “I have a romantic spot in my heart for those old radial engine airplanes.”
Ballard started training in the A-1 but the assignment was changed to an F-100 at Luke Air Force Base outside of Phoenix, Ariz.. The F-100 was a single engine, single seat supersonic fighter built in the mid-1950s. He was pleased with the chance.
“I enjoyed flying because most of the time I flew by myself,” he said. “I liked having my own airplane.”
There was one drawback to flying the F-100, however; it was built for a man much smaller than Ballard.
“I literally couldn’t turn around and do all those things you need to do with switches on either side of you,” said Ballard. “So I memorized the panel and would reach under my arm to move the switches. I was actually worried, since I’m a bigger guy, I knew if I ever had to punch out of the airplane, I’d probably need to roll the plane over, blow the canopy and kick out.”
Overseas… to Korea
Ballard was sent to Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Wash., to complete the basic survival training that was usually the last step before being sent to combat.
“Then my assignment got changed again,” he said. “The Air Force said right now they needed guys with fighter experience to fly the Cessna 337, which was a propeller-driven airplane. I was pissed.”
Ballard wasn’t happy with the twin engine civilian-built airplane that had less protection than military grade jets. They carried rockets and flares, and white phosphorous rockets for marking targets, and generally acted as a liaison between ground forces and fighter jets.
Ballard received more training in Florida before finally being sent overseas, but not to Vietnam.
“They sent me to Korea,” he said.
While in Korea, as part of his assignment as a Forward Air Controller, or FAC, he was to act as a liaison between Army units and the 19th Tactical Air Support Squadron.
“You went on Army exercises and had to explain what the airstrikes were like,,” he said. “But we also had to realize what was happening with the ground pounders and their critical situation on the ground that we were hopefully seeing correctly from the air.”
Eager to apply his anthropology background, Ballard volunteered to live with a Korean army unit up above the 38th parallel in the mountains.
“I was living and working with Korean fighter pilots, all of them black belts in taekwondo,” he said.
Always happy to further his learning, Ballard carried a Korean dictionary in his flight pocket and learned how to maintain a conversation and love kimchi, thoroughly enjoying his relations with his Korean counterparts for 11 months.
To the fight
In 1972, the North Vietnamese Army invaded South Vietnam in three different locations. Nixon had expanded the war two years earlier into Cambodia, leading to fierce anti-war protests stateside. By 1972, US military personnel in South Vietnam had declined as more and more troops were being pulled out.
The fighting intensified in the spring of 1972 with the siege of An Loc and there was an immediate need for FACs to enter the combat zone. Both the South Vietnamese and the remaining U.S. troops were in retreat.
“So I got sent down there for a three-month period,” he said.
The day Ballard arrived in Saigon, he was told to stow his bags and was immediately sent out on a night mission with the Vietnamese in a C-119 gunship over the Mekong Delta.
“I thought, geez, nobody even knows I’m here yet,” he said, as he remembers flying over tracers and heavy fighting below. “It was a strange introduction. I had one ride in an airplane with the Vietnamese, and one ride with a check pilot in the Cessna 337 ‘O2A’, and I was assigned to go and fight.”
Ballard began conducting air strikes in support of the U.S. troops on the ground, as well as the South Vietnamese, who were forced into the town of An Loc south of the Parrot’s Beak of the Cambodian border.
“There began a period of a siege of about 68 days,” he said. “Because we didn’t have ground troops, we brought in lots of air support. A lot of airplanes and a lot of helicopters were shot down.”
After his years of training, the Siege of An Loc became Ballard’s immersion into a live-fire combat situation.
“First of all, I was scared,” he said. “I knew that if I was going to survive any of this, I had to be disciplined, so I actually didn’t drink in Vietnam. I was flying almost every day and sometimes we’d fly again at night. I knew the odds may not be great that I would live, but I was most scared about getting captured.”
While flying, Ballard carried a .45 sidearm and always told himself he’d save a bullet for himself in case he needed it.
Over the next three months, Ballard flew an estimated 92 combat missions, most over An Loc. The missions involved heavy anti-aircraft fire, low flying, and air strikes laid with precision next to friendly forces. He also conducted air strikes over Tay Ninh, close to the Parrot’s Beak of Cambodia where there was a major NVA incursion point.
One day, three of Ballard’s fellow FACs were shot down by surface-to-air missiles.
“The next day I was out over An Loc again and saw the surface-to-air missile signature, which was like a little donut,” he said. “I said oh no.”
Ballard had already worked out in his mind the maneuvers he would take to avoid getting shot down.
Immediately, he pulled power from the engine and flipped open his cowl flaps, which cooled the engine and made less of a target for the heat seeking missile. He dove right at the spot on the ground that the rocket had come from and had a vision that remains with him today.
“I heard the Virgin Mary, and she said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not your time. Do what you need to do and it’s going to be OK,’” he said. “It’s always been in my mind as to why in the heck did I make it and somebody else didn’t. So I thought that if there’s anything that you need to do with your life, it’s to seek to serve.”
Because the NVA had retreated due to heavy casualties involved in the air strikes against them, Ballard was now nearing the end of his TDY. After three months of heavy combat, Ballard’s tour was up and he was sent home, left with the eternal questions as to his purpose.
Shortly after, he was sent back to Korea, attained the rank of captain and became an instructor and check pilot for the remainder of his time overseas.
Stateside and on the ground
When Ballard was sent stateside, the nation was rife with anti-war protests. After he completed his duty with the Air Force and entered civilian life, he began searching for a way to make sense of what he’d seen.
Ballard said that 98 percent of the guys he went to school with got deferments or stayed in school through the war, and one man he knew was jailed for being a conscientious objector.
“I had a great admiration for people who put something on the line and were conscientious objectors to the war,” he said. “I also felt that those who had gone to Canada had really given up something. Little did I know how beautiful Canada was.”
Ballard, who had a deep love of flying, was faced with a soul-searching moment.
“I was of the ‘fellowship of the air’ feeling. That whole idea that it was a noble thing,” he said. “When I got out of the Air Force, I never flew again. I took this thing that was a loving passion, and the way in which I used it, I was bothered by.”
So, Ballard embarked on a new life on the ground. He toyed with the notion of entering law school, working full time in a restaurant in Boulder, Colo.
Eventually, he was asked to go in as a partner and take over a restaurant. While installing ceiling tiles on a three-tiered scaffold during renovations, a woman named Carol walked in to interview for a job.
“I saw her walk in and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to go interview her,’” he said. “So, anyway, I scrambled down from that scaffolding and went over and I ended up hiring her. The rest is history. She was the best person I had ever met, and I knew it at that moment.”
Barney and Carol Ballard have been together since 1976. During his time in basic survival training at Fairchild AFB, he remembered hearing about a town farther north called Sandpoint. So the Ballards moved to Sandpoint in 1983 and bought a house on Boyer Ave. They have three children; Maureen, Natalie and Anna.
In 1984, the Ballards opened a restaurant called The Cupboard in the 305 sq. ft. space just north of the Panida Theater. The restaurant opened the day before Ivano’s Ristorante opened. After establishing themselves in the restaurant business, they later opened Dock of the Bay in Hope, and finally Tango Cafe in the Columbia Bank Building before retiring.
While he doesn’t fly anymore, Ballard remains an advocate for aviation, especially locally. He is involved with the High School Aerospace Program, which outreaches to local students to prepare for careers in aviation. The students are even in the process of building their own plane.
Ballard sees aviation as a key pillar to supporting Sandpoint’s economic development. He also believes that hands-on experiential skills in building and flying an aircraft are something that not many get to experience.
“My passion is to keep promoting what we do with aviation and this program,” he said. “When you look at Sandpoint, we’ve got a lot of great things happening here in aerospace. The Tamarack winglets are here. Cygnus has established itself as a leader in parts manufacturing with the attitude that ‘we get it right.’ You look at how unique the Quest Kodiak airplane is, and also how Timberline has been remanufacturing Blackhawk helicopters, both for business and humanitarian purposes—this is all happening in Sandpoint. It’s really neat.”
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