Something fascinated me about the photo of the woman squinting out from under a steel pot helmet and squeezing off rounds from a weapon almost half her size.
The image was hardly surprising. Today, women in full combat gear serve as models on recruiting posters. They’re thrown into combat situations and serve in stations that have been conformed to meet their needs.
Dozens of women have been killed in combat during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But this particular image predates the conflicts of the 21st century by several decades — four, in fact. It goes back to 1968, a time when the woman in the photo desperately wanted to be sent to war alongside men she had worked with for more than a decade.
Betty Caldwell wanted to go to Vietnam. The Pentagon wouldn’t let her.
“She had a hard time taking no for an answer,” recalled Columbus resident Dale Stickles, one of the men who had served with her in a reserve capacity at Bakalar Air Base, now Columbus Municipal Airport. “She even took her case all the way to the Pentagon, and one of the highest-ranking woman officers in the Air Force was pretty blunt in answering. She told Betty there was no way for a woman to go into Vietnam with us because they simply weren’t equipped to accommodate a woman.”
Betty, who died last month at age 84, was, indeed, unique for her time. In 1968 she was the lone woman in the 930th Tactical Airlift Group, a reserve unit based at Bakalar that had been called to active duty by President Lyndon Johnson at the height of the war in Vietnam.
The 930th was the parent outfit for the 71st Tactical Airlift Squadron, but that particular unit would not be engaged in transport activities in Vietnam. It was moved to Lockbourne Air Force Base in Ohio, where its 18 C-119G transport planes were converted to AC-119 gunship operations. That wasn’t the only thing that was changed. The unit was renamed the 71st Special Operations Squadron.
Although the unit’s mission was changed, Betty’s job remained the same. She was an operations specialist, and her duties removed her from any combat missions.
That wasn’t enough for the military.
“She was with us at Lockbourne, but that was only for a couple of weeks,” Stickles recalled. “When we got our orders to ship out, Betty was not on the list. Thing is, she wanted to go in the worst way.”
Her appeals fell on deaf ears. The 71st completed training without her and shipped out to the war-torn country in December 1968. The unit was in Vietnam for six months, recording 6,000 mission hours in combat zones. It suffered no losses in terms of personnel or material and returned to Columbus in June 1969.
Denied the opportunity to serve alongside other members of her unit, Betty continued her efforts to be sent to Vietnam. She chose to enlist in the Air Force on active duty and eventually was sent to the Philippines.
It was one segment of what turned out to be a 33-year military career. She retired in 1988 as an aircraft operations supervisor. Following her retirement; she lived in California but moved back to Bartholomew County in the 1990s.
Prior to her death, she had asked that her possessions relating to her military service be donated to the Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum at Columbus Municipal Airport.
There were quite a few.
“Her family brought in two large boxes filled to the brim with her military belongings, records and photos,” said Gordon Lake, one of the volunteers at the museum. “A lot of it pertained to her, but it also dealt with Bakalar and the 71st. Our archivists haven’t even begun to catalog it because there’s so much.”
The materials covered her career, but there was one portion that Betty was not able to include — that time when her unit went to war, and she was left behind.
It turns out she eventually did get to go to Vietnam.
“While she was stationed in the Philippines, she was able to hop a flight that flew into ‘Nam,” Stickles said. “It was one of those quick, two-way flights, and she was able to set foot in the country but had to get back on the plane for its return to the Philippines.”
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.