Bass of operations: Sterling veteran kept planes flying and spirits high as a mechanic and musician
STERLING – Some service members go from base to base during their time in the military.
Curtis Smith went from base to bass.
Smith, 66, of Sterling served in the Air Force from August 1970 to April 1974 in Vietnam, reaching the rank of E4 and doing his duty as a mechanic.
Unlike other soldiers, though, his time in the service came with a soundtrack, one that helped ease more than just soldiers’ tensions, but racial tensions as well.
Smith, who graduated from Sterling High School in 1970, was a member of an Air Force band in Vietnam called The Black Coalition. The group’s lineup changed often as GI’s came and went, but at one point featured nine members who took up the bass, congos, saxophone, trumpet and other instruments.
“It started off with just four of us and we actually got our start from the Red Cross on the base,” Smith said.
Most of the soldiers on his base, Phan Rang, were 19 or 20. They would spend time at the Airman’s Club, but every night ended in a fight, and Smith got tired of that atmosphere. He was looking for something else to occupy his free time when he stumbled into the Red Cross tent.
“I saw these guys kind of crooning and I looked in,” he said. “I saw a guitar player and there was a piano, and I asked the lady if they had a bass guitar and they did, and an amplifier, so I got it out and tuned it.”
The men were playing a song, and he caught their ear when he began to noodle around on the bass across the room. They invited him to play with them.
Smith also would go on to play drums in the band.
Later, during a Red Cross talent show, a member of the American Minority Servicemen Association caught their act.
The AMSA decided to back the band, and bought all the instruments and equipment The Black Coalition asked for – and also used its influence to get orders cut for some of the men.
“We started playing all over our own base and then word got over to another commander in Tan Son Nhut, which is right through by Saigon and Cam Ranh Bay, and so that’s how we ended up traveling,” Smith said. “We’d get orders cut and go play.”
When Phan Rang began to close down The Black Coalition had an entire barracks to rehearse in, and other soldiers would watch them rehearse because it was better than going to the Airman’s Club.
“It was kind of like being a rock star,” Smith said. “I couldn’t hardly go to the mailbox without having to talk to 10 or 15 people, you know, ‘Hey when are you guys playing next?’ ‘Hey you sounded good last week.’”
The band got invited to play at Nam Stock, – kind of a Vietnam version of Woodstock that featured rock and country music and 10-cent beers. H
They were supposed to stay only 3 days, but their plane broke down and they ended up staying a week.
“They gave us the VIP treatment,” he said. “They’d come take us to breakfast, lunch, dinner. If we went to the clubs on that base they would make people get up and move, and say, ‘The Black Coalition is here,’ and we’d get free drinks and all this kind of stuff.”
As different clubs opened their doors for the all-black group – the Officers Club, NCO Club and Airman’s Club – they also opened doors to other minorities.
“The one thing about the band– and I’m going to say whether it comes out or not – the Black Coalition, to me, did a lot for racial tension on the base,” Smith said.
It’s hard for Smith to wrap his head around fighting together as American soldiers in a foreign country and still experiencing prejudice on the base, but the Black Coalition helped to bridge those gaps.
Although he enjoyed the rock-star treatment, reality was never far away. It was still Vietnam.
“All you need is one alarm to go off, that a 121 rocket’s coming in, and that puts you back into perspective as to where you’re at,” he said. “You’d still have to duck, and that fear comes on you.”
He gave up music for a time while raising his children, but now Smith plays regularly with Hit City Rhythm and Blues and for the Macedonia Baptist Church in Sterling.
His time in the Air Force helped teach him leadership qualities and instill confidence, but his time overseas gave him “a different Vietnam story,” Smiths aid.
He still suffers from post traumatic stress disorder after his time at Da Nang Air Base, where, with only a few days left on his tour, a sniper opened fire. He hid behind a tire for half a day.
“That’s kind of how Vietnam was: You could have fun one minute and all it takes is an alarm or gunshot or something like that and you realize it’s not all fun and games over here.”