My pastor friend is heading out to Brazil today to teach a two-week seminary course on The Pentateuch. He has a sense of humor and while waiting at the Milwaukee airport he messaged on FB, “I’m leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again.”
The line immediately took me back to 1971 as I was leaving for the Army. My girlfriend, who would become my wife in 1974, played that famous song by Peter, Paul and Mary over and over till we both were in tears the night before I shipped out for basic training. Sheesh, but heh, we were in love! I was 18, she was 16.
So, I can’t ever hear that song or Peter, Paul and Mary’s other equally famous song, Puff the Magic Dragon without thinking of my wife, the Army and the Vietnam War.
The jet plane connection to the Vietnam War is obvious (no, I was not there, thank God) for that’s how our soldiers got there and how they got home. The Vietnam connection with Puff the Magic Dragon is a little less obvious.
Back in the day, that is the days of the Vietnam War, Puff the Magic Dragon was an airplane gunship used for ground support. The first ones were converted DC3s and they were called “Puff the Magic Dragon’s because they brought down fire from the skies like a dragon. These early “Puffs” were the predecessors to the AC-130 gunships used today in Afghanistan.
They were feared by the enemy much like a real fire-breathing dragon would be. The early model “Puffs” featured 3 Gatling Machine Guns. As the plane rolled to its side to lay down fire all three Gatlings would fire at once putting out roughly 6000 rounds per minute as I recall. Some early “Puffs” also featured a 105mm howitzer designed for rapid fire to add to the firestorm.
In the John Wayne movie, The Green Berets, there is a scene that features Puff the Magic Dragon. As the VC and NVA over run the Green Beret fort Puff appears over head. The pilot asks Wayne where does he want the firestorm. Wayne replies, “right on the camp, those people have it, not us” or something to that effect.
The Puff responds and any and everybody in the camp is wiped out. Here’s the scene:
Like the Huey Helicopter, Puff became part and parcel of the Vietnam War just as certain contemporary songs like Peter, Paul and Mary’s, Leaving on a Jet Plane, Steppenwolf’s, Magic Carpet Ride, the Stones, Paint it Black, and everybody’s favorite, the Animals, We Gotta Get Out of This Place (if it’s the last thing we ever do.
Here’s some great footage by a guy who flew one of the first “Puffs.”
Here’s Peter, Paul and Mary doing Puff the Magic Dragon in 1966, the period I’d remember it from. It is ironic that such a peaceful gentle song about a dragon would come to represent the destruction an AC-47 Gunship could work. I doubt Peter, Paul and Mary were happy about it.
This last one is representative of my time in the Army. Although I did not go to Vietnam the issue was on every soldier’s mind during my basic training. No one, and I mean no one, wanted to be the last one killed in that war that really was not a war (because winning is not what we had in mind).
Anyway, the images in this video were familiar with us raw recruits (draftees really, since if you had a low lottery number you were better off enlisting) because they were on the nightly news. The song was popular, even in basic training.