Interviewer: Courtney Broadbent (McCreedy)
Interviewee: Louis Franklin Zylka
304 Central St.
Del Rio, TX 78840
Interview for: History 1302/ Val Verde Historical Commission Archives
Professor: Douglas Braudaway
April 5, 2007
Interviewer: My name is Courtney Broadbent and I am here with Louis Franklin Zylka and his wife, Mary Anne Francis Zylka. It is 9:00 p.m. on April 4, 2007. Everyone present understands that this is an assigned project for my United States History 1302 class, and that the information gathered and recorded here today will also be used in the Val Verde County Historical Commission Archives. This interview will focus mainly on Lou’s role in the Vietnam war, and also the Zylka’s family experiences during the aftermath of the Flood of 1998. I’ll begin by asking just a few simple questions.
Lou, where and when were you born?
Lou: Born in Brownsville, Pennsylvania in March of ‘37.
Interviewer: Okay. And what were your parents’ names?
Lou: Louis A. Zylka and Anna Elizabeth Zylka, she was a Lincoln.
Interviewer: Okay. Could you tell me a little bit about where you grew up and share some highlights of your early life?
Lou: Okay, well, I grew up in Pennsylvania, basically a farming community... my father was a tool maker and into his early life he bought a farm which my grandparents were utilizin’ and he did the money part, you know, yeah, he bought it and later on passed us on down to us children; when we were growin’ up in highschool we worked on the farm, we were raising cattle. It was nice, but not like what it is in Del Rio. We were a small family growing up in a Baptist-type atmosphere, and at the particular point we were actually discriminated against: laughed upon, spit upon... in school you were an outcast. But as times went on, within my lifetime- by the time I went to highschool, it was all forgotten. Of course religion didn’t mean a lot then: if you went to a Baptist church, it was fine; if you went to a Catholic church, it was fine... In the beginning though, I remember quite a bit of prejudice. We worked a lot. My father had several patents; it’s kind of a family thing. I have three of my own patents, and my daughter, at a young age, she was barely twenty-five and had three of her own. Education was a big part of our life.
Interviewer: And when did you decide to join the Air Force?
Lou: Well, when I was about four years old. [Laughs] I was always very military minded. I had always loved the service and it turned out that it was even more wonderful then I thought it was. I was going to school at the time, and I had met Mary Anne, and we figured out that the only way we could get away, to live our own life away from my family and her family, to do something on our own, was to join the Air Force. Uncle Sam helped, because on Sept of 1958, I was drafted into the army- not exactly my bottle of wax. Well, I had been friends with an Air Force recruiter, who pulled some strings and got me in one month before I was supposed to join the army. I was supposed to go to missile training, and that’s what I wanted to do. We were married on August of that year, when I entered Tech School. We were on our own in 1959. Got in my Chevy, packed up everything we owned into that car, and took off.
I was studying jet engines. After I graduated, I was assigned to Luke AFB Arizona, but a few days before I shipped out, SAC, that’s Strategic Air Command, superceded my orders, so I was taken into strategic air command, and the two stripes I had earned were gone, because SAC promotes all their own people. So we went to Walker AFB, New Mexico, and I fell in love with the West.
But anyhow, within three years I was Staff Sergeant, and I had a squat promotion; secret missions, well, not a secret anymore- Chrome Dome, we’d fly up the Mississippi for 48 hours. We had a plane down, and the plane had to be repaired, but we didn’t have the parts to do it. So Sky Speed, witch is a Boeing subsidiary, said it was impossible to repair the plane in four hours, I had four hours to do it. And I told the old man, “I’ll do it.” And he said, “Son, you’ve got the line.” So I got my crews together, and we worked on it, and within [two hours and fifteen minutes], that plane taxied. And the I came down off the wing, and old man was there, and he said, “Son, you just made staff sergeant.” [Lou fights tears] I was really happy and from that, I was awarded presidential citation, for saving the mission and all that, and after that I was taken overseas. SAC was starting a base in Guam, and they said, okay, we want five sergeants. So five sergeants, a captain, two lieutenants, and a colonel, went to establish the SAC base in Guam. It was a large space there at the time and we had to convert in into a SAC base for B52s. So I got the in August, and worked five places, eighty nine days at a time, I worked ground support, POL, I was in charge of the shops, welding, hydraulics... started up the recovery, line chiefs, and just everything that had to go on, because when we got there it was just five of us, an’ the airmen. So we covered three shifts and ate a lot of breakfast. Best meal in the reserve.
Once we had to recover a Jap zero. At the time, Japan had no zeros, no zeros, available in their country, not at that time, but the United States had a wing of zeros in Washington, and we promised them we would get them one. So I went into the jungle, me and three other guys. And we found a zero that had been shot down from the air, and the pilot was still in there, so we brought in the medics and they brown-bagged him, put him in a bag. And, ah, we took the plane apart, put it in a C-130, flew it to Japan, and got a real nice citation from the Japanese government. And then, right after that we got a letter from the community that this man, this guy was from, saying that his soul was at rest, you see, the planes were sponsored by these communities, in Japan, so we returned the body, you know, and it was a real big thing, we got real nice accommodations, it was kind of one of the many highlights we had. One of the many highlights:
In my particular wing, I was line chief, an’ we done the first bomb run on Vietnam, course at that time it was anti-vegetation. Conventionally, what we were doing we was bombing with carriers that we had converted into bombers that carry conventional weapons. The wing racks and such that we put on the plane were like the ones used for Boeing, but we had to convert everything from the second World War, to load the bombs. Course there was no one in Guam to do this so we took it on ourselves, and at that time I was in charge of building bomb racks, everything from 250 to 500 pounders; so we did that. Then the next thing was high altitude and low altitude bombings, okay, and bomb release, difference in temperature and adjusting the plane and all that. I designed a fuel sampler- it used to take three guys to check the fuel samples on B52s, at the time I was line chief, and three guys were very important, and we didn’t have a whole lot of guys, so the sample took only one man, the same job he could do himself, rather then the three guys. So I got a patent on that, And that’s supposed to have saved the U.S. ten million a year, and it’s used other places also. And we were quite fortunate that we had good times there.
Vietnam, was, like a lot of the guys say, and unbeatable war, we, as a military, couldn’t do what we wanted to do. Now you can say that, then we couldn’t. You can’t fight what you can’t see. And, eh, our guys over there, they were being demoralized. They were telling the people here in this country, oh we lost fifteen- much like the guys in Iraq today- we lost fifteen, we lost twenty... well, being on recovery, being a line chief and all that, I seen a 130 come in with minimum ground time, full of aluminum coffins, no less then fifteen, sometimes as many as a hundred in there. I didn’t see everything that went on there, I had friends, civilians on the job, who seen other things. There was this guy selling drinks, you know, on the runway, selling drinks, sold a bomb too, shot a guy who was killed, I mean, wasn’t even carrying a gun. Unarmed. The whole time I was in the service, I never even carried a weapon, you know, on the base, there was a lot of trust. SAC in itself, was a real, real good group.
Our news media, I can’t say enough against them and even today. They sure do a lot of harm, to the guy on the ground trying to do something right. There was a lot of hardship going on. We came back to this country, okay, uh, we were part of the war, we came back, five of us families, and we either had to stay another hitch, or we had to bring a plane back ourselves, so we brought back a 118, landed in San Francisco, at the airbase. Went on to San Francisco International, dressed as military, and I couldn’t fly with my family, because I was military I had to go on standby. If there was availibe seating I could go. People here in this country didn’t understand, burning flags, they were doin everything else you know. They didn’t understand. There were a lot of guys who lost their lives. They put up that plaque in Washington DC, those names aren’t just men, they were families too, and the respect just wasn’t given by the general public here. I tell my wife, we as military people, I tell you, went through a lot and gave up a lot, and had a lot of good times, yeah, but when we came back, and became civilians, we were thrown into a society that had eight, twelve, ten, fifteen years on us of establishing themselves, and we were gettin’ military pay and trying to make a living, back into a society that was making ten, twenty times as much as we were, but we were buyin’ the same food and stuff like that. My next assignment was back to Thailand, by Vietnam, they were losing lieutenants fifteen, twenty minutes after getting back... but I was being offered other jobs, and took one of those instead of the commission.
Interviewer: Now, the first time you came to Del Rio, was it for Laughlin?
Lou: Laughlin was the place to come down and see the girls. That was in 1959. The bridges weren’t here, of course. The bridge going over to Acuna was a bridge with a box on both sides. Acuna, I think, had dirt streets. Cheap booze. There were street walkers all over the place. At that time, it was a typical Mexican villiage. Nothing like it is today. Del Rio... you came down 90, okay, and it was nothing until you crossed those railroad tracks. The town of Del Rio was downtown Del Rio. The base was way away from the town. The road comin’ down here [from San Antonio] looked like a drunk indian, half tar, half dirt, half gravel, I mean, the impressions that you’d make is that you;d get lost very easily, like this was a really far away place... we would come down here to do a little drinkin’, check out the ladies, though I would never enjoy the hospitality as far as the ladies go.Really, Del Rio was just an extension of Acuna, and really, at the time, you didnt even know Acuna by name. It was just Mexico. “We went across the border to Mexico.” The people were, I mean, the people here, very military minded, the base seemed a bit harder as far as respect and rules. But you got to look at it this way, we came down here to raise Cain, and they weren’t gonna help us. [Laughs]
Our next big episode was unknowingly, at the time, the Amistad Dam. When that happened, at that time, I was working for Westinghouse, it was the 1970s, and those particular breakers, on the American side- I personally built those, in my shop. And I knew they were comin’ down here, cause my nephew was in boyscouts, and this year’s sticker was the handshake across the nation, and I brought that to him for his collection. And I never knew, the breaker I sent here, where it was going to, until I came down here in 86, we went down around the dam and I saw it and I said “I made that breaker.”- I knew it by number. Westinghouse was great, I was at Westinghouse twenty-seven years after I got out of the service. But that’s another story. Anything else you want to know?
Interveiwer: I wanted to ask you about the Flood of 1998, actually, here in Del Rio.
Lou: Well, Mary Ann and I stopped down here once or twice a year to visit our son and his wife, Lou was workin’ out here, building, and keeping his place out here, where they had the flood. His house was the only house on the block on stilts, so the water never got into his house, but all his neighbors were flooded out. The water had even torn out fence posts: the water would find a hole in the ground and flood underneath the post, pushing it out. The neighbors came over to Lou’s place. Well, all this was happening, and we were operating a construction business out in Mississippi at the time. They needed things down here, so we did a collection over there and used several of our trucks, loaded them full of clothes and stuff, and we didn’t just do it once, but several times, and we went through several areas, and I would bet, that maybe 60 percent of the stuff was given away to people in Acuna. We had bags full of shoes, shoes that people were throwing away that were too good to not bring compared to what they had down here.
My biggest memory of when we come down here, that old place, the Knights of Columbus had that building down the street off of pecan, there’s a stone building down there by the old house, you go down towards the creek, we was comin’ down from there and there was this old tree, probably a hundred years old, totally standing on its roots, it had been totally undermined. And coming down along the edge where the water had come down, there were buildings that had actually exploded. The water had come in and the pressure had knocked the roofs off and knocked the sides out. People were without electricity, water. The Knights of Columbus had set up a mission to get water to people, not contaminated, who were stranded. Most of the water was total runoff, because all these streets were put in without having a system that was able to handle the water coming off of hard surfaces. The railroad acted as a barrier- they had places here that shouldn’t have had water, but they did. My son’s mother in law had a house on Gillis, they had to get out of the house and get on the roof. All the way down to the border, it was a lake, I mean, five feet deep. After the water subsided, my son came over to me and said, “Oh Dad, I’ve got this terrible smell coming from this pile of weeds,” and he said, “I just hope its not a body.” And so we went to have a look, and it was a sheep. [Laughs] I mean, it had been layin’ there for about ten days or so, but he was glad, yeah, he was cleaning up. So he put that thing in plastic and threw it in the back of the pickup truck, and drove it to the dump, you know. And he said there were these guys, sitting on their truck, you know, talkin’. And he backed the truck up and took this bag, and threw, just, everything, and as he pulled out, these guys looked around and said “uuhhhh” and they loaded their truck and took off! [Laughs] It was a drastic thing for Del Rio. Any other questions?
Interveiwer: I guess it’s a good thing I went over all of them with you beforehand- I think you’ve answered them all. Unless there’s anything else you would like to add?
Lou: Well, we still consider ourselves an Air Force family. Sometimes I think I just got out of the Air Force- yeah, sixty years ago! [Laughs] But you know, it was never home until we came here. I like the people here. There’s a lot to be said, a lot to be done. There’s a good church system here, from the Catholics, to the Mormons, the presbyterians... you can tell they have strong groups. There’s a lot of things goin’ on that many people don’t realize. We have been all over the world. Literally. Different places, all parts of the country, different people. And Del Rio is full of kind people. We had to choice of any place in the united states to come, but when it came down to retirin’ it was here. I’ve got everything I want right here. It’s a great place for retirees. Just don’t tell anyone. [Laughs]
Interviewer: Well, thank you very much for your time tonight, I defiantly enjoyed it.
Lou: You’re welcome!