For the last 20 years, Mac Neil has pushed any memories of his tour into the far recesses of his mind. He never watches the television series Tour of Duty. He tried three times to sit through Apocalypse Now. He has no plans to see the box-office hit Good Morning, Vietnam.
But publicity about the Robin Williams film, the first comedy about
Vietnam, spurred him to tell his story.
The film chronicles the adventures of a rapid-fire, rock-and-roll DJ broadcasting in Saigon for the Armed Forces Radio. It is the story of Adrian Cronauer, now 49 and a gray-bearded law student at the University of Pennsylvania.
Mac Neil, 48, coordinator of Lincoln High School's Air Force Junior ROTC, wears his immaculately creased blue uniform, a dozen ribbons decorating it and his patent leather black shoes spit-and-polish bright.
The movie - or what he has read about it and the promotional clips he has seen - makes him mad.
"It was a combat zone," he said, his voice stern, his brow furrowed. ''Absolutely no joke about it. It was not a game - there was nothing funny about it.
Mac Neil knows. He was there, perhaps even crossed paths with Cronauer.
Mac Neil helped establish the first television ground station in a combat zone, and he helped broadcast programs and news for Armed Forces Radio and Television (AFRT). Cronauer said in a telephone interview that television was introduced toward the end of his stay, in 1966. He said he remembered making up the first program schedule and the planes carrying state-of-the-art equipment flying circles over Saigon transmitting the broadcasts.
Mac Neil arrived in Saigon in April 1966, the month Cronauer finished his tour.
Mac Neil remembers awaking at 6 a.m. to Cronauer's trademark "Goooooood moooorning, Vietnam," a phrase that every other DJ after him used.
In response, Mac Neil remembers "hearing people scream obscenities from all over the place." In the theaters, the audiences roar with laughter over Cronauer's wake-up call and a flurry of Robin Williams one-liners.
For Mac Neil, the mission was just as serious and dangerous as any attack against the Viet Cong.
"AFRT has as its mission to provide information and entertainment," he said. "One of the big troubles they have in military action is keeping people informed - that the world is still back there, 13,000 miles."
In 1965, Mac Neil volunteered for duty. He got his orders. Something about Blue Eagles.
"What are the Blue Eagles?" Mac Neil recalled saying. "I couldn't find out."
Once he landed in Saigon, he discovered a fleet of aircraft called Blue Eagles I, II and III that the Air Force, Army and Navy helped operate. Blue Eagle I broadcast radio and II and III broadcast television. The bellies of the triple-tailed planes held state-of-the-art broadcasting equipment, long cables trailing from underneath and antennae sitting on top.
Every day at 5 p.m., Mac Neil and three others flew into the fierce Mekong Delta to broadcast at 10,500 feet in a huge figure-8 pattern. The television offerings included variety and crime shows, including The Untouchables, with news interspersed.
The Blue Eagles returned seven hours later, the pilot taking a flashlight and walking up and down in search of damage from frequent hits. The damage was fixed up with orange patches.
Atop Vungchua Mountain, 1,860 feet high in Quinhon, Mac Neil, from New Hampshire originally, and three other New Englanders helped set up the station, which officially opened on Sept. 20, 1966. Mac Neil still keeps the orders from that mission.
After that, much of the details blur. "It's still very dreamy," Mac Neil said. "But I lived through it."