U.S. Air Force veteran Lou Pinto doesn’t spend much time these days thinking about the time he spent in Thailand during the Vietnam War. But he acutely remembers his motivation for enlisting in the Air Force during the controversial conflict.
“We were serving our country. It was the idea of doing your duty,” Pinto said.
He was 19 years old when he and his friend Manny Martin decided to enlist in March 1969, the year after they both graduated from Mineola High School. They were studying aeronautical drafting at the Academy of Aeronautics in Queens when they chose to enlist rather than await the results of the military draft that existed in those days.
Pinto had a lifelong interest in flying and enlisting seemed like a natural transition to make.
“It was a continuation of what we were studying,” he said.
He had emigrated to the U.S. with his parents from their native Portugal nine years earlier and he recalls his parents’ apprehensive reaction to his decision to enlist. “My parents were surprised to say the least,” he said.
Following basic training, he was assigned to Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois for four months of training in aircraft environmental systems, specializing in regulation of air pressure and air conditioning for the jets engaged in combat over Vietnam.
“It’s like being a car mechanic learning about airplanes. I enjoy hands-on kind of work,” Pinto said.
After his training on servicing the jets, he was assigned to a field maintenance station at Olmstead Air Force Base in Florida for nearly two years. Then in August 1971, he was sent to Korat Air Force Base in Thailand for the next year of his four-year enlistment.
At Korat, he was part of the 388th Field Maintenance Squad, working on F4E Phantom jets and F105 Thunderchiefs, one of the most widely used fighter-bombers the Air Force deployed during the war, as well as EB66 radar aircraft.
“You get to work on the flight line and see five or six planes fully loaded taking off. You could imagine the havoc they caused,” he said.
He said the air base staff was periodically shown classified Air Force footage of bombing raids conducted by high-range B-52s and other jets.
Pinto and many of the other men who serviced the combat jets knew the names of the pilots who flew the planes but didn’t know them personally. But he said they felt a bond with the men who put themselves in harm’s way and experienced a personal sense of loss whenever one of them was shot down.
“It becomes like family and when you lost a couple of pilots the feeling wasn’t very pleasant,” he recalled.
Apart from the work he was engaged in, he appreciated the exposure to the culture of the country. “To me, to go overseas was a great experience as a youngster. I enjoyed Thailand. The people were just great people.”
At one point, he got a weekend leave and reconnected with his friend Manny Martin, stationed at Ubon Air Force Base in northern Thailand for the first time since they enlisted together.
The brief respites he experienced were welcome breaks from the intense daily routine of keeping the jets—which often returned with serious damage—in the air. And he felt a sense of relief when his tour of duty in Thailand was over.
“You come out of there semi-numb, glad to come home,” Pinto said.
He completed his active service at a base in Missouri in March of 1973 and returned to Mineola and a difficult transition to civilian life.
“When I came out there was no work at Grumman or Republic. There was no work anywhere. I worked in a gas station,” he said.
He then worked briefly in insurance sales and, deciding sales was not for him, went into the construction business, working for several different local companies.
Pinto married his wife, Rosa, in 1975 and in 1987, he started his own residential construction firm, L.A. Pinto Construction, which he still runs today.
He remains friends with Manny Martin. It was Martin and Manny Grilo, former commander of Adolph Block VFW Post No. 1305 in Mineola, who encouraged him to become a VFW member seven years ago.
Pinto has been chaplain of the VFW Post for the past two years and sees his work there as a continuing form of service.
“It’s a way of staying in touch, helping out with the local post,” he said.
Mineola VFW Commander Tom Scardino said his service to the post has been invaluable. “Lou is fantastic, dedicated and loyal. In his vocabulary, there is no such word as ‘no’,” Scardino said.
Pinto is also involved in community service as treasurer of the Mineola Lions Club.
He and his wife raised three children, Craig, Andrea and Alyssa, and he has occasionally discussed his war experience with them. He continues to have that dialogue with Craig, his eldest child, who gives him books about aircraft and Vietnam.
And like many other Vietnam veterans when Memorial Day comes up, he thinks about the young Americans who lost their lives in the conflict.
“It was something that was cut short,” he said of that war. “It was a shame to go through that loss of life and then get out.”