WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – It was a secret many National Guard troops had to keep during Vietnam: the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea.
Vietnam veteran and former airman Larry Nelson joined the Kansas Air National Guard in 1965. With the Vietnam War raging, he waited anxiously for the moment his unit would get called to active duty.
That moment wouldn’t come until January 1968 with the capture of a U.S. spy ship. This occurred only one week before the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War.
“The next day, they decided to activate guard units,” Nelson said. “The powers to be were thinking okay, we gotta send some units over there to show some strength and commitment to South Korea.”
Five months after the ship’s capture, Nelson was deployed to Kunsan Air Base in South Korea, nearly 110 miles south of Seoul.
“When we were transferred to South Korea, it was primarily the Kansas National Guard and the Ohio National Guard,” Nelson said.
Their mission was to equip the tactical fighters.
“As a security policeman, there were two of us assigned to every flight of all of our equipment—and M-16s and the whole nine yards—and first thing you know, is well, what in the world am I, are we getting into,” Nelson said.
One of Nelson’s biggest responsibilities: escorting the arming and disarming of atomic bombs—a task Nelson’s superiors warned his unit not to write home about.
“We had to escort any weapon that was going to be on the plane, and then once it was taken off, we had to escort it back for shortage,” Nelson said.
Six jets were on standby 24 hours a day at the base—each loaded with an atomic bomb.
“And they were set right at the end of the runway, so if they went on alert, and went to fly, they were right on the end of the runway and go,” Nelson said.
Although the nuclear weapons were never used, the show of strength paid off. Six months after Nelson and his unit’s deployment, the 82 USS Pueblo prisoners were set free.
“We got the soldiers back, but we didn’t get the ship back,” Nelson said.
The “Pueblo Incident” fell amid the turning point of Vietnam.
“This was a thing that came up in the middle of all that, and they needed us,” Nelson said. “I learned a lot, grew a lot, can’t complain about either one of those.”
Nelson would spend another six months in South Korea before returning to McConnell Air Force Base. He would spend five years total with the Kansas Air National Guard before being transferred to an inactive reserve unit for one year.