The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
January/February 2005
FEATURE
 
 

Diary of a Weatherman
 

BY JIM BELSHAW


Army Cam Ranh Bay, 1969
 

May 2 Mostly clear. Towering cumulus clouds at sunrise and about two hours after sunset.
May 3 Mostly clear. Cumulonimbus east of us at sunrise and in the early afternoon. A massive influx of stratocumulus clouds at sunset with very light rain showers over sections of the base about an hour after sunset.


Diaries bring back the days, and with the days come memories. Small moments jotted down blossom into reflections. Faces, names, laughter, anger, frustration, good people, and not-so-good people—people you’d just as soon never have to deal with again. A diary entry is like a code; a few encrypted sentences hold histories and lifetimes.

VVA member Joel Rosenbaum didn’t think his diary would contain any earthshaking secrets or grand history that researchers would pore over in the future. He thought only that it would be interesting to him when he came home from Vietnam. He thought the diary would be instructive. As for historians, perhaps they would find something of value in it. But like most diaries, this one was personal.

He was an Air Force lieutenant in 1968, a weather forecaster at Cam Ranh Bay. His diary recorded the Vietnam experience with a unique perspective. He wrote it every day for a year.

May 4 Mostly clear. Towering cumulus clouds at sunset. Sky condition almost went scattered to broken about two hours after sunset. Towering cumulus appeared as rain showers on radar at 2100 local. (Cam Ranh had a relatively simple FPS-103 weather radar.) The rain showers dissipated. It appears that very light winds during the day contribute to stratocumulus formation after sunset.
May 5 Mostly clear.
May 6 Mostly clear.
May 7 First thunderstorm of this year occurred at 0530 local. No precipitation, only thunder and lightning. Rest of day mostly clear.

Like many Vietnam veterans, Rosenbaum had difficulty confronting the memories of his year in-country. Back home, the weather diary sat in a drawer, unread for 15 or 20 years. It was difficult for him to read. Then one day Rosenbaum decided he was getting older and nobody lives forever. So he took it from the drawer.

“I didn’t think it was a terribly historic document, but I thought it was an interesting account that most people probably wouldn’t bother to keep,” he said. “There are weather records that are kept, but not quite like this. I had explanations for why things happened. It had more emotional impact than dry columns of data.”

Joel Rosenbaum wanted to be a weather forecaster even when he was a little kid. He was motivated. At Rutgers University, where he earned a degree in agriculture, he joined ROTC, arguing with friends that he’d rather spend four years in the Air Force doing something he loved than spend two years as an Army draftee doing something he hated.

After Rutgers, he studied weather science at Texas A&M and then at the tropical weather school at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois. Only about half of the weather forecasters sent to Vietnam were trained at the tropical weather school.

“I was probably one of the better forecasters because of my study at Texas A&M and the tropical weather school,” he said.

He volunteered for Vietnam “because it was what I was trained to do.”

At Cam Ranh Bay, Rosenbaum found an enormous base always busy with flight operations—a wing of F-4 tactical fighters, Freedom Birds, C-130s, Caribous, commercial carriers ferrying equipment, medevac flights taking wounded to hospitals around the world.

The weather forecasters briefed pilots on what to expect over the Ho Chi Minh Trail and southern portions of North Vietnam; they briefed on close-in air support for ground operations. They briefed locally and for all of Southeast Asia.

Sometimes they played 20 Questions with aircrews setting out on classified missions. “It was kind of funny,” he said. “They’d call in for a weather briefing, and I’d say, ‘Where are you going?’ and the pilots would say, ‘Can’t tell you. It’s a secret.’ So we played 20 Questions, and I’d finally give them a general briefing on all of Southeast Asia, and they’d accept that.”

Sometimes Rosenbaum argued with distant commanders who wanted people flying in weather that no one should go near. Sometimes he argued with pilots.

“You had to be real careful with medevac flights and turbulence,” he said. “You didn’t want wounded patients to be bouncing around in the aircraft. One time a pilot wanted me to change a forecast for moderate turbulence because it meant he’d have to change his flight plan. I said no way. I wasn’t going to get people injured because he didn’t want to change a flight plan. The prime issue was safety and people wanted to cut corners all the time.”

May 8 Rain showers formed about 0100 local. We had .11 inches of rain by 0600 local. Heavier rain occurred at 0900 local. Clearing by noon. Numerous towering cumulus observed over water. I picked up radar echoes as far out as fifty miles east of us over the South China Sea. The cause of the rain was an over-the-water trajectory non-stop from RCTP to Cam Ranh. A typical northeast monsoon rain shower situation plus a major convergence at 700 millibars. Expect rain showers tomorrow.
May 9 Rain showers occurred at about 0500 local and broke up about 0600 local. According to the synoptic discussion these rain showers are due to offshore flow (Sea Breeze Front) and southeast winds along the coast. Rest of day clear. Signs of Southwest Monsoon in western Thailand.

Rosenbaum found it difficult to mark the passage of time in Vietnam. He likened the year to being “abducted by aliens” and being returned a year later. Time seemed to stand still. The best way to mark the time was keeping a weather diary.

“There are two major seasons in Vietnam,” he said. “The northeast monsoon, when it’s dry inland and wet on the coast; and the southwest monsoon, when it’s wet inland and dry on the coast. There are no seasons as I knew them. You lose track of time.”

Rosenbaum lives in New Jersey now, an at-large Garden State member. He was diagnosed with Agent Orange-related non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1997 and is 100 percent disabled. He is grateful to VVA for its help when he confronted obstacles with the VA during the period of diagnosis.

In 2001, through the efforts of his congressman, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), he was able to complete the requirements for a degree in meteorology from Texas A&M.

He contacted the Air Force history office and was asked to copy all the pages of the weather diary; the National Archives expressed an interest in it, as well.

“At least it’s going somewhere so if people have any research interest it will be available,” he said.

May 15 Mostly clear. Afternoon cumulonimbus clouds west.
May 16 Mostly clear. Intertropical convergence zone appeared at 5 degrees North. It should be moving up soon and give us a few thunderstorms. Cumulonimbus clouds west of us during the afternoon.
May 17 Mostly clear.

   

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