Diary of a Weatherman
BY JIM BELSHAW
Army Cam Ranh Bay, 1969
clear. Towering cumulus clouds at sunrise and about two
hours after sunset.
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
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.
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.
thunderstorm of this year occurred at 0530 local. No
precipitation, only thunder and lightning. Rest of day
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
“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
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.”
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 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
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
clear. Afternoon cumulonimbus clouds west.
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