SHREVEPORT, La -- Running with the wrong crowd in Chicago got Don Toppett in front of a judge. He was given a choice: detention or join the military.
Don chose the latter, and went from the mean streets to a raging war in Vietnam.
“We, we took a lot of gunfire in different missions, we got hit a number of times. But fortunately we never got blown out of the sky," Don says of his 120 combat missions.
Don rose to flight engineer. And in the Vietnam War, most of his flights were aboard an EC-47 – an electronic countermeasures airplane.
"Our airplanes were fitted with listening devices and stuff, and we would just listen. These security service guys would pick up transmissions from the Vietcong or the NVA, North Vietnamese (Army). These guys could decode them.
"These were usually platoons, companies, and even battalions of North Vietnamese moving down the Ho Chi Minh Trail," Don continued. "And then when they got to a good place, combat people would call in a B-52 strike, and we would blow them to smithereens."
Don also flew some missions on the EC-47’s armed cousin – the AC-47.
"The gunships had three high-powered mini guns mounted out the side of the airplane. The Marines and the Army loved us because when we were called on a particular site, if they were in trouble, we could lay down burst from those guns that would put a shell in every square foot the size of a football field," Don explained.
"The Vietcong and the NVA hated us," he added.
Don earned the Distinguished Flying Cross medal by ensuring his crew could make a safe landing after one of their low level eavesdropping missions went bad.
“We had taken a lot of ground fire that night and some of the some the hydraulics in the airplane was knocked out, and we could not lower the landing gear," Don recalled. "I figured out the way to manually crank the gear down."
But even on the ground, things weren’t always safe. Don keeps a jagged piece of shrapnel who dug out from a wall near where he took cover during an enemy rocket attack on his base.
"I was very blessed. I didn't get hurt. And our plane did not go down, although we lost six or seven airplanes from our three different squadrons that had these types of airplanes, a lot of guys lost their lives," Don said. "Three tours of Vietnam. The third tour I figured I was gonna get killed because I made it through two tours already.”
But Don says it was all worth it -- serving his country, and getting out of his rough area where he grew up in south Chicago.
“That was one of the smartest things ever did was join the Air Force," Don says.
After 20 years in the Air Force, Don retired as a senior master sergeant. Then he went to college along with his son at Louisiana Tech. Don became an educator in Bossier and then Caddo Parish schools. He rose to principal, and then transitioned to become director of transportation. He spent a combined 20 years in education.