TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — Albert Monroe, a Bay Area native who served much of his Air Force career from 1963 to 1985 at Travis Air Force Base, California, has been a teacher throughout his life.
His lessons have taken many forms, including instructing fellow Airmen during his nearly 22 years of service, as well as in post-military careers with the Lockheed Martin Corporation and as a teacher at multiple colleges in Nevada.
Even now, Monroe is still trying to pass on what he knows. With a kidney transplant and the COVID-19 pandemic giving him plenty of time at home, he spent much of 2020 writing “My Unbelievable Journey: The Story of an Air Force Air Crewman,” a book covering his time in the military.
Airmen, astronauts and college students are among those who have absorbed Monroe’s lessons, which include his time as an Airman experiencing military history first hand, as well as broader cultural lessons about politics and race.
Monroe said he kept a log of his missions, which helped during the writing of the book. The log helped with memories and details of multiple experiences, such as retrieving contractors held in captivity after the 1979 fall of the Shah of Iran and supporting Israel during the Yom Kippur War of 1973 against Egypt and Syria. He’s provided earthquake relief in Japan and Turkey, brought cruise missiles to Europe and so much more. His time also included a two-year stint at Royal Air Force Mildenhall in England as well as Kelly Air Force Base, San Antonio, and stops in Japan and Thailand.
It was during Operation Babylift, a monthlong mission involving numerous C-5A Galaxies to evacuate more than 3,000 children from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, when Monroe experienced a twist of fate. On April 4, 1975, on the mission’s first flight, a C-5 crashed in a rice paddy field near Tan Son Nhut Air Base, killing 138 of the more than 300-person crew aboard.
Monroe was nearly on this flight. Although he was scheduled to be on a C-5 leaving the day after, the illness of a crew member created an open slot in the ill-fated C-5 crew. His cohorts with the 22nd Military Airlift Squadron, a forerunner to today’s 22nd Airlift Squadron, called his home to add him to flight roster, but Monroe was out running an errand. When he got home and returned the message, the 22nd MAS had already found someone else.
While on his regularly scheduled mission to Saigon to pick up evacuees, he received word of the crash, causing the crew to turn back to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.
Monroe had other brushes with danger, too, including being shot at twice as well as hearing mortar hit the ground as he helped evacuate people from Bien Hoa Air Base in Vietnam.
“I tell people I was in the right place at the right time and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said with a chuckle on a recent phone call from his home in Las Vegas. “I tell my wife I’m like a cat with nine lives; I’ve used about 20 of those already.”
After retiring as a master sergeant, he stayed in the Bay Area, joining Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale, California, where he taught and worked with astronauts including those who died in the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986. It was during this time, while teaching astronauts and others at Lockheed, that Monroe discovered his calling.
With his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in tow, Monroe moved to Las Vegas in the 2000s and spent the next 18 years teaching at the College of Southern Nevada, DeVry University and its subsidiary, Carrington College.
His lessons have come outside the classroom, too. The writing of his book brought back memories of childhood for his daughter, Melissa Monroe-Young, who was born at Travis AFB when David Grant USAF Medical Center was located in what is now known as Bldg. 381.
Monroe-Young, who called the book one of her father’s “bucket-list items,” said his experiences help communicate to those who did not live through those eras how the racism and discrimination of those eras felt.
“In the ’60s, ’70s, tension is tight in America; there’s a lot of things people can’t openly do,” she said. “(For) someone who is my age or even younger, you can’t even fathom that … By reading that book, you can understand the context and understand the impact it had.”
When Monroe looks back on his time in the service, connecting that to his work with Lockheed and as a teacher, he said he feels like he helped the cause of democracy — something he underlined when teaching political science to college students.
“I was there, like I said, on the ground, in harm’s way,” he said. “I was one of the luckier ones who survived. I think that I did my small part to help with freedom for people around the world.”
Monroe said writing the book got him to reflect over the course of his life.
“It seemed like I had three separate lives: military, Lockheed and helping astronauts out, and teaching youngsters at (an) educational level,” Monroe said. “I’m very lucky and very proud to be where I am now. I’m an older guy now — I’ve been through a lot, did a lot. I had a good life.”