(© 1996 Michael J. Horton. All rights reserved.)
The wind whipped my pantlegs as I stood with the others on the tarmac at Travis Airforce Base, where we had been bussed to catch our plane to Vietnam. There were about sixty-five of us, all army enlisted men, with several non-comissioned officers who were to escort us safely to Southeast Asia--or at least to see that we didn't go AWOL. It was late afternoon on March 24, 1967.
The important question for the moment was what kind of plane would fly us to this most unwanted destination half-way around the world. The Boeing 707's went directly to Tokyo, then on to Vietnam. The airforce transport jets went, for the most part, to Anchorage, Alaska, and then on to Vietnam.
We were all looking around for our jet when slowly from our right there appeared a small propellor-driven aircraft with the words "SATURN AIRLINES" emblazoned proudly mid-fuselage. The man next to me extended his hands, palms up, and said to the NCO in charge, "Who? What? Is this some kind of joke? Mother of Christ, what is Saturn Airlines?"
"That, my boy, is a DC-6 and it's taking you to the jungles of Southeast Asia," the sergeant said defensively.
By the time our duffel bags were loaded and we boarded the aircraft, twilight was setting in. We hesitated momentarily at the end of the runway before the engines were revved and the brakes released. The old plane rattled horribly over the din of the engines as we accelerated along the ground. To my right, outside the window, I could see flames occasionally sputtering from the far outboard engine. The flames were strangely orange against the blood-red palette of the setting sun. We were soon over the waters of the Pacific, heading west.
It was unusually quiet after takeoff, since no one seemed inclined to talk to his neighbors. I'm sure the same thing was on everyone's mind. How many of us would return to these shores alive and how many would come back but never know it. A chill went down my spine just thinking about that.
About twenty minutes out, the pilot came on the intercom to announce that our cruising altitude would be 12,000 feet and our first stop to refuel would be in Honolulu, Hawaii. This was an instant hit with everyone since most of us, I suspected, had never been to Hawaii. When the pilot next told us our cruising speed would be 280 miles-an-hour, the whole plane erupted into laughter--guffaws and hooting of the most raucous kind. I think we offended the pilot, because he never bothered to turn on the intercom again.
Though slow, our plane at least had real flight attendants. Three women and two men in Saturn flight uniforms served us dinner, along with the non-alcoholic beverage of our choice. The guy sitting next to me was about 20 years old and also a PFC like me. He had probably just graduated from advanced individual training, as I had.
"What's your MOS?" he asked.
"Oh, me? I'm a pay clerk--73C20," I said.
"That's at Fort Ben, isn't it?" he asked.
"Yeah, pay school at Fort Benjamin Harrison, outside Indianapolis. What a hell-hole. How about you?" I asked.
"I'm a cook, which I like a lot, but you know the worst part is, I've got orders for the First Cavalry Division. Man, that's really got me pushed out of shape. Why couldn't I get something safer."
"You might not go to First Cav though," I said consolingly. "I've heard that half the time they send men to a unit different from the one on their orders once they're in country. I'm supposed to go to the 864th Engineer Battalion. That's a construction battalion, whatever that is. In my case, I hope I go there. It sounds pretty safe to me. Probably not a lot of patrols behind enemy lines, you know?"
"God, I'll trade you orders--want to trade?" he asked in jest.
"Not on your life," I said, recognizing immediately what a terrible choice of words that had been. I patted him on the arm. "You'll be okay," I said.
Because I was about five years older, he seemed to accept my assurances about his well-being. What a lowering reflection this was for me. It reminded me that I was 25 and one-half years old when I had been drafted in the big body push of August, 1966. If I had made it to 26, I would have been too old for the draft. That August, however, the army took anybody who was warm. There was a draftee in my basic training unit who was so knock-kneed that his feet were about six inches apart when he stood at the position of attention. All the drill instructors would shout, "You there, I said attention! Get those feet together!" The rest of us in the platoon became so tired of hearing the screaming that we began to offer explanations on behalf of our afflicted brother. "It's okay, Sarge. He can't get them any closer than that. He's got this problem with his knees."
Actually, the pay clerk's school outside Indianapolis had not been all that bad. The wooden barracks we lived in had been old and rotten but the classroom training itself was first-rate. On the same day, the school had graduated six classes with 40 students each, more or less, after 10 weeks of rigorous instruction.
Learning to prepare and calculate payroll vouchers had been difficult and full of rules, but computing travel reimbursement was ultimately what separated the good from the best students. It had been instructive also, I had to admit, to be detailed to the Finance Center on the base to process real travel vouchers eight hours a day for three weeks while I was waiting for my orders. Funny thing about that. During those weeks after graduation, the staff at school had always told us that the students who wore glasses would be the first ones sent to Vietnam. Those of us with glasses had thought this was a joke. But I had noticed, day by day, as our orders came through, it was true. Ted, my best friend and pinocle partner at school, had laughed at me when I got my orders for Vietnam. He didn't wear glasses, and he had received orders for West Germany, a plum assignment.
After dinner, one of the NCO's went to the front of the plane to address the troops. "Okay, men, listen up. Here's the deal," he said in a loud voice. "I know you haven't been told much about this PCS. When we get to Vietnam, you'll all process through the 22nd Replacement Battalion, where you will receive your final in-country orders. The most important thing for you to know now is that your DEROS is 23 March 1968. Today is 24 March 1967 and you can only be kept in Vietnam for one year. DEROS stands for Date of Estimated Return from Overseas, and this is the last day you should be in Vietnam. The Army will try to have you back in the continental United States no later than your DEROS date, unless you voluntarily extend your tour. When you get your new orders at 22nd Replacement, look just below your name and serial number. That's where the word DEROS appears. Make sure the date shown there is 23 March 1968. Any questions?"
No one had any questions, but there sure was a good feeling on board at hearing this news. I had heard about the one year time limit, but I hadn't known for a fact it was true. This was probably the smartest thing the army had done in its entire history. Somehow, just knowing I wouldn't be in Vietnam more than a year made the whole thing more bearable.
I read magazines for several hours and then fell asleep. When I awoke, we were landing in Honolulu. It was very dark outside, but the air was clear and the runway lights sparkled brightly below. By my watch, our flying time to Hawaii had been just over nine hours. Once on the ground, the plane taxied to a stop about 2000 feet from the terminal.
"Okay, men. Get off the plane and stretch your legs," the sergeant said. "We'll be here about an hour to refuel. Stay in a group and don't wander off."
"Hey, Sarge," someone yelled, "don't we get to go into the terminal?"
"I'm afraid not this time," was the NCO's reply.
"What, do you think we're a bunch of animals," someone behind me shouted.
We milled around outside, talking, joking, and sometimes wondering out loud what it would be like in Vietnam. Despite the late hour of night, the temperature was about 70 degrees and the air was balmy. A new flight crew boarded the aircraft and soon we were airborne again, this time heading for Wake Island. I was somewhat relieved to notice that engine number four was no longer spewing flames on takeoff. Another NCO went to the head of the isle to talk to us. They seemed to be taking turns being in charge.
"Okay, okay, hold it down. Listen up," the sergeant shouted. Gradually it grew quiet.
"I know you men were disappointed about not going into the airport terminal at Honolulu," he said. "But we don't have a lot of time for these stops. After Wake Island, we have to refuel at Guam and also in the Philippines. This is going to be a long flight anyway. We just don't have time to let everyone go into the terminal and screw around," he explained. "If you want to see Honolulu, you can go there on your R&R after about six months in Vietnam. You guys who are married can have your wives meet you in Honolulu on your R&R. Now stop complaining about not going into the terminal."
"What if we're dead?" someone wanted to know.
"Well, then I guess you won't see Honolulu," was the reply.
As we continued to fly, I thought about my wife and how upset she had been when I received my orders for Vietnam. She told me she had actually considered getting a divorce rather than suffering the pain and anxiety of not knowing whether I was alive or dead day after day. I had thought this was a slight overreaction, but then, I wasn't in her shoes, nor she in mine. We each had our own anxieties about my involvement in this war. It was lucky for me that my wife had a good job teaching school. Otherwise, I would have had to sell my house. After all, the army was only paying me $90.00 a month. I finally dozed off but never slept well the whole night.
We first saw Wake Island from about 6000 feet up. It was early morning, and the island looked like a speck of sand surrounded by deep blue water. "Gosh, can we land on that little thing?" someone asked out loud. The island grew larger the lower we sank. The plane went around and around, spiraling down. As we finally approached the ground, it became apparent that one whole side of the island was nothing more than a giant runway. It looked like at least a third of the land was covered with cement.
I looked at my watch as we deplaned. After flying nine hours and fifteen minutes from Honolulu to Wake, it felt good to walk off the plane and stretch. My butt was getting sore from sitting so long.
The sun was very bright under a cloudless sky, and I could see the heat waves already rising above the concrete of the runway. Nearby, some airmen stationed on the island were throwing a football next to one of the outbuildings. Fascinated, we all watched them having fun. "Hey, Sarge," someone said, "how's come they get to stay here, and we have to go to Vietnam? Can't we just stay here with them?"
"Right on, man," another kid shouted. Everybody laughed.
We took off again with a fresh Saturn crew. Saturn Airlines, according to one of the NCO's, was under contract with the military to fly soldiers to and from Vietnam. That's all they did. They were specialists, sort of. It was comforting to know that someone, at least, was making a buck on this war. I wondered if all their planes were this old. Did they save money on fuel by using old prop planes?
About four hours after I had eaten a pastry for breakfast, I discovered I had lost the whole outside of one of my upper back teeth. At first, I thought I had a piece of sliced almond stuck to the tooth. Then I realized most of the outside of the tooth was gone. I panicked a little, worried that pain would immediately set in. But it was all right--no pain yet. Because I've always had bad teeth, I'm really a coward about dentists and drills and pain. I wondered how long it would take before the tooth started hurting. Would the pain stay away until I got to Vietnam? If it did stay away, could I get my tooth fixed there? What a great time for this to happen.
We landed again after five hours and ten minutes. It was almost noon. Guam was overcast, and a chill wind was blowing as we huddled together beside the plane. Everyone seemed to be sore and tired. Few had been able to sleep well, and each passing hour made it more impossible to find any comfortable position in the seat of the plane. There was open complaining about how long the flight was taking--about how much longer it would take.
Refueling took less time now as each leg of the trip grew shorter. Within 30 minutes, we had acquired a fresh Saturn crew and had reboarded the plane, where at least it was warm. Old engine number four continued to please by not spitting any fire on take off. Once aloft, we were lectured by another NCO. "Men, I know this is a long flight and you're all tired," he said. "But look at it this way. Every hour you spend on board the plane is an hour less you'll be in Vietnam. It all counts toward your one year. How about that?"
This rationale was greeted by a chorus of hisses and boos. The NCO, who was much younger than the other sergeants, seemed quite deflated by his lack of success at quelling our unrest. "Anyway," he said, his voice trailing off, "we're having hamburgers for lunch." This announcement was met with great approval and cheers. Clearly happy with this unexpected result, the young NCO grinned broadly, though stupidly, I thought.
Time seemed to stand still as the plane droned on toward the Philippines. Finally, God relenting, we arrived at Clark Airforce Base, six hours after leaving Guam. Here it was raining heavily, and this was the sole reason, I suspected, why we were allowed to go inside the airbase terminal during refueling. Besides, this was not an actual civilian airport like Honolulu. It was unlikely we would encounter--or offend--any of the general population here.
Getting far away from the aircraft and seeing busy people not bound for Vietnam was stimulating and made me feel good, though I sensed as well a feeling of dread and depression just below the surface of my mind. Maybe it was the ping-ping-ping of the pinball machines which lent the place such a festive air.
I bought a soda and stood quietly watching our group talking among themselves and with the local base personnel. Most from the plane were young--maybe 19 to 22 years old. Nearby, two of our NCO's were answering questions that seemed more urgent now. How far were we from Vietnam? About 700 miles. How soon would we be there? In about three hours.
I was surprised and also impressed at how civilized our NCO's behaved and the fact that they didn't scream at us all the time. This was clearly a different breed of sergeant from the ones I had been subjected to in basic training and pay school. Those NCO's had constantly threatened to kill us or do great bodily harm whenever we made a mistake. They had put the fear of God into us so completely that I was still frozen with anxiety in the presence of a corporal or sergeant. It seemed as if those NCO's had held the power of life and death over us, and I surmised that was the army's way of achieving submission and compliance. Here, things were different--or so they seemed. I had been told that life in a TO&E unit would be far less stressful than basic training.
As we reboarded the plane, I could feel a tightness in my chest, and my palms were sweating badly, which was very disconcerting. I could also sense the tension in those around me. People even began to look scared. In three hours we would be there. The worst part was not knowing what there was really like. What was expected of us. What would happen to us.
Once in the air, we were given more instructions. We would land in Cam Ranh Bay. We would be taken by bus to the replacement battalion. We would stay there tonight and for several days, until our final orders came through. There was nothing to worry about--Cam Ranh was a fairly safe place. So we were told.
I mulled over in my mind the words fairly safe. This was not the same thing as very safe or absolutely safe. Sometimes I worried about little things like that. I couldn't help but think the others were worried too.
It was night on Easter Sunday when we made landfall and spotted the lights below. On approach, our pilot extinguished all the internal lights on the plane--the first time this had been done. This must be the real thing, the war zone. Because it was pitch dark on the plane, I had a greater sense of the noise and vibration of the aircraft as we descended through some turbulence toward the runway. While the minutes ticked by, I realized this was the longest and the most agonizing landing in my whole life. The fuselage continued to shudder violently, rattling dinnerware in a nearby galley. We finally touched down and taxied for several minutes before coming to a stop. I felt relieved we had not been shot at on the way in. So far, so good. Stepping onto the ground gave me a bizarre feeling though. I didn't know whether I had expected quicksand or what, but the ground was firm, just like anywhere else. It had taken 37 hours, but now we were finally in Vietnam. As we lined up to board the busses, everybody seemed a little on edge. The air was cool and damp.
I waited for the last bus on the theory that the last bus was less likely to get ambushed on the road. I figured the enemy would probably attack the first bus first, thereby attempting to bring the other busses to a halt as well. As we drove away, I was extremely annoyed at the bus driver for leaving the lights on inside the bus as he drove along. How stupid could this guy be? Didn't he realize we were much easier targets with the lights on inside? This vehicle was like a fish bowl on wheels.
The driver, however, seemed quite at ease. From where I sat in the back of the bus, it looked like the driver was joking with someone standing in the stairwell to his right. Was the driver just a hardened veteran or did he know something I didn't. Maybe Cam Ranh Bay was safer than fairly safe.
At 22nd Replacement we were processed in groups of six. We collected our duffle bags and handed in our personnel records to a clerk, except for our pay records, which we were told to keep safe. We each drew two sheets, a pillowcase, and a blanket from the supply room. Our small group was then led by a corporal to a permanent, one story barracks about 20 feet wide and 100 feet long, with a concrete floor. Our guide evinced a humorous mood as he spoke to us.
"Okay, men, here you are in the Nam. Welcome. By the way, how many of you volunteered for duty in Southeast Asia? Gee, what a surprise. Not one volunteer. Anyway, this is the barracks where you'll be spending the next several days. I want you to note," he said, pointing toward the walls, "what an architectural masterpiece this building really is. The lower half of the wall is solid wood siding. This keeps the cold out in the winter. The top half of the wall is composed completely of metal screen, like your screen doors at home. This provides cooling and ample ventilation during the hot summer months. Also, the roof is 100% galvanized sheet metal. This insures that you'll always know when its raining because you'll have to shout over the din on the roof to make yourself heard. Men, this is engineering at its best. Reflect on these facts and try to get a good night's sleep. Because you came in so late tonight, we won't wake you until 0800 hours. Good night." With that he was gone.
"He's a funny guy," I said to the others.
"Yeah, he's hysterical," someone retorted.
I immediately made up a bunk and lay down. It felt so good to be able to get into a completely horizontal position after sitting on the plane for a day and a half. The pillowcase had a damp and clammy feeling from all the moisture in the air, as though it could never be thoroughly dried in this climate. I was so tired that it didn't much matter to me. Within two minutes I was fast asleep. The last thing I remember was wondering whether this compound ever got attacked at night.