By Robert H. Waldruff
The huge C-141 lumbered to a stop at Travis AFB just outside San Francisco.
The urgency of getting back to the states required enduring in the hull of this monster
for the twenty hour flight from Okinawa. The only seat available put me between two large trucks
returning for repairs; must keep the war machine rolling. The doors opened and I deplaned
into a beautiful sunset of late May. Hurrying through the terminal the bus named
Treasure Island Naval Base welcomed me aboard; sore, tired and needing sleep.
Tomorrow promised a long day.
Next morning I walked to Quonset hut forty seven. “Good morning Gunny. Here are my
orders, I want to pick up Lieutenant Wood.”
“I’ll get him, Sir.”
I looked out the window at the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge framed in a cloudless sky
and crystal clear dark blue water of San Francisco Bay; so perfect it had to be a post card.
Soon the Gunny appeared pushing a casket,
“Here he is, sir, check the tag let’s be sure we got the right one.”
The large white tag read ‘1st Lt. Robert T. Wood, USMCR, KIA FB Ryder, 13May70.’
“That’s him,” “Let’s get him on the truck. He’s going home.”
The trip from Treasure Island NB to the San Francisco airport didn’t take long.
I couldn’t believe just seven months ago Woody and I were here, Marine Second Lieutenants,
excitingly boarding our flight to the Western Pacific. Woody had orders
to Vietnam, me the Rock. We said goodbye in Okinawa,
“Don’t eat all the pogey bait Wally, you’re gonna make a hell of a clerk typist.”
“Fuck you, Woody. Just don’t kill all the Cong before I get there.”
Bob and I met at OCS in November, 1968 spending the next twelve months training
to be Marine Artillery Officers. We did everything together; ten weeks of OCS, twenty five weeks
of TBS, and fifteen weeks Artillery School at Ft. Sill. His wife Shirley and my wife Anne
got to be good friends. We even had daughters born seven months apart.
Marines. Blood brothers. Best friends.
We arrived at the airport and were flagged through to the tarmac to load the casket on
the flight to Arlington Texas. I wore my Summer C’s drawing lots of attention in the plane;
overheard a guy telling his wife, “see that Marine? He’s only a Lieutenant and doesn’t have a
clue what he’s in for.”
The flight took a couple hours. After everyone exited, I deplaned and got on the luggage
cart with the casket. Driving to the terminal to meet the Hearse the flag kept flopping in the wind,
I grabbed it holding it as best I could hoping it wouldn’t fly off. What a shitty homecoming.
The Hearse drove to the back of the funeral home where Shirley and Mr. and Mrs. Wood waited.
I hopped out introduced myself to the Funeral Director, shook hands with Mr. and Mrs. Wood, and
hugged Shirley. Shirley had begged the Red Cross to get the Corps to let me escort Bob home, which
they accommodated even though I just received orders to Vietnam.
“Oh, Bob,” Shirley said, “thank you so much, I’m totally lost, it wasn’t supposed to be this way.”
The Woods grim faced looked at me with disdain. “What time is the Memorial Service?” I asked.
“Seven.” Mrs. Wood said. “We need to go get things set up, we’ll see you later.”
“C’mon,” said Shirley, “I’ll take you to the hotel to check in then let’s go see Lisa.
She’s already nine months old.”
The crowd arrived early and almost filled the Chapel. It was an open casket service and I stood behind
the casket at parade rest staring at my friend; you look good in Blues I mused. Soon everybody
passed by paying respects. When Shirley got close, she screamed, “it’s not him, they’ve made a mistake!”
grabbed her father and totally broke down. The Woods came next. Mr. Wood looked glassy eyed and Mrs. Wood
was in a trance. They got next to casket, looked in and wouldn’t move.
Finally, the Director led them away. I stayed stiff trying not to move thinking I never trained for this.
We moved into the reception hall talking quietly. From my right came Mr. Wood pointing a finger.
“Your God damned Marine Corps killed my boy.” Before I answered, he slurred, “go to hell!” turned and left,
no one saw him for three days. Mrs. Wood said, “Forgive him, he’s still bleeding, Bob was his favorite. I’m healing
since Bob came to my bed last week, hugged me and whispered, ‘don’t worry mama, I have no pain and am safe.’
I need to leave now and rest for tomorrow’s ceremony, see you there.”
Before everyone left, I introduced myself to the Major in charge of the Honor Guard. “I’ll pick you up at 1000
to go to the Cemetery and get snapped-in, you don’t have to do much,” said the Major
“Sir, how did he die?”
“He was in the mountains calling in Artillery on top of an IOD tower around 0100 in a horrible thunder storm;
Charley was moving through the Queson Valley using the storm for cover. Lightning hit his land line, traveled
up the tower and fried his brain.”
“No shit, lightening?”
“Dangerous place, Lieutenant, lots of ways to buy some land.”
Shirley and I met for breakfast before the funeral. “We had it all planned, he’d finish his commitment at
Pendleton we’d move back to Sherman Oaks,” she said, “pick up where we left off. He really loved working for
Mobil; his Texas veins flowed with oil. Why’d he have to be a Marine? They always get killed. Lisa and I
are alone, I need a job, and we have five hundred in savings. I just don't know where to start, why did he leave us?"
“You know the answer; he loved being a Marine, and felt a duty to protect America. Nothing could stop him
he was fearless; he never thought he would get killed. He loved you.”
“Yeah, I know, wish we could start over.”
“Shirley, you know Anne and I will do whatever we can to help you. I’ll try to stop over on my way home from Vietnam.
Woody and I vowed to help each other no matter what.”
We left for the Cemetery, arriving shortly past 1100. I hugged Shirley and walked over to the Major.
“Not complicated, Lieutenant.Stand with the Color Guard, when pastor’s done and we play taps,
walk the two flags to Shirley and Mrs. Wood, kneel, hand them the flags, and tell them,
‘On behalf of the President of the United States, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and a grateful nation,
please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service to Country and Corps.’
“No sir.” I got it.”
Soon things started. There was a huge crowd. The Preacher finished his remarks. Taps and the 21-gun salute finished
and I marched over to Bob’s family with the folded flags, knelt and handed over each one. Shirley, fragile as a flower
hugged her flag sobbing quietly. Mrs. Wood didn’t touch her flag just stared at the casket. I got up, paid respects to
each family member; cut a tight salute, choked up, and walked back quickly to the Color Guard. Before turning around, I
chided my sorry ass. Suck it up you Goddamn pussy, DO NOT let these people see a Marine cry. You owe it to Woody.
The crowd slowly thinned out and I went to Shirley and Lisa. “The guys are waiting,” “Remember, anything anytime,
just get hold of me. We’ll get through this.”
I turned and she grabbed my hand, “Be careful, promise you won’t get hurt, I can’t lose you too.”
“Take good care of Lisa, Bob loved her. See you soon.”
After it all ended, Bob’s brothers drove me to the airport to catch my flight to LA to spend two days with my parents,
Anne, and Paden, my three month old daughter whom I’d never seen. They dropped me off at the curb of United, “Thanks guys,
your brother died a hero, be proud of him. Stay in touch.”
Our homecoming included lots of small talk and ended before it started. I learned to change a diaper, played with Paden
and we all avoided talking about the elephant in the room. Except for Paden, we had been through the goodbye routine seven
months ago and were not anxious to repeat the ritual; and this time I had orders for Nam and Woody was dead.
Inevitability ended our reunion and we got into my father’s car for the short ride to El Toro where I waited availability
on a flight to Vietnam. After deftly navigating the freeways, we pulled up to the TOQ; knowing the song by heart, I got out of the car,
grabbed my bag, quickly kissed Anne, my mother, sweet Paden, and shook my old man’s hand, “don’t worry I’ll be home soon.” They drove off
and I waved goodbye to the most important people in my life.
After checking in, I got my key, walked down a long hallway, unlocked the door, entered the small lonely room and dropped my bag.
Grabbing a beer from the frig; I collapsed in a chair and stared at a blank grey wall waiting for the phone to ring.
Young and proud America needed him
wanting the best Marine he chose
earning the title more difficult than imagined
Leaving wife and baby daughter
with a kiss of confidence
he went to war
Months of futility led to a mountaintop
surrounded by thunder and rain
he sent artillery into a valley
of death and destruction
Suddenly God rendered a decision
lightening delivered the verdict
the Marine surrendered without pain
Loss and sorrow clothed his wife
proud and thankful for his love
weeping loneliness crushing her soul
she prayed for her child