Dedicated to my wife Diane.Jim
This is a guest post submitted by Jim, a 2 part story on Vietnam from a Veteran’s perspective. Jim, thank you for your service and contribution to the forgotten war.
A lot has been written about the Vietnam War in the last 40 or so years. Some of it good, some of it not so good. My story is not about the war or the politics surrounding it. My story is about my two day journey to Vietnam and what I was thinking about during that “Long flight into the unknown”.
There were about 500 of us that were waiting for our flight to Vietnam. We were in a huge warehouse filled with bunks, latrines and every kind of vending machine you could imagine. In that time, I was going over all the things I was told about Vietnam: the culture of the people, the villages they lived in, the weather conditions, even the animals they kept as their main source of transportation.
About 200 of us “kids” boarded the Pan Am Boeing 707, we actually had flight attendants (they called them stewardess’s back in the day) and those flight attendants would be just about the last American women I would see for almost 15 months. Out of the 200 or so GI’s on that plane, I knew only 3. We had gone through basic training and advanced individual training together.
The first leg of the flight took us to Hawaii, about 5 hours in the air. The 4 of us talked about the day we would be on our way home. We tried our best to make ourselves believe that going to Vietnam was more of an inconvenience more than anything else. In reality we were scared down to our bones.
After a 24 hour stop in Hawaii, actually the airplane had a malfunction and needed to be fixed before we could continue, the talking quieted down. I started thinking about the people of Vietnam, would they be grateful that we were coming over there to help them? How would they treat us? In basic training we were told that the Vietnamese were openly affectionate towards each other. It wasn’t uncommon to see them walking hand in hand, man and man or woman and woman. But, seldom man & woman held hands or openly showed “romantic” affection towards each other. We were also told that we should treat the women with highest respect, for the Vietnamese men did the same.
Our next stop would be the island of Guam. From Hawaii to Guam was about 6 hours air time, and after thinking about how the people I would meet in Vietnam would react to us, I also started thinking about the children. One of the saddest things in any war torn country is the children. Again, in basic training we were told that these children were masters at survival. Living a good life in America I had almost anything I wanted, food, a nice home, loving and caring parents, and even a pet dog. I wondered if the children of Vietnam had the same life as I did or if they spent their childhood scavenging for the basic things needed for everyday life. I don’t want to get to far ahead of myself here, but what I found in that country would forever be a part of my life.
We were on our final descent into Guam and I was shocked by how small the island looked. To be honest, I didn’t think the airplane would have enough room to land. We spent only a few hours at Guam, just long enough to refuel the aircraft, put more food on board, and clean out the ashtrays. We were allowed to get off the airplane and when I stepped outside the heat and humidity hit me like a sledge hammer. In less than 5 minutes I was ringing wet and all I had done was walk away from the airplane and look for some shade. Welcome to the tropics.
The take off roll from the runway at Guam was like something out of a movie; the runway seemed too short. I had a pretty good idea of the basics of flight at this point, hot air temps give the wing less lift and it takes a lot of power to get a fully loaded 707 into the air. The engines were screaming and it seemed like we were going to run out of runway, but the pilot managed to get the thing into the air and we were on the last 6 hour leg of our flight. Again, during basic training our drill instructors told us about the ancient culture of the people in Vietnam.
For the most part, most of them had converted to Catholicism. The other major religions were Cowdai and Hindu. I wondered just what kind of churches or temples they worshipped in and had all kinds of images in my mind of ornate ancient temples. I also wondered what kind of houses they lived in. All I had ever seen was pictures of small huts with thatched roofs. They couldn’t possibly live like that, could they? After all, I had come from a country where people lived in nice brick homes with every convenience you could imagine.
The last leg of the flight was the longest, 6 hours seemed like a week. As we approached the Vietnamese airspace we were told that we would be landing in Bein Hoa, a major Air Force base just outside of Saigon. It was about 2am when we entered Vietnamese airspace and all I could see of the country below was the sight of artillery flares, hand flares and occasional rocket, mortar, and artillery explosions. I closed the window shade and thought to myself, here I am, at the War. Was I scared? You bet I was. Was I excited about all the things I would discover in the next 15 months about the people, places, customs and yes, combat? Again, you bet I was.