Thursday, July 19, 2007
South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: Carry Dead G.I.s-2 C130s Make 'Ghost Flights' Every Night
November 10, 1966
Saigon, South Viet Nam--Every night, shortly before dusk, two huge C-130 cargo planes are at the loading dock in front of the Military Air Transport Service at Tan San Nhut Air Field.
A few pounds of mail may be shoved on board each plane, but the payload for each plane is passengers.
The passengers on these flights are bound for either Travis Air Force Base in California, or Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
These passengers will not complain if their food is cold--they don't eat.
And these passengers won't mind if the plane is late. Hurrying, worrying, and fighting for these passengers is over--forever.
Each of these passengers is dead. Each is in an aluminum transfer case, and each passenger represents the fantastic cost of war and the real price of the defense of liberty.
The planes are hardly noticed at Tan San Nhut. After all, it is one of the busiest airports in the world. Every 30-seconds a plane takes off or lands. The field has handled 1,600 aircraft in one day and 48,000 in one month.
But as busy as the base may be, it is common knowledge that the Graves Registration office and the mortuary are situated close to the MATS warehouse.
The flights which carry the bodies are known as the "Ghost Flights" all around the airfield.
The United States Army Mortuary at Tan San Nhut is headed by Lt. Col. James W. Price of Roanoke, Va., and is staffed by 96 men. The mortuary operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And, as Col. Price put it, "I don't know of anyone who requested this duty, but it's an important job, and after a while," Col. Price said, "the men who work here realize that they are doing the last thing they can do for their buddies. And then, no one asks to get out."
Through the U.S. Army morgue at Tan San Nhut, the body of every serviceman killed in action is embalmed. The dead from the armies of the Philippines, Korea and the Army of the Republic of South Viet Nam are also embalmed here. Civilian dead from those countries, here in supporting roles, are also embalmed here.
Col. Price, a tall articulate man, is a veteran of 19 years service in the Army and he takes his job seriously. "We know," he said, "the sensitivity involved and the importance of our work here to the parents and families and we do our best."
From the time an American is killed in action, the morgue at Tan San Nhut makes every effort to have the victim positively identified, embalmed, and flown back to the states within five days after death.
Maj. Robert M. Long, Houston, Tex., Col Price's executive officer, explained what a painstaking system is followed to insure the positive identification of a victim.
Dog tags, worn by each serviceman, are just a starting point of positive identification. Each victim's fingerprints are compared with the prints on their identification cards, if the I.D. card is available. If not, fingerprint files are searched until the prints are matched. Dental records are also checked, along with the data recorded on enlistment, in regard to scars, birthmarks, or other distinguishing characteristics.
"Our identification procedure," Major Long said, "is comparable to a police department's procedure to identify a body."
"We," Col. Price said, "could not take the chance of making a faulty identification."
No set figures are available on how many bodies are processed each month in the morgue, authorities said, but an average figure would be 450, American, Korean, Vietnamese, and Australian dead.
More than 40 dead young men were in the morgue when I visited, the toll of a few days fighting.
It was hard to look at those bodies and not wonder whether or not that young, curly-haired boy would have been able to find a cure for cancer, or if the blond young man with the high forehead might not have perfected a cure for heart disease. And there was the body of a tall young man from the Eastern States, who one day, as a statesman, might have found a way to end wars.
If our only stake in this war were dollars, liberty would be cheap. The real cost, lives, could affect our future, but blood has always been the price of liberty.
at 3:35 PM