Saturday, July 21, 2007

South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: Hurry Up And Wait!-Military Travel A Bit Sadistic

November 24, 1966

Da Nang, South Viet Nam--If American military personnel survive their contacts with the United States Air Force branch, which flies them around this country, they are a cinch to withstand any punishment the foe hands out.

First-hand knowledge makes one suspect the whole Air Force branch is filled with enemy agents, responsible for demoralizing our troops. Robert S. McNamara should investigate.

You know McNamara. He's the secretary from the Department of Defense who stopped the war over here a few weeks ago by making visits to the military bases.

Not being accustomed to military procedure, I didn't mind waiting from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. for planes that were supposed to take off at 2:30 p.m. For a while I didn't. And then the waits stretched to eight hours or more.

Sometimes, after waiting eight hours, a cheerful voice would announce the flight had been cancelled.

After the long waits and finally getting aboard, I began noticing definite attempts by members of the crew to demoralize the passengers.

Usually, more than 70 of us would be crammed into buckets seats awaiting take off, when one of the pilots would tell us how we should conduct ourselves.

"Now, strap yourselves in," he'd begin. "And remain that way during all take offs and landings. There will be no smoking during take offs and landings. And, if you must smoke," he'd snarl, "please use the butt cans. Don't litter the aircraft."

Then, with all the tenderness of a traffic policeman, he'd say:

"If some of you become airsick, ask a crewman for a paper bag. Put your head in it and try not to make your fellow passengers sick. Also, this bag will become your permanent possession. Take it with you when you leave the aircraft."

Jauntily, the pilot would hop up to the flight deck, leaving the cattle in the hold, in the hands of a crew chief who generally spoke in unintelligible grunts.

"Gedjabez fasnd an no smokin'," the chief would growl.

The flights usually were in C-130 cargo planes, which feature air conditioned cabins. That's not as nice as it sounds. The air conditioner isn't turned on until the craft is airborne. It is often 25 minutes or longer from the time passengers board, until take off.

In the meantime, the heat in the cattle compartment builds up to more than 100 degrees, and there's no fresh air.

Finally, when the craft gets off the ground, cool air begins surging through the ducts. The only trouble is that within a few minutes, the cold air from the ducts create a sleet storm all through the passenger compartment. Those people not bombarded with ice get a cold shower.

The passengers must sit in rows facing each other, and it's so cramped everyone must interlock knees.

After 20 minutes or so in one of the bucket seats, it is inevitable and understandable that every passenger is going to have to change his position.

When that time comes, everyone gets kicked three or four times, and the more unfortunate are gouged and bumped with bayonets, rifles, canteens, and steel helmets.

Twice on one flight I reached for my cigarette lighter and discovered it was missing. I learned, when a tough looking sergeant sitting next to me glared, that I had my hand in his field jacket pocket, not mine.

During the pre-flight briefing the pilot also casually tells us, "Sorry folks, but all we have on board for you is food. The water cans are placed in the front and rear of the plane. Help yourselves."

The pilots never tell the whole story. The reward for stumbling and tripping over 37 pairs of feet is to discover the water cans are empty. It can be a long, dry, hungry flight without a canteen or something from a field ration kit.

The seats on the C-130s undoubtedly were designed by Adolf Eichmann, but were too cruel to be used during World War II. The seats belts are arranged so each passenger must straddle an aluminum bar which supports the seat. It is impossible to rearrange the straps to gain a slight depression in the seat. After 15 minutes of flying, the passenger is carrying a very deep depression in his anatomy where none was intended.

It's so reassuring to sit, aching from stem to stern, unable to move for fear if you do everyone else will also. To be thirsty, hungry, and watch the crew chief slurp a cold can of Coke while, for all to see and hear, munch a thick ham sandwich.

Meanwhile, on the flight deck, the officers begin to dig into their sumptuous box lunches.

All those guys have just got to be enemy agents.

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