Sunday, July 22, 2007

South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: Back To The World

November 6, 1966

Though still encumbered by the dual desires to return home and stay in Vietnam, I checked out of the hotel, hailed a cab, and headed for Tan Son Nhut about 8 a.m. Scheduled departure time was 10:50, but in the frequently grid locked traffic, it was difficult to gauge how long the trip to the airport would take.

The cab crept along, and it took an hour and ten minutes to reach the passenger terminal. Almost reach it...that is. Restrictions prevented the driver from getting closer than a block to the civilian gate. Wrestling my luggage, it took another 20 minutes to make way through the crowd to reach the ticket counter and check in.

Temperature in the terminal seemed at least 100 degrees. The place was shoulder to shoulder people, which added to the heat. After only a few moments, my flight was announced, and we began boarding.

Many of the passengers were servicemen going on R&R. A few were headed for Manila. Most were bound for Honolulu. The plane began taxiing toward the runway on schedule.

Our take off was delayed a few minutes by a flight of incoming F-4 Phantoms, and then by the take-offs of three Thunderchiefs, which were laden with bombs. Our 707 soon eased out on the runway and accelerated. When the wheels lifted off, a whoop of joy from the servicemen resounded through the fuselage.

"Where but here could such an experience be seen and absorbed?" I wondered.

Phantoms returning from a war mission, armed Thunderchiefs roaring out bound for a sortie, while waiting in a sleek airliner containing many of the accoutrements of civilization, were men who had fought that war in the heat, the mud, and the rain, in the dense lowland and mountain jungles, in rice paddies, and upon barren ground. They were leaving its terrors, hardships, and threat of death, temporarily, for some fun. Then they would return. The force of their boisterously loud cheer as we lifted off demonstrated their happiness for even a momentary escape, and foretold the mental cruelty of their return.

Just as our plane lifted off, it passed the military mortuary. Men and machines were busy unloading dozens of body canisters from C-130's. Each of the containers had cradled the body of a dead GI for the trip back to America, and was being returned to Vietnam for reuse. Soon, too soon, I thought, those shiny boxes would carry other young like the youngsters aboard the airliner now, perhaps some of the same men, back home. For that trip, they would be naked, embalmed, frozen, and eternally silent. There would be no joyful yell at lift off. The only sounds would be the whistle of the wind and the roar of the turboprops. The thoughts caused me to shake my head in somber incredulity.

After a brief refueling stop at Manila, we headed for Honolulu. Only a few men got off the plane at Manila. They shook hands with their buddies and made arrangements to meet when they returned to "Nam." Most of the passengers slept during the flight to Hawaii.

My time was absorbed in an attempt to draw my experiences into focus and begin an outline to support what I was certain would be important analysis and commentary articles. By the time we reached Honolulu, I had my plans organized.

It was raining heavily as we landed. Unable to get a through flight from Saigon to Los Angeles, or a certain same-day connecting flight from Hawaii, I had to stay overnight at Honolulu. I rented a car and tried to take a look around, but it was raining too hard to enjoy the scenery. I went to my room, had supper, and went to bed. In about 24 hours I'd be home.

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