Since I told the story of my first Christmas in Viet Nam, I also add that New years 1970 was once again spent with me sitting on the same perimeter bunker I sat on just the week before on Christmas. It was another uneventful night, though.
New Years 1971 was one of those memories no one wants, but laughs at today.
By late December 1970, I was eager to go home, since I had been in Vietnam since July of 1969. All in all, I have to say it was probably the worst trip of my entire life. It should have been the best.
To start with, when I went over to Camp Holloway, in Pleiku, to pick up my manifest ticket, some weird nut came running up to me and threw his arm around my shoulders. Unlike today, that was frowned upon back then. He was wearing fatigues with a Warrant Officer insignia and Captains Bars. Even after our best Jungle Juice party, we didn’t get that weird. His aide snapped a Polaroid of us and while he was treating it, I found out that it was Rick Jason, none other than the star of the TV Show, Combat. After realizing this, I thought to myself, “Whoopee, I just want out of this country.”
Since then, I have come to appreciate what Mr. Jason was doing there and visiting the Troops of such an unpopular war.
Later that same day, I hitched a ride on a ‘Huey’ to Nha Trang to sign in at the replacement center. To my amazement, I was scheduled to leave the next day, leaving me to believe I would be home on New Years day. I grabbed some chow and settled in to a bunk in the transient hooch to grab some shuteye.
Waking up the next day, I took my last in country cold shower, threw away my faded and worn Jungle Fatigues and put on my Dress Green Uniform, which I had brought back over with me after my extension leave in July.
All of us scheduled on the flight huddled together under a shed to await the planes arrival to fly us home. It turned out to be on Flying Tigers, a cargo line no less. We waited and waited and after a few hours a Sergeant let us know that the plane was having engine trouble in Japan and that Flying Tigers had sent another one from the states. I sat there losing count of how many flights left before our plane arrived, still in full Class A Uniform, sweating in the heat.
Finally, as the sun was setting on New Years Eve, we were told that the plane had arrived at nearby Cam Rhan. We boarded a bus, drove to the Airbase and headed up the gangplank to the beautiful DC-8. Some one had a radio on and AFVN played Peter, Paul & Mary’s, Leaving On A Jet Plane. The sight of that plane was one of the most welcome sights I ever saw. I entered it and no sooner found my seat, than four other Army guys and I were bumped from the flight in favor of some Air Force dudes.
Of course, our duffle bags with clean clothes, shaving equipment and such remained on the plane, now heading to the world. We were promised seats on the next flight out. I spent New Years watching two Vietnamese women fighting over an inflated balloon at the terminal, until one of them popped it. Unable to contain my excitement, I drifted off to sleep on the wooden bench.
The next morning, we were placed on another Flying Tigers plane. Personally, by this time, I couldn’t care if it were a Cessna Bird Dog, I just wanted out of that country. As was normal, when the airplane lifted off and the wheels left Vietnamese soil, we all went nuts cheering, clapping and just being guys. We were served a breakfast and I settled back until a few hours later, we landed at Yakota Airbase, Japan, for refueling.
Unbeknownst to me, this turned out to be the very same plane that was experiencing engine trouble at the beginning of my little odyssey. As it turned out, it was again having engine trouble and we were told there would be a yet another slight delay. You know, there just isn’t much to do at the Yakota Air Force terminal for hours on end all day!
By the time they said the plane was fixed, another Flying Tigers plane, with the exact flight number as ours, had recently landed. Not wanting the flights to get mixed up, they roped off a corridor for us to follow to our flight. Of course, we all stayed within that corridor, right?
The Flight Attendants did a quick headcount, to insure none of the guys from the other flight had snuck on to our plane. It turned up two extra people than the manifest showed. So, we spent another two hours while they checked our tickets and I.D. To say tempers where flaring would be a gross understatement. Even the flight attendants, usually calm, good natured and friendly, were sounding like sailors over the planes intercom as they too were becoming irritated.
Come to find out, the head attendant had grabbed the wrong manifest in the first place and was counting for the other flight. A full Colonel onboard, also going home, stood up and informed the flight crew that if they wished to live a peaceful life, it would behoove them to get that plane off the ground and headed eastwardly, quickly.
Fortunately for the flight crew, liquor was not served to GIs on MAC flights.
We landed at McCord Air Force Base late afternoon, but still New Years Day. We found our gear waiting for us, just outside the U.S. Customs. Since it had been there so long, they all but strip-searched us, probing tubes of toothpaste, cutting open containers of talcum powder and such. Finding no contraband, we cleared Customs.
Since I had taken my dress greens back to Vietnam with me and wore them home on this flight, I was put on a bus to SeaTac airport to get a connecting flight home. With all the delays, I must have looked and smelled a sight. I did, at least, get a shave at the barbershop at Yakota Air Base, so I wasn’t as bad as I could have been.
Not knowing much about what airlines went where on the West Coast, I stopped at the first counter I ran in to for a ticket to Redding, California, where I was to meet a young lady I had been writing to and who would became my first wife. United Airlines booked me on a flight to San Francisco to make a connection to Hughes Airwest, then back up to Redding that evening.
Arriving in San Francisco, I ran to the other terminal to make my connection, only to discover, that since it was New Years Day, flight crews had been given the evening off and the flight to Redding had been canceled. The next flight was at 6 A.M. the next morning. Little did I know that I could have made a direct flight from SeaTac to Redding by Hughes Airwest, as the ticket agent then explained. Thanks a lot, United.
Realizing I was to enjoy yet another evening in an airport, I headed for the nearest bar in the airport for a couple beers and then went looking for a comfortable bench to fall asleep on. No sooner had I leaned back and closed my eyes than a Security Guard came along and informed me I wasn’t allowed to sleep in the airport. The entire night was spent with me catching catnaps between his rounds.
I got on the flight at 6 the next morning and headed to Redding, smelly, sticky and just grungy as all get out. No one said anything around me, which surprised me, looking back today. I was met in Redding by the young lady and being as grungy as I was, not to mention sleepy from playing cat & mouse with San Francisco Airports finest, acted like a complete dork.
We headed to the peoples house she was staying with, where they held a little delayed Christmas for me complete with a few gifts and all. First, I took a shower, threw away my underwear, and shopped for a set of civvies.
Relaxing and enjoying being back in the USA, I began nodding off on their couch, until the Christmas tree they decided to burn started popping. The man was a WW2 vet and seemed to understand why I all but did a back flip over the couch and told the girl to show me to the room I was staying in, where I fell asleep again, on top of the electric blanket.