Way back in 1966, I had fulfilled my year-long duty requirement as an intelligence analyst at Danang in Vietnam. I had been overseas for almost three years straight without seeing my beloved USA. My orders called for me to take a short-hop flight from Danang to Ton Son Nhut airport near what was formerly Saigon. On the way to Saigon, we stopped at Cam Ranh Bay and Na Trang. What was it that military personnel put on our flight? Body bags of soldiers who were also going home to families where Christmases would never be the same again………Names that would be eventually etched on the dark brooding granite walls of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” /><o:p></o:p>
I got to Ton Son Nhut on December 30th and checked into the transit barracks to await my flight back to the states the next day: New Year’s Eve. That night I was treated to another random barrage of Viet Cong mortar fire, flares, and Hueys flying low over the airport with searchlights blazing. The next day, our flight was scheduled to depart Ton Son Nhut at 3:00 PM in the afternoon. 160 weary marines and a couple of Air Force guys lined up at the airport terminal to be processed out. Little did we know at the time but a Thai civilian airliner had nearly crash-landed on the main runway, closing it for 6 hours to assess runway damage and tow the damaged plane away. Personnel told us to return back to the transit barracks. Not a single soldier budged. We had come this far and weren’t getting anywhere but on that plane. We finally boarded a shiny new World Airways Boeing 707 and took off at 9:30 PM on New Year’s Eve. Since it was a MAC charter flight, no alcohol was allowed. However, the resourceful Marines had smuggled aboard enough booze to give everyone a pleasant buzz. Small bottles and flasks were discretely passed all over the plane and the Marines were kind enough to include the handful of Air Force guys in the merriment. The flight attendants, bless their hearts, just looked the other way and went about their business. Midway between Saigon and Yokota Air Base, Japan, we celebrated the New Year with hugs, high fives, and mirth. We landed in Yokota Japan about 4:00 AM on Jan 1st, New Year’s Day, refueled, ate breakfast, nursed hangovers and departed for Travis Air Force Base, California, near Sacramento. <o:p></o:p>
We landed at Travis (and this is where it really got interesting) about 7:30 PM on Dec 31st again, for our second New Years Eve!! We had flown through the International Date Line on the way back and lost a day enroute! As we got off the plane, one of the most emotional scenes I have ever witnessed took place. Battle-hardened soldiers threw themselves on the tarmac, rolling around on the pavement, weeping, and kissing the asphalt! The sense of relief among all of us was palpable. We had made it home alive.<o:p></o:p>
Three other Marines and I hired a taxi, squeezed our gear into the trunk and headed for the San Francisco International Airport 60 miles away. The cab fare divided among four of us was astronomical even for 1966 but no one cared. The three other Marines had more flying in store but my home was only 3 miles away! I stayed in the taxi, had him stop at a liquor store on the way so I could buy a couple bottles of champagne and then headed to the house I had not seen for two years and nine months. My Mother was totally shocked because I wasn’t scheduled in for a couple more days.<o:p></o:p>
I’ve never forgotten that trip and the overwhelming sense of gratitude and relief to once again be back on the soil of the country I had served and loved as a military man.