It caught me by surprise when my orders came down 10 days early. My 12 month tour was supposed to end on April 10th, not the 1st. Maybe it was an April fool’s joke or something. My best friend’s orders were identical so it looked like we would be going home together. That made it all the nicer since we had been friends since AIT and served in the same outfits in both Germany and Vietnam. Anyway, I sure wasn’t going to argue about the 10 day drop!
We had just one day to get our gear together before the trip back to the base camp in Cu Chi. Fortunately, one replacement FNG had already arrived a week earlier and while he was being brought up to speed on operating the radar, I trained him on generator maintenance. The generator, of course, was critical to the operation of the radar system and since we didn’t have a spare, it’s care and feeding was of major concern to me. I left the new guy a 4 page set of instructions detailing the maintenance requirements.
I never dreamed it would be a problem, but I was having a struggle with the fact that I was leaving my team. It’s not that I didn’t want to go home but in a way, I felt like I was abandoning them. I was the senior radar operator and generator mechanic; an integral part of the unit. And I now had to leave my teammates and friends behind.
The next morning we loaded our gear into the ¾ ton truck and then made the 25 click (kilometer) drive back to the base camp for the last time. It was a bit weird. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I had been casual in the past when we traveled the roads, but today I felt much more nervous than usual. Maybe more alert would be a better description. The thought of getting hit on my last day in the field made me quite tense. I had my steel pot (helmet) cinched down tight, my flak-jacket zipped up and my M-16 rifle resting across my lap.
It seemed like an eternity before we arrived at the base camp. Once through the gate, we found our way to the HQ (Headquarters) of our battery. We spent the remainder of the day processing out of the battery and shaking a few hands. The next day we were transported to the 90th Replacement Battalion in Long Binh where we were issued new jungle fatigues and then turned in all of our old uniforms and gear. Next, we had our personal belongings inspected for things such as live ammo, drugs or sensitive documents. After that, we were assigned to a flight manifest and then it was hurry up and wait.
There were hundreds of troops pacing about impatiently with little to do except sleep or watch the outdoor movies during the evening hours. Eventually, our group was transported to the Bien Hoa airport terminal where we got to watch the group ahead of us depart. It was about one more hour before we were allowed to board our Freedom Bird.
As we taxied out to the departure runway I could sense some tension in the air. The heavily laden DC-8 seemed sluggish as it accelerated down the runway. A scant couple of seconds after we became airborne the end of the runway passed under the wing followed immediately by the perimeter fence. A little too close for comfort as far as I’m concerned. But, that didn’t stop the cheers!
I don’t think the tension completely lifted until we crossed the Vietnam coast at about 20 thousand feet. I remember intently watching the coast fade away as we climbed out over the South China Sea. All of a sudden the war for us was over. I looked up the aisle at my buddy and he was looking at me with the biggest grin I think I’ve ever seen. I gave him a thumbs up and he returned the gesture. We made it!
During the brief refueling stop in Honolulu the group behind us at Bien Hoa arrived. Someone on that flight mentioned that Bien Hoa AFB had taken some rocket hits near the runway just after we took-off. It sure made those guys nervous.
Soon, we re-boarded the aircraft and headed directly to Travis AFB, California. From there, we were transported to an Army base in Oakland. One of the first things we did was go to the mess hall and order a nice thick, juicy steak. The chef did a fabulous job. After months of surviving on C-rations this seemed like heaven to me. It was difficult to believe food could taste so good and I savored every bite. I’ll never forget how kindly the people at the Oakland Army base treated us.
It took about 24 hours of final processing before we were released. Final pay had to be computed and issued and all of us had to have dress uniforms fitted and all of the appropriate insignia, rank and ribbons attached. Once outside and on our own, we caught a cab to SFO (San Francisco International Airport).
In retrospect, I’m not sure why I took the taxi to the airport and not to the Greyhound Bus Depot, where I could’ve easily found a bus heading to my hometown, some 200 miles to the south. I was probably just exhausted and emotionally overwhelmed by the whole scene. Anyway, my buddy managed to book a flight to Minnesota immediately and the next thing I know we’re hugging and shaking hands and then he was gone.
I had already called my wife and she and my dad were on their way in dad’s airplane to pick me up. All I had to do is stay awake. I didn’t make it. After being awake almost continuously for the past 3 days I just couldn’t hold off the sleep gremlin anymore. I fell sound asleep, sitting on a curb near a commercial aviation facility (I believe it was called Butler Aviation).
Because small aircraft aren’t allowed to land at SFO, dad and my wife landed at Santa Clara, rented a car and drove the short distance to SFO where they eventually found me, sacked out on the curb. I remember them calling my name from a distance but I still had a very difficult time waking up. At first, they both appeared as little more than gray sillouettes as my eyes struggled to focus. I staggered to my feet and we embraced for a long, long time.
I don’t remember much about the ride back to Santa Clara or the flight home in dad’s plane as I slept most of the way. When we arrived at the local airport my mom was there waiting for us. It was so good to see her. It must’ve been agonizing for her to wait those last hours. Home at last!
My transition back into civilian life went fairly smooth but it certainly wasn’t easy. I had developed some bad social habits while in Vietnam; one was swearing and the other was smoking. Oddly, the easiest habit to break was smoking. I just dropped the pipe tobacco and cigarettes into a trash container at SFO and never looked back (I did keep my Zippo lighter). The swearing however, took a conscious effort to control. Being in the field only a few days prior didn’t help. Things were happening too fast.
One thing I did learn quickly; don’t mention the word ‘Vietnam’ around anyone other than close relatives. Returning vets weren’t necessarily held in high regard by the general population. I found it was best to just remain quiet about the subject. I was troubled by all the turmoil over Vietnam. The tragic shootings at Kent State University happened just a few weeks after I got home. It was all so bizzare.
Between work, night school, riding my new dirt bike, building and flying radio control models I pretty much forgot about Vietnam. Well, not exactly forgot, but stuffed it away in a dark corner of my mind. Sometimes, a certain smell or noise would instantly take me back for a moment. A loud noise such as a car backfiring would make me jump, but that faded after a time. The smell of diesel fuel takes me back in an instant, even today.
A few months after coming home, one of my former team buddies stopped by my work place to say hi and catch up on gossip. He had just arrived home the month before. Sadly, he had to tell me that the new guy that came on the team just before I left had been killed; a sniper picked him off the radar tower. He hadn’t been there even 30 days. The news hit me really hard. Many thoughts and feelings about Vietnam flooded my mind for days and weeks afterwards. Still, I count myself as one of the fortunate veterans. I came home whole and managed to get on with my life without a lot of excess baggage. Some weren’t so lucky.